Now We Are 25

For someone who celebrates his birthday with something approaching extreme reluctance, one which grows with every passing year, I seem to have spent a great deal of time celebrating my own anniversaries. Hence if you care to look deeply enough through the archives of this page, you will find the occasions when I noted the 15th anniversary of the weekly Chart Watch columns with a full account of how it all began (complete with a link to the Usenet post by longtime fanzine editor Bob Gajarsky which inspired the idea in the first place), along with the series of pieces I wrote to mark my 20th anniversary, which included dips into the archive of old posts for the very first time.

So here we are five more years down the line. This week marks 25 years since my first attempt to shed some light into the dark corners of the net. Explaining just why Simple Minds had an old hit from seven years earlier floating around the Top 10. Sky Sports, if you need to ask.

This time around I’ve no need to go into detail about origin stories. Instead, I get to note the climax of what has at times been a herculean effort. I’ve clicked New Item nearly 1300 times in a content management system to make available the full archive of every single column I’ve ever written. I’m sure most people reading this have seen it already, but it never hurts to plug these things once again. Head over to Chart Watch UK and enjoy some rather compelling bursts of nostalgia. Or discover that you have a brand new online timesink to waste time on. Your choice.

There’s a podcast due later this week to commemorate this. As well as an overdue brand new look for the whole site. Past anniversaries have seen me writing from the position of someone who was paid and commissioned to write. The online economy and changing landscape being what it is, that is no longer the case. What Chart Watch remains is a genuine labour of love. One which I don’t even pepper with adverts in a faint effort to bring in money from it. The only revenue comes from sales of the associated books and the odd hardy soul who clicks on the donation button on the right-hand side.

But on that basis, it means the reason I do this remains the same as it was back in November 1992. It was clear the internet had the power to collate the sum total of human knowledge. On that basis, I wanted to find a way to contribute. In an era when everyone shares, but few have the urge to create, this is my contribution to the online world. I am able to spend a part of each week communicating about the things I am passionate about. All thanks to the power of the internet. And I’ve now done so for 25 years.

No More Silent Voices

As the decade turned, as 1989 begat 1990, so the most innovative sounds of the previous year began to inspire others. Chief amongst these was what became known as the “Soul II Soul” shuffle, the languid beats and laid back tone which had defined the early work of Jazzi B’s chart-topping group and which had become one of the defining sounds of that summer. If you were making a club record at the end of the 1980s and Italia House wasn’t your thing, you were unashamedly plugged into the Shuffle and reaping the rewards.

Such was the influence of the groove that by the spring of 1990 the dance pages of Record Mirror were noting with wry amusement that the overall effect had been to slow the average bpm (beats per minute) of the nation’s dancefloors virtually to a crawl. Hi tempo, hi energy was for the moment out the door. Clubbers wanted to do nothing more than sway.

Riding this wave, in particular, were four-piece Innocence. The production trio of Anna Jolley, Brian Harris and Mark Jolley had made waves individually with the odd remix over the preceding 2-3 years but hit commercial paydirt of their own with the recruitment of singer Gee Morris and the creation of an elegant new concept. Innocence were at the forefront of what would become the chill-out, their tracks an alluring mix of Balearic beats, ambient soundscapes and the crystal clear tones of Morris. Soul music you could dance to, fall asleep to and fall in love with all at the same time. Cooltempo Records snapped them up in an instant.

The first Innocence single was a critical sensation. In its full version Natural Thing ran almost ten minutes long, the main body of the song (with its “coming on, keep coming on” refrain) all but vanishing after three minutes. Instead it gave way to an extended ambient breakdown which cheekily mixed in what was almost the entirety of Dave Gilmour’s guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The fact that this never attracted any legal issue suggested either that the group had full permission to do or that the star tacitly approved of the work. The concept was taken a stage further with the No One Gets Out Of Here Alive mix which stirred in elements of Riders On The Storm by The Doors. A full blown cover of the song would later appear on international editions of the group’s debut album.

Natural Thing was one of the more rapturously greeted club hits of the first few months of 1990, its destiny was to end up Innocence’s highest charting single when it peaked at Number 16 in late March, its reputation and regard possibly outstripping its overall commercial performance.

Following this early success, however, subsequent singles from the group’s debut album Belief struggled to match even that mid-table peak. Silent Voice barely scraped the Top 40 in the summer and Let’s Push It barely improved on that with a visit to the Top 30 in the autumn.

Yet it is their fourth single which concerns us here. Despite being lavished with the kind of attention which suggested it was being pitched as a major seasonal smash hit, it barely tickled the charts at all.

The tale of heartbreak A Matter Of Fact was not at first listen one of the standout tracks from the debut Innocence release. Following on from the full ten minute version of Natural Thing on the tracklisting, it in its original form it was a sparsely produced track. Beats, bass and voice. This gave it a haunting and elegant simplicity. The song was one of the more unabashedly ambient cuts from the album and as far removed from a pop hit as you could imagine. Hence a transformation for single release. A Matter Of Fact had several gallons of fairy dust sprinkled on it – more beats, a melancholy piano riff and perhaps most crucially of all a full string arrangement. The chilled-out cut was now an epic soulful pop masterpiece. More than anything they had released before, this was surely destined for the Top 10.

The timing of its release as a single was no coincidence. It appeared in the shops at the end of November. This was Innocence’s pitch for a Christmas time smash and a much needed boost for the album which by that time had sunk out of sight. Yet to widespread shock it just didn’t work. Charting just outside the Top 40 in its first week on release, the newly enhanced A Matter Of Fact simply refused to take off. Over the next few weeks it would move 46-37-38-39 before dropping out of the Top 40 by Christmas. Perhaps a Top Of The Pops appearance would have helped to propel the single further into public consciousness but the failure of the single to move up, as opposed to down, the charts put paid to that idea.

So the song remains something of a lost classic. I bought the single anyway, and to hear it again transports me back to the tinsel-clad sixth form common room and my starring role in the Christmas revue that year. Back to memories of my parents’ house being a building site, and of failing to land Christmas kisses with the girl who first screamed across the common room how much she loved the song.

The Innocence project was good for one more album, their second album Build spawning two more minor Top 40 hits in 1992, but none had quite the impact or indeed the cultural significance of anything on their debut. Singer Gee would later attempt a solo career, her only album landing to little attention in 1994.

Backtiming Back In Time

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Radio studios are quite glamorous places to earn a living, all things considered. If you are even halfway technically minded, there is something quite thrilling about your working environment being a LED-drenched palace of glowing buttons, dancing meters and multiple busy viewscreens. Clocks tick away, dials move, and people sit there with their faces gently illuminated by some very expensive technology.

A studio, yesterday

That said, I also like to consider myself lucky that my career began in the mid-1990s during the crossover from an entirely different era. A more earthy, direct, analogue era where things were magnetic, plastic rather than solid state and had plenty of moving parts to go wrong. Because just like driving a stick shift car as opposed to an automatic, where you somehow feel much closer to the engine and at one with your vehicle, back then it was far more of an art to create things live rather than just pushing a button and waiting for the computer to do all the work.

This is particularly resonant when I sit and play out pre-recorded shows (all on a computer these days naturally). Because my first ever job in radio was to deal with a weekly recorded programme back in the analogue era. Along with all the heavy lifting that entailed.

Dees Sleaze

It is a shame I never kept one of the old rotas which listed me as being in charge of “taking Rick Dees” which was certainly not as violent as it may sound at first glance. This was preparing for the weekly Saturday night broadcast of the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40, an American chart show which was syndicated around the world from Los Angeles where it was produced, and which was taken by a handful of British stations in the UK.

As I would only learn in later years, what we broadcast was a heavily condensed version of what at source was a four-hour marathon, shipped to broadcasting stations on a bundle of CDs which contained both the full produced show and the dry elements should they want to stitch it together themselves. Somewhere in the bowels of Metro Radio in Newcastle, it was the job of a producer to take this show and wrestle it together for British consumption. And perhaps most importantly reduce it to three hours and ensure the countdown all still made sense. Once this task was complete, the show was dubbed onto reels of tape and couriered to the offices of Satellite Media Services for onward distribution.

Until the late 1990s SMS had an effective monopoly on audio distribution to the UK radio industry. Everything, from news bulletins through to adverts and networked shows, came via their studios and over the dedicated satellite link that connected stations had installed. Every Thursday at midday their stereo “Programmes Channel” would carry the weekly feed of Rick Dees to the network, and it was my job to be in place in the studio at that time to effect the recording.

Because yes, we were only set up to do this by hand. I’d haul the huge 12-inch reels of tape (three in total – one for each hour) out of the drawer where they were kept and lug them into the off-air studio. The first would be carefully laced up onto the reel to reel player which occupied more than its fair share of studio space, ready for the feed to begin. A couple of minutes before the hour the SMS channel would broadcast a tone, against which I’d set the studio levels and a portion of which I’d record onto the start of the tape for reference before waiting for the clock to tick around.

Midday on the dot, the feed of the show would begin. I’d hit record, watch the spools gently turn (7.5 inches per second speed) and then basically sit there for the next 45 minutes and hope nothing would jam. I’d eat lunch, or pop next door into the on-air studio to chat to the presenter and generally try to look busy. Once the hour had finished it was time to hit stop, rewind the tape and lace up the next one ready for the next hour.

The feed of the third hour would also end with the weekly programme trail in which Rick himself would extol the virtues of whatever special guests he would feature. I’d have to hope that the SMS engineers would leave the tape at their end running long enough for there to be enough music at the end to allow me to edit in one of the “Saturday night – only on The Pulse!” lines that Dees had recorded years before. I’d record this trail onto a handy Sonifex cart and deliver it to the racks in the on-air studio before stowing the tapes back in the drawer in the office ready for the weekend.

Just Can’t Wait ‘Til Saturday

That was really only part of the fun. It wasn’t generally my job, but sometimes I’d be invited to cover the Saturday evening shift. A large part of which involved actually broadcasting my carefully recorded show. And this was a whole new part of the operation.

One of the first things I was ever taught to do as a “professional” broadcaster was to successfully back time the recorded show. If you owned a calculator which did hours, minutes and seconds – great! If like me, you were a poor recent graduate, you just had to do it all by hand.

Each hour of the programme had to finish on time to take the national news (for reasons which will become apparent). How you managed that was often the result of some on the fly creativity and what would hopefully be a happy coincidence between the length of each hour of the show (which differed week by week) and the number of adverts and trails that were scheduled. So for each hour of the show, you would carefully count back from the top of the hour… take off 12 seconds for the news jingle, 90 seconds for the last break, 12 minutes for Part 4 of the show etc. to eventually arrive at the ideal start time for each third of the programme.

Hour 1 was always straightforward, as there was no need to take the news at the start. You knew when the previous live show needed to finish, what time to start the final ad break and when the top of the hour “Legal ID” would play to start the Weekly Top 40 on time. You would press Play on the carefully laced up and cued up tape, stopping it every 10 minutes to play the ad break, during the course of which you would manually cue up the next band of the programme. If all went well and you hadn’t messed up the calculations, the tape would end a little over 90 seconds before the top of the hour and the final ad break would play.

Then the fun would begin because the next few minutes were a genuine race against the clock. Stopping the tape and hitting ‘rewind’ and watching the spools spin round at speed. You knew you had until the end of the news bulletin to rewind the tape, lift it off the machine, locate the tape for the second hour, lace it up (under this pin, over that one, past the heads and onto the take-up spool) and cue the first part of the next hour, all before the two minute IRN bulletin had finished. And that, my friends, is why you always had the news during these taped shows on a Saturday night. Because that was your window to swap the tapes over.

This is where the back times (as they were called) never quite worked. Because the start of Hours 2 and 3 was fixed in time at 2 minutes past the hour. And if your total running time of programmes and commercials didn’t come to 58 minutes you had to get creative. Of all the lessons I learned during the first weeks of my career, this was the most important. How to get Rick Dees back running to time.

If you were under that was easy. You could insert another programme trail into proceedings, or if it was just 10-15 seconds or so which needed to be accounted for, be relaxed about how tight the broadcast was. Let a second elapse between adverts, be slow off the mark starting the show back up after the station jingle. Straightforward. More often, however, you were over time. Without adjustments, the programme would crash through the next news bulletin.

Fixing this was actually easier than it sounded. As long as the show had not been produced with a lengthy spoken link at the end of each part, it was possible to just fade it out early mid-song. 45 seconds over time? Not an issue, have a station jingle standing by (or better yet a whispered ID) and use it to mask your fade out and cut to the ads. In one move you were now running to time (and could relax a bit) and the audience was none the wiser. Ideally you’d do this at the end of Part 1 and be back on schedule as soon as possible. But sometimes the last song would end too soon and Rick would spend the last two minutes of the part being wacky or doing something that Steve Wright would copy six months later. So you would move on to Part 2 and attempt the same again, praying that this time it would work. Because if you were still behind by the time Part 3 began you could be forgiven for getting nervous.

Hence my manual gearbox comparison above. None of this was rocket science really, and once you’d learned the tricks of the trade it was like riding a bike, but it somehow felt like real broadcasting. You were in hands-on control, your timing skills the difference between the station sounding superb and missing the start of the news. Or worse still, having to yank the show off air mid-link. And I was lucky enough to start my career learning how to do this. Because in the old analogue world you had to. This was how you made radio.

These days I line up a recorded radio show by dragging and dropping files into a computerized schedule. A piece of software shows me how long it will run, at a glance how many seconds I am over or under and if needed will time stretch things on the fly to make it all fit. It is liberating, slick and has fewer moving parts to go wrong. But for those new to the industry, it is all they will ever know. They will thrill at the sight of flat screens, glowing buttons and computer programmes with exotic names like Myriad, Zetta or Burli. But they will never know the adrenaline rush and blind panic of realising you’ve laced the tape up with a kink in it, 30 seconds before IRN is due to finish.