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Guide to British Music

This chapter looks at the British music scene, and its history - entwined with the development of broadcast radio and music television...

The Fic Writer's Guide To Britain

Early Recorded Music 

The phonautograph, the first device capable of recording sound, was invented in 1857. As it couldn't play the recording back, it didn't make much of an impact until the idea was developed and the phonograph perfected by Thomas Edison in 1878. The phonograph played cylinders, which were difficult to mass produce, and it was only when the disc playing gramophone was patented by Berliner in 1887 that recorded music really began to have a future. The first 5" gramophone records made of shellac went on the market in 1889, and these were followed by 7" in 1894, 10" in 1901, and 12" in 1903 - the bigger the disc, the longer the recording.


But what kind of records were available? The first 'bestsellers' were recordings of Caruso, an Italian operatic tenor, beginning in 1902. You can listen to the earliest, from April 1902, HERE. Caruso's success made opera and classical music the subjects of choice for early record manufacturers, like the UK based Gramophone Company (with close ties to Victor in the USA). In 1909 they began making widespread use of the HMV (His Master's Voice) logo, and you can see some of the records they released around this time HERE - note the almost exclusive focus on Italian opera.

Although recorded music was skewed to the high(er) brow, the man on the street would likely have been better acquainted with the popular tunes of the music halls (roughly equivalent to US vaudeville theatre - but note that 'vaudeville' in the UK was the same as US 'burlesque'). From their humble beginnings in the saloon bars of pubs in the 1830s, music hall was big business by the dawn of recorded music. Specialising in light entertainment, the music halls attracted the middle and working classes, and were big enough to survive the demands imposed on them by the 'Music Hall War' of 1907 - widespread strike action over syndicate control of the halls. This was also the strike which lead to the application of copyright law to musical compositions, turning the publication of popular sheet music into a highly profitable business, alongside the already steady sales of more straitlaced parlour music.

Harry Champion
Famous music hall star, Harry Champion. He was making recordings of songs like 'Any Old Iron' from at least 1909.

The impetus for making large numbers of actual recordings of music hall songs came from an unlikely source. The outbreak of WW1 in 1914 resulted in the biggest display of patriotic commercialism the UK had ever seen. The music hall played a huge role in recruiting young working class men before the introduction of conscription in 1916. Just check out some of these popular 'hits': 'We Don't Want To Lose You (But We Think You Ought To Go)', 'All The Boys In Khaki Get The Nice Girls', and 'I'll Make A Man Of You' with the lines 'I've got a perfect dream of a new recruiting scheme ... For I turn all suitors from me but the sailor and the Tommy'.

When the war came to an end in November 1918, a new mood of change was in the air. Women had spent four years proving themselves capable of the kind of responsible work and reason the anti-suffrage movement had spent years claiming they weren't, and with some 850,000 British men killed at war and another 150,000 lost to the 1918 flu pandemic (combined, roughly 1/40th of the entire UK population), there was a desire among many to look to a brighter future. Imported American jazz, known by music aficionados in the UK as 'hot' music, was making a stir in London by mid 1919, and the bestsellers were now popular dance tunes and sing-along novelty songs.

From about 1925 until the end of WW2 the British music scene was dominated by dance bands. They didn't play the jazz and, later, swing that took the US by storm, but rather a watered down version that was more acceptable to British sensibilities. The bands were roughly divided into two categories, 'sweet' and 'hot', the latter playing music closer to the US style. The focus in Britain was on the melodic, the 'good-time' vibe, and the ability to adapt the sound to ballroom dancing. Some of the most famous bands of this era include: Ambrose and his Orchestra, Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, and Geraldo and his Gaucho Tango Orchestra.

The 1930s hit, 'Why Did She Fall For The Leader Of The Band?', recorded by various artists, hints at the popularity of these big bands - and their charismatic, photogenic band leaders. The 1936 Gracie Fields' version (listen HERE) goes:

"Every night she knows that her idol's on the air, 
 She parks herself beside the radio; 
 Nobody moves her, you bet your life on that, 
 Because if they did she'd tell 'em where to go! 
She listens with such rapture in her eyes, 
 And sits and sighs and sighs and sighs and sighs!"

Meanwhile... Early Radio 

Experiments with ‘wireless telegraphy’ (radio) were being conducted as far back as the 1830s, with the first complete, commercially successful system built in 1894 by Marconi. In 1897 the British Marconi company was established, focusing on ship to shore communications as this was seen as one of the new medium’s chief uses. In 1912 Artie Moore, an amateur radio enthusiast living near Pontllanfraith (S.E. Wales), picked up the Titanic’s distress call from some 3,000 miles away, two days before the news reached the public via official channels.

Although experimental broadcasts of voice and music had been taking place in the USA since at least 1906, with licences for broadcast being granted by the US government from 1912, the UK was slower to catch on to this alternative use for radio transmission. The first experimental broadcasts began in 1920, from British Marconi’s factory in Chelmsford (S.E. England). The first radio stations were 2MT, near Chelmsford, and 2LO, in London - both owned by the Marconi company.

crystal radio set
 Crystal sets were relatively cheap - and relatively easy for an amateur to make at home.

In October 1922 the BBC - British Broadcasting Company - was set up by a consortium of radio manufacturers. In 1922, 35,744 receiving licenses were issued - if more people were to buy radios, there needed to be more content for them to ‘listen in’ to. The BBC's role was to oversee a network of local radio stations: by late 1923 there were stations in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle and Glasgow. Aberdeen, Bournemouth and Belfast were on air by 1925. Then, in 1926 the parliamentary Crawford Committee published its broadcasting report, recommending that the BBC be taken over by the government as a public service.

There were a number of reasons why this scheme was feasible. The Post Office was uncomfortable with collecting money for a private company through the licence system, in addition to the fact the BBC was already losing money which meant the consortium was likely to fall apart sooner or later. Although its balanced news coverage during the general strike of 1926 (disrupting the newspapers - previously the BBC had been banned from broadcasting news reports before 7pm to avoid competing with the papers) had impressed, there was a feeling that the BBC needed closer supervision. In January 1926 the company had committed a huge PR blunder, broadcasting a spoof news piece stating that the bolsheviks had succeeded in taking London. The BBC's gullible listeners weren't laughing. The Crawford Committee's advice was acted upon, and the British Broadcasting Company officially became the British Broadcasting Corporation on January 1st, 1927. By this point 2.25 million people had receiving licences, and modern radio was beginning to take shape.

valve radio set
 Valve ('vacuum tube') radio sets became popular in the mid-1920s. They were more powerful, and looked nicer, as this mid-1930s model demonstrates.

By 1930 local radio was dead, replaced by two stations: the National Programme broadcast from London, and the Regional Programme broadcasting from London and a handful of centres in other big cities. The BBC broadcast popular music, and famous music hall and variety performers, but it was also committed to its new purpose as a public service. Even before it's move to a Corporation there had been no commercial advertising allowed on the air. Children's Hour entertained the nation's youth, while Broadcast to Schools helped educate them. There was sports coverage, cultural broadcasts, and an ever growing desire to establish the BBC as a credible, impartial news source. News announcers were required to wear evening dress, speak with RP (received pronunciation, now commonly referred to as 'BBC English') and, at least until the outbreak of WW2, remain mostly anonymous. You can read more on early BBC news coverage HERE.

Although the BBC had a complete legal broadcasting monopoly within the UK, and would continue to do so until 1973, that isn't to say that the BBC was the only broadcaster people listened to. Overseas broadcasters offered commercial competition, with more American style programming, through English language IBC (International Broadcasting Company) airtime bought from stations like Radio Luxembourg. By 1938 some 80% of the British radio audience were tuning into IBC stations rather than the BBC on Sunday afternoons. When these stations fell silent during WW2, the BBC set about filling the gap - and so winning back its wayward audience.

first edition of the radio times
The newspapers weren't keen on carrying BBC listings, so the BBC commissioned it's own paper, Radio Times, in 1923. It was produced entirely in-house by 1937, and remains one of the best selling radio and TV listing weeklies in the UK.

The National and Regional Programmes were merged into one station in 1939, the Home Service. In 1940 the Forces Programme was established, with a focus on light entertainment and popular music, this would be replaced in 1945 by the peace time Light Programme. In 1946 they were joined by the Third Programme, which broadcast more 'high-brow' drama and classical music in the evenings. The BBC's international station was the Overseas Service - formerly known as the Empire Service until 1939. By offering a range of stations the BBC felt it was providing something for everyone - though the idea persisted that the public ought to be encouraged into listening to the culturally superior offerings of the Third Programme at every possible juncture. 

It's Only Rock and Roll - But I Like It 

American GIs - popularly lamented to be 'overpaid, oversexed and over here' - hadn't just brought chewing gum and nylons to a jaded British public. They had also brought jive and blues music, especially blues-influenced Boogie-woogie, along with a whole range of fresh American sounds. Just youtube wartime songs from the UK and the US, and you can instantly hear the different prevalent sounds in the early to mid-1940s. (UK WW2 playlist HERE.) The UK was still looking to music hall artists like Gracie Fields and George Formby, and the 'sweet' sounding big bands that had dominated the scene in the 1930s. Towards the end of the war, and in the years following, the UK began to embrace and then adapt American trends.

The US Billboard Chart had existed in one form or another since 1936, and sheet music and other sales were recorded for chart-esque purposes even before that date. The UK could tune into a weekly chart on Radio Luxembourg, but the only domestic chart was an amateur affair for sheet music, published by The Musical Express and Accordion Weekly, and this was bought out by Maurice Kinn in 1951 to become the New Musical Express (now better known as the NME). In November 1952 they launched the first real UK music chart, printing the top 15 best selling records. This soon expanded to a top 20, and then a top 30. Record Mirror published a rival chart from 1955, and Melody Maker from 1956. Others followed, and the chart countdown quickly became established as the most important reckoning of a record's success.

Al Martino
 Al Martino, an American crooner, scored the very first UK #1 single in November 1952 with 'Here In My Heart'. 

Crooners filled the early UK charts, no doubt imparting some measure of American glamour on a drab post-war British landscape. Food rationing didn't end in the UK until 1954, and the rebuilding of the nation's towns and cities was a slow, costly affair. Then, in the mid-1950s, a sound revolution hit the airwaves. Bill Haley and his Comets hit the top of the chart in November 1955 with 'Rock Around the Clock', eventually becoming the first single to sell a million copies in the UK. Rock and Roll quickly became a mainstay of the British music scene, repackaged though it often was in the shape of more relatable British stars. Cliff Richard is perhaps the best known - John Lennon credited Cliff's #2 record 'Move It' as the first British rock record. In the late 1950s, a mixture of rock, folk and blues kickstarted the British skiffle movement, with regular chart success for its number one star, Lonnie Donegan - who is best remembered today for covers of old music hall classics like 'Any Old Iron'.

Teenage Teds, 1954
 A group of Teds on Clapham Common (London) in 1954. 

What the late 1950s was seeing was the late blooming of British youth culture. American youth had been teenagers since the early 1940s but, although the UK had seen youth culture for centuries, it was only in the 1950s that they truly emerged as a target audience in their own right. After two decades of austere conformity, the economy was finally picking up (1957 was the year Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously claimed that 'Britons have never had it so good') and young people wanted to carve out their own identity. Teddy Boys wore expensive, Edwardian inspired suits, and were closely associated with both rock and roll music and recreational violence - it was the Teds who rioted at cinema screenings of the Blackboard Jungle (the film featuring 'Rock Around the Clock'), and it was the Teds dance hall rules on the length of jackets were meant to keep out. (Teds wore long 'drape' jackets - many pinned them up until they got through the door!)

This new youth orientated culture, merged with the prevalent sounds of rock 'n' roll, skiffle, doo-wop and R&B in the early 1960s to form British beat - or Merseybeat as it became known, based on the success of Liverpool based bands. The Beatles scored their first hit in late 1962 with 'Love Me Do' and Beatlemania swept the nation. By mid November of 1963 the police were having to use high-pressure water hoses to control the huge crowds outside Beatles concerts. 'Please Please Me' spent 30 weeks at #1 according to the Record Retailer chart! At the same time the popularity of British Blues was growing, spawning both the Rolling Stones and the Mod subculture.

The Mods - rather than look to the States, Mods looked to continental Europe for style inspiration. 

Towards the end of the 1960s other imports were making waves in the UK - ska and rocksteady came in with immigrants from the West Indies, and the hippie scene made the leap from America. The latter fed into the British folk-rock genre - e.g. Donovan and tracks like Universal Soldier, and bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. It also had a big impact on the emerging prog-rock scene, which would go on to be one of the big sounds of the 1970s. The only issue with all this variety was that British radio was struggling to keep up...

Pirate Radio 

As mentioned earlier, the only licensed radio broadcaster in the UK was the BBC. Although overseas stations like Radio Luxembourg remained popular, with more commercial, American style programming, the demand for more youth focused radio was not being met. In 1964 Radio Caroline bought an old ship and began broadcasting off the Essex coast. Technically legal because it was broadcasting from international waters, Radio Caroline quickly became so popular it spawned a fleet of copycats like Radio London and Radio Invicta. As a group, pirate radio stations were so popular the BBC was fast losing a huge chunk of its audience - the Corporation appealed to the government for assistance.

 2009 comedy, The Boat That Rocked (US: Pirate Radio), follows the fate of the fictional Radio Rock as the government seeks to get all pirate radio stations shut down.

The government agreed something needed to be done, not least because they could not censor pirate radio the way they could the BBC. Offshore stations were officially outlawed by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967, the same year BBC radio underwent a massive restructuring. The Overseas Service had already been renamed the World Service in 1965 and the Home Service became Radio 4, with a focus on spoken word programming, like soaps and documentaries. The Third Programme was incorporated into the 1967 created Radio 3 in 1970, the station concentrating on classical music, opera, drama and other high-brow output. The Light Programme became Radio 2, targeted at the older listener, playing laid-back 'easy listening' music.

The big change was the creation of new flagship station, Radio 1, purposefully designed to win back listeners from the pirate radio stations. And Radio 1 was blatant about it. The first voice on Radio 1 was Tony Blackburn, the host of the new Breakfast Show, and former DJ for both Radio London and Radio Caroline. Other former pirates included Kenny Everett, Emperor Rosko, Dave Cash, Simon Dee and Sir Terry Wogan.

Tony Blackburn
 Tony Blackburn, music legend and top media personality. You'd be hard pushed to find any born and bred Brit who hasn't heard of Tony Blackburn.

To compliment the BBC restructuring, other developments were improving the British music scene. In 1969 the charts compiled by various independent publications was superseded by the British Market Research Bureau chart, commissioned by Record Retailer and the BBC. This meant that the BBC was able to broadcast the official UK Singles Chart, placing itself as the go to source for new music. Another innovation which cemented the BBC's position as the UK's go-to music guru was the TV show, Top of the Pops.

Music TV shows weren't new, even in the UK. Music panel show, Juke Box Jury, had been airing on BBC TV since 1959, and ITV had aired the first teenage all-music show, Oh Boy!, in 1958. What Top of the Pops offered, right from its very first episode on New Year's Day 1964, was the top stars and popular presenters. Radio Luxembourg DJ, Jimmy Savile, presented the first show - continuing to serve in this role on and off throughout the 1970s - and, though reviled now, at the time Savile was already on his way to becoming a national treasure. Top of the Pops would go on to become the British music show, letting audiences see the musicians and DJs they spent their days listening to. With all the pieces in place, the BBC was ready to lead the British public on a whole new musical journey... 

The Glittering Golden Years 

Buoyed by the international success of British (pop) cultural exports during the 1960s, the UK entered the 1970s with an air of confidence. When it came to music, at any rate! It didn't matter if the US laughed, the UK was going to listen to what it wanted. And what it wanted to listen to in the early 1970s, along with the imported Motown and all the cheery pop-rock, was glam. Glam-rock, that is.

This is where the power of Top of the Pops comes in. Marc Bolan, of pioneer Glam-rock outfit T. Rex, turned up to the studio wearing satin and glitter in March 1971, and almost overnight a genre was created. In late 1971 David Bowie created his glam Ziggy Stardust persona, and glam-rock acts like Slade, Mud, Mott the Hoople, and the Sweet soon followed. Between 1972 and 1976 the even more glam 'glitter rock' act, Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band, stacked up 18 top ten singles. Musically, glam-rock encompassed a range of sounds. What brought it all together was the look - platform soles, glitter, sequins, androgyny, crazy outfits, and crazier hats. Swedish mega group Abba have gone on record as deliberately playing into the contemporary British love of glam-rock by wearing platforms and satin for their 1974 Eurovision appearance - even if they didn't win, it was sure to get the UK interested. (The ploy worked: the UK couldn't get enough of them.)

The 1970s was also the decade the 'teen idol' came into their own. Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, and David Essex all battled it out for the hearts of teenage girls, with their collective obsessive love finally reaching whole new levels of intensity with the breakthrough of the Bay City Rollers in 1974, fueled by teen magazines like Jackie. 'Rollermania' swept the nation, just as Beatlemania had before it, and by 1975 the boys even had their own TV show, Shang-a-Lang. One of the other teen sensations of the 1970s was the movie Grease, and its soundtrack. Unable to get the stars themselves, Top of the Pops used their in-house dance act, Legs & Co., to recreate the scene in 1978. Another big innovation for youth audiences was the rise of Saturday morning television aimed at children and teenagers. Tiswas ran on ITV from 1974 to 1982, and its rival Swap Shop (tending to attract a slightly younger audience) on the BBC from 1976 to 1982 - both attracted the big pop stars of their day. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, even went on Swap Shop's successor, Saturday Superstore in 1987. She was challenged repeatedly 'where will you be if nuclear war breaks out?' but settled for telling the nation's youth that her favourite record was 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?'

Bay City Rollers
 Bay City Rollers, c. 1975. Not only did fans want to be with the boys, they wanted to dress like them too. Those short flares with the tartan stripe became must have items for the teen girl's wardrobe.

Other popular genres in the 1970s included disco (e.g. Bee Gees, Donna Summer), blues and soul (including Northern Soul, dance music popular in N. England - see more HERE), prog-rock (e.g. Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull), soft-rock (e.g. Fleetwood Mac, Mungo Jerry, Rod Stewart) and the emerging metal scene (e.g. Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple). 1950s and 60s revivals were rampant, with bands like Showaddywaddy rarely out of the charts. Perhaps the biggest shock to the 70s UK music scene was the arrival of punk rock in 1976. Punk was about DIY - it didn't matter if you couldn't sing or play, you could still have a go in the world of punk. The rise of punk coincided with the preparations for the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. The Sex Pistols released 'God Save The Queen' just weeks before - and it was promptly banned by the BBC. Rumours persist to this day that it was the real number one during Jubilee week, and its official position of #2 was enforced on the BMRB by the BBC.

Sex Pistols
 Note Johnny Rotten's Ted style jacket. Before churning out punk fashion, Malcolm McLaren (the Pistols' manager) and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, had been catering to the 1950s revival scene at their London boutique 'Let It Rock' - later renamed 'SEX' for the punk scene. For more info on punk in the UK there is a Channel 4 documentary HERE

The initial punk wave burned itself out almost before it really had a chance to get started. But out of its ashes rose three connected musical movements - post punk (e.g. Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four), synth pop (e.g. Gary Numan, John Foxx, The Human League), and new wave (e.g. XTC, Squeeze, The Boomtown Rats). Moving into the 1980s, these sounds would form the backbone of the British music charts, seeping into other popular genres. Meanwhile ska and rocksteady, originally hailing from Jamaica, had been seeing a resurgence in popularity through the Oi! subgenre of punk - the original wave hit the UK in the late 1960s, proving particularly popular among working class skinheads on the edges of the mod movement (the skinhead look would only later become synonymous with racism and 'white power'). Fusing with punk sensibility, and the bleak outlook of the nation's youth as recession descended, the 2 Tone sound (documentary HERE) began shifting records by the shed load. The Specials' unemployment anthem 'Ghost Town' became the single of the year for 1981, summing up the dismal prospects of the majority of British youth with lines like:

'Government leaving the youth on the shelf; This place is coming like a ghost town; No job to be found in this country.' 

But the post punk musicians weren't all about social commentary. Adam and the Ants pulled together a new line up after Malcolm McLaren poached the original to form new wave band Bow Wow Wow. With a new look - ruffled shirts and foppish cravats - they became the leading lights of the New Romantic movement, the term 'Antmania' being used to describe the reaction of teenage girls across the nation. MTV Europe wouldn't become a reality until 1987, but Adam Ant was an exemplar of the new trend for lavish music videos - they would reach audiences via Top of the Pops and other youth shows. For those who wanted more than just the front man, the fight was on between Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet for teenage affections.

Adam and the Ants
'Dandy Higwayman' Adam Ant graced many a bedroom wall in the early 1980s. Smash Hits, a pop magazine launched in 1978, particularly embraced the post punk looks and sounds, and provided plenty of posters. (More on Smash Hits HERE.) 

Top of the Pops and Smash Hits were the vehicles that made musicians stars in the early 1980s. Once you had been on the cover of Smash Hits, you'd made it. Once you'd been on Top of the Pops, your place in music history was assured. TotP appearances could make or break you, and some performances were debated for weeks afterwards - Boy George's first spot with Culture Club infamously lead to furious debate over whether the singer was 'a boy or a girl'. (It was 1982.) BBC DJs, too, had the power to pick and choose what they wanted to play, no matter where it was in the charts. In January 1984 Radio 1 DJ Mike Read refused to play Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' because of its implicitly sexual lyrics, a ban quickly upheld by the BBC more widely. The controversy catapulted the song to #1, but as the ban extended to Top of the Pops, the band had to wait until follow-up single 'Two Tribes' hit the charts in July to get back on the show.

For some idea of who the main movers and shakers were of the British music industry in the first half of the 1980s, look no further than the 1984 Band Aid project. This was a charity venture organised by Bob Geldof (frontman of the Boomtown Rats) and Midge Ure (of Ultravox and Visage fame) to fund famine relief in Ethiopia. Band Aid is legendary in British popular culture - there is little chance to forget, what with the project's resurrection in 1989 and 2004 - and references to it can be found in many British fandoms. (There is a 2007 Comic Relief sketch HERE spoofing Geldof's charity work; it never gets old.) Surprisingly, alongside the modern sounds of synth-pop, and new wave, goth (film on 80s goth HERE) and metal, etc, the demand for 1950s revival acts hadn't waned. The last number one of 1985 was Shakin' Stevens (Wales' answer to Elvis) with Merry Christmas Everyone.

 It Must Have Been Good - I Can't Remember Any Of It

 The second half of the 1980s were dominated by a few genres. There was hair metal, bands like Van Halen, Europe, Bon Jovi, Poison, etc. Then there was manufactured bubblegum pop. The songwriting and producing trio Stock Aitkin Waterman churned this kind of pop out like its teenage stars were on an assembly line. Rick Astley, Bananarama, Dead or Alive, and Kylie Minogue - already well known in the UK due to the widespread popularity of Australian soap Neighbours with British teenagers - were all SAW products. Another pop sensation of 1987/88 was boyband Bros, who inspired girls to wear Grolsch bottle tops on their shoes (clip of Bros documentary HERE).

There was also the arrival of acid house. House music had already been filtering onto the UK music scene, and acid house pushed the dance scene into a full blown explosion. The summers of 1988 and 1989 are known in the UK as the Second Summer of Love, with illegal raves being held across the country, fueled by copious amounts of Ecstasy and LSD. There is a BBC documentary, Summer of Rave, which covers this period well. You can catch it on Youtube HERE. Smash Hits and the BBC were largely stuck with manufactured pop and soft rock - they couldn't be seen to endorse this rising genre - until the rave scene finally became a victim of its own massive success with police raids a nightly occurrence, and tracks like Black Box' 'Ride On Time' beginning to shift so many copies the BBC had no choice but to start playing them. HERE they are at #1 on TotP in 1989 - even though the BBC had declined to put the record on its radio playlist.

 The smiley face is the symbol of acid house. 

The latter 1980s also saw hip-hop begin to make the move into the mainstream. There had been rap and hip-hop tracks hit the UK charts before this, The Sugarhill Gang had reached #3 in 1979 with their classic 'Rapper's Delight' for example. But there was little, if any, space on BBC playlists for the music and the only rap most people heard in the UK was from pop acts like Adam Ant (Ant Rap) and Wham! (Wham Rap), or via yet another Malcolm McLaren venture in 'Buffalo Gals'. The novelty 1988 Liverpool FC (football club) track 'Anfield Rap' was another example of the kind of mainstream breakthrough the genre got in the UK, along with US imports. There were serious British musicians releasing hip-hop underground however - E.g. Dizzy Heights, Newtrament, and DJ Richie Rich. The main vehicle for the sound was, once again, pirate radio. Very limited commercial radio had become legal in 1973, but the BBC still enjoyed some of the highest audience percentages in the world. Because though there were hundreds of pirate radio stations, they were small, local affairs, serving niche communities.

Kiss FM, launched in October 1985, was different. It quickly gained a cult following across greater London, playing rap, hip-hop and acid house, and in 1988 was taken over by a group of enthusiastic DJs, determined to be awarded a legitimate broadcast license. One of those DJs was the legendary (in the UK) [Tim] Westwood. Yeah, you only need the one name. Today, Westwood is something of a walking caricature - a middle aged white man obsessed with stereotypically young black music and culture - but in the 1980s and early 1990s Westwood was pretty much the only DJ championing hip-hop music in the UK. (Documentaries on early UK hip-hop and rap HERE, HERE and HERE - the latter was made by Westwood himself in 1987.) Despite huge public support the available London license was granted instead to Jazz FM. Kiss appealed, and petitioned, and helped inspire the Broadcasting Act of 1990 which made more commercial licenses available. Kiss FM finally legally relaunched in September 1990. In 1994 Westwood moved to Radio 1 as part of a BBC drive to update their image.

Tim Westwood
 You can keep your Xzibit - in the UK Westwood is the only one you can trust to pimp your ride. 

The early 1990s also saw the continued growth of Madchester (documentary HERE), rock bands from Manchester like Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, and The Charlatans. Alongside the Madchester scene, was imported US grunge, and plenty of home grown indie. From the latter scene in particular emerged Britpop, best exemplified by bands like Oasis, Pulp, and Blur. (Watch The Rise and Fall of Britpop HERE.) Britpop formed the backbone of a new wave of 'Cool Britannia' - British music had huge success overseas at this time, and the British union flag became a symbol of this new surge of national pride, whether it was emblazoned on Noel Gallagher's guitar or Geri Halliwell's knickers. At the 1997 general election the Labour Party won a landslide majority, finally bringing 16 years of Conservative government to an end, cementing this air of change.

Britpop was also closely associated with Lad culture, based on stereotypical working class male pursuits like drinking, eating curry and watching football - England's hosting of the Euro 1996 (European Football Championship) couldn't have come at a better time in that respect. The 1998 football anthem 'Vindaloo' (the video spoofs The Verve megahit 'Bitter Sweet Symphony') serves just as easily as a 'lad' anthem. The girls were equally as laddish, the term 'ladette' being coined for their assertive, unladylike behaviour. The 'Girl Power' of the Spice Girls, sprang straight from the ladette tradition - just check out the video for their 1996 debut single 'Wannabe'.

But the huge domestic and international success of the Spice Girls was also the beginning of the end for Cool Britannia. Britpop was already on the wane by the end of 1997, in favour of 'post-britpop' bands like The Verve, Radiohead, Travis, Feeder, and the Stereophonics. The latter half of the 1990s also saw the triumphant comeback of the boyband. Take That, East 17, Boyzone, Five - as the decade wore on pop was returning to its late 1980s state, becoming increasingly manufactured. UK pop itself was heavily influenced by Europop - tracks with pre-formulated dances like Whigfield's 'Saturday Night' and the 'Macarena' were disco staples, and colourful European imports like Aqua, Cartoons, and Eiffel 65 were all widely successful in the UK. As the millennium approached, pop was reigning supreme...

 Let's All Meet Up In The Year 2000 

The 1990s had witnessed the end of BBC music supremacy. On TV, the BBC had had commercial competition from ITV (Independent TV) since 1955, and from Channel 4 since 1982. But Channel 5, a new hyper commercial venture, was launched in 1997 by no less than the Spice Girls themselves. In addition to terrestrial competition, ever more households were getting hooked up to cable or satellite TV, offering floods of imported US TV shows. MTV UK & Ireland was launched in July 1997, joining a fast growing range of music channels. Top of the Pops viewing figures were falling, along with sales of teen magazines like Smash Hits. Internet began to experience widespread take up from about 1997 too - there was no longer any need to wait all week to find out who the best selling artist was.

On radio, the BBC had struggled to retain its youth audience in the face of music trends unsuitable for BBC playlists. Commercial radio wasn't as constrained as the BBC by public service remits, and by the late 1990s one of the most popular radio DJs in the country, especially with young listeners, was Dr. Fox - the DJ who presented the Top 40 Pepsi Chart countdown on Capital FM and networked local commercial stations. In 1998 Dr. Fox even made the leap to TV, presenting a chart show on the new Channel 5 (and would later serve as a judge on The X Factor). Even the power of the official singles chart was weakening. The Pepsi Chart successor, the Hit40UK, was the first chart to incorporate download figures into its totals in about 2004 (from memory).

What really sealed the end of BBC, and Radio 1, dominance when it came to making and breaking musicians was the first series of Popstars which ran on ITV in early 2001. Popstars followed the creation of a new pop band and was so successful that later that same year ITV launched Pop Idol, the same kind of show, but with audience interaction. Now the public could ring in and vote to make their own pop stars. Pop had never been more transparently manufactured. Pop Idol gave way in 2004 to The X Factor - it seemed the appetite for these new created stars could not be sated, though most were all but completely forgotten by the time the next series started.

Hear'Say, the winners of the first series of Popstars. Their debut single broke records, becoming the fastest selling single in the UK to that point. That record is typically broken by each new Pop Idol / X Factor creation.

Alongside the endless squeaky clean pop acts, the charts were full of European dance acts (e.g. DJ Otzi, DJ Sammy, Eric Prydz) and pop-rock / pop-punk. US bands like Green Day and Blink 182 inspired more pop based UK acts like Busted and McFly who were up there with the big boy bands in terms of popularity and chart success. (A number of Busted hits were later recycled for US pop band the Jonas Brothers.) The other dominant trend of the early 2000s was 'nu-metal' and related genres. Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Slipknot shared pages with UK bands like the Lostprophets, My Vitriol and Hundred Reasons in 'alternative' music magazines like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer. By the mid-2000s nu-metal was giving way to 'emo' metal bands like Bullet For My Valentine, Funeral For A Friend and more pop punk sounding US imports of the Fall Out Boy kind.

Urban music too, loosely encompassing genres like rap, R&B, and hip-hop, was also enjoying increasing mainstream success. The huge success of Eminem paved the way for more US rap to receive mainstream airplay, and imported RnB like Usher, R Kelly and Ashanti became as ubiquitous as manufactured pop. Home grown acts like Craig David proved just as successful, inspiring pop bands like the Sugababes and Blue to incorporate the sound. UK garage was making the crossover from pirate radio to the mainstream too with acts like the Artful Dodger, Ms. Dynamite, and the So Solid Crew.

In 2004 Top of the Pops was moved from BBC1 to BBC2, and in 2006 it was finally cancelled altogether - the same year Smash Hits released its final issue. Though in the early 2000s Saturday morning youth TV like SMTV Live remained widely popular, the exodus to digital platforms was unstoppable, and in 2006 ITV's offering Ministry of Mayhem was cancelled without a replacement. It was the end of an era.

Wot Do U Call It? 

In 2004 Wiley - then known as Eskiboy - released his debut single 'Wot Do U Call It?' "Garage? ... Urban? ... Two-step? Tell us what you call it." The sound, emanating from fans of dance and 'urban' music like garage, rap and dubstep in inner city London, actually became known as grime and went on to be one of the dominant influences on British music over the next ten years. Championed by Kiss FM and the newly launched digital station, BBC Radio 1Xtra, grime acts like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, and Tinchy Stryder were soon filling the charts. As the genre became more popular it expanded, incorporating elements from more straightforward pop, hip-hop and dance music. N-Dubz, a mix of all four, shot to fame - and notoriety - scoring a UK #1 on a joint track with Tinchy Stryder, 'Number One'.

Grime, and its offshoots, appealed to urban youth. And not so urban youth. By the end of the decade the music was increasingly sanitised, but it had the look, the slang, and the bass to continue to make it the genre of choice for many. These poppier grime stars include Taio Cruz, Tinie Tempah, and Chipmunk. The drift to the safe ground is best summed up by underground hip-hop legend Dr Syntax' 2010 release, 'Subcultures Part 2':

"I started chilling with some ex-garage ravers, who used to get their nights shut down because of bad behaviour; Nowadays they make watered down grime-pop, and all of them are sickeningly rich while I'm not." 

Tinchy Stryder and Dappy from N-Dubz
Tinchy Stryder and Dappy from N-Dubz in a promo shot for their number one hit, Number 1.

Alongside grime, a loosely grouped plethora of indie acts were breaking into the mainstream. Indie rock bands like the Kaiser Chiefs, the Futures, and the Arctic Monkeys became best sellers. In fact, the latter were deemed so cool the then soon to be Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was misguidedly encouraged to tell the press he was a fan in 2006. Indie, in its loosely defined modern sense, also included a huge number of singer-songwriters, from James Blunt to Adele to Marina and the Diamonds. Female solo artists, in particular, have been a chart staple since 2005, often finding their original fanbase through social media sites like MySpace.

In the world of pop, X-Factor type TV shows remained one of the main sources of new material. The most successful British boyband of the 2010s, One Direction, were X-Factor runners up in 2010. Other TV show creations include Leona Lewis, The Wanted, and Little Mix. In 2009, as part of the backlash against this kind of manufactured pop, people were encouraged to download Rage Against The Machine's 1992 single, Killing in the Name. The campaign was a success, and Killing in the Name beat X Factor winner, Joe McElderry, to the coveted Christmas #1 spot. Not that it spelled the end of the genre... For stars struggling to maintain output, becoming a judge on one of these shows was the way forward. E.g. Tulisa Contostavlos, one third of N-Dubz, became an X-Factor judge in between N-Dubz going 'on hiatus' in 2011 and the release of her debut solo album in late 2012.

One Direction
One Direction are typical of the young, inoffensive pop acts favoured by X-Factor and its ilk.

Mixing with all these genres, is dance. Ever since acid house broke, dance music has had a broad fanbase in the UK. For the most part, the dance music in the UK charts will be imported from continental Europe - over the last few years dance acts like Cascada, David Guetta, Basshunter, and Avicii have all seen plenty of chart success. The UK itself tends to produce dance slanted more towards the novelty side of the market. 'Donk', also known as 'bouncy techno' or 'scouse house' (Scouse being another term for Liverpudlian), was brought to the mainstream in 2009 by The Blackout Crew with the imaginatively named, 'Put A Donk On It'. Another niche subgenre which saw success in the UK was Jumpstyle - derided by the industry and music aficionados, Jumpstyle, like donk, was nevertheless to be found downloaded on teenagers' mobile (i.e. cell) phones across the country c. 2010. The Blackout Crew highlighted the importance of this method of hearing niche music in their 2009 release, 'Dialed':

Another new track done and dusted / another new track people wanted / another tune you can pass about / and tell ya mates it's the new one by Blackout.  I'm sure by the end of this rhyme / you'll have it half downloaded to your mobile / and I'm sure you'll bluetooth it / until a million mobiles are playing it out loud.  This is how our stuff gets about / it's played all the time on the street as I walk down / it's played in pubs and clubs / has this tune has not been played enough?  People never get bored of it / they keep playing it over and over again / they bluetooth, put it on the world wide web / and this is how Blackout's name has spread.

Enjoy Today - Tomorrow It'll Be Gone Forever 

The official single and album charts remain the most referred to in the UK, usually in the 'Top 40' format. Check them out HERE. In July streaming figures were added to physical sales and downloads, reflecting the changing way in which people access music. These days the official chart company also produces specific charts for urban, rock, dance, etc, along with charts produced by commercial radio, and the plethora of music TV channels available on UK Freeview and pay-to-view digital packages like Sky TV. (If you want to look up what was in the chart at a specific time, RetroCharts will provide you with the Top 40 for any given week, HERE.)

Tinie Tempah and Cheryl Cole
 At the time of writing (July '14) the #1 single is 'Crazy Stupid Love' by grime-pop star Tinie Tempah, and Cheryl Cole, formerly of Popstars: The Rivals creation, Girls Aloud.

Radio, once the preserve of the BBC, is increasingly digital. The most listened to radio station in the UK today is Asda FM, a digital station serving Asda, the UK branch of Wal-Mart supermarket. BBC Radio 2, aimed at the middle aged listener, is the most popular BBC station, followed by the talk heavy BBC Radio 4. Young listeners are more likely to listen to commercial radio like KISS FM, Capital FM, or digital stations like Radio 1Xtra or more amateur, niche stations - if they listen to radio at all. For the full run down of current BBC stations look HERE, and for commercial radio HERE. Teen music magazines like Smash Hits are little more than a memory, though more serious music publications, like the NME, live on.

Top of the Pops survives only as a Christmas day special, introducing grandparents to the likes of Tom Odell, Naughty Boy, and Rizzle Kicks. Most of the acts will need no introduction however - they were either created by, or been a judge on, X-Factor or one of its rivals.

 British Musical Oddities #1:
Christmas Number One 

The most important number one single of the year is the Christmas Number One. I mentioned earlier the 2009 campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to the top spot. The Christmas #1 is a newsworthy item, so even the people who don't follow chart music will hear all about the Christmas #1. In 2000 cartoon character Bob the Builder reached the top spot with 'Can We Fix It?', a fact which still baffles people to this day. Novelty songs actually claim the coveted Christmas #1 fairly regularly, with past winners including Rolf Harris with 'Two Little Boys', comedian Benny Hill with 'Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)', and kids' favourite Mr Blobby with the self-titled 'Mr Blobby'.

Mr Blobby
Mr Blobby was created for Saturday night variety show, Noel's House Party, and alternately thrilled and terrified children throughout the early and mid 1990s. He even had his own theme parks!

British Music Oddities #2:
The Eurovision Song Contest 

Since 1956 European countries have been submitting ever cheesier songs to the annual Eurovision Song Contest. In its first year only 7 countries participated, in 2014 37 joined in. Once the acts have performed there is an interval for tele-voting, and then each country is asked in turn to give the results of their combined telephone votes and votes from a panel of professional judges. The top score is 12 points, and it is a matter of great interest who those 12 points from each country are awarded to. Some say this process is blighted by political voting - e.g. Russia and Belarus each regularly awarding the other 12 points - but it could just as easily be that close cultural ties mean the audiences simply enjoy their neighbour's performances more than the others.

Conchita Wurst performing at Eurovision
The winner of the 2014 contest, Germany's Conchita Wurst. There was a lot of talk that the win was the result of the voting of the 'loony liberal left', but the fact that very conservative countries awarded her high scores suggests that the song spoke for itself. 

The number of participating countries varies slightly from year to year, depending on whether or not countries want to pay a participation fee to the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), and which countries are deemed suitably European. In recent years the EBU has welcomed Azerbaijan for instance, which would not generally be considered overly European. As the number of participating countries has grown, it has become necessary to split the contest into a semi-final and final. The UK, as one of the chief funders of the EBU, is exempted from having to pass the semi-final round, along with the rest of the 'Big Four' - France, Germany and Spain. This is just as well as although the UK only finished outside the top ten twice in the years leading up to 1998, in recent times the UK has performed abysmally, (deservedly) finishing in last place in 2003, 2008 and 2010.

In the UK the contest is viewed as a campy, cheesy treat, particularly popular with children and students. We say that we don't care about not winning, but looking at the complaints emanating from the UK about political voting that is obviously untrue. Although Eurovision entrants can be - and have in the past been - chosen via public vote, these days the BBC picks the entrant in-house, seemingly to ensure our failure. Part of this may well be to do with the fact the winner of the contest has to host the next year's event. Denmark spent in the region of 30 million Euros (c. £24million or $40million) on hosting the 2014 contest. In popular Irish sitcom, Father Ted, the priests' entry 'My Lovely Horse' is chosen to represent Ireland purely to avoid another costly year of hosting - they won the contest 4 times in the 1990s.

Sir Terry Wogan
Sir Terry Wogan, who sadly lost his battle with cancer just a few days ago, was a BBC DJ and the UK Eurovision commentator from 1971 to 2008. His dry, sarcastic delivery is now synonymous with the contest in the UK and, in 2008, Wogan was succeeded by another Irishman, comedian Graham Norton. In 2014 one of the Danish hosts used the opportunity to get their own back on the sarcastic Brits, singling Norton out among the 30-odd commentators' booths and announcing: 'Hello Graham, we want to thank you for helping present the show tonight, and we also want to thank you for the fun jokes you made, especially the ones you made on my behalf.' Moral of this story? Never insult a Dane.

Of course, the most famous Eurovision winners of all time were Abba with 'Waterloo' in 1974. That year's Eurovision was actually hosted in Brighton, in the UK, because Luxembourg, the winners of the 1972 and 1973 contests, could not afford to host the contest for what would have been the second year running. The UK entrant was Olivia Newton-John, later of Grease fame, who finished fourth. Abba's follow up releases struggled in the UK charts until 'SOS' hit #6 in 1975 and cemented Abba as the band your maiden aunt was most likely to purchase you albums of for every Christmas and birthday for the rest of the decade.

Abba at Eurovision
Abba performing Waterloo at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.


  1. WOW. You impress me all the time! What a thorough and smart overview... you've got to submit this to a history magazine or music blog... or both!

  2. I don't know what to say. I would appreciate being part of the concert, experiencing it yourself rather than reading a post about that. Some moments are fascinating, like the fact it was played in the abandoned area of Detroit downtown. I like the spirit of sounding the empty building once again before the reconstruction. That's the plan share by the Busted band. The Busted tickets are already on sale. Hope to get on the pic from the concert) Maybe this pic someday will be lost on some article describing the Busted concert) That would be an honor!)

  3. Hello, different types of music exist and are even therapeutic sound effects need someone to come up with if you want to become the greatest musician then you come to us. Stay in the creative zone, finish faster, do your best - on time and on budget. Get the sound effect you need when you need it. We have organized more than 4 TB sound effects that cover the sound effects spectrum. You get the breadth, depth, reliable metadata and search software you need for lightning fast and accurate results.


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