“Radio is a sound salvation, Radio is cleaning up the nation”
Elvis Costello, Radio Radio, 1978.
Staying with the musical theme of my previous post, here’s another exhibit from the regional branch of the Usmeum, Brother 2’s house. This beautiful old Bush valve radio was a constant presence in my childhood; I can still remember Listen With Mother in my pre-school days, when Mum was at home, so I did just that. In later years, when we got a television, the radio was forgotten in a corner of the living room, and rarely played. Although we were a musical family, my parents were a generation older than those of my peers, and despite their radical politics, the cultural revolution of the 1960s had virtually passed them by. Modern popular music was frowned upon, and the few records in our jumble sale-bought radiogram were folk or classical, with the odd Soviet souvenir or political statement thrown in. My brother recently passed these old records on to me, as he no longer has anything to play them on. It’s a joy to see and hear again these songs that I loved so much as a child:
This was just about the only representation of popular music in our family collection:
It was to be some years before I became converted to the music that would dominate the rest of my life, but I remember the moment well. Up to the age of 15, I imitated my parents’ disdain for current popular music, scoffing at the “mindless noise” as they did (which made me really popular at school, as you can imagine, with the kids who were all into Slade and Marc Bolan). Although as a 10 year old I did have both Donny Osmond and David Cassidy on my bedroom wall, it wasn’t really about their music and they were soon replaced by ponies. Then I saw the Beatles on TV.
It was 1976 and they had already been and long gone – of course I had been aware of them, in fact I have a vivid memory of hearing She Loves You on Auntie’s radio at Churt when I was very small – but they hadn’t meant anything to me. Then we went to stay at Lee Chadwick‘s studio in Suffolk one summer holiday, and were watching a programme which was, I think, a celebration of 25 years of ITV, showing clips of significant TV events over the years. Suddenly, there were the Beatles, those 4 beautiful young men with their flowing locks and fabulous clothes, singing All You Need is Love. I felt something I had never experienced before, it was as if the music was flowing though me and moving me in way that classical and folk music had never done. I was instantly, belatedly, besotted with the Beatles.
I still clung to my distaste for all other pop music, and for about a year I kept my new obsession secret, out of sheer embarrassment. That Christmas at the Morning Star Bazaar I desperately wanted to buy a paperback book from one of the stalls, all about the making of Help!, full of pictures of my heroes. I had the money but lost my nerve, knowing how mercilessly I would be teased at home. I regretted that for years. When I saw the same book on a friend’s car boot stall recently, I had to buy it, for sheer nostalgia! Apparently it’s a collector’s item now, but my friend kindly gave me a few quid off the price.
Being unable to admit to my new passion, there was only one way I could listen to them. Brother 2, a few years older than me, had fully embraced the joy of popular music and had his own radio-cassette player up in his attic bedroom. He had hundreds of cassettes, mostly music taped from the radio and meticulously catalogued in an exercise book. He also owned a shop-bought cassette of the Beatles’ “Golden Oldies”. When he was out and not expected home for a while, especially on Thursday evenings when he stacked shelves at Sainsbury’s, I would sneak up to his room and play the Beatles cassette, over and over again until I knew the songs by heart. I would carefully note where the cassette was wound to before I started, and make sure I left it at exactly the same point, to avoid detection: he would be furious if he knew what I was up to, even that I had breached the forbidden territory of his room! I can still remember the terror one night when I heard the front door open and my brother stomping upstairs much earlier than expected. I fled his room just in time to evade capture but lived in fear of him noticing the tape had been played. He didn’t; in fact, if he’s reading this it will probably be the first time he’s learned of it. Sorry about that, Brother 2!
It was only after being obsessed with the Beatles for a year that I began, quite by accident, to listen to other bands. Again, I remember the moment clearly. In June 1977 my secondary school, Barnes Comprehensive, closed not just for the summer, but for good; we were being amalgamated with another school to create the new Shene Comprehensive in Sheen. There was a big closing down party featuring a live performance from the metalwork teacher’s band. I hated it and volunteered to staff the cloakroom throughout their noisy set. By the time I started at the new school the following September, I was a different person, and it was entirely due to the Bush radio.
One day during that long summer holiday I was bored and fiddling with the radio dial, looking for something to listen to. I hit on a popular music station and the song that blared out at me changed my life. It was Thin Lizzy’s Dancing in the Moonlight, and it filled me with an excitement even more intense than I had felt for the Beatles. I left the dial where it was, and couldn’t get enough of this new feeling. Within a week I was a fan of bands and artists as diverse as TRB, Rainbow, the Motors, Blue Oyster Cult, Sniff n the Tears, Boney M., Rose Royce, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Elvis Costello, even Dean Friedman – I didn’t discriminate, I just lapped it up. I became less ashamed of my newfound obsession, but I was still mortified that day when, believing myself alone in the house and rocking out to TRB’s 2-4-6-8 Motorway in the living room, with the volume turned up high, I opened my eyes to find my Dad regarding me with an expression of wry bemusement! Although this photo from the archives shows that he too, in his youth, had enjoyed a dance to the popular sounds of the day playing on that same radio:
When I started at the new school I found I fitted in for the first time, talking about music and making new friends. One girl who I had known since The Pond nursery school took me with her one Saturday night to the Kensington Tavern to see Basil’s Ballsup Band, our teacher’s band that had played at our old school. This time, I loved them, and followed them around for years. I had discovered the intense thrill of live music, and going to see bands in pubs became an obsession that I still indulge in today, at nearly 52, on a weekly basis – it’s the main reason I live where I do, where great bands are available to me in local pubs any night of the week. That schoolfriend, Michele, became my best friend and we went gigging together for many years; tragically, she died in 2005 and I miss her deeply. But my life has been steeped in music ever since that day in the summer of 1977 when I turned on the Bush radio.
Sadly it no longer works, but Brother 2 has plans to wire it up to an MP3 player, so that our old Bush wireless will once again play popular music, and – who knows? – perhaps even change the life of one of my little nieces someday.