Accustomed to multi-channel television, digital radio, Internet videos, music downloads from the Web, and an FM waveband congested with stations, it is difficult now to imagine the early-1970s in England. There were three television stations and four radio stations. For a teenager, two weekly BBC music programmes demanded attention, Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test, the latter ran late at night and had only a fraction of the audience of the Thursday evening countdown of the pop charts. Radio listening did not offer many options for a thirteen year old. There were the four BBC channels, Radio 2 might be listened to for football commentary on a Saturday afternoon and Radio 3 for the test match cricket coverage, Radio 4 was an undiscovered country; the only station worthy of regular attention was Radio 1. The Radio 1 playlist was unadventurous, the same record might be played half a dozen times in a day as one predictable programme followed another. The only alternative to Radio 1 was Radio Luxembourg, but its music selection wasn’t much different and its 208 MW signal often gave crackly reception.
To move beyond the musical diet served at Radio 1’s 247 metre frequency and the half an hour of television at seven o’clock on a Thursday demanded special effort, it also invited scorn from those for whom the Top Ten was the sole determinant of what was good in music.
Had Radio 1’s daytime listening been the only legacy from the era, then there would not be much that was still played, Ooo-see, chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep is not really the stuff that inspires appreciative reflection decades later. The music legacy from four decades ago owes much to those prepared to be different.
There were the rock music enthusiasts who paid little attention to Radio 1’s daytime output or to Top of the Pops, those programmes played singles and most serious rock bands weren’t in the business of producing 7 inch records. To have been a teenage rock fan must at times have been a lonely existence; listening to Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin while all of one’s contemporaries are discussing the contenders for the Eurovision Song Contest must have prompted the odd question of whether it would be easier just to have shared the tastes of the crowd.
The other group who eschewed the sort of music that filled the BBC Top 30 were the Northern Soul fans. Among those who gathered in dance halls in places like Manchester, Wigan and Blackpool, it became almost an article of faith not to favour artists who had enjoyed commercial success. Playing the records of Motown and Philadelphia bands, the names of which were hardly known to the average Radio 1 listener or Top of the Pops viewer must have been as isolating experience as listening to heavy rock when everyone else is listening to The Carpenters.
Having Pink Floyd’s ‘Relics’ and a Motown compilation in the car, there is a sense of what was missed during all those hours spent listening to Top 30 music.