Found That Soul Of 2001–Part Two

I’ve mentioned before that there is an unbreakable emotional link between the circumstances of your life and how you feel about the music of the time. I’ve written in the past about chart countdowns which mark deep personal lows and how the emotions flood back with every song. I suspect the affection with which I can view many of these songs is similarly based on fond memories of this particular period in my life. I was living the dream, newly embraced by London life, earning money again after a bleak financial period and in the manner of Homer Simpson at the bowling alley was merrily tripping to work in a dream job which combined my two loves of computers and radio. Throughout it all, the songs on the radio made this one of the most memorable times of the decade for me and to be able to relive them all once again is a positive joy. Only a crippling lack of sex prevented life from being total perfection.

Oh I’m sorry, did I shatter the reverie with an overshare? We should play the tape again, and keep a close eye on the Spotify playlist as a string of mainstream acts means there is once again a pleasing strike rate of these songs available for modern day listening.

30: Eminem – Stan

What a difference 13 weeks makes. When the promotion of ‘Stan’ as Eminem’s third single from his second album began and the track began to pick up airplay, the subject matter of the supposedly controversial track caused a great deal of soul searching amongst broadcasters. Uniquely Radio One approved it for daytime play but for the first few weeks preceded every broadcast of the track with an announcement to the effect that it is an important record that they though you should be able to hear, but that anyone who may be upset by it might like to turn the volume down for five minutes.

Was it all a fuss over nothing, or did time wither the impact of the tale of Stan the obsessed fan and his doomed pregnant girlfriend? Either way, come the spring of 2001 the single was still a Top 40 fixture and was still in regular rotation on daytime commercial radio – heavily edited to remove the nastier parts of the tale, naturally – without anyone batting an eyelid.

As a three month old Number One single here on the Top 40 chart doing a slow but steady burnout, a full account of the chart story of ‘Stan’ and just what its cultural impact was can wait for the day we do one of these for the close of 2000. At this point the track was spending its penultimate week on the Top 40, its significance by March 2001 not so much the way it took Eminem back to the top of the charts, but the way that in its wake it turned the lady whose sampled voice forms such a core part of the song into a huge mainstream star. Stay tuned, as they say.

29: Mya – Case Of The Ex

It was actually Mya’s second album which spawned her biggest international hit. The R&B singer had made her American chart debut as far back as 1998, hitting the Billboard Top 10 with the track ‘It’s All About Me’ but the first British audiences heard of her was as one of the multitude of guest voices on the Pras Michel single ‘Ghetto Supastar’ later that same summer. She broke through internationally as a solo star with this naggingly brilliant tale of relationship paranoia which stormed to Number 3 the moment it was released in early February 2001. Sadly neither this single nor the Number 11 follow-up ‘Free’ did much to help sales of their parent album ‘Fear Of Flying’ which barely tickled the Top 100 when finally released later in the summer. Her greatest singles chart success would come later in 2001 when she was part of the ensemble cast of stars who performed ‘Lady Marmalade’ on the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, a single which was Number One in most of the territories of the world including the UK. Her career fell off the rails following a lengthy delay in releasing her fourth album in 2007, but even by that time she had sadly dropped off the radar as far as Britain was concerned. Sad in a way… ‘Case Of The Ex’ remains nothing short of marvellous.

28: Backstreet Boys – The Call

To think we thought Anastacia had problems being huge in Europe but disregarded in her own country. The Backstreet Boys had this headache in SPADES. Making their debut in the mid-1990s, the first big American boy band since NKOTB found themselves ignored in their home country but feted as the next big thing in Europe with a string of continent-wide smashes. Britain took a while to catch on itself but by 1996 they were regular fixtures at the top end of the singles chart with tracks such as ‘We’ve Got It Going On’ and ‘Quit Playing Games With My Heart’. Whilst America finally took the bait a couple of years later it meant that for a brief period their album releases were badly out of sync, second European album ‘Backstreets Back’ having to be extensively reversioned as their Stateside “debut” in 1997.

Fortunately things had resolved themselves nicely by the time of their fourth album ‘Black and Blue’ in 2000 and the now worldwide hits just kept on rolling. The lead track from the album became its third single in Europe, ‘The Call’ dealing with the rather weighty subject matter of a man calling up to lie to his girlfriend about where he was about to be spending the night. Released in mid-February 2001 it made an easy Number 8 to become the 13th Backstreet Boys Top 10 hit. Whilst their hits may have dried up around 2007, they still actively record and tour to this day, making headlines at present for a dual header nostalgia tour with New Kids On The Block.

27: Dr Dre featuring Snoop Dogg – The Next Episode

The “first” episode was the seminal ‘Nuthin But a G Thang” from Dr Dre’s solo debut album ‘The Chronic’ in 1992. A pre-fame Snoop Dogg guested on that track too, ending by suggesting everyone chilled out until next time. The original idea was that the “next episode” of which they spoke was to appear on Snoop Dogg’s own debut album ‘Doggystyle’ but although it was listed on early pressings of the sleeve for the album the track itself never appeared.

Having kept the world in suspense for eight years, Dre finally delivered as he and Snoop finished the saga as ‘The Next Episode’ emerged on his 2000 album ‘2001’ and was duly issued as its third single. Here I have to once again expose my lack of complete appreciation for the entire hip-hop canon as I can document that the single is consistently ranked as one of the more essential pieces of work that the genre of gangster rap has offered over the years, although it defies my critical faculties to explain exactly why. Credit where credit is due though, ‘The Next Episode’ remains to this day one of Dr Dre’s most famous and biggest selling hits worldwide. Appropriately enough its British chart fortunes reflect its status, peaking at Number 3 it is easily Dre’s highest charting single in this country as a performer.

26: Divine Comedy – Love What You Do

Finally a new entry! And one from the very finest of British performers as well. The release of Greatest Hits collection ‘A Secret History’ in 1999 marked, at least briefly, a break from the past for Neil Hannon and the ever-shifting collection of musicians who backed him as The Divine Comedy. For his seventh album ‘Regeneration’ he took a step back from the ever more lavish productions which had characterised his recent work, recruiting Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for a more stripped-down back to basics sound. The relative success or failure of this approach is rather tricky to judge, for the new sound suffered from the same problem as many Divine Comedy releases, being long on critical acclaim but rather short on proper mass sales appeal.

Lead single ‘Love What You Do’ was a case in point. Arriving a few weeks before the album it made a perfunctory appearance inside the Top 30 chart before vanishing with rather brutal efficiency. Listening to it, it isn’t hard to see why. Hannon’s poetry and blissful crooning are present and correct but the clinking and chiming production appears oddly out of place here and is rather more reminiscent of, well, a Radiohead album track than anything else. Hannon continues to churn out Divine Comedy albums at regular intervals, which alongside soundtrack work and inspired side projects such as the acclaimed Duckworth-Lewis Method concept album he remains a genuine national treasure, albeit one absent from the Top 40 since 2004.

25: Joe featuring Mystikal – Stutter

Another American star who found European success before breaking through back home, R&B star Joe had opened his chart account as far back as 1994 with the Top 30 hit ‘I’m In Luv’. When debut album ‘Everything’ failed to sell in his home nation he was swiftly dropped, only to re-emerge in 1997 with the rather more successful ‘All That I Am’ album which saw his star shine slightly more brightly (single ‘Don’t Wanna Be A Player’ made Number 16 here that same year). By 2001 he was firmly established as a big name, meaning ‘Stutter’ had an easy path to the top of the US charts and in turn became his biggest hit single on these shores when it advanced to an easy Number 7 when released in mid-February. His hits dried up towards the middle of the decade but after two independently released albums in recent years, talk emerged last year of a potential Joe comeback. The space continues to be watched.

24: Caprice – Once Around The Sun

Here’s a fun game. Have a gander at the Wikipedia entry for Caprice Bourret and see how much attention is paid to her many attempts to carve out a musical career. It is in there, albeit as a two line paragraph under “Other Work”. That’s how much significance her “fans” attach to it. Yes, Caprice’s musical career is something everyone tries to forget, despite the marketing effort which was attached to it at the time. She first inked a record deal with Virgin Records in 1999, hitting Number 24 with her debut effort ‘Oh Yeah’. The lukewarm public reaction to that first release meant things were put on the backburner for a couple of years whilst the American star sought to expand her business interests and public profile. With that done, having reached the point where she was rather oddly a front page fixture in the Daily Star, it was time to try again with this pop lark – hence the presence on the chart of her second a final single ‘Once Around The Sun’. Listening back to it for the first time in a decade you can see just why things never took off. The song itself is far from unpleasant and is a genuinely uplifting country-pop track, spoiled only by the nasal whine of her voice itself which slices through the melody like an electric drill on metal. Caprice’s pop career makes that of Paris Hilton seem relevant and worthwhile. Small wonder it only gets two lines in an otherwise comprehensive online biography, although the fact that the damn thing is actually on Spotify is more extraordinary still.

23: Papa Roach – Last Resort

2001 arguably marked the commercial peak of the genre which came to be known as Nu-Metal. After years of resolutely ploughing its own furrow regardless of other prevailing musical tastes, rock music charged headlong back into the mainstream thanks to an inspired embracing of other styles. Suddenly the vogue was for crunching guitars combined with rap beats, vocals and instrumentation tweaked by studio trickery and a wholesale embracing of the idea that even the angriest of songs could be pop records as well. Yes, it made for music which was more or less impossible to reproduce live in sweaty underground rock clubs, but it turned the likes of Korn into stars.

Californians Papa Roach hit the ground running with their debut album ‘Infest’, with this lead single becoming a Top 3 smash in Britain seemingly almost from nowhere on the back of extensive touring by the group at the tail end of 2000. A decade on the track still possesses an energy somehow lacking in most other modern day rock tracks. This isn’t the last Nu-Metal track we’ll stumble over in this countdown either, as there are even bigger rock hits to come.

22: Debelah Morgan – Dance With Me

Very much a one hit wonder as far as Britain is concerned, this is the sole contribution to the UK chart history of American singer-songwriter Debelah Morgan. After moderate success back home with her first two albums, the title track from her third made her briefly a worldwide name to watch as it charted in many territories, landing at Number 10 here at the end of February 2001. The most notable aspect of the single is its wholesale borrowing (these days we’d call it “interpolation") of the melody from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, originally written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the 1950s musical The Pyjama Game. Despite the hit single, Britain remained otherwise unmoved by the music of Debelah Morgan. Its parent album failed to chart and neither hide nor hair has been seen of her since.

21: A1 – No More

Just what is it about boy bands which means one is elevated when others fall by the wayside? Luck of the draw perhaps, or just the good fortune to be handed some strong material. Created by Steps svengali Tim Byrne, A1’s main gimmick (if they had one at all) was that one of their members was Norwegian, Christian Ingebrigsten just happening to be studying at the LIPA academy in Liverpool when the casting call for the group was put out. After a strong start in the summer of 1999 which saw their first four singles all make comfortable Top 10 placings, they suddenly hit a sweet spot with pop fans, scoring back to back Number One hits with a cover of A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ and the original track ‘Same Old Brand New You’, both in 2000. This single ‘No More’ was the immediate follow-up to both of those, the third and final single to be taken from their second album ‘The A List’ and a more than respectable Number 6 hit in February 2001. Based on the usual half-life of boy bands they timed the end of their career more or less to perfection, breaking up in 2002 after a final album and the news that Paul Marazzi was leaving the band.

That might have been that, but for the extraordinary reunion of the remaining trio in 2009, starting a new journey which has seen them flirt with Eurovision candidacy (for Norway – not chosen), recording a new album for the Scandinavian market in 2010 and playing comeback gigs in Britain at the tail end of last year.  Whilst a chart comeback here seems unlikely (the only people who cared at the time have long grown out of pop music), A1 appear to be doing their best to make sure that their story isn’t quite over yet.

Found That Soul Of 2001–Part One

Why 2001? Well for a start it is the last remaining year of the last 25 or so from which I’ve yet to select a vintage chart show to write about. This seems as good a moment as any to plug that hole. However it is also the case that this year was actually a particularly memorable one in popular music. Every music fan feels the winds of change blowing through their tastes as they get older, reaching the point when pop ceases to be something that talks to them directly and is more for the benefit of other people. I would never wish to submit that everything that has arrived since is utterly without merit, but for me 2001 was the last truly “great” year in my life as a pop fan, when the charts were rammed with classics – some well remembered, some forgotten – and the memories are those of perpetual sunshine.

As luck would have it, a springtime Top 40 is a great place to test this theory. Make no mistake we are in for a belter for this is a singles chart which is nothing less than superb.

As ever, this recap is done with particular reference to the tape of the Radio One Top 40 show from this week which you can presume is playing in the background throughout. Specifically the show broadcast on March 4th 2001. Imperial phase Mark Goodier is the host and the production of the show is so tightly focused on the Top 40 chart that with little more than a brief recap of last week and a quick montage of potential new entries we launch straight into the brand new chart. For those who wish to experience the tracks in real-time (kind of) there is a Spotify playlist of as many of these tracks as physically possible.

40: Anastacia – Not That Kind

For a brief period at the start of the 21st century, American singer Anastacia Newkirk could lay claim to being one of the biggest selling artists on the planet. Blessed with striking looks and a rich, powerful voice which was six parts Taylor Dayne to four parts Tina Turner she hit commercial paydirt with her debut album ‘Not That Kind’ which was rammed with the kind of pop hits (most of them self-penned) which radio programmers and most importantly their audiences found hard to resist. For all their ubiquity, her singles weren’t the biggest of chart hits in this country but somehow they all seem instantly and comfortingly familiar from the moment their first bars ring out. Now that is quality pop music. Debut hit ‘I’m Outta Love’ had gone Top 10 in the summer of 2000 and this title track from the album was her second chart hit, making what could be considered a rather understated Number 11 in early February 2001. She bumped along with more mid-table hits before making a triumphant return from breast cancer surgery in 2004 with the Top 3 hit ‘Left Outside Alone’ only to see her British chart prospects fade away once more. Still incredibly popular in mainland Europe, the only country in the developed world immune to her charms is her native land where she has just one Top 30 album to her name (her last two remaining unreleased there) and bereft of major chart singles.

39: Westlife – What Makes A Man

The eighth Westlife single of their career and a track which was released with immaculate timing to ensure it would not only become their 8th Number One single in a row but also land them the Christmas Number One for the second year running. Except things did not quite work out that way as the moment we had been predicting for a while came to pass – a Westlife single failed to top the charts. Instead in a notable moment of pure poetry, fate dictated that they would be outsold by a TV actor putting a voice to a lump of plasticine as Bob The Builder swept all before him to claim the crown – this despite frantic promotional activity by the group and as many favours as they could manage called in to ensure their perfect chart record was not to be spoiled. In the end though this stands proud as the first true chart failure of their career, although a Number 2 hit at Christmas and a three month chart run after that is hardly something to sneer at. Notwithstanding the rather curious way all their singles flew to Number One with limp sales after never meeting any substantial competition along the way, the worst thing you could say about all their early work was that they were essentially the same lavish ballad reworked in different ways each time. Westlife only really had one song, but as I was at pains to point out, it was at the very least a good song until the point we all got tired of hearing it.

38: Girls@Play – Airhead

For every pop act which hits the dizzy heights of stardom, there are generally three more who fell by the wayside and are all but forgotten by musical history. For the lucky few there are at least some minor chart entries with which they have made their mark on posterity. Five piece girl group Girls@Play were the creations of Mike Stock and Matt Aitken and with a series of individual fashion gimmicks and what was hoped were an appealing set of songs they were launched on an unsuspecting public in early 2001 after a series of low level support slots for the likes of Steps the previous winter. Their debut single ‘Airhead’ (which I actually think was rather underrated even then – it is a long way from being as offensively bad as it could have been) was released in mid-February and stumbled to a slightly disappointing Number 18, causing a pause for a rethink until later that autumn. When their second single, a cover of the old Mel and Kim track ‘Respectable’ bombed out at Number 29 in October inevitably the entire project was canned before they had even got as far as scheduling an album.

The last remaining legacy of Girls@Play is the fact that amongst their number was Rita “Roxy Mitchell” Simons, although a quick search for the remaining four members shows that most have continued in showbusiness in one form or another. Vicky Dowdall currently runs music management company VDM Music, Lynsey Shaw lives in Los Angeles hosting burlesque nights and continuing to pursue her singing career and Shelley Nash refocused on her classic training and works as a wedding singer in the London area. Only Lisa-Jayne White appears to have dropped off the radar performing-wise. Not a bad strike rate all things considered.

Pretty face but a head full of air

37: U2 – Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Fresh from collecting an Outstanding Contribution gong at the 2001 Brits, U2 continued their back to basis renaissance with the second single from the ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ album. A mellow gospel-tinged ballad which called back to Bono’s sense of loss after learning of the death of Michael Hutchence, it was a worthy addition to the canon of most memorable U2 singles. Such was their newly renewed commercial power at this point, the track managed to sidestep the usual “second release from a band whose fans already have the album anyway” and the single shot to Number 2 upon release in early February 2001. Granted it was still a rather in and out chart performance (this Number 37 was a dead cat bounce up from 40 on its fifth week on the Top 40), but can you really argue that this wasn’t a worthy contender as one of their highest charting hit ever?

36: Rui Da Silva featuring Cassandra – Touch Me

The man who had the honour of becoming the first ever Portuguese star to top the charts was producer Rui Da Silva. A winsome blend of trance and deep house, the track ‘Touch Me’ was crafted around a sample from Spandau Ballet’s ‘Chant No.1’, something which caused a minor legal scuffle just before the single came out when it was discovered that no clearance had been obtained for this borrowing. Released as part of the usual batch of new year hopefuls, the single stood out as the best of the post-Christmas crumbs and bagged itself a week at the top of the charts in early January. Singer Cassandra Fox was more than just the hired help, writing the lyrics herself and subsequently finding herself on top of the charts. Deciding that dance music wasn’t her thing really she subsequently set out on her own yet met with rather limited success.

35: Spooks – Things I’ve Seen

If you believe in musical evolution, then The Spooks are technically the missing link between the Fugees and the Black Eyed Peas, for a brief period threatening to take the music style of the former to exciting new levels. The hip-hop and soul collective were based out of Philadelphia and after a shaky start hit commercial paydirt with the evocative and incredibly well crafted ‘Things I’ve Seen’, the second single taken from their debut album ‘S.I.O.S.O.S.’ and one which featured on the soundtrack of the Laurence Fishburne film ‘Once In The Life’. The track made a comfortable Number 6 upon release in January 2001 and was swiftly followed by the Number 15 hit ‘Karma Hotel’ although the album itself only made a minor sales impact. After their second album was largely ignored and following the death of founder member Water Water in a car crash around the same time, Spooks quietly disbanded. For apparently random reasons their flop second album is available in full on the Spotify catalogue whilst their hit first one isn’t. Have the video instead.

34: Usher – Pop Ya Collar

Whilst his career now effectively spans three decades (with a chart-topping single in each), this single was at the time a welcome comeback for R&B star Usher who had made a huge impact with his debut hit album (although it was actually his second to be released) ‘My Way’ and chart-topping single ‘You Make Me Wanna’. The three year wait for a follow-up was entirely down to his burgeoning acting career as Hollywood (and TV soap operas) came calling. Returning to the recording studio he appeared to have picked up where he left off when ‘Pop Ya Collar’ shot to Number 2 in the UK. In America however the single underperformed, and after an early version of the album was leaked online it was swiftly retooled with some brand new tracks added. ‘8701’ was finally released later that summer and became the first of Usher’s three Number One albums. Little did we know he was still only just getting started.

33: Safri Duo – Played-A-Live (The Bongo Song)

Sometimes the biggest hits aren’t the most obvious. The Safri Duo were percussionists Uffe Savery and Morten Friis who had been recording classically-themed albums in their native country for much of the 1990s. Having been informed they could make a killing by making club tracks they created the Bongo Song which received a rapturous reception when issued to club DJs in early 2000. Upon commercial release the frantic instrumental track became an inevitable Europe-wide smash and needless to say formed part of the soundtrack to just about every major event over the course of the next 12 months, from the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games onwards. A British release for the track came rather late in the day but that did little to stop it racing to a Number 6 peak in early February. Despite further releases over the course of the next decade, they remain one hit wonders as far as the UK is concerned.

32: Nelly – EI

The second UK hit for rapper Nelly, following up ‘Country Grammar’ which had made Number 7 late in 2000 and helped the album of the same name into the Top 20 upon its release. With many of Nelly’s later singles going on to bigger and better things (he would have two Number One hits to his name before the decade was out) his early work is oddly reduced to little more than a footnote, tracks like ‘EI’ all but forgotten. Or maybe that is just me caring as little for it now as I did back then.

31: Fragma featuring Maria Rubia – Everytime You Need Me

We finish this batch of ten singles with the track which returned Fragma to the charts under their own steam after they had a surprised but no less welcome Number One in spring 2000 with pioneering mash-up single ‘Toca’s Miracle’. Clearly the success of that track persuaded the German producers that a powerful female vocal over their trance noodlings means commercial paydirt, hence the recruitment of British model Maria Rubia for the vocals on this Top 3 hit which neatly coincided with the release of Fragma’s one and only hit album ‘Toca’ which reached Number 19 in late January. Rubia made a brief attempt at a solo career of her own later in 2001, limping to Number 40 with ‘Say It’ before vanishing from sight altogether.

70 Seconds To Define An Ambition

imageIt appears to be one of the great all but forgotten TV shows, untroubled by an endless cycle of syndicated repeats on high numbered satellite channels and undisturbed by opportunistic DVD box sets which end their life piled high near the checkouts in HMV at Christmas with stickers advertising a 70% discount on their originally listed price. Yet for some of us the late 1980s American TV show Midnight Caller retains a resonance which to this day has echoes in everything we do. OK then, to me it does.

First aired by NBC in America at the tail end of 1988 and picked up by the BBC who flung it out on Saturday evenings starting in spring 1989, the show told the tale of Jack Killian, a San Francisco policeman who had quit after the accidental death of his partner and reinvented himself as a late-night radio talk show host, taking calls from the public from midnight to 3am on radio station KJCM and in the process becoming embroiled in the very social issues his listeners were bringing to his attention.

The show lasted for three series before finally being cancelled as plot lines span out of control in an increasing spiral of silliness, but in its early years the show attracted huge praise for the depth of its approach and its willingness to portray issues such as stalking or even AIDS in such an uncompromising manner.

For a teenager whose mind had already generated the spark of an idea that what he really wanted to do above all else in life was to work on the radio it was naturally even more than that. Here was a TV hero who was living your own dreams, paid to do everything you yourself had dreamed of and living a lifestyle that seemed so impossibly glamorous and yet tantalisingly within reach.

Precious little of Midnight Caller exists on YouTube, unless you count a seemingly random selection of episode highlights dubbed into Japanese, but really the (admittedly rather cheaply made) opening titles are all that is required to bring the memories flooding back. They last 70 seconds, but the images they contain helped to define just why I wanted this kind of life for myself, even if the reality is sometimes slightly less gleaming.

First there was the theme tune, written and performed by Jazz trumpeter Rick Braun. A none more 80s smooth jazz piece led by the muted tones of the man himself underscored by a saxophone and steel guitar backing. Think Dire Strait’s ‘Your Latest Trick’ with added east coast authenticity Intended to conjure up the late night mood of the protagonist’s shows, to me it was always the soundtrack to my dream lifestyle. When I grew up I was going to live in a sleek modern apartment, furnished in black and with giant plate glass windows that looked out onto a gleaming cityscape below. My hifi would glow with precision LED and neon lights and every evening I’d be the King of all I surveyed.

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Then there was Jack himself, played with career-defining aplomb by Gary Cole (years before all this Brady Bunch or Office Space nonsense). No cluttered desk for him, his working environment was defined by a man illuminated by a spotlight with few tools except for a handful of computer screens and his wits. The producers could never quite decide exactly how it was he communicated with the San Francisco audience and so he would alternate between staring down the barrel of a condenser microphone or wander around the room staring wistfully out of the window whilst addressing the headset device he is also depicted wearing here.

Years later I sat in the same kind of seat as he and contemplated the reality of the situation. Radio studios get as cluttered as everywhere else. Old scripts, yesterday’s newspapers and the coffee mugs left by the breakfast show. Microphones don’t float tantalisingly in mid-air but wobble on creaking anglepoises or heaven forbid goosenecks and the closest you get to a flashy headset is the frayed pair of DT100s which the engineers has screwed into place to prevent them going walkies.

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Naturally being the product of a TV producer’s imagination, Jack Killian’s studio was the embodiment of how everyone imagined a radio studio should look. Walls were adorned with thrilling looking equipment, each with buttons which illuminated the gloom. Lights would wink on and off and giant tape spools would whir around for what to the casual viewer might appear to be no apparent reason. The message however was clear, a radio station was a busy, active place to be with a fragile existence which could only be sustained by a bank of gadgetry.

Whilst a real life radio studio might indeed have its fair share of equipment, it generally attracts dust in the manner which electrical items generally do. Banks of equipment with exciting looking switches do exist, but they are tucked away in a plant room elsewhere in the building (although sometimes placed in a glass fronted cabinet and made the focal point of reception). Jack just didn’t know how lucky he was.

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As a talk show host (curiously on a radio station which played music the rest of the time – rigid formatting clearly having not reached San Francisco in 1988) Jack had the privilege of his own producer Billy. His work was possibly even more exciting than that of his boss. He sat in his own room, surrounded by a giant console of equipment along with TV monitors and tape players. He had his own line in extravagant hand gestures as illustrated above.

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As producer, Billy was special. He actually got to press some of the magical buttons, tap at the dials and generally know what it all did. Frequently namechecked by the host, he was there as part of a double act and always made sure Jack knew it.

Years later I was to become Billy. I was the producer to the late night talk show host. I don’t get to make hand gestures and live in constant fear of having to tinker with any of the other studio gadgets. My life generally consists of grumpily telling presenters in full flow that it is time to break, that finishing your speech any later than the time I’ve put in front of you means the news starts late and sometimes taking the flack for when the highly trained individual in front of the microphone has said something stupid. There is however one job I’ve done which is at the core of Billy’s existence: the call screening.

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Thanks to Midnight Caller this is how I imagined it would be. A sophisticated looking console into which the details of all the volunteering participants to tonight’s broadcast would be entered, giving the host a delectable menu from which to select. Even the screenshot used in the opening titles is tantalising… who knows what the “Law Stuff” Mike in Concord wants to discuss is. Don in Novato is discussing “murder”, is he reporting one or about to commit one (both were perfectly plausible MC plotlines incidentally). Better yet Frank in Marin may be a “serial killer”, or again wants to just talk about one. Most intriguingly of all Josh in South San Francisco has an open topic whilst Nick in Oakland is either in the process of being screened or even Billy cannot work out what he is on about.

Strangely enough one of the first jobs I ever did in professional radio (in the being paid to do it sense) was as producer/call screener on a local radio phone in. I was kind of gutted that the level of sophistication illustrated above simply didn’t exist at that level. Instead I’d scribble the names and numbers of callers down on pre-printed grid before promising to call them back. Once done I’d whisper on the talkback to the presenter “Terry, Halifax, line 5” and she would write the detail down accordingly. Calls were lined up in pairs – one to air, one on hold in an endless stream until the small hours.

This is actually one aspect of the job where things have moved on in a manner far beyond that which any TV producer could have imagined. This was my view on Saturday night when due to staff incompetence I was filling the phone operators chair at work.

phoneboard

No text based system this. Now I have an exciting graphical display showing not only the callers details but which even looks up where they are for me based on their telephone number. I can see how long they have been online for, who has been there the longest and at a single click can even refer back to their previous contributions to the radio station and to check the points they have made in the past. That I think is progress.

I’ve been privileged over the years to work on many late night radio shows of the kind Jack Killian used to host. On the inside it doesn’t feel quite as glamorous as the TV made it, there are no windows looking out onto neon soaked city skylines, no new adventures lurking behind each new voice taken to air and as we step outside our nondescript brick building onto the South Bank backstreet which houses the offices it can sometimes seem like just a job rather than the rather evocative fantasy which TV helped to create.

Even so, every time I turn on a microphone and make an exciting red light come alive, every time I gaze at a screen with the name of some person I will never meet and never know but whose innermost thoughts I am about to be subjected to for the next five minutes, every time I hear the highly paid host through the glass in front of me say something which may resonate deeply with someone clinging to the radio for some kind of life comfort I am still living the dream, still drinking in the Midnight Caller lifestyle. Those 70 seconds still define my life, and I am incredibly glad that they do.