It started with “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites” on a Saturday morning. The presenter was Derek McCulloch and he started the programme with “Hello children everywhere”. It was essential listening with a chance to hear “Sparky’s Magic Piano” or “The Ugly Duckling”. When my sister had tonsillitis, she had her name read out on the radio, much to her continual pleasure. In late 1961, Alan Freeman introduced “Pick Of The Pops” on a Sunday evening so this was the family’s chance to hear Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro.
The advent of the pirate radio stations in the Spring of 1964 was a life changing event. We mainly listened to Radio London on 266m on the Medium Wave. This was when I started to listen to disc jockeys – before then I listened to presenters. Tony Blackburn was a favourite because he told good jokes (I was ten years old) but I also loved Dave Cash and Kenny Everett. Their shows overlapped every day between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm when they presented “The Kenny Cash Show”. This was my introduction to “zany humour”. John Peel also played some great music and I can remember him saying with great authority that John and Paul were singing on “We Love You” by The Rolling Stones, the first time he played it.
I can’t remember the first time I ever heard “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but it might have been on Radio London because they got an early version of the album on May 12th 1967, twenty days before its official release date.
Obviously, Tony Benn was a great man and his judgements were always sound but I never forgave him when, as Postmaster General, he forced the closure of all the pirate radio stations apart from Radio Caroline which carried on illegally. I can clearly recall my sadness on August 14th 1967 when Paul Kaye announced “Big L time is three o’clock and Radio London is now closing down”. It was the first real bereavement-like feeling I experienced when something I loved was taken away from me. Or maybe it was the second time as this was a year after the family had moved to Kent, away from all my friends, including Peter.
I switched my allegiance to Radio Caroline and became a big fan of Johnnie Walker whose evening programme from 9:00 p.m. until midnight became essential listening. Moored off the coast of Frinton, he would communicate with people in their cars by asking “yes/no” questions to which they would flash their headlights – once for yes and twice for no. Every evening at 11:00 p.m. he would play “Warm And Tender Loving” by Percy Sledge.
These days, I don’t listen to music on the radio. I tell myself that I don’t have enough time to listen to the music I’ve chosen for myself let alone the music someone else might have chosen. I guess that’s quite arrogant.
The proper attitude to adopt nowadays is to vilify Jimmy Saville and to revere Alan Freeman but in the Sixties, I disliked them both equally. I think it was because neither of them had come from the pirate radio stations. Both seemed older and with a particular false persona that I didn’t like. On the other hand, Alan Freeman was clearly a music lover and he had a Saturday afternoon rock show. One Saturday, most probably in October 1969, the family was driving home from an afternoon’s
torture shopping and as we pulled into the drive of the house, eager to wait for my Mum to prepare delicious sardines on toast, I can clearly remember listening to the title track from this album. It was so different, so wondrous and so exciting that it seemed to encapsulate the potential for underground progressive music at the time. I didn’t buy the album because I was fifteen and catching up with The Moody Blues’ back catalogue was expensive enough but I was thrilled that “21st Century Schizoid Man” was on the “Nice Enough To Eat” sampler that I bought for only 14/6 (72.5 p).
Bearing my divided loyalties in mind, it’s interesting (to me, anyway) that King Crimson attempted to record this album with Tony Clarke who was The Moody Blues’ producer but it didn’t work out so they produced the album themselves.
This album is adventurous, way ahead of its time, musically excellent and Mike Barnes, in his overview of Progressive Rock, “A New Day Yesterday”, calls “21st Century Schizoid Man” “progressive rock’s firstborn”. Here are some random thoughts about this masterpiece.
About a quarter of the album consists of free improvisation. “Moonchild” is often overlooked but most of its 12 minutes consists of “a subdued impressionistic landscape” consisting of guitar, vibraphone and drums.
“Epitaph”, my favourite song on the album comprises lyrics that describe a not too distant dystopian future in which we are all in “the hands of fools”. No comment. This was a move away from lyrics about love, drugs or day-to-day existence to wider (more far fetched?) issues.
The “tutti” section of “21st Century Schizoid Man“ which appears after remarkable solos by Robert Fripp on guitar and Ian McDonald on saxophone was played live by all members of the group. The musicianship and synchronous empathy required to do that beggars belief.
“I Talk To The Wind” features beautiful flute playing by Ian McDonald and dexterous drumming by Michael Giles but Greg Lake’s singing, for once, let’s him down.
The title track makes extensive use of a mellotron played by Ian McDonald. The nature of the instrument meant that an effect not dissimilar to a wheezing whistling wind is added to the sound landscape which contrasts wonderfully well with the quieter flute solos and the lovely vocals. The fantasy world of Pete Sinfield’s lyrics are summoned up by the combination of harmonies, mellotron and the expansive drumming of Michael Giles.
I can’t possibly do justice to the grandeur and imagination of the five songs on this ground breaking album. It sounds as fresh today as it did on the radio of my Dad’s Hillman Minx in 1969.