by Terence Dackombe: Our lawyers… (we don’t have lawyers but I thought it would look good if I pretend that we do)…
Our lawyers… tell me that this is not the best time to be writing about Radio One disc jockeys; especially those from the 1970s and 1980s. However I have assured them (I would if they existed) that I will not stray into ‘difficult’ matters.
I’ve been reflecting about how the star status of British disc jockeys has diminished in recent years. Is this merely due to the cyclical nature of life, or are we seeing, like tigers in India, like reality stars jumping off a little ice covered step on Channel Four, the closing days of a species?
In a world where One Direction, Katy Perry, Miley, and Ed Sheeran, each battle with the others to establish how many millions of followers they can attract on social media, it takes a moment to recall that a generation ago their success, or otherwise, would have been decided on the whim of a handful of producers and disc jockeys at BBC Radio One.
In one of those ‘view through your hands and cringe’ documentaries on the worst days of Radio One, there’s a clip of the playlist committee meeting in Doreen Davies’ office in Egton House. It only lasts for a few seconds but in that brief timeframe we can see and hear how everything was so different in the 1970s.
There’s a handful of producers arguing over something to do with the relevance of American sales, there’s Doreen with her Liberty scarf, and there’s Dave Lee Travis, puffing away on a cigarette, making instant condemnations of a record within five seconds of its appearance. Travis, in this ten second clip, displays an arrogance and braggadocio that exemplified the ‘feet up, I’m here for life’ culture of BBC Radio One in that era.
Simon Bates had a farm. We knew this because he mentioned it almost every day on Radio One. Money was flowing, like a bloated river, into the pockets of (mainly) men who appeared to have undertaken little preparation for their shows and thus fell back on anecdotes about how one of their sheep escaped, or what Marianne said last night over dinner.
By the time Travis was presenting a Saturday morning show, he had progressed to mocking contestants on his less than entertaining ‘darts on the radio’ competition.
Quack, quack, oops.
The controllers of Radio One had little or no time for the music that was being played on their station. Malcolm Muggeridge’s nephew was replaced by a chap who had served in the Royal Artillery for a couple of years. The next two controllers were both former RAF men.
Thus we come to an understanding of how the egos of these disc jockeys (it would be entirely incorrect to label them as ‘presenters’) disappeared in the direction of the moon. Their fame, and in many cases their fortune, was bigger than that of the artists whose records they might deign to play – if they got past Doreen and DLT at the playlist committee.
Money was rushing at them from all directions, as they put in brief appearances at night clubs, opened new stores as police cordons held back the fans, appeared on television commercials, and in some cases used the BBC to record radio advertisements for the commercial radio sector.
Because they were a daily voice on the radio, and some really knew how to exploit the game, the disc jockeys of this era became so extraordinarily famous at a time when there were very few other choices of getting through the day. It was a time before so much of manufacturing was automated and a large slice of the population were undertaking dull, routine work in factories and warehouses. Simon Bates’ ‘Our Tune’ and the Radio One Roadshow provided a daily distraction and could be considered as an opiate for the masses at a time of economic austerity.
So what happened?
We can look at evolution and revolution at BBC radio but the answer lies in the world far beyond Portland Place.
We have more choice than at any time in our history. This means that the gift of fame is spread more thinly than at any time in our history.
Additionally, we no longer need Doreen and her committee to decide what we’re allowed to listen to on our radios. Our radios? Who needs a radio? We have smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs. We don’t need disc jockeys and they know it.
This is why Nick Grimshaw doesn’t own a farm and why Scott Mills doesn’t play darts on the radio. They know.
In the 1970s Lady Gaga would have needed the condescending indulgence of Dave Lee Travis to become famous. In 2014 Greg James needs Lady Gaga.
That, of course, is the way it should be.
Terence Dackombe – January 2014