The week in radio: Underground classics still hit the high notes

  • @FionaSturges

In the early years of rock'n'roll, any young British musician hoping to make their mark on the world relied on radio to get them to the top. And when I say radio, of course I mean the BBC. Because, whether you were accustomed to playing to one man and his dog in a suburban boozer, or packing them in at the 100 Club, it was there that the "arbiters of musical propriety", as Pete Paphides called them in Radio 4's Auditioning for Auntie, got the final word as to whether your music would be heard by the masses.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, scores of extraordinary auditions took place in front of cloth-eared BBC wonks who, I like to imagine, all looked like Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served?, but considerably less hip. Or maybe X Factor's Louis Walsh.

Paphides's investigation – a one-off, sadly, though I'd gladly listen to him snuffling around in dusty BBC basements on a weekly basis – found him trundling off to the Written Archive Centre in Caversham in Berkshire, which contains all the BBC's surviving paper documents from 1922 to the present day. There, amid the acres of curling brown regulation BBC folders, he uncovered a fascinating parallel history of the British rock'n'roll explosion that had less to do with demented teens screaming themselves silly than greying men (and only the occasional woman) in dandruff-flecked lab coats clinically assessing the merits of the Marc Bolan and the Rolling Stones.

The most startling part of all this was that these "talent selection panels", antique before their time, were allowed to make the decisions about the music made by youngsters whom they mostly viewed with a mixture of bafflement and disdain.

Paphides talked to an effects engineer who would become a pop music bigwig in the Sixties, and who recalled that one of his colleagues had made his name by writing a book called Poultry-Keeping for Profit. These people were not, it's safe to say, down with the kids.

Leafing through acres of paperwork, Paphides found a letter written by the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones politely asking for an interview. It was granted but, following their audition, the band was turned down (their second attempt, of which the recording is still intact, was more successful). He also found handwritten files on Nick Drake who had "an attractive vocal quality, somewhat reminiscent of Donovan"; on David Bowie who was "useful and reasonably small"; on Marc Bolan who was "crap"; and on Elton John who was deemed to have "pretentious material, self-written, sung in an extremely dull fashion without any feeling and precious little musical ability". How completely glorious.

It's easy now to poke fun at the BBC's fustiness and lack of foresight but it's worth remembering that many of these bands were far from fully formed. More alarming was their monopoly on new music, which would now be viewed as beyond the pale.

Auditioning for Auntie was essentially about buried treasure, an archaeological excursion into our cultural backstory, and it was really rather wonderful. Paphides's astonishment at his findings was touching. As a music journalist first and foremost, he was in a nerd's paradise. It was as if he had just been given a tour Tutankhamun's tomb and told to go ahead and have a rummage.

These are the programmes that radio does best – shows with oddball themes that shine a light on previously neglected pockets of history and which might easily have sat in the vaults for another 50 years. The BBC has a lot of secrets, not all of them pleasant, but these were certainly worth celebrating.