Saturdays and SOTS

The voice of authority and authenticity

It’s Saturday morning as, just as I have for the vast majority of Saturday mornings over the last dozen years, I’m listening to Radio 2 and Brian Matthews presenting another edition of Sounds of the Sixties.
But it’s one of those Saturdays again, that are not just uninteresting to someone of my tastes, but which have become positively irritating, which now leaves me on edge throughout the first twenty minutes of the programme, waiting to see how it’s going to be. And it always starts the weekend off the wrong way.
The programme’s been around for thirty years this year. Each year, the music gets further and more distant, more of the musicians leave us, but the songs are still what they also were, and still as fresh as paint, especially for someone like me, who missed the Sixties, musically – all bar the last ten days,actually.
I used to listen to it a bit in the Eighties, when it still felt soul-crushingly wrong to listen to a show on Radio 2, on my Mam’s radio channel, but I’d forgotten it had even existed by the Saturday morning in 2001 when we were heading north up the M6 and found it by accident.
The programme had changed fundamentally by then. Brian Matthews, with his warm, velvety voice, and his authoritative friendliness, had been in the seat for over a decade, and the show had evolved from being an eternal re-run of those great and glorious, legendary and somewhat familiar hits.
They still strutted their stuff for the ear, but now they shared equal time with the obscure and the unheard: singers and bands who released singles that didn’t make it, until the label dropped them, or they called it a day. B-sides that showed a different aspect to the music of the stars. EP and LP tracks.
There was a feature running,that had been going for ages, “The A to Z of The Beatles”. It was what it said on the tin: every song the Beatles had ever recorded, in alphabetical order. But not just the songs: each one was accompanied by something pertinent to it, interviews, talks, stunts, contemporaneous or subsequent. Not just every Beatle song there could be, but a splendidly knowledgeable, researched, insightful guide to each one.
But it was those obscurities that made the show, the sheer volume, the wealth of Sixties music that, after all this time, I still hadn’t heard. It was the other half of the Sixties, what you had to have been there to have heard, because it never made it into the selective memory, the official explanation of the Sixties.
And if it wasn’t hard to understand why this hadn’t made it then or wasn’t honoured now, the show was full of unbelievable songs and performances, music that should have and in a better world would have been part of the picture that was left behind for is to see: unknown slices of awesomeness that had your ears hurtling across the room, shrieking, “My God, why hast thou kept me from hearing this this forty years past?”
Put that down to the man who compiled the playlist, then-Producer, Roger “The Vocalist “ Bowman. Give credit to Matthews, whose years of experience, and presence throughout the very time of this music,enables him to pass on details about these obscure figures, those who never got to be a part of the dialogue. However much you may ‘know’ that the information he relates has been researched for him, Matthews always makes you feel that he knows all this from back then.
But Bowman had a knack, a gift of finding those incredible unknowns, and dropping them into the programme in a manner that suggested that they belonged, indubitably, with their more famous cousins.
Sadly, Bowman moved on in 2007, by which time Sounds of the Sixties was no longer a BBC production but the work of an independent company. And I mean no disrespect to his successor, Phil “The Collector” Swern, but the programme has never quite been as good since.
Just take some time to think about what the producer has to do. On the surface, it’s simple: just programme two hours of music that was recorded between 1 January 1960 and 31 December 1969 (or which was a re-issued chart hit in that period). This allows the programme to feature songs that were successful in 1970,providing they were actually recorded before the cut-off, and also those previously unissued tracks that crop up on CD compilations in the 21st Century.
But what is Sixties music?
Is it unrepentant rock’n’roll, refusing to go quietly? The safe, tame, plasticised pop pre-Beatles? The Trad boom? Merseybeat? The bluesy rock of the Stones? The explosive, energetic, soul-inflected Mods? Surf music? Electric folk-rock? Dylan? Presley? That mid-Sixties burst of energetic, creative music inspired by Pirate Radio? Tamla Motown? Stax Soul? Bluebeat? Psychedelia? The young mothers sex appeal of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck? The heavily-orchestrated uptempo pop of the Love Affair and The Marmalade? Reggae and Trojan? The British Blues Boom?
Well, it’s a stupid question because it’s all of those and all those I haven’t mentioned. But the point is that the Sixties is not one homogenised, generic thing but rather a myriad of Sixties, and it takes an extraordinarily broad ear for any one person to love all of it.
I know I don’t. If you were to tailor a SOTS to my tastes, it would be about 75% loaded with music between 1966-69 (and Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air would probably be scheduled every other week), and entire ice ages would pass between plays for anything pre-Beatles. Or Elvis and Cliff.
(A story: one time the programme had a feature whereby it played every Sixties hit by Messrs Presley and Richard, in order, on a weekly basis. These were the fourth and fifth tracks on “Side 1” – i.e. the first hour. During this duet I would go downstairs and make a cup of tea for my wife. Unfortunately, and inadvertently, I created a Pavlovian response: every time she heard Elvis or Cliff, she wanted tea!)
Obviously, you can’t run a Sounds on the Sixties based on my preferences, and that goes for everyone else in the show’s millions of “Avids” (avid listeners). We all want something different, and compiling the playlist becomes a balancing act, trying to satisfy as many tastes as you can.
The programme has always had ‘Features’, like the “A to Z of the Beatles”, that give a certain structure to the show, features that change from time to time.
There was the fascinating and frequently bizarre “A to Z of One-Hit Wonders”, a weekly feature playing every single top 40 hit by artists who had only one hit in the Sixties, which revealed it’s own fair share of obscurities, including a fair number of ‘songs’ that were less hidden gems than jaw-droppingly unfathomable … things … that had you doubting the sanity of the people who’d actually bought this record. This feature got re-named something incredibly woolly after SOTS found itself playing David Bowie as a ‘One-Hit Wonder’.
And, maybe twice a year, the show would run specials, where the middle hour was devoted to a complete replay of the US Top Twenty of that week in a given year: I still remember one from 1968 where the Number One was Groovin’ by the Young Rascals, which was not only perfect in itself, but utterly fascinating when heard in the context of what else surrounded it at that moment in time.
Swern has continued the programme’s long-standing balance between the famous and the obscure, and a good third of the track-listing is taken up by listeners’ requests. Even I have had a mention on the show, attached to this example of the instrumental that always takes us up to the Nine O’Clock News.
But it’s not been the same. Swern simply does not have the knack of discovering the amazing obscurities that Bowman had. Nowadays, if the programme features a fresh, bright, exciting piece of little known music, it’s inevitably something I found on YouTube about six months earlier.
What I don’t like about SOTS now is the frequency with which there are editions that are thoroughly biassed towards the first half of the Sixties, like today’s show. After leading off with The Marmalade’s 1968 no. 1, Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, there were only two other tracks out of seventeen in the first hour that post-dated 1965.
In the second half, that number improved to five out of a further eighteen tracks.
To be fair, this is the first time for a couple of months that this has happened, but there have been spells in the past when several weeks have gone by with the programme barely venturing its head above the 1965 parapet.
I’ve contacted the programme about this, and received a pleasingly prompt response from Swern, who denies any bias towards the early – or indeed any – part of the Sixties. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were editions that were conspicuously weighted towards the late Sixties as opposed to the early. I’ve never detected any to any appreciable, let alone regular degree, though being honest requires me to consider that I might not actually notice that kind of show.
I also raised concerns about a new feature that has crept in unannounced and unacknowledged, which is the show’s new habit of a big band ending. Week in, week out, tracks by the likes of Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Cleo Laine. It’s music that’s recorded in, but which is not of the Sixties.
In fact, to be blunt about it, it’s music that rock’n’roll and everything that flowed from it, that the entire Sixties ethos was in rebellion against. It’s music by and for people who loathed and despised pop and rock, people who looked down on Sixties music as cheap, and nasty, and unmusical, and tasteless. It’s our parent’s music.
There may be a place for this in the programme, as part of the panoply of the Sixties, but not as a regular feature, week in, week out. And as a closing feature, it’s an utter disaster. It’s my parents, coming in and sneering at everything I’ve been listening to and being enriched by, and they’re saying ‘Get that rubbish off, this is proper music, not that awful noise you listen to, and they get to have the last word.
It devalues everything played up to that point. We ought to be going out of the programme on a high, on something quintessentially of the time that makes us tune into the programme in the first place, and not something our parents would want to make us listen to instead.
Swern has not been convinced by my argument, but has confirmed that the feature is not permanent, and will be replaced in due course. I hope it will be soon, because it drags down a programme that, on days like this, is already flat and empty for the likes of me.
Although I suppose it could be bloody Elvis and Cliff instead.

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