Media: How the BBC dug for rock and struck gold

The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, DLT: the BBC had them all, and never gave it a second thought. Until now...
Anyone who is anyone in rock music has done a session at the BBC. A massive archive now exists of Radio 1 sessions, and last week I joined the team that has been uncovering, cataloguing and preserving this rock'n'roll heaven. Among the more than 55,000 boxes of five-inch reels which they are excavating are some real gems; the session the Beatles did four months before they signed with EMI, Jimi Hendrix jamming with Stevie Wonder on drums and a Gladys Knight gig with Jimmy Page as a session guitarist.

The archive also contains a recording of the second ever Rolling Stones session. It seems that no one bothered to keep a copy of the first one, since they actually failed the audition in 1963. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman were not able to be at that one, for fear of losing their day jobs. But producer Bernie Andrews got the band together again that autumn by booking the individuals from the group as session musicians to back Bo Diddley. They then recorded a full session which was submitted to the audition panel.

Things were only slightly less complicated for U2's first session 19 years ago. They at least managed to all be there at the same time, if not quite the same place. The session was recorded at the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester and while it was being set up, Bono was moving around the theatre trying to find the most acoustically favourable spot. Eventually someone told him there was a room which the opera company used as an echo chamber. Pleased with the effect, they wired him for sound in there. Thus, the vocals were recorded from a disused gents' at the back of the hall.

If you missed any or all of these historic moments the first time around, don't worry. As part of the BBC's new Digital Radio service, it hopes to be able to dust off these treasures and give them another airing on their proposed new station which has not yet been given a name, but is described as an "album and archive station". Which is really just another way of saying a celebration of all the best music and interviews with bands that have shaped the latter half of this century.

These tapes were not preserved without a battle. BBC Digital's Managing Editor, Glyn Jones, says: "In the Sixties and Seventies there wasn't a view that pop music was as important to preserve as say, the Opening of Parliament. Luckily, many of the producers at the time were undertaking a kind of guerrilla activity of compiling things anyway, and today a huge debt is owed to those who stashed tapes away."

Before sorting and cataloguing the archives, someone had to track the recordings down and bring them together in one place. Phil Lawton from the BBC Sound Archives was invited by Radio 1 to come and have a look at a room full of randomly boxed reels of tape. In Lawton they had found the perfect combination of fanatical music lover and archivist. Since 1987 he has managed to coax the guerrillas out of the hills and compile a collection of more than 55,000 tapes. He admits it was not always easy to win the trust of producers, who had to be talked into handing over priceless recordings.

Advances in digital technology meant that the BBC would soon be in a position to capitalise on the phenomenal resources offered by the archive. A decision was then taken to develop a new database which would be an all-singing all-dancing version of Radio 1's system. Since July 1998, a considerable amount of research has gone into cataloguing the archives in a format that radio producers can readily access.

Although all concerned insist that the archive work has been driven purely by a desire to offer a wider range of stations and to cater for wider tastes, it is difficult not to see it in the context of the nostalgia boom surrounding the Millennium.

In one wonderful interview, Swedish journalist Klaus Burling asks Hendrix about plucking his guitar strings with his teeth and whether or not he is locking himself into a practice that fans will come to expect. Hendrix laughs and admits that this is something he only does when he feels like it and he hopes his fans will accept this. The magic of this segment is Hendrix's unabashed and gentle charm; he has an audible warmth and kindness about him.

There is certainly a rich seam here for future decades to mine. The archives contain many sessions which pre-date the first hits of some of the big bands of the Eighties and Nineties, including Nirvana, Pulp, Mercury Rev, The Smiths, Teardrop Explodes and Happy Mondays. Nor are they without their strange-but-true elements. Tapes of Simon Mayo's series "God of the week" contain a spooky interview with Michael Hutchence. Mayo asks him who he would like to have beside him on a cloud when he dies and he replies: "Princess Diana." They both died not long after.

The interviews are an invaluable resource. John Lennon's last interview never fails to move and it is fascinating, in a very different way, to listen to John Tobler's interview with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Sid is eating copiously throughout the interview and conspicuous visceral effort is going into projecting those chewing sounds. Through the munching you can hear him muffling a laugh as he realises how obnoxious this must sound. Tobler asks them about the controversial decision not to include B-sides on "Never Mind The Bollocks". Rotten retorts that they were available as singles and if people had wanted them, they had their chance. "We've got our copies." Sid snorts food in agreement.

Then there's a truly bizarre interview as Andy Batten-Foster invites heavy-metal hero, Thor, the self-proclaimed "Evil Knievel of Rock" to perform his party piece of blowing up a hot-water bottle until it explodes live on air. Batten-Foster asks Thor how long the process will take, and Thor candidly explains: "You never know. I just hope it doesn't damage any of your equipment when it goes." Over a background of huffing and puffing, Batten-Foster describes the producer and sound engineers vacating the studio. Gradually, the wheezing and blowing begins to take on the timbre of a death rattle, and you can hear Batten-Foster's increasing apprehension: "The tension is ridiculous." The explosion, makes me jump. Batten-Foster regains his composure and asks Thor for a comment, he gasps for breath but his revelation is worth the wait. "That's how I get my highs," he says. "The whole room is spinning. I really believe in my music." It may not be art, but it's brilliant radio.

The presenters too have their moments. Dave Lee Travis's snooker-style quiz is a treasure. DLT asks the contestant: "Which instrument does the leader of a symphony orchestra play?" Without missing a beat, the answer comes: "A baton." At which point DLT is overcome with laughter to the point where he is unable to carry on with the show. He fights helplessly to gain control and nearly gets there, as he tells the contestant: "When I write my book this is going to be in there. The answer is a violin." DLT then manages to start asking the next contestant a question before losing it completely and calling for Mick the producer to come out of the booth and take over. Mick's panic is audible as he asks: "Are we on air?"