Justin Smallbridge: Radio, Records, and England

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01In 1975, my radio listening was shifting from CHLO and the AM stations. I was being influenced by the pronouncements Bowie with Saxof my peers. It never occurred to me at the time that they didn’t know anything more than I did. They seemed so sure . . . like a grammar school friend who, in 9th grade, dismissed David Bowie and everything he’d done because his older sisters had told him Bowie was gay. Because this friend of mine was to play the saxophone, and — as was a lot more common in southwestern Ontario and other places in 1975 — he was proudly homophobic, he was outraged that Bowie was depicted with a sax on the cover of Pin-Ups. I still liked Bowie. I just didn’t mention that to the guy who hated him.

There was a similar situation with another friend who professed to hate funk, soul and R&B. I loved that stuff, and faithfully tuned in to Soul Train every week. I just didn’t mention it to the other friend.

Bowie. “Sorrow.” How dare a possibly bisexual rock star hold a saxophone?

The cable company in London, Ontario, in 1975, also offered some FM stations on cable, that’s what I listened to, along with CFTR and flipping, dissatisfied at the shortening playlists, between CKSL, CJBK and CHLO. Chief among these was M105 out of Cleveland, Ohio and some Detroit FM stations. The playlists in the mid-1970s are still with us, basically, only now they’re called “classic rock.” Same songs. Forty years later.

supertramp-crime-of-the-century-frontI was listening to a lot more music on records. Supertramp’s Crime Of The Century was inescapable, so I got a copy of that. My parents had most of the Beatles LPs, although they were really classical music fans. At the time, we didn’t have a very good stereo in the house. We had a console behemoth with a turntable in a top-loading well that I’ve since realized had a motor that ran much slower than it was supposed to. The first LP I bought with my own money was Leon Russell’s Carny, because of the single “Tightrope.” I had no idea he’d left Oklahoma in his teens — at which point he’d already cut quite a swath through the bar scene there — for Los Angeles, where he became a key player in the legendary studio outfit the Wrecking Crew.

“Tightrope,” Leon Russell. The single was enough for me to buy the LP. The original “This Masquerade” is on here, not to mention forgotten classics like “Acid Annapolis.”

A friend’s older sister had a copy of Leon Live, which made a distinct impression along with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Deep Purple’s Sparks WooferMachine Head, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and a couple of other records, including a band from Hamilton, Ontario, named Lucifer, who had a regional hit with a cover of Wynonie Harris’s jump blues classic, “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes At Me” and some LPs another friend’s neighbor had by this band named Sparks — Kimono My House and Propaganda, specifically, as well as a record they’d cut when they were named Halfnelson, wittily titled A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing.

“Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes At Me.” Wynonie Harris. Who were Lucifer, the band from Hamilton who covered this and had a hit with it in the early 1970s? (“You better shut your peepers, dear, before you bleed to death.”)

Sparks. “Beaver O’Lindy.” Strange, by all means. But you can’t deny the pop attraction and songcraft.

“Mighty Quinn Medley.” Leon Russell, Leon Live. The entire history of popular music from 1954 to 1973 in less than 12 minutes.

And then, in September, 1975, we moved to England. For a year. My father was a university English professor and took a sabbatical to work on his PhD thesis. I can’t adequately explain what that was like socially. Completely different school system — different priorities, different underlying philosophical notions taken for granted. Completely different anthropological environment that I couldn’t figure out or navigate. Plus, as far as my new peer group was concerned, I talked funny, and was expected to explain what life was like in America. What could I do? I was listening to Steely Dan, Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, Caravan (from Canterbury, where I was going to school, but nobody seemed to know their work), the aforementioned records and Frank Zappa’s Just Another Band From LA, Apostrophe and Overnight Sensation. I didn’t have sufficient rhetorical finesse to explain that, somehow, if they listened to Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, they would eventually understand America at least as well as I thought I did. The few who knew that Canada and the United States were different countries wanted to know if I had ever visited a town they called Oh-SHAH-wah (I said it was a place east of Toronto where they made cars) and what life was like in Mani-toh-BAH. (I said it was a province, that it was pronounced “Man-i-TOH-bah,” and that I’d never been there, but a friend of mine had grown up in its biggest city before moving to London, Ontario.)

Madness. “Return Of The Los Palmas 7.” It’s from an early 1980s LP< but the montages are Britain in the 1970s.

Frank Zappa. “Camarillo Brillo.” If you’re English, listen to this and Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic and you’ll understand America.

I rode the bus back and forth from the cottage we lived in on the Kentish Downs on single-lane country roads for an hour each way to and from school, Neil on Rolling Stonelistening to Steely Dan on a bulky cassette tape player in a bulky briefcase, reading Rolling Stone.

But when the sun went down, I tuned in Radio Caroline, ignorant, as I was of so many things at the time, of its history. It was the first pirate station, on air in 1964, shut down with the passage of the Maritime Offences Act in 1966, defiantly broadcasting, run aground in 1967, towed to Holland, off the air, and, by the time I listening in 1975, in its second wave.

There were some peculiarities about music in England in 1975. There was Top Of The Pops, for one thing. It was a weekly television show that featured whatever was on the BBC’s pop charts, with the artists lip-synching and miming to the recording of whatever chart-topper they were enjoying. There was always a dance number, featuring another chart recording and the accompanying strenuous gyrations of in-house dance troupe Pan’s People. In some cases, there were pre-recorded video accompaniments for a particular record. When I was there, that was the same Ampex Digital Optics effects-fest for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and a montage of customized lowriders shot on 16mm film to accompany War’s “Low Rider.”

Three-and-a-half horribly typical minutes of Top Of The Pops’s Xmas show from 1975.

Then there was The Old Grey Whistle Test, a program name I still don’t understand. No lip-synching here. The real deal. Real playing, and everything from Jesse Winchester to a performer named Patti Smith whose work confused, frightened and annoyed me as a 15-year-old. Again, thank ignorance. I figure it out eventually, with Smith’s book Just Kids confirming some of what I thought I’d figured out, and filling in a lot of what I hadn’t.

Patti Smith talks and then performs “Horses” on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975. I had no means of processing or understanding this when I saw it when it originally aired.

BBC1BBC Radio 1 had certain portions of its programming set aside for pop music, but I was used to turning on the radio and hearing hits or at least recent adds with potential, so the notion of scheduled listening was unfamiliar and seemed kind of presumptuous. “You mean I’m supposed to tune in when you want to play rock and roll records? Forget it.” I still remember one of the few times I heard one of BBC’s pop shows, as host and Rolling Stone contributor Paul Gambaccini pretending to “eat crow” (I can’t imagine how that went down among an audience for whom that expression is not a common idiom) because the Bay City Rollers had reached number one in the United States). They were going to play a Bay City Rollers record I was already sick of. I tuned out.

“Rollers Show.” Nick Lowe. On the US release Pure Pop For Now People, not the UK version, Jesus Of Cool.

But Caroline was different. I didn’t know, when I found it, aimlessly twisting the dial one night, that it was the first pirate station, signing on in 1964. I didn’t know it had been off the air and on the air and off again, and that its ship had been salvaged and moored in Holland. It never occurred to me that its evening and all-night programming didn’t carry commercials (they ran a Dutch pop station during the day, whose revenue paid for Radio Caroline, along with the cash generated from the Caroline Roadshow, a roving discotheque than toured England constantly). It did occur to me that the promotions for “Loving Awareness” (whatever that was) weren’t generating any revenue.

Radio Caroline. “Loving Awareness” promo. I found it curious and amusing, but couldn’t figure out how they hoped to make any money with it. Not that I cared. “Loving Awareness” promos were annoying but necessary interruptions between sets of new (to me, anyway) music.

I didn’t care.

What I liked was the music. The jocks seemed to play whatever the hell they wanted. It was almost entirely stuff I’d never heard or heard of. Some of it I had. It was all great, insofar as it was all new — to me, anyway. Some of it I knew. Most of it I didn’t.

“Radio Sweetheart.” Elvis Costello.

“Radio Radio.” Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “So you had better do as you are told. You better listen to the radio.”

Elvis Costello’s vituperative indictment “Radio Radio” started out as a benign, affectionate thing called “Radio Soul.” (It’s not on YouTube, sadly, but it’s among the Flip City demos and bootlegged in various places. Probably among “bonus tracks” on one of the many reissues of earlier Costello albums.) When I first heard that number (and some of the lyrics in its angrier, later versions) it immediately made me think of Radio Caroline. “I was tuning in the shine on the late-night dial, doing everything my radio advised / With every one of those late-night stations playing songs bringing tears to my eyes.”

Because I was such a dedicated Rolling Stone reader at the time, I was missing the New Musical Express’s coverage of what was happening in London through early 1976: a thing people were calling “punk rock.” I didn’t find out about that until the fall of 1976, after we’d left England and returned to North America. We lived an hour’s train ride from London and I was 16, so it’s unlikely I would’ve seen any of it at the time. Once I did find out about it, of course, I made up for what I’d missed.

Sex Pistols NME

Kate Phillips writes about a new band called the Sex Pistols. New Musical Express. Dec. 27, 1975. First coverage. I was neither aware nor paying attention.


Justin’s column appears here every 4th Monday

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJustin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

2 Responses to “Justin Smallbridge: Radio, Records, and England”

  1. I am a few years older by the sounds of it but I had similar epiphanies with different bands. I always loved Zappa,at least until Zoot Allures. Ditto Sparks. I am a monster reggae fan now but in the day I thought it all sounded the same.And I have to say I was pretty homophobic and a proud wearer of a Disco Sucks button . Then one day I found myself being the only straight member of the art department on a film. My attitude changed pretty quickly.

  2. […] Visit site: Justin Smallbridge: Radio, Records, and England […]

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