One Man's Meat
It's angry time with violent John Morrish. This month's target: 'disc jockeys'. Brace yourself.
Every disc jockey's ambition is to become the dreaded 'pop personality'. What about music, asks John Morrish?
No-one likes to see a species disappear. Ask David Attenborough. But when the time finally comes for the loathsome thing they call the pop personality to shuffle off like the Dodo there will be few mourners.
I'm prompted to these thoughts by events over the last few weeks. There's the re-shuffle of that sad orphan they call Radio One, the arrival of a TV pop show that manages quite well without any sort of presenter, and advance warning of the return of Max Headroom, quite definitely a pop personality for our age.
Let's take Radio One. What a sad excuse for a radio station. It still has a defiantly Sixties air to it, like The Day Auntie Got A Bee-Hive. The trouble is, just as Radio One gets itself together, finding a style, somebody else comes along and changes the rules. First it was 'independent' (or rather, commercial) radio, especially Capital. Then it was the return of the pirates, specifically the soporific Laser, a station that played continuous slabs of AOR by virtue of its lack of a needle-time agreement.
Needle-time has always been the BBC's problem with Radio One, and it doesn't have the option of ignoring it. Here's a station which broadcasts for about 130 hours a week with a needle-time agreement allowing it to play 75 hours of music. And it's an all-music station.
Somehow that gap's got to be made up, so, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the disc jockey. Because that's the job description: filling in the gaps. Anything else, like telling us about the music, is secondary. And it sounds like it.
In response to Laser and others like it, Radion One's new controller Johnny Geering has instituted a "more pop, less prattle" policy. Not for the first time, I hear you say. That means good-bye to the garrulous, egotistical Mike Read, whose interest in his own stardom tended in the latter part of his reign to swamp his much-touted love of music. He hasn't been chastened by this reverse. I heard him one Sunday telling his hapless listeners about his performance in the dentists' Smile Of The Year competition.
Instead we get the meek Mike Smith ("bring on Mike Flex, Mike Channel and Mike Hunt," demands this Radio Four fan) whose idea of personal charm is mispronouncing the clues in his own dreary phone-in quiz. Last week he made "Lutherans" rhyme with "Barbarians".
When he isn't doing that, he's reading out bits from the Daily Express (reproduction fee paid, I hope) and inviting people to phone in and say nothing interesting about them. "Controversial stuff," he says, optimistically, before asking for views on "music in factories" (for) and "male childbearing" (against).
On the other hand, the one area where these people really fall down is the area where they're supposed to be earning their living. I mean music. Maybe you can remember when they abolished The Playlist. It seemed like the beginning of a new age for musicians. No more would radio be in the hands of the wealthy few. Producers and DJs could pick any record they liked and plug it as much as they liked. A great chance for talent to come through.
So much for the theory. In practice, the lists the DJs and producers made for themselves were more narrow than the old play-list had been. So much for expertise. Now they've re-introduced The Playlist as the only way of ensuring that a range of music gets played. Who'd have thought it?
One other effect of this tiny palace revolution is that the DJs have been told to lay off plugging themselves and to start plugging the station. The Mike Read jingles have been laid to rest and out come all the hoary Radio One cartridges. But this body-blow to the personality cult won't stop the rise of the Personality. Because now there's TV.
The art of being a radio personality has nothing to do with personality in the conventional sense, ie an entity with consistent opinions, emotions and history. It's more a question of having a few consistent catch-phrases ("Not 'alf', "Whip Out My 12-incher" etc) and verbal tics. The idea is that people will recognise you when they switch on, even in the few seconds before you play your identifying jingle.
For television, this is a bit redundant. Instead you want visual catchphrases, if you like. For instance, think of poor old Noel Edmonds, condemned to lug round that 1971 hairstyle until it drops out (or even longer). And if its instant visual recognition you want, well, there are two choices: a "robot" presenter, or no presenter at ell.
Yes, I know that Max Headroom isn't a robot, but he might just as well be. The big joke is that Max is quite cheerful about the fact that he's interested only in golf and not music. Funny: but only a period that finds its music less interesting than golf (certainly than snooker) would have invented him. And here's the punch-line: the 'new' series features all-new videos but the same links. So much for the art of the presenter.
But it's when they look at "The Chart Show" on Channel Four that the pop personalities feel the chill breath of the Grim Reaper upon their necks.
Anybody who's ever watched the much-touted video channel Music Box will know how ridiculous it looks when the glossy expensive video ends and we find ourselves back with a couple of bored presenters in what looks like a broom cupboard.
"The Chart Show" does away with all that, in favour of some tacky "computer" graphics laid over a series of videos spliced together end-to-end. Untouched by human hand. And if that is the shape of things to come, isn't it what the pop personalities deserve.
Opinion by John Morrish
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