Greetings, Pop Pickers, Radio 2, Tuesday
The Essay, Radio 3, Monday to Friday
There's nothing quite like a bit of Fluff with your records
Sunday 02 October 2011
It's not overstating the case to say that Alan Freeman's four-decade tenure of Pick of the Pops was the making of pop radio. Some of you may feel that's not necessarily a good thing, but however you feel about modern DJs, Fluff created the template.
Tim Rice's Greetings, Pop Pickers wasn't just the story of a programme and its presenter; it registered the changing times – you could feel the Sixties starting to happen, Freeman picking up the giddy pace of the new era. Early on (it started in 1955), with Alan Dell and then David Jacobs, it felt like Radio 3 with pop platters, even after Freeman took over in 1961.
If Fluff dragged British pop radio into the modern world, it wasn't simply by talking faster and getting more excited than his predecessors. Like most BBC music shows of the time, the early Picks were scripted – you can hear it in the delivery – but with the advent of Radio 1 the DJs were finally trusted to open their mouths without shocking the nation (Russell Brand wasn't even born, remember).
As well as that, engineers had always put the records on, leaving a slight gap between voice and disc; from 1967 on, it was all self-opping – DJs putting on their own records, pushing their own buttons, cueing their own jingles – which meant that sharp timing kept the programmes rattling along. And Freeman was the master, playing the desk like Rick Wakeman on his banked keyboards.
Paul Gambaccini gave a heartfelt analysis of what made Freeman the uber-DJ: "I found it thrilling to hear him do things no one had ever done before," he said, "using records as elements of grammar: a short verbal from himself, and then the record was either the answer to his question or was the next part of the sentence."
Before coming over here from Australia Freeman had wanted to be an opera singer, and for Gambaccini that was crucial: "He said, 'What if I put myself at the service of the music and adjust to the tempo, the crescendo and diminuendo?' He was ... using his voice to convey information, but also to pace a programme, to move it along, and he became one with the records."
This sounded like gushing pretention, until, with new ears, you listened to a clip of Freeman at work, hearing his – not too strong a word – virtuosity. The pop chart rundown in his hands became a thrilling ride, like the downhill ski racing at the winter Olympics.
Tony Blackburn now fronts Pick – which, given that he clearly modelled himself on Fluff, is entirely appropriate. I doubt that either of them ever played anything by Percy Grainger, except in some parallel universe. The Essay spent the week examining his life and music, and it's hard to decide which was the more extraordinary.
On Monday, the composer James Anderson gave a superb overview that was also a plea for Grainger to be installed in his rightful place as one of the musical giants of the 20th century. His was a music of extremes – "if it was happy, then it was extremely happy, if it was dissonant, then it was radically dissonant" – and if you've never heard Grainger, Anderson's encomium did a fine job of attempting to ensure that you rectify that forthwith.
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