Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Young Girl Shall Lead Them: Millie Small: "My Boy Lollipop"

Where there is a will (and some willing backers) there is a way; and so it was that pirate radio began, Radio Caroline the rebellious daughter playing her records just loud enough off the southern English coast to get the attention of not just the aforementioned bored teenagers but their moms as well. It all started when one man couldn't get his artist (Georgie Fame) on to the playlist at Radio Luxembourg; he got an old passenger ferry and rigged it up to be a floating station, complete with places for the DJs and staff to eat, hang out, and sleep (as best they could).

The monotony of British state radio was broken up, as suddenly pop was available not just for an hour but all day, and into the night. The effect on the charts was not immediately apparent; but here we are in May of '64 and all of a sudden there is a veritable English civil war going on between the government's idea of proper music (Vera Lynn, Mr. Acker Bilk) and what the public wanted to hear. (This is also when the old-school Rockers and the hip young Mods had a huge and in some ways parallel fight, the Mods being the pirate stations, of course.)

The old order was indeed being challenged and millions listened to Caroline and others as they sprang up around the coast; and this song was the first proof of their power. It is a song as sweet and swinging as the object of Millie's affections - and importantly for this blog, it's not from the US or UK but Jamaica. The wave of late 50s immigrants brought their music with them - bluebeat, ska - and with this massive hit pop music in the UK essentially changed overnight, even if the musicians themselves didn't always prosper. Was the UK ready for a different beat*? OH yes it was, and Caroline was instrumental in getting this heard and thus giving the fledgling Island label its sea legs. The kids and moms (not to mention Mods) were most definitely alright. Would the government find a way to fight back? Soon, but not this year...

*Late in '64 The Beatles showed their effortless cool in picking up ska and doing it their way; it would take reggae to bring a lot of other UK musicians into the Jamaican groove.


Robin Carmody said...

This was the song that inspired a young David Rodigan - 13 years old, in the middle of Oxfordshire, his life until then very much Hitchens Minor's "very last years of an older Britain" now crashing into Charles Loft's "death of rural England" - to make the decisive *entry to a new world*. Half a century on, he is *finally* where he always should have been, on national public radio (small letters throughout) - it has taken this long for the concept of public service to be fully modernised.

I'm not the Stalinist I was on offshore radio; I've come to separate the message from the medium, and recognise that the old public culture had its own faults, a dangerous separation of responsibilities and duties. But the theme of this entry certainly sets the song up as the beginning of the faultline within the Left which would decisively break open four years later.

Robin Carmody said...

I fear this won't be the case (the Left-liberal media very often pretends that until Cameron - and some of them insist even after him - everyone on the Right believed absolutely and unswervingly in the primacy of classical music over all other forms whereas nobody on the Left did, a Big Lie which avoids their confronting certain inconvenient truths) but the Long Read in next Monday's Guardian (50th anniversary of the MOA) really should be: "Ever wondered why Labour, even under its current leadership, hasn't re-invoked the spirit of the Arts Council and the Third Programme any more than it did under Blair? This is why ..."

Psychologically, the MOA haunts the Labour Party still, and is the reason why the grip of the cultural Left and economic Right (as opposed to the cultural Right and economic Left which dominated the post-war consensus) is, in terms of broadcasting policy at least, no weaker under Corbyn than it was under the leaderships of the previous 20 years. Certainly, I'd be astounded if Corbyn *didn't* know someone, at school or university, who was inspired by Wilson's modernity rhetoric at 14 but ended up voting Tory at 21 because of it. Obviously Corbyn himself wouldn't have done that, but knowing people who did is an overwhelming, overriding factor in having been born in 1949 in Britain, just as knowing people who were inspired by Blair's modernity rhetoric at 14 but ended up loathing him fervently (again, even if you didn't yourself take that path) is an equally overwhelming and overriding factor in being my age, 30-odd years younger. I don't think it's even possible to be a British babyboomer and not to have known at least one person who took the path I've described. And you see the echoes - the absolute desperation and fervour that nothing comparable should ever happen to Labour again - in Corbyn's tributes to Bowie & George Michael, his association with JME, his appearance at Glastonbury. That is probably a far greater tribute to offshore radio's influence than its influence on Blair, Corbyn's other views being so much further from those of Oliver Smedley.

The thing about offshore radio is that a great many of its DJs were impeccably middle-class and were in that respect attracted to it at least partially because of its challenge to the post-war consensus. I often think that Smashie & Nicey stand comparison to the famous Beyond the Fringe sketch 'The Aftermyth of War' in that they made it much harder to take a whole way of speaking seriously; Blackburn et al had been brought up to speak very much in the manner which is pilloried in that sketch (and had obviously lost much of its credibility because of Suez, Profumo etc.) and now found they could not be taken seriously, so adopted a new manner of speaking which was itself, ultimately, mocked in a similar way. Horrible to bring a certain child molester from Leeds into it, but his natural accent had had its credibility enhanced by the 1960s, so the fact that he could speak as he was brought up to speak on TOTP/Radio 1 more easily than DJs from middle-class, public school backgrounds could was the first time it had ever been that way round on the BBC, and now of course it is that way round in quite a few other aspects of BBC output. Westwood, obviously, is the sole bridge between it and the second great wave of unlicensed UK broadcasting, which finally broke through in terms of number one and number two singles at the turn of the century, then got pushed back underground again, but happily not forever.