❉ On 23 November 1989, enter The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays…
It’s curious to remember things sometimes. I spend a great deal of time with people who although they aren’t old enough to remember, have a lot of nostalgia for the 80’s – especially the bits that were, for many like myself, the truly awful bits from 84-88. According to some it was the age of the individual. We saw the emergence of the yuppie, of stadium rock, suits with extended shoulders, puffball dresses, mullets, and huge spectacles. I cringe at the thought I owned one of those suits, and the glasses. That’s the thing about nostalgia, it can make the naff seem very cool indeed. Watch a Ben Elton intro to any edition of Friday Night Live, and look at the clothes, and THAT HAIR… Alternatively, turn on BBC4 over any weekend and watch an old episode of Top Of The Pops and focus on the presenters.
By 1989 the powers that be were at least trying to do something. They’d included people who weren’t just Radio One DJs. Well, they included Andy Crane and Anthea Turner who were faces to be seen on Children’s TV, and Jenny Powell – famously picked at random to host an early attempt at Yoof TV by none other than Jonathan King. However most were Radio One presenters back when Radio One really was the place so brutally lampooned by Harry Enfield just a few years later. With the exception of the punk years, and that Bowie performance, Top Of The Pops was, for the most part, considered family entertainment.
Musically, 1989 was the time when music was getting very interesting again. Yes, it was the year when Jive Bunny & The Mixmasters had three number one singles, but it was also when the underground slowly but surely started to make inroads into the charts. The famous Summers Of Love may have happened prior to this but the dance music culture was slowly taking its place in the pop charts. The media was in something akin to a moral panic about this. Ecstasy culture was corrupting the youth who were now not just out dancing but buying the records the real DJs were playing in the clubs. They weren’t discos anymore, they were nightclubs – where people went clubbing, danced to the music, took drugs, and hugged each other.
“Meanwhile back on Radio One, someone’s tossing a salad”
Not that you’d know this if you tuned into “The nation’s favourite: national Radio One”. Throughout its existence the music played on the station was decided by committee. Going back through the years it’s probably fair to say that they’d kept things inoffensive. Musically daytime radio is realm of the not too extreme. Edgier than sister Radio Two, it was still somewhere which preferred to let the interesting bits take place in the hinterlands of evening listening. Daytime was about getting you through the day and those cheeky, cheery presenters did just that. Pretending to be young even though most of the presenters weren’t.
The ultimate ‘80s presenter was still doing stints on Top Of The Pops and presented the very episode after the one that killed the ‘80s. Step forward Gary Davies. This was a man who looked like he’d been styled by Peter Stringfellow and stepped straight of the set of the Club Tropicana video with Jakki Brambles and Liz Kershaw (his very own Radio One DJ Pepsi & Shirley) in tow, blissfully oblivious to the fact that that was six years ago. To the producers of both radio and the TV show, this was the kind of fun personality who was perfectly suited to present the show, mate. The additions of Simon Mayo and Mark Goodier – all skinny ties and quieter voices – had signalled some change but they seemed far from comfortable surrounded by girls in their best dresses on sets of the nation’s number one pop show. This was one bit of TV kept carefully out of the reach of Janet Street-Porter’s Yoof TV revolution. This was Auntie, something very much in front of the children. Then on 23rd November 1989, enter The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays…
In truth, it had been coming. Yet the initial forays from the likes of Pump Up The Volume through to the dayglo antics of S-Express and The Beatmasters could be explained away as kooky or a bunch of boffins and their technology. Black Box’s mammoth hit Ride On Time was explained away as some kind of reportage of things going on in a parallel universe which they had to give airtime because it was, despite minimal airplay support, the biggest song of the late summer. 808 State’s sublime and beautiful Pacific was on the show from the week before, it was slowly starting to happen. When both the Mondays and the Roses charted in the same week, there was nothing they could do.
Until then Morrissey was the star du jour. Yet he was someone who’d probably enter a fight with a well-thumbed copy of Baudelaire and a witty retort, delivered with the correct amount of irony. The likes of Sean Ryder and Ian Brown looked like they’d spent a lifetime stealing dinner money and, worse still, your girlfriend. Armed with a fistful of E’s they’d take her dancing with their mates. They played guitars, they were sexy (in some kind of shambolic-yet-cool way), were versed in rock’n’roll but also dance music. We really hadn’t seen anything quite like this before.
For thousands of readers of the serious music press, this was a moment not to be missed. Many, this writer included, did something we’d not done in years: stayed in to watch Top Of The Pops. The Stone Roses were first. Bedecked in big shirts, Ian Brown swaggering like some floppy-haired rock messiah with a James Brown beat, so it had begun. Cut back to Jenny Powell who manages to explain that the next band were from Manchester before promptly getting their name slightly wrong, somewhat rescuing it by mentioning they have a guest singer (producer Steve Lillywhite’s wife, or Kirsty MacColl to you and me, who is clearly the only thing about which she’s ever heard of) before mispronouncing the song title. Then Sean Ryder mugs to the camera like he’s born for this. Alongside is Bez, his maraca-shaking sidekick, looking stoned immaculate, and angular, squalling music about as far away from the plastic sounds of the usual Stock, Aitken, & Waterman fare as you could imagine. The future had arrived and in a little over five minutes, just weeks before the decade actually ended, pronounced the music of the ‘80s stone dead.
Really it did much more than that. It showed glaringly how out of touch with any semblance of musical reality our national broadcaster was. Radio One was the dulcet tones of Simon Bates and Our Tune, the matey “woooh” of Gary Davies, the quack, quack oops of the creepy office letch that was Dave Lee Travis. Anyone walking the corridors of Radio One that week would have struggled to find anyone with a working knowledge of dance music. With the notable exception of John Peel, there was little evidence of dance/electronic music getting airplay anywhere during the week. The enterprising music was on pirate radio stations whose presenters were a million miles away in class, race, or background to the majority of the people on Radio One. It’s probably the reason we still talk about it, we still remember it, now 30 years on. Because it was catalytic and changed not just Top Of The Pops but music broadcasting forever.
❉ Peter Robinson is a contributor to We Are Cult.