East End Memories

RADIO LUXEMBOURG – 208-ON-THE-DIAL -
STATION OF THE STARS

208 – RADIO LUXEMBOURG – THE STATION OF THE STARS

With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, the flavour of the English Language Service of Radio Luxembourg changed and became the place to hear the music. And millions of kids across the country tuned in and our world was never the same. As I remember, request shows and game shows filled the air from about 7 p.m. until about 10 p.m. I rarely listened to anything during those early hours, as I was still very much a fan of the comedy shows, serials and plays produced by B.B.C Radio. But at 10 p.m., rain or shine, like those millions of other kids, I was tuned to 208 – on the dial – the station of the stars and was ready to hear the music!

I would listen either on an old radio with valves or on a large portable radio powered with huge expensive batteries. Both types of radios were treasures and served me well for many years. On weekday nights, my mother would come upstairs from the shop to tell me to turn the radio off and go to sleep! I would turn the light out and snuggle down under the bedclothes where I would listen to some of the greatest music ever produced. I would take my portable radio under the clothes with me so as not to be heard by my parents. I wanted no interruptions while the music was playing. And as I lay there, warm and snug, I was treated to the most miraculous sounds imaginable.

   

Tragically for most listeners in Britain, the radio signal from Luxembourg was not always clear and suffered from a lot of interference. The radio station had two wavelengths on which it broadcast: 208 metres on Medium Wave and 49.2 metres on Short Wave. On nights when the reception was especially bad, I used to whizz up and down the dial between these wavelengths in the hope of finding better reception. Despite this, whenever reception was poor, it tended to be bad on both wavelengths. However, just like everyone else who was nuts about rock, I was willing to tolerate poor reception and happy to accept what I could hear and experience the music.

These were truly exciting times. In this age of multiple ways available to a listener to hear the music that he or she wants, it is perhaps hard to appreciate the importance of Radio Luxembourg to the listeners of the time. It was the first radio station to play rock ‘n’ roll and for this I, along with those other millions, truly thank the station for the pleasure that it gave and for helping to introduce us to so many classic tunes and remarkable artists.

After 10 p.m., Radio Luxembourg sold air time to the major record companies. They in turn employed Disc Jockeys to introduce and showcase their latest releases. In those days, E.M.I (Electric & Musical Industries) and the DECCA Record Company were the largest record companies and released a number of new discs each week on a number of different labels. EMI produced records on the Parlophone, Columbia, Capitol, Mercury and H.M.V. (His Master’s Voice) labels, while DECCA produced their records on the Decca, Brunswick, Vogue-Coral and London American labels with an occasional release on the Felstead and Durium labels. Later DECCA added two new labels to its stable – a term used quite often in those days in the music business – the R.C.A. and the Warner Brothers labels. In addition, there were smaller record companies – Pye-Nixa and Philips – which also bought time, but sadly did not produce much music that I considered to be exciting. As I have said previously, I was not a great devotee of either Lonnie Donegan or skiffle in general.

What should be remembered about the programmes that the record companies produced was that they were actually one long advertisement for the record companies and that the point of showcasing their latest releases was to peddle their product. As a result, the disc jockeys were expected to cram as many tunes into the time slot as possible. What this meant was the tunes were rarely, if ever, played in full. Listeners would hear just enough of a particular record to tweak their interest and hopefully cause them to rush out and buy it. Obviously, to kids like me, the cost of a single was out of reach and it wasn’t until I came across the second-hand record stalls up the lane (see Down the Lane – Buying records) that I was able to find the records that I wanted at an affordable price. Although the minute or two given to each tune on Radio Luxembourg was far from ideal, it was much better than the alternative …….. nothing! ……. since the B.B.C. wasn’t playing any of this music yet. Although I was grateful for even a minute of some classic, I would nonetheless get incensed when they interrupted a particularly outstanding saxophone or guitar riff only to breakaway to a song that was less interesting to me.

Sadly, this was not the only thing that used to frustrate me with showcase programmes. In order to jam as many discs into the time slot, the disc jockeys always cut the musical introductions of certain tunes or else spoke over them. I always felt that the songs of Little Richard suffered the most from such treatment. It wasn’t until I conned an assistant in a record shop to play Lucille and later Good Golly Miss Molly that I heard those amazing piano introductions in full and without interruption for the first time. I was blown away by what I heard and believed that they gave those records that special quality, which helped turn them into the undeniable classics that they are today. Besides cutting the intro, one never got to hear many memorable endings either. The best example of this was the remarkable rhythmic jamming that serves to close Little Richard’s She’s Got It.

Although not hearing the intros or the outros was far from being ideal in my book, again I will say that it was still better than the alternative!

Just as an afterthought, years later when I bought the CD of Little Richard’s Greatest Hits, I was amazed at the true length of that final rhythmic jamming of She’s Got It, as it was much, much longer than it was on the single and, as a result, has proven to be even more remarkable.

Without question, the records released by The DECCA Record Company were my favourites since these included those on the London American label. London released gem after gem each week. By the license of their records to the London American label, many small, and not-so-small independent record companies in America were able to gain access to the British market and were able to take advantage of the distribution and marketing facilities of DECCA. In this way, the listeners in Britain were introduced to many tunes that have gone on to be classics.

DECCA presented their wares on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Their Disc Jockeys were Jack Jackson at 10 p.m. and Pete Murray at 10.30 p.m., both of whom, to my mind, were the best of the disc jockeys of the time. However, I suspect that my choice is based mostly on the fact that they presented London records. E.M.I. employed the television personalities Shaw Taylor and Muriel Young. Delightful as these folks probably were, they were hardly in a position to sell the music and lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, as we would say! I am sorry to say that I have no idea who presented the records of the other companies. What I do recall was what was heard at 9.30 p.m. each Saturday night and that was Gus Goldwin’s Rock-a-billy Party.

This programme did not suffer from being sponsored by any record company and so the presenter was free to play the very best from all record labels. In addition, the disc jockey played the whole of a tune – including any intro and outro! It was here that I first heard and appreciated the brilliant wit of Chuck Berry, the guitar-playing par excellence of Eddie Cochran and the frantic style of Gene Vincent.

Chuck Berry   Eddie Cochran   Gene Vincent

I remember one special night we were treated to thirty minutes of pure, unadulterated early Elvis seasoned with the occasional Bill Haley & His Comets. It was here that I heard three fantastic songs by a still very young, raw and wild Elvis – Trying to get to you, Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Mystery Train. I have to confess that I find these songs to be as exciting today despite their apparent simplicity and they remain high on my list of Elvis favourites.

Bill Haley   Elvis

When I listened to Radio Luxembourg, it was during the youthful days of rock ‘n’ roll, and the British scene was best described as rudimentary. There was little original British Rock and no one comparable to Elvis or even Bill Haley & His Comets. The first real English rocker was Tommy Steele, but his major commitment was soon in becoming an all-round entertainer rather than a pure rock ‘n’ roller. The first British rock band that I ever heard was Tony Crombie and the Rockets, whom I saw at the old Finsbury Park Empire. I think that most of the members were jazzmen and were just playing in the Rockets to earn some money. There were many British singers that sang rock ‘n’ roll but most of the repertoire was copies of American songs, and bad copies at that. We would have to wait until 1958 when Cliff Richard and The Drifters (later, name changed to The Shadows) came along and produced what I consider to be the first real British rock ‘n’ roll song of any merit, Move it. Although it was NOT early Elvis – but still ….. it wasn’t bad ….. not bad at all!

Tommy Steele   Tony Crombie Disc   Cliff Richard
  Tony Crombie  

Despite the lack of British rock ‘n’ rollers, there was a wealth of talent ready to be heard from America. Even today, I find many of the sounds of the ‘50s to be exciting and there are some tunes can still cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand up! I defy anyone to play me a piece of music – rock, classical, whatever – that is as exciting or as spectacular as Heartbreak Hotel! Besides this, the very best and greatest rock ’n’ roll – without any doubt – was the gems released on the London American label. Just about every single release from this label at this time was remarkable and most have gone on to be a treasure and a classic.

London American was a label where small independent record companies from America were able to have their discs released in Britain. These companies were too small and certainly not wealthy enough to launch their own label in the U.K. So, many companies took advantage of the facilities offered by DECCA and released their wares on the London label. Thanks to DECCA, thanks to London and thanks to Radio Luxembourg, I first heard of the likes of Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, Bobby Bland,The Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Cooke to name but a few giants of the genre.


Fats Domino
 
Jackie Wilson
 
Bobby Bland

The Coasters
 
Jerry Lee Lewis
 
Sam Cooke

Although many of the early giants of rock ‘n’ roll had their records released on a number of different labels in Britain, I have always felt that it was DECCA’s London American label that was responsible for bringing some of the greatest tunes to the British public. Many went on to become classics, while so many other great and wonderful tunes fell on stony ears and never received the recognition that they deserved. Obviously, there were a number of true fans that discovered them they were under the covers of their bed and listening to Radio Luxembourg on their portable radios just like me.

As I have said, London American was the label where the majority of independent record labels released their discs in Britain. Occasionally one of the other British labels would do a deal with an American independent record label and get the rights to present their material. When this happened, I always felt that the label would have been better represented had it allied itself with London American. Columbia did a deal with Roulette Records and so got to release the material of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, which was remarkable stuff for its time. Columbia also had the honour to release the first recording by Chuck Berry to be released in Britain, but his label, Chess Records, quickly moved to London American. H.M.V., for its part, had its share of American recordings, with perhaps the best known being those of Lloyd Price and the early Frankie Avalon, not to mention the Sun Records recordings of Elvis.


Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
 
Lloyd Price

Radio Luxembourg played a very important role in my upbringing. Thanks to the various disc jockeys who spun the discs, my exposure to a variety of forms of music first begun by my parents and continued by Paul on his stall and in his shop, was continued here. It should be remembered that Radio Luxembourg was a business and in the business of making money for its shareholders, and so, with the passage of time, as musical tastes changed, not only the style of music changed, but also the format of the programmes. This brought new listeners who began to tune in to 208 On The Dial, but indeed, the times they were a-changin’!

The B.B.C. finally realised that try as they might, rock ‘n’ roll was not going away! It wasn’t just a fad, a flash in the pan, but was here to stay. It began to offer some rock ‘n’ roll on the radio and even on television, where Independent Television had already gone. Despite this, the young of Britain were not satisfied! They wanted and demanded more music that they liked to be played and, in the late 1960’s, a number of pirate radio stations housed on ships bobbing up and down in the English Channel or off the coast of The Netherlands sprang up and began playing so-called popular music, as it was described in B.B.C. parlance. Eventually, the B.B.C. couldn’t withstand this onslaught and caved in to the wants of the British public. B.B.C. Radio was reorganised. The old Light Programme on medium wave underwent the most radical of changes, as it became Radio One and had its own set of disc jockeys who were employed to present the latest hits and supposedly rock classics to the public. This move ended the pirate radio stations and heralded the slow and long demise of the English Service of Radio Luxembourg.

Although Radio Luxembourg, as people like me knew it, has gone, it is not forgotten. It lives on, like so many things experienced in our lives, in our memories where it will continue to hold a special place. Whenever a special favourite is heard, the listener can take out a memory and enjoy it again along with the music! Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll!!! What more needs to be said?

208.


 

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins