The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’


Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

The Infinite Jukebox: Honeybus’s ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’


Though it’s sullied slightly by its latter-day association with a former doctrinaire and divisive Prime Minister (that little turd, Jonathan King, recorded a cover version when the late Mrs Thatcher was forced out of office), Honeybus’ only hit single is still a wonderful piece of light as air pop, delivered in almost formal tones, with one of the late-Sixties’ best simple-but-sweeping chorus lines. Better yet, the song survived a million repetitions throughout the next decade in television commercials promoting Nimble Bread.
Honeybus are a bit of an oddity. Their recorded oeuvre includes songs only aired as live broadcasts on pre-Radio 1 BBC programmes where they’re called The Honeybus by a young and enthusiastic Brian Matthew, there was much confusion over whether they were Honeybus or Honey Bus, and just when they were on the edge of catching on in a way that their delicate, often fragile music deserved but which would have felt alien, their leader quit because he hated live gigs.
‘I can’t let Maggie Go’ was the band’s only hit, although with the frequency that Radio 1 used to play their second single, ‘(Do I still) Figure in your Life?’, as an oldie, you’d have thought that that too was a massive success. Honeybus were a basic four piece guitar/bass/piano/drums outfit, and their music had a distinct Beatle-esque tone, but unlike most bands inspired by the Fab Four, their main source of inspiration was ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
The first thing you notice about ‘Maggie’ is that its intro is played on a clarinet, with the band almost a distant sound beneath its melody, and it’s the clarinet that gets the solo, as well as wandering in and out of the song, adding decoration to the otherwise plain and simple, acoustic based sound. There’s a surprising busyness to the drums, which are mixed forward and frequently vigorous without ever doing more than complementing the music
But like so many other songs of the Sixties or inspired by them, the music is a vehicle for the voice, which carries the melody. Writer, band-leader and singer Pete Dello (sometimes called ‘Psychy-Dello’ according to Brian Matthew on one of those BBC shows) sings smoothly, sweetly. He’s singing about a girl, a fresh and lively girl, who makes him laugh and cry ‘with a twinkle of her eye’. They walk here and there, and people stop and stare (but not at him). The girl is what would then have been called a stunner, and there’s a touch of awe in Dello’s voice as if he can’t believe his luck that she’s with him.
It’s simple, plain and sweet. But beware of simplicity. The minimal verses may depict an idyllic scene, lead you to imagine a summer’s day, a park, the breeze in her hair and the girl alive with life, but that’s to neglect the chorus, on which the band sing in harmony, on one of the best and most uplifting lines of the Sixties. Because She flies like a bird in the sky.
Is it real or is it fantasy? The Nimble Bread ads concretised the the image with a beautiful girl with long dark hair soaring across idyllic country in a big old hot-air balloon, effortless and romantic, like the music. The line in the song comes from Dello’s intense love and awe. The flying is figurative, the girl is lighter than air, she rises above him, like a bird.
And the next line confirms as it confuses: She flies like a bird, and I wish that she was mine. She’s with him, but not with him. They’re friends, perhaps, but he loves her deeply and she doesn’t know. He’s in awe of her: She flies like a bird, oh me, oh my, I see, I sigh, but no real relationship can be based upon awe. Now I know, he says, I can’t let Maggie go.
On the surface this sounds like typical male Sixties chauvinism, but Honeybus aren’t like that, the music is too soft and sweet, too undemanding, and anyway, he can’t insist on keeping her because he hasn’t got her. He never has, and the yearning of that sweet and gorgeous chorus is that deep inside he knows he never will. He’s the best male friend, the one who is faithful and trustworthy but who will never be seen in the light in which he sees her.
The clarinet plays its miniature solo and the song returns to its chorus, unable to say more and only able to celebrate hopelessly the woman who is loved. She flies like a bird in the sky, they sing, again and again, and you could listen to this for hours upon hours, but Dello is canny enough to end as he began. The music winds down, the clarinet decorates the ceasing memory and the band’s final, ‘ooh-ooh-oohs’ and thus it is ended. It’s a sound that typifies 1968, and the spring in which this song reached no. 8. It couldn’t have been recorded at any other time.
‘I can’t let Maggie go’ is undoubtedly a minor song. Honeybus, in turning their sound towards cellos and woodwind, were turning their face away from the slowly increasing heaviness of electric music to the countervailing appeal of baroque pop, which in the end failed to make the impression it should have, because ultimately the baroque was fey and charming, qualities not wanted as the music business began dividing itself between controlled, cabaret pop and the burgeoning underground. Honeybus missed out, especially after Dello left.
Compilation CDs are available, showcasing their entire repertoire, and they are an intriguing delight. But the only visible remnant of Honeybus is ‘I can’t let Maggie go’, and it is a gem of which The Beatles themselves would have been proud, except that John Lennon would have been too strident for this, and Paul McCartney insufficiently nuanced. Pete Dello it had to be. And it’s not a bad legacy to have, is it?

The Infinite Jukebox: Shotgun Express’s ‘I Could Feel The Whole World Turn Round’


Until you get to the back end of the Sixties, and that vogue for lushly orchestrated pop that was ushered in by The Love Affair’s ‘Everlasting Love’, there wasn’t much need for strings on pop. They were usually too sweet, too soft. Dusty Springfield’s orchestrations stood out, as they had to do with a voice like hers to contend with, The Walker Brothers used them sagaciously, but you have to get to the middle Sixties before you start to see the use of strings as an instrument of power: strong, severe, demanding.
The obvious one is always Chris Farlowe’s classic blues shout over the strings that saw away from the start of ‘Out of Time’, or Motown’s use of them on ‘Reach out, I’ll Be There’, The Four Tops’ biggest hit over here. Both songs were number 1s and overwhelmingly deserving. This one wasn’t, but when you listen to it below, you’re going to wonder why the hell not? With an intro like that, with a returning theme, with a chorus that soars like that, any fair-minded person is going to boggle that this didn’t take off, isn’t every bit a Sixties landmark as Farlowe or the Tops.
And before you ask, yes, that is the voice of a young Rod Stewart in there, sharing some boisterous yet yearning vocals with that overlooked Scouse songstress, Beryl Marsden.
Shotgun Express were a blues band, with people like Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood in their ranks, so in that sense ‘I can feel the whole world turn round’ is an anomaly, with the string riffs adding a pop sensibility that would normally have been outside the band’s self-set remit. But listen carefully, and in between those bursts of that yearning, all-encompassing sweet severity, the verses showcase the band to its roots, a hustling rhythm, the organ bursting with energy, and then the strings sweep back in as the melody sweeps back, just one single breath of sound.
The strings underpin the lead-in to that chorus and the grand melody of it, high, sweet but steel-like in their majesty, a distant background as firm as the beat, underscoring the gorgeous ache of the words.
And I can feel the whole world turn round underneath me, exactly mirroring the aching, arching melody. I can feel the whole world turn round when you’re near me. Stewart and Marsden’s voices mesh as they rise through this and I can forgive Stewart a very large part of his career post-the bass line in ‘D’Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ just because I can listen to this.
Who do I complain to that I have only known this song for a few years and had to learn about it from Sounds of The Sixties and much-missed Brian Matthew? Who do I complain to that this was not the massive success it should have been, and influenced the people who should have heard it? Who do I complain to that this didn’t change the course of Rod Stewart’s career and maybe saved us from everything since 1980?
And can I listen to this again, please, because it captures that feeling of rapture that only comes from being with the one person. And the whole world does indeed turn around underneath you.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Pierces’ ‘Glorious’


The Infinite Jukebox is not well-represented in music of very recent years. It does not contain any rap, hip-hop, acid house, garage, grime or other forms of modern urban music that it frankly doesn’t understand and couldn’t distinguish from one another.
But the Jukebox is not entirely shut off from music being made in the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, and has some minimal pretensions to being somewhere that’s contemporary. Nevertheless, the fact is that it’s been many years since I first decided that the relentless pursuit of the new and novel was no longer for me, and not a few since I came to the entirely reasonable conclusion that contemporary music isn’t being made for people like me. That’s fine. There’s an awful lot of past music out there that I love and which I’ll happily listen to again, and again, and there’s still a lot out there that I haven’t heard yet. Nevertheless, despite all my best efforts, I do sometimes hear new music.
Until Brian Matthew sadly left us, the only music radio that played in the flat was Sounds of the Sixties, but there were many occasions when 10.00am indolence allowed the radio to run on into, once upon a time, Jonathan Ross and, subsequently, Graham Norton. It was about the only source of modern-type music tolerated around here, and on a Saturday morning a few years ago, a song began to play.
First there was a stir of strings, then a precisely picked acoustic guitar, and all of it immediate and confident. My ears swivelled towards the sound. Then a voice, clear, smooth, pure, above a sound that felt as if it occupied a a large stage.
And voices roared out in chorus, harmonies clear and bright, the music rip-roaring, and my ears tried to detach themselves from the side of my head to race over and glue themselves to the radio. God Bless the World, It’s So Glorious, they sang, and I had not heard something so utterly, convincingly positive in a very long time, and certainly not from complete strangers.
They were The Pierces, and they were sisters, Catherine and Alison, and I had never heard them before nor heard of them, and I was eager for Wossy to back-announce the song, which he didn’t often do, but this time he had not pre-announced it, so I learned such things and immediately switched the radio off and hunted for the song on YouTube so I could hear it again.
And learned from the video that the two Pierces are both gorgeous looking women, which has nothing to do with the fact that their voices enmeshed in glorious harmonies, of the kind that only siblings can do so well, and that it takes only the two of them to produce such a full, surging sound.
God bless the world, it’s so glorious, they sing, and God bless the ones we’ve loved, the ones we’ve lost. This is The Pierces, and though I didn’t know it then, even such a life-affirming song is not without a shadow, because Cat and Alison’s songs are full of other dimensions, stories beneath that are never wholly explained and are for us to write, even as we believe ourselves content with voices in harmony, and music of yearning purity.
God bless the ones we’ve lost. Oh I will never die, never die like you.
Alison sings the first verse, Cat the second. Both have a single couplet before the verse bends them to the chorus, offering to write, to sing a song that goes like: and that line hits you again and the music is strong enough to match it, and the urge to join the chorus is overwhelming.
And then the shadow comes to the fore, because this celebration of life is truly in the midst of death, as the sisters’ voices join in a middle eight of austere beauty. I felt his hand today, they sing, across my shoulder, I kneeled down to pray. Said afterlife’s okay, but it got so lonely when you turned away.
What we take from this is what’s inside us to take. I ‘see’ a lover who is gone, but whose presence, whose ‘memory’ is so intense that it hasn’t left. The loved one is safe in their afterlife from whatever pursued them, but she who remains suffered intense loneliness when he went, a loneliness that still impresses itself upon her. You turned away: by his own hand?
If this is so, then the instinct to life is strong indeed if it can still spur the Pierces to that outright declaration, but then who can truly know of life if they have not been touched by death? It’s this shadow, this breath of loss, relieved perhaps by a religious belief, that makes it possible to be so strong in favour of celebrating what the world can offer you, and The Pierces brought their voices to tell this in such a manner that I was as caught by anything that I’ve heard since the years started beginning with a 2.
They haven’t stopped making music for me yet.

That’s your lot for this week…


The news of Brian Matthew’s passing comes as little surprise but with great sorrow. Those of us who followed Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings for years and even decades have known for a long time that this day was drawing ever nearer, and it makes the loss of the programme, little more than a month ago, even more poignant. If only he could have been allowed to stay until the end.

Farewell, old mate. That’s our lot.

SOTS: Just in time


I’m still a little bit suspicious about what’s happening to my only weekly radio programme Sounds of the Sixties. Tim Rice has thanked us all for our forebearance… no, actually kindness, in listening to him this last three months when he’s been sitting in for Brian Matthews, but it’s all over and our old chum will be back next Saturday.

Or will he? Next Saturday is going to be a compilation programme, made up of Brian’s favourite moments from his twenty-seven years on the show, so not actually a new episode, so we’re going to have to wait until at least a fortnight from now to see if things are going back to that Edenic state of yore.

I don’t know what the last three months have done to the show’s audience figures but, from the point of view of a sixteen year veteran, it’s come close to rocking my loyalty to SOTS. It’s not only been Rice’s jerky presentation, with the gaps between sentences coming every half dozen words or so, instead of only when the full stop appears on his script. A lot of it has been his insistence on describing everything as fantastic, brilliant, wonderful, indiscriminately and with no audible conviction to suggest that he actually believes what he’s saying.

There was a perfect example in the first half of the show, in the ‘Loose Connections’ feature, with Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney and Petula Clark. All three were obscure songs, of which I’d only previously heard the Dusty track, and the connection was the clever and subtle one that each song was a commercial flop in the middle of a run of big hits. Such things always fascinate me: one of my ways of educating myself about Sixties music in the early Seventies were Simon Frith’s Rock Files books, listing chart successes act by act. These gave the impression of bands having unbroken success, but of course they presented a distorted picture by excluding the ones that didn’t chart at all.

But because these songs were, by definition, flops, Rice had to assure his listeners that they were great songs, absolutely wonderful, these artists never cut a track that wasn’t aural perfection, as if he was afraid that someone might get offended by the playing of a track that hadn’t been a hit. I mean, dammit, there’s only Pet still around to listen: Dusty and Gene won’t care.

So here’s hoping for a return to better things, but I remain unconvinced. Whilst I’ll relax and enjoy two hours of Brian’s warm tones, even that won’t set off the fact that this was yet another Sounds of that bit of the Early Sixties that Phil Swern is obsessed with only he denies it, ha ha. Even the newest feature drags the programme even further back: Fifties in the Sixties, covers of prominent Fifties tracks.

Still, no more Tim Rice. Saturdays will automatically improve. I hope.

SOTS and Tim Rice


It’s thirty-five minutes into the latest edition of Sounds of the Sixties, presented by Tim Rice in the ongoing absence of our old mate, Brian Matthew. But something’s different. Rice introduced the programme by telling us who he is, but for the first time didn’t mention that he was sitting in. And this far into the show, there hesn’t been a single mention of dear old Brian.

It’s still ‘sits in’ on the SOTS website, but people, I think we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. It’s not the same, and it shouldn’t be Tim Rice if and when the handover becomes permanent, because he’s too stilted and unconvincing, and without Brian, the music’s less involving. But the era is over, I fear.

UPDATE. No mention in the entire programme, just a see you next time at the end. I fear.

SOTS on a Saturday


I’m listening to Sounds of the Sixties at the moment, as I’ve invariably done on Saturday mornings for the last fifteen years or so. I’ve said things in the past about the decline in quality of the programme since the change of Producer in 2008 and, whilst there no longer seem to be the same degree of pre-Beatles dominated shows, and the practice of ending the show with big band stuff every week has been long abandoned, it’s not the attraction it used to be. But it’s still Saturday morning, and a comfortable introduction, and I still never miss it if I can help it.

Today, however, and for the next few weeks, we do not have our old mate Brian Matthew presenting. Brian is feeling ‘under the weather’ and in his place we have Tim Rice, who has dome this sort of thing before.

Given that Matthew is now 88, and has just become BBC Radio’s oldest regularly scheduled broadcaster, this isn’t a surprise. Indeed, I confess that I detected a bit of a tremor in his voice last weekend, as if his voice was weak already. But it’s an unpleasant reminder that the show depends so heavily on his voice, its even, avuncular, knowledgeable, enveloping, smoky tones, to create an atmosphere that’s at least as vital as the music.

Matthew is a consummate professional, relaxed and natural. Tim Rice isn’t a broadcaster of that level. He’s stiff and stilted, without any flow of words, the rhythm of each sentence broken by brief but noticeable pauses every six or seven words. And besides, he doesn’t sound like Brian Matthews, and Sounds of the Sixties doesn’t sound like Sounds of the Sixties.

So for all my gripes about the programme, I want to wish our old mate well, and see him back as soon as possible. Because without him, and he can’t go on forever, much as we might wish it, and we’re reminded of the dreadful toll 2016 has taken by the announcement this morning of Fidel Castro’s death, only two years older than Brian Matthew, without Brian, the programme stops being compulsive listening. Saturdays would change.

Good health, Mr Matthew. Hurry back.

Another SOTS and Sweet FA


As regular readers will know, the only music radio programme I listen to these days is Radio 2’s Sounds of the Sixties, 8.00 – 10.00 am on Saturday mornings, unless it’s a working evening in which case it’s the BBC i-Player at about 6.30 – 8.30pm.

It’s not been that bad a day working, but thanks to busses fucking me around, the lack of certain basic stock in Tescos and the probability that I’m going to have to buy a new shaving razor because they seem to have discontinued the refill blades on the one I’ve been using for several years now, I’ve gotten home in a pretty disgruntled mood.

So, on I put Sounds of the Sixties, which started with Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’, then went into a track by Harry Nilsson. Fair enough, you might say, I’ve no objection to a bit of late-Sixties Nilsson but wait, no, this is actuially a 1963 obscurity, a piece of undistinguished rock-‘n’roll under a silly name.

In between, Brian Matthew had read out the list of first half requests, and a right old pre-Beatles lot it sounded, so I broke with habit and read the full tracklisting.

Since I’m now typing this at 7.00pm instead of listening to the i-Player you may take it that, yet again, it’s another of those early-Sixties dominated shows that producer Phil Swern believes he doesn’t playlist very often. I can do without it when I’m feeling pissed off.

I think I’ll have some R.E.M. Unplugged instead.

Bring back Roger Bowman!

 

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.