Burning The Candle

A true story about how I got where I am today.

I didn’t get to work on the radio as a presenter and producer because I was necessarily the most talented guy around, the best talker, the funniest writer or even the most informed sportsman. It is because I said yes to a great many things.

It is because immediately after graduating I worked during the day at an accountancy office and then many evenings and all weekends at the local radio station which would go on to become my first proper radio employer. I rarely took a day off in 18 months.

It is because when someone was needed to drive the desk for a week of broadcasts from a remote town, I took a week “off work” to be available for it.

It is because when someone was needed to screen calls for the late night phone-in on the night of the office Christmas party, I abandoned the meal after the starter and jumped in the car to the studio to make a radio show happen.

It is because when asked if I’d play out a recorded show for four hours on Christmas afternoon instead of sitting at home unwrapping presents, I readily agreed.

It is because when one Saturday evening at home my phone rang and I was asked to go in at short notice and present the late night love songs show, I said yes with wild enthusiasm.

It is because on every single one of those occasions, I was prepared to push aside whatever other plans I had for the time and make going and being on the radio my number one concern, because from my point of view it was really the only thing that mattered.

Last weekend, hardly anyone in the team of people I manage wanted to work. Some were away, some had booked holiday specifically for the occasion, so fair enough. Others had plans and priorities, birthdays to celebrate with friends or important shopping trips that just couldn’t be put on hold. In short, none of them cared enough to say yes to everything.

So a decade and a half on from being the man who stepped in to the breach every time, I still had to be the one to care instead. So I worked all night on Friday night producing. I came home at 7am, kissed the family good morning and slept for seven hours. I got up, made them dinner and went to work again. I pressed buttons for four hours on Saturday night, before switching hats and producing for six hours through the middle of the night again until 6am. Then there was no point going home, so I unrolled a sleeping bag in an empty studio and slept for four hours or so. Then I got up at 11am on Sunday morning to help produce some live sport at lunchtime. I finished at 4pm and returned to my sleeping bag for another few hours sleep. I got up at 9pm and produced another all night radio show until 6am Monday morning. Then I travelled home again finally and slept as best I could, dosed up on all manner of herbal tinctures in an attempt to free my mind of the sheer mental exhaustion of such a schedule and the crushing despair I still felt when trying to persuade others to do even half the work I’d otherwise be committed to.

It wasn’t so terrible. Between Friday night and Monday morning I’d made a grand total of 24 hours of live radio and I’m delighted to say felt the same passion and the same joy for every single one of them as I did on a Christmas afternoon 17 years ago. Yet I can’t take much joy from apparently being the only one who cared enough to put himself through it. That might take a little while for me to reconcile.

Rhythm Of The Night (Or Morning)

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or even have the dubious privilege of knowing me personally will be aware I’ve spent the past month some considerable distance from my usual chirpy self. This has by and large been down to an exceptionally unusual working schedule which has seen me eschewing stuff like daylight and proper sleeping patterns in favour (if that is the word) of an extended series of nightshifts.

Here’s how it works. After far too many years of running late night and overnight shows which were frankly something of an embarrassment, consisting largely of desperate phone-ins populated by what became known internally as “the mad, sad and the lonely”, at the start of April talkSPORT revamped its schedule, putting the focus on sport 24 hours a day and in the process kick-starting a new era in late night sports radio. To make sure everything began in the manner in which it was intended to continue, some of the best production talent in the office was parachuted in to work on the new overnight offering, an offer which for some reason was also extended to me. Hence my diary for the month quickly filled up with some extended through the night working, much of it at weekends.

I’m no stranger to the nightshift really. I’ve written in the dim and distant past about the experience of making radio shows in the middle of the night, something which like just about every radio person of my particular generation happened at the very start of my on air career. Yet here I am, close to 20 years into it, still finding myself occupying the twilight zone of the schedule, only this time after being handed a big responsibility and in a slot which at the present time receives high levels of management scrutiny.

Such working hours inevitably require some kind of lifestyle adjustment, and in a sense this has been the most interesting part of the whole experience. Learning how to cope with unnatural sleep and living patterns has been an education in itself. What I have discovered is that the longer the run of shows the easier it all becomes. Doing just one or two shifts in a row is the real killer, as it takes at least a day to shift your body clock round to the rhythm of sleeping days and waking nights and a further day to properly return to normal afterwards. Essentially you spend half the week in a state of utter uselessness all for the sake of a couple of shifts at work (both of which I’d have to do as part of a full working week which included normal hours the rest of the time).

No, believe it or not far better are the longer runs, those of four or even five nights in a row. After just 24 hours you are firmly in the groove and it seems the most natural thing in the world to slip out of the house after dinner, wind your way across town in the gloom and then work all night before stepping back out of the building to greet the dawn and the first trains of the day. I even found myself at one stage wondering if I couldn’t actually get used to it – but then again you can’t. Humans are designed to follow the sun for a reason and there are only so many times you can struggle awake at 4pm and spend a few disoriented moments working out what day it is and what the time should be. Those are the moments when you truly know you are in the middle of something rather unnatural.

On the flipside there is something rather special about being one of the first people to greet the world each day. If you’ve clicked on the link to the older article above, you will know that I spent the summer of 1996 strapping on rollerblades and cruising a deserted Bradford city centre at 6am every day. One doesn’t need to be a skater now to appreciate the sights and experiences that are unique to that particular hour. Normally bustling streets are almost totally bereft of activity, with even mainline railway terminuses giving off the impression of reluctantly blinking awake, with only half the shops open and departure boards normally crammed with trains showing just two or three first-run services ready to depart as the entire system clears its throat.

Travelling home just as everyone else is on their way out means you become oddly disconnected with the one shared experience of the day and become a dispassionate observer to the routine of everyone else’s lives. On the train out of town you have an entire carriage to yourself whilst the opposite platforms on the stations you call at are veritable hives of activity as commuters line up four deep to cram onto peak time trains. This kind of reverse flow, I have discovered, does have its downside. The ticket barriers are configured for one exit to four entrances at that time of day for a reason and there is nothing trickier than fighting your way past the flow of people along the narrow pathway which leads to my local station, the solitary man leaving the premises whilst the working population of the area attempts to enter it. I’ve even become used to odd looks from the drivers of the bus I catch up the hill towards the house as they disgorge their carriages of their entire passenger capacity at the station, only for me to ride away as the only soul migrating in the opposite direction.

Plus of course important stuff does sometimes happen in the middle of the night. Despite once being assured by a news editor that “no important news ever breaks at 2am”, Princess Diana failed to fasten her seatbelt in the early hours of a Sunday morning whilst on one of my last stand-in shifts on old school overnight shows, Michael Jackson grabbed the great crotch in the sky mere hours before we were due to come on air. This time around the events of the night have been rather more mundane, but with six more to go before I finally escape this rather odd professional purgatory I’m hoping for at least one big breaking event to roll with.

Yes, this is my attempt to put a positive spin on stuff. Despite the fact that I’m still at the end of the day getting to make radio programmes (and ones which actually thanks to the hard work of the people who put them together during the daytime are actually some of the best on the station right now) I’ve classed April 2012 as alternately my lost month or my month from hell. The agonising tired headaches to start with, the nights of insomnia afterwards as you try to force your body back to normal, the disconnection from day to day life, the feeling that your entire focus out of the office is being ready for the next shift. None of this is stuff I take unbridled pleasure in. To those who do this week in week out as a career, I can only salute you. I’m just counting the hours and minutes until I can get my life back for the summer.

It’s Easter 1989 For Real – Part Three

Yes, I suck at planning important things like finding time to write over bank holidays. With apologies to all those hanging on in suspense for the final part of the Easter Sunday chart of 1989, here comes the Top 10, as revealed on Radio One on March 26th 1989.

10: Kon Kan – I Beg Your Pardon

The one and only UK hit single for a duo from Canada who spent the late 80s having a series of moderately successful hits in their native land. An incredibly cleverly made tune and in a sense quite innovative for its day, ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was an otherwise original hit song but with the selling point of being based around a direct sample of the chorus of ‘Rose Garden’, an old C&W hit for Lynn Anderson which had been a Number 3 hit for the star back in 1971. Whilst much was made of the Anderson connection, a more detailed analysis of the track reveals that it borrows from a variety of old disco hits to create the disctinct aural collage which set this single apart from just about any of its contemporaries. Really the huge shame was that Kon Kan had nothing else to match it, their follow-up single ‘Harry Houdini’ missing the charts altogether and leaving them one hit wonders on what is in truth an all but forgotten 80s classic.

9: Bananarama/LaNaNeeNeeNooNoo – Help!

Having been launched in 1986 with a charity concert and most famously the Cliff Richard and the Young Ones remake of his own ‘Living Doll’, the Comic Relief charity expanded its operations rapidly during the late 1980s. The first ever Red Nose Day took place in February 1988 and was so much of a runaway success that the demand for the small plastic probosces far outstripped supply, leading Blue Peter to suggest manfuacturing your own out of cut up egg cartons. I shit you not.

12 months later the event was back again, this time with slightly more in the way of pre-preparation and an adequate supply of nasal appendages to go around. To accompany the event, this single was released, continuing the theme set by both ‘Living Doll’ and the 1987 festive single ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ in merrily dicking about with a classic old hit. Taking on The Beatles for comic purposes was fraught with danger, so this cover version was perhaps slightly more respectful of the original than had previously been the case. Bananarama played their part perfectly straight, leaving the comedy parts from French and Saunders to the gaps in between the verses. Odd in a way then, this was perhaps the least deliberately comic comedy record ever released, but it made little difference to the chart prospects of the single as it made a comfortable Number 3 in early March just in time for the charity telethon. The producers of the track were Stock/Aitken/Waterman at what was essentially the height of their effortless hitmaking powers, making this one of no less than four of their creations to be propping up this week’s Top 10.

8: Reynolds Girls – I’d Rather Jack

…this of naturally being the second. Was there ever a one-off hit single which was the subject of so much critical analysis and so ingrained into pop mythology as this record? The Reynolds Girls are a quite extraordinary story simply because the way they are remembered and the reaction to them is almost totally at odds with the number of records they actually sold during their brief flowering of fame.

Here’s how it works. Liverpudlian-Irish sisters Linda and Aisling were plucked from obscurity by Peter Waterman after picketing his weekend local radio show with dogged determination and handed over to the SAW hit factory for grooming and the recording of their first single. Coming off the back of events such as the 1989 Brit awards which had almost totally ignored mainstream pop music in favour of showering gongs on superannuated rock acts, the Reynolds Girls were seen as the perfect empty vessel into which the producers could pour their pent up rage at an industry which was going out of its way to belittle and ignore the legacy of music they were hard at work creating. Hence ‘I’d Rather Jack’ is a musical polemic wrapped up in a bubbly little pop record. The teenage girls rail against the music industry and radio stations like Radio One, pouting at musical snobbery and openly questioning the age and tastes of music radio presenters – to whit “why the DJ on my favourite station/is always more than twice the age of me”. Acts such as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Dire Straits were namechecked as the kind of thing their generation did not want to hear (cynics noted that the likes of Paul McCartney and The Beatles were not dissed, thanks to Pete Waterman’s long standing desire to produce for his musical hero). The instantly rather annoying single went Top 10 and the teenage duo were all over Smash Hits and the like, full of excitement over the journey of fame they were embarking on.

Except that the fame never materialised. For some reason they were held up for ridicule by more credible parts of the press, even after just one single. Never mind that the words were not their own but those of a trio of thirty and forty-something producers. The song was arrogant, presumptuous and incredibly annoying despite the uncomfortable truths expressed in the lyrics. Suddenly the Reynolds Girls were the embodiment of everything that was wrong with plastic pop, and more highbrow writers sneered at the fact that these young upstarts were poking fun at acts with far more talent than they had. Plans for a second single were cancelled and the whole project never went any further, accounts as to why varying from Waterman sacking the girls for going on holiday rather than recording, to the more logical explanation that attempting to make further records with the pair would be an exercise in futility. To this day, ‘I’d Rather Jack’ is held up as a musical nadir despite, lest we forget, being a Top 10 hit. Over the years, the story of what actually happened to the Reynolds Girls spiralled into ever greater heights of ludicrousness. For years the rumour that one of the duo had died in childbirth, giving the whole tale an irresistibly tragic edge, circulated on newsgroups and messageboards until it was cheerfully debunked.

Tracking down an online copy of this one was tricky. The track resurfaced in 12-inch form on the Stock Aitken Waterman ‘Gold’ compilation a couple of years back but the collection isn’t in any online stores. Paging YouTube, where at least we get to see just how much the pair and their insane dancing screamed “annoying”.

7: Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine – Can’t Stay Away From You

An interesting one this as it was the single that marked the final phase in the transformation of Gloria Estefan from chubby singer of the Miami Sound Machine to sophisticated solo artist, in spite of the fact that she continued to record and perform with the same musicians throughout. ‘Can’t Stay Away From You’ actually appeared on the final Miami Sound Machine album ‘Anything For You’ and had been its first single release back in May 1988 only to bomb out well short of the Top 75. Several hit singles later it was reactivated and became a comfortable Top 10 hit and in the process began the phasing out of the Miami Sound Machine Brand. Officially credited to her and the group both on the single and in chart lsitings, all the marketing for it suggested that this should be considered a solo single, nothing less. Not the greatest record or most memorable Miami Sound Machine single ever then, but it served as an advert for what we could expect from Gloria Estefan’s first “solo” album ‘Cuts Both Ways’ when it emerged later that summer.

6: Guns N Roses – Paradise City

The journey of Guns ‘N’ Roses from cult rock press heroes to multi million selling mainstream stars had been a long and slow one. Their first single had been ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ which made Number 67 as far back as October 1987 but even after they had made a Top 40 breakthrough in 1988 with ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and a re-release of their first single, they had landed no higher than Number 24 on the charts. The success of ‘Paradise City’ in the spring of 1989 was therefore a rather pleasant surprise, entering just outside the Top 20 and then swiftly rocketing into the Top 10. GnR had arrived as mainstream stars to finally justify the hype they had been receiveing up to that point. and within months ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ had also been re-released and attained the Top 10 position its status as a classic deserved. My own memories of ‘Paradise City’ centre around seeing the video on the original ITV Chart Show. The programme featured pop-up info boxes about each single played which traditionally appeared during the instrumental of each track. Of course the only instrumental break in ‘Paradise City’ appears at roughly ten seconds in, resulting in the Chart Show infoboxes making a premature appearance every time the single was aired. To think I wondered why girls wouldn’t talk to me.

5: Soul II Soul – Keep On Movin’

Sacred cow slaughtering time. I absolutely hated Soul II Soul. They made dull, plodding, unbelievably tedious records that you couldn’t even dance to even if you wanted to. Back in 89 however Jazzie B and posse were treated as the musical second coming, the rebirth of British cool and a brand that could take them to the 21st century such was the way their music was ahead of its time. The summer of ‘Back To Life’ and the presumptuously titled album ‘Club Classics Vol.1’ clogging up the top of the charts was still to come, in the meantime this was their debut hit with Caron Wheeler handling lead vocal duties just as she would on the summertime smash. This wasn’t a bad record as such, but to ears schooled on the frantic noise of the Acid House craze of the winter just passed, this more mellow form of floor-filling came across as nothing more than crashingly dull.

4: Paula Abdul – Straight Up

During the halftime show of the 2008 Super Bowl, Paula Abdul (by then rather better known as a TV talent show judge) attempted what turned out to be a rather ill-fated musical comeback. Nonetheless, when her performance commenced with a quick blast of the opening bars of the title track of her debut album ‘Forever Your Girl’, there was a good reason why the crowd greeted it with warm cheers. For a brief period in the early 90s, the former cheerleader (and lest we forget the lady who taught Michael Jackson most of his best moves) was one of the hottest stars in America, the resultant buzz spreading to most of Europe at the same time. True, on the face of it she had a rather thin voice and somewhat unusual exotic looks, but virtually every one of her singles flew to the top of the US charts in an era before Mariah Carey redefined the words “foregone conclusion”. The UK release of her debut hit gave her an easy Top 5 hit single to launch the expert choreographer as a chart star in this country as well. Several more hits would follow over the next few years, her most famous offering being ‘Opposites Attract’ which would wind up as a Number 2 hit in early 1990. Her comeback single may have been pitifully bad, and her judging contributions on American Idol and US X Factor bordering on the bizarre at best, but two decades ago she was touted as a real challenger to Madonna’s crown as the Queen of pop and most importantly had the massive sales to back the claim up.

3: Donna Summer – This Time I Know It’s For Real

So you are a one time disco star who is ten years removed from the hits that made you famous. Your last album ‘All Systems Go’ was released to rather a muted reception yet you did squeeze out a hit single from it in the UK, ‘Dinner With Gershwin’ which at least served to show to the world that you are still around and still able to perform. What is your next move? In Donna Summer’s case it was to hook up with (you guess it) Stock/Aitken/Waterman who lavished loving attention upon the fallen star, handing her an entire album of some of the best songs they ever wrote together. The lead single was the sparkling and instantly appealing ‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’ which not only hit Top 3 here but also gave her a Top 10 single back home in America for the first time in very many years. Its status as a classic is open to some argument as it can hardly stand as the greatest ever work of a performer who fronted ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Love To Love You Baby’, two of the greatest disco records ever made. Putting such contextual concerns to one side however, and the single is actually a pop masterpiece, three and a half minutes of genuine uplifting joy and a towering example of just how good Stock, Aitken and Waterman could get when they were properly motivated and had a genuine superstar to craft music for.

2: Jason Donovan – Too Many Broken Hearts

For this week however the Donna Summer single was still being outsold by another SAW track, one which had spent time at the top of the charts and which had established the Australian actor once and for all as a mjaor pop name. The release of this single was essentially the relaunch of Jason Donovan’s musical career after it was felt necessary to press the reset button and move on from earlier mistakes. Although his first single with the trio ‘Nothing Can Divide Us’ had been a respectable enough Top 10 hit in the Autumn of 1988 it was clear that the style of song was wrong for him and that a whole album of similar material would be to underplay his teen idol strengths. After the distraction of the inevitably Kylie duet ‘Especially For You’ which had topped the chart earlier in the year, ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ was a bold chart-topping statement to the nation (or at least the pre-pubsescent female part of it) that this was the Jason Donovan pop star they were expected to love. Now I’ll be honest with you here, even at the time I firmly believed that ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ would one day be regarded as one of the greatest pop records of the 80s. Of course people sneered due to the SAW link but it was the epitome of a mainstream classic – sunshine lyrics, a sentiment that everyone could relate to and the obligatory singalong chorus. Looking back it was a naïve view, of course nobody would ever regard a manufactured single by an Australian soap star as a musical high point, but it just goes to show the danger of dismissing the music simply because of who is fronting it or who wrote and produced it. It is not a belittlement surely to argue that late 80s pop never got any better than this. ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ remains nothing short of awesome – even if the PWL Records catalogue is for now absent from Spotify and I’m reduced to showing you the video.

1: Madonna – Like A Prayer

Whether she meant it or not, shock and outrage appeared to follow Madonna around wherever she went. During the early years of her singing career whatever outrage she caused tended to be confined to the lyrical content of her records, whether it was the censor-baiting ambiguity of ‘Like A Virgin’ or allegations that she was encouraging underage pregnancies with ‘Papa Don’t Preach’.

After spending 1987 working on and promoting her latest rather woeful movie ‘Who’s That Girl’ and spending 1988 trying her hand at acting in the Broadway play “Speed The Plow” she needed to make an entirely new impact to draw attention to her brand new album and her latest development as a performer. It was time then to confront head on the Catholic faith which had formed such an important part of her upbringing and given her the the distinctive name that she traded on.

Musically speaking the track ‘Like A Prayer’ wasn’t actually all that controversial. Whilst the lyrics of the song which drew a parallel between religious and sexual ecstacy might have had the potential to cause some degree of offence if anyone paid close enough attention, it was the visual accompaniment which had certain sections of the more conservatively minded American press calling for her excommunication. ‘Like A Prayer’ was debuted several weeks before release as the soundtrack to a multi-million dollar TV commercial for Pepsi, which as the clip below demonstrates was itself promoted as something akin to the second coming.

The advert itself wasn’t all that controverisial, but it was famously aired just a handful of times before the drinks giant took fright, pulled it from all airings and told Madonna to keep her money. They took fright at the potential backlash from what emerged as the actual video for the ‘Like A Prayer’ single.

Like all such outrages, much of the fuss about the video was based on a simple misunderstanding. The black “Jesus figure” which Madonna kisses and embraces in the video was actually the animated statue of a Catholic saint, representing Madonna’s guilt over her silence which had caused an innocent man to be accused of a murder. One doesn’t have to be particularly religious to note that the storyline is simply that of her finding redemption at the hands of a gospel choir and eventually doing the right thing and testifying to secure the release of the imprisoned victim.

Imagery aside, it was hard to fault the music itself. An immediate and perhaps inevitable Number One, ‘Like A Prayer’ still holds up as one of her best singles, especially as it marked her desire to move away from the conventional dance-pop singles with which she had made her name into rather more exotic musical avenues. Notable at the time for being one of the first Madonna singles you couldn’t properly dance to (James Hamilton’s BPM calculator in Record Mirror almost throwing a fit as the song dropped to zero during every single verse), the version you sometimes hear in retro clubs today is the remix that appeared on the Immaculate Collection hits compilation rather than the original single mix but both stand firm as one of her best singles of the era and a small clue that the chubby twenty five year old who exploded into superstardom in the mid-80s was maturing as an artist in full control of her destiny and unafraid to innovate at every single turn. As a final footnote, the single famously featured on its b-side the track ‘Act Of Contrition’ which also closed out the ‘Like A Prayer’ album. On it Madonna attempts to check into heaven accompanied by a wail of guitar feedback, the track ending with her shrilly insisting “I have a reservation. WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S NOT ON THE COMPUTER?”

With that, we draw this Top 40 show to a close, taking time perhaps to note the achievement of Ian Brownhill of Oxford who was the winner of the Top 3 prediction competition on the show that week and so won himself a copy of the entire Top 40 singles, making him the luckiest man in the world until the invention of Spotify when we can all virtually “own” our own copy of many of them. That’s technology for you.

Did you know the original posting of this recap never included the packshot? Time to correct that now.