If you reviewed the radio listings of the Radio Times for the first week of May back in 1986, the options for those who prefer their music on the soulful or funky side would have been as follows: Sunday at 9pm, Robbie Vincent (having moved on from BBC Radio London) with a 2 hour slot on Radio 1; Jeff Young (replacing Robbie on London), with a lunchtime Saturday show; and… that was it. Commercial radio didn’t fare much better either: Greg Edwards soldiered on with his Soul Spectrum on Capital Radio; and, as there weren’t any other commercial music stations, the search for good music started and ended here. But at the very same time something little short of a musical revelation was happening.
While London radio schedules offered up portions of funk and soul fit for a musical anorexic, a Family Feast of re-releases, Big Mac portion of soulful grooves and exciting new menu of house music were all being devoured by a starving-hungry Joe Public. Following huge demand, all the classic Roy Ayers albums were being rush re-released; scarce vinyl from the likes of The Bar-Kays and Leroy Hutson was changing hands for over fifty quid a go; Jack Trax released album after album of the latest house and acid tracks; and there was a plethora of “new”, young soul artists such as Miles Jay, Surface and Juicy. But with little-to-no airplay by the mainstream radio schedulers, how could this be? The answer: “street-radio”.
Radio for the people, served by the people.
London radio schedules offered up portions of funk and soul fit for a musical anorexic
“Street-radio”? Don’t we just mean “pirate radio”? The name “pirate radio”, so fitting for the pop music Captain Birdseyes of the 1960s out at sea, didn’t really reflect what was going on deep in the inner city without the safety buffer of a perilous ocean between the jocks and the authorities. What was happening in London was happening down on the streets, in the heart of the Capital, and its effect was nothing short of radical. In an era where “StreetSound” had a distinct meaning (so much so that it should have a place in the dictionary), street-radio sent a ripple through London that, for a short while, turned into a tidal wave of great music. It was a simple formula: music for the people, served by the people.
Today’s street-radio owes much to its 1980s cousin. In fact, listen to the sound clip here, and you’ll be treated to a young up-and-coming star of street-radio in the days before his dj voice broke and he became one of today’s true pioneers of the good music cause. Remember, these were the days before mobile phones and the internet; how many street-radio stations would dare to take calls live-to-air these days?
Many of yesteryear’s street-radio stars have gone on to celebrated careers in the music industry: Ron Tom, the main man behind the almighty and wonderful LWR (more on LWR to follow in future editions), the station which along with Kiss 94fm led the street-radio way in the 80s, has become one of the leading record producers in the business (he’s the man behind Don E, Sean Escoffrey and Omar, and he came up with the name “Sugar Babes”); Trevor Nelson needs little introduction, being one of the many success stories out of the huge Kiss 94fm pool of talent; Steve Edwards promoted the good jazz philosophy on LWR for years, then rapidly worked his way up the local radio ranks before ultimately presenting a soul show on BBC Radio 1; Ralph Tee (Solar Radio), virtually single-handedly pioneered the genre of New Classic Soul and now runs the incredible Expansions Records, responsible for the re-release of classic and new recordings from the likes of Leroy Burgess and Don Blackman. But arguably the man who stayed most true to his street-radio roots is Norman Jay – or rather, Norman Jay MBE – who is still pursuing the good music cause in earnest to this day (albeit courtesy of the BBC).
But here’s the irony, or even hypocrisy. The very man who achieved so much for good music, uncovering hidden musical treasures and promoting new gems to the masses did so predominantly through the medium of street-radio. The Government clearly agreed – after all, it recognised Norman’s supreme efforts by proclaiming him Member of the British Empire. Yet this is the same Government which (via the BBC) provides us with a dedicated house music station which plays virtually no house (1xtra); offers those who wish to selflessly follow the lead of Mr Jay with the prospect of heavy fines, or worse; and helps to perpetuate a system which provides nothing other than randomly PC-selected Atomic Kitten followed by G4 followed by Abba, intermingled with annoying competitions sponsored by the Wild Bean Cafe, interspersed with travel reports for streets you’ll never travel, all served up by a couple of loud mouthed teenagers with great hair and teeth but who wouldn’t know Roy Ayers from Pam Ayres. Were it not for the likes of Ron Tom, Norman Jay and Trevor C, the music we listen to today would undoubtedly be very different. Tracks such as Cool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness”, Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to it”, Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” gained unprecedented exposure on street-radio. Don’t know these tracks? Think again, as these have formed the underpinnings of numerous house and hip-hop tracks during the last decade, and many have been reworked by talented production companies such as Z Records and Candy Apple Productions.
Street-radio sent a ripple through London that turned into a tidal wave of great music
THE ROOTS OF STREET-RADIO
By 1986 street-radio had matured and covered a whole spectrum of musical styles. The main players on the FM dial tended to opt for a popular blend of soul, funk and reggae; but the electro sound which had morphed into acid house was also gaining airplay and by 1986 was featured extensively by such stations. Intermingled between the sounds of Glenn Jones, David Bendeth and Gwen McRae could be found Farley Jackmaster Funk, Scott Le Rock and Marshall Jefferson; but the mix simply represented what London wanted: real music. This was the music we wanted to listen to in our clubs, in our bedrooms, in our Escort XR3i’s. Whereas, if we check the Radio Times again, the BBC wanted us to listen to Gary Davies, followed by Steve Wright followed by Bruno Brooks, with a blend of Rick Astley, Bros, The Housemartins and Communards. It seemed the BBC censors would analyse a song to see if it contained any bass and if so, deem it unfit for public consumption.
TOP OF THE POPS – MAY ’86
1. Living Doll – Cliff Richard
2. Different Corner George Michael
3. Rock Me Amadeus – Falco
4. Touch Me – Samantha Fox
5. A Kind of Magic – Queen
STREET TRACKS – MAY ’86
1. Luther Vandross – See Me
2. Miles Jay – Let’s Start Over
3. Heart’s Desire – Don Blackman
4. Jim Silk – Jack Your Body
5. Bar-Kays – Open Up Your Heart
And so Londoners in the late 80s were spoiled for choice: beyond LWR and Kiss was a multitude of stations playing the sort of grooves the street wanted to hear: TKO, City Radio, Solar Radio, Studio FM, Laser 88.4fm, WLIB and Horizon all offered a breath of fresh air to a London which was choking on a force-fed diet of Sam Fox, Su Pollard and Shakin’ Stevens.
BBC censors would analyse a song to see if it contained any bass and if so, deem it unfit
HAS ANYTHING CHANGED?
Twenty years later, and the digital age is with us, the rigid non-commercial structures have been de-regulated and London has the radio it always wanted. Does it? If it does, then there is surely no place for street-radio? Quite the contrary, London needs street-radio now like Spurs need a decent manager - stations such as Unkown FM, Passion FM and Push FM serve to selflessly provide London with the music Londoners actually want to listen to. Yet those who seek to do nothing more than fill a gaping radio hole face the wrath of the authorities; while overpaid, musically retarded dick-jokeys fill our airwaves with low grade dross and idiotic drivel.
Twist the dial on your Pure Evoke-1 and surf through the long league of “new stations”: Arrow (rock/pop); Century (rock/pop); Chill (pop/chillout); Core (pop); Gaydar (gay/pop); Heat (pop); Kerrang (rock); Jackie (pop); Smash Hits (pop)… notice any trend here? Before listing the thirty or so other rock and pop stations, let’s take a listen to the funk and house stations: must be one there somewhere, but I can’t find it. What about the jazz station? Isn’t there a station called Jazz FM there somewhere? Hrmm… Or – let’s be generous to other tastes – how about a country and western station? Nope. Big band and forties music? Erm… Gospel? Ah… Sixties soul? Er…
In 1986, it seemed everyone was going crazy over the 1982 Don Blackman self-entitled classic, so much so that as a result of street-radio exposure four of its tracks were re-released on limited edition 12 inch ep. Twenty years later, the chances of hearing a track from this album – or anything like it – on mainstream radio are about as high as seeing Lord Lucan gallop home on Shergar to win the Grand National. It’s no surprise that Don himself is so frustrated by the current music industry that he’s talking of quitting (click here for Radiocafé’s interview with Don).
The point is a sharp but simple one: mainstream radio falls way short of the mark. In an era when every music taste should have a slice of the airwave cake, an influential minority seems to have all the radio gateaux for itself, and it sure ain’t made up of the vinyl junkies or rare groovers or the acid house trippers so well catered for by the much needed street-radio of 1986. It’s a fact, our radio is controlled by the music industry equivalent of Krispy Kreme, with no place for the small, local bakery which would, if given the chance, produce something exceedingly good.
Overpaid, musically retarded dick-jokeys fill our airwaves with idiotic drivel
We badly need to maintain and nurture the true, home-baked talent, which is why street-radio has a place now more than ever. Perhaps certain negative factors and characters have blurred the street-radio scene a little in recent times; but there are those who continue to give their time and effort to an utterly worthy cause, for listeners who simply have nowhere else to turn.
Radio for the people, by the people.
In the next edition of STREET RADIO: Back In The Days, we take a closer look at the street-radio stations and the music which influenced a generation of vinyl junkies – click here to visit
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