Putting rock on the radio

Paul McCartney and John Lennon on BBC Manchester's Saturday Club in 1963 'Paul McCartney - no, John Lennon - yes… Overall - yes' - this judgement by a BBC producer landed The Beatles a national radio slot in 1962

As Decca was decreeing that 'the Beatles have no future in show business,' one junior producer at the BBC was preparing to give the young beat combo a break.

It was 1962 and Peter Pilbeam and the BBC's other pop music producers in Manchester had gathered round to listen to the latest batch of audition tapes.

'If no one liked a particular band, they failed,' remembered Pilbeam, when interviewed 50 years later. 'But all it took was for just one of the producers on the audition panel to pick up on a band and then they were in. I chose the Beatles,' he said. '… The Beatles were definitely a breath of fresh air.'

It's among a number of stories from former BBC radio producers and sound engineers that have been contributed to a new book.

Pre-Beatles to Live Aid

Start Quote

In many ways, this band of producers and studio managers at the BBC were leading the music industry - rather than the other way round”

End Quote Bill Aitken Author, Rock on the Radio

Rock on the Radio, written by former BBC radio recording engineer, studio manager and producer Bill Aitken, tells how a small group of BBC seers championed the likes of The Beatles, Marc Bolan, Free and Queen, broadcasting their music to millions, often before they had recording contracts.

'I wanted to write the book for my grandchildren,' Aitken tells Ariel. 'I worked with some of the biggest acts in the world when I was at the BBC, but I knew that some of my former colleagues had even better stories to tell.

'The book, which spans the pre-Beatles era to 1985's Live Aid, is about what turned out to be the development of UK rock music,' he continues. 'Some people might not like to admit it, but in many ways, this band of producers and studio managers at the BBC were leading the music industry - rather than the other way round.'

The Beatles did five national broadcasts from BBC Manchester before they were famous. The first four performances consisted mainly of covers; by the fifth show in March 1963, all their numbers were Lennon and McCartney compositions, including Please Please Me and I Saw Her Standing There.

Pilbeam's verdict on the band's first audition was: 'Paul McCartney - no, John Lennon - yes… Overall - yes' - a judgement he sticks by half a century later.

Jimi's too loud
Rock on the Radio front cover Book spans pre-Beatles to Live Aid

But if the producer helped kickstart their careers, he wasn't quite so prescient when it came to his own finances. In the book, he recalled being asked by music publisher Dick James whether or not he should be interested in the Beatles.

'I told him he'd be a fool if he wasn't,' says Pilbeam. 'Then he told me he'd been offered their music for a publishing deal, and he asked me if I wanted to buy in. I told him 'no thanks'. Of course, we're all wiser with hindsight.'

Bill Bebb, for one, hadn't foreseen the stir that exciting young guitarist Jimi Hendrix would cause with his first session in S2, located in the sub-basement of Broadcasting House.

'Jimi was freaking out in the studio,' the former producer revealed, before a 'very well spoken, very BBC' producer knocked on the door.

She was producing a string quartet in the studio three floors above for the Third Programme, but Hendrix's full throttle electric guitar was interfering with the sound.

Bebb politely assured her that there was only one more number to go. 'No, you don't understand,' the classical music producer explained, displaying remarkable self-control under the circumstances. 'We're not recording; we're going out live.'

Hand Bowie the mic

Top of Aitken's contributor wish-list was Jeff Griffin - the man responsible for leading the audio production team of Radio 1's In Concert series which, augmented by the video production crew from BBC Two's Old Grey Whistle Test, later morphed into Sight & Sound and also covered Live Aid at Wembley.

Start Quote

Before Jeff [Griffin], the idea of putting a rock band on the radio for a whole hour was anathema. It was beyond people's ken.”

End Quote Bill Aitken

'Before Jeff, the idea of putting a rock band on the radio for a whole hour was anathema,' explains Aitken. 'It was beyond people's ken.'

But it was a suggestion that made perfect sense, Griffin told the author, to Led Zeppelin - a band 'frustrated by the straitjacket imposed on them by the three-minute singles format'.

The producer recorded their first - and the BBC's first - Radio 1 In Concert in 1969.

James Birtwistle, meanwhile, cast his mind back to Live Aid and a frantic message on talkback that all the radio mics had gone dead ahead of the finale.

He grabbed one of the spare mics lying around backstage, checked it worked, then handed it to the nearest rock star - who happened to be David Bowie.

'Would you guys mind sharing? Birtwistle ventured. 'To my relief, he just said, 'Sure'. And that was that.'

Other tales include the BBC's six-month ban on the Rolling Stones after they reneged on a commitment to perform on Saturday Club in 1964 - apparently, over the size of the fee - as well as the first session by Queen, a bunch of unknowns at the time. Listeners loved the February 1973 broadcast - and EMI signed them the following month.

'I can't think of anyone who made it big at the time as a recording star who didn't record special live sessions and broadcasts for BBC Radio,' Aitken tells Ariel.

Bill Aitken 1972 and 2001 Bill Aitken wrote the book for his grandchildren
Fire fury

Mike Robinson, meanwhile, harked back to an Arthur Brown performance, complete with fiery headdress, and a BBC fire officer who went 'ballistic'.

Robinson, who went on to be the lead engineer on Live Aid, has died since the book was self-published on Kindle. 'We're all dying off now,' says Aitken. 'It's another reason why I wanted to write the book.'

Some of his own memories make it to print, like the time he nearly joined Grimms - a seventies band featuring Mike McCartney, brother of Paul.

Aitken was working as assistant engineer on their session at the Paris Theatre, when he was asked to 'thrash about' on the drums while the lead engineer adjusted the sound levels.

The drummer - the respected Mike Giles of King Crimson fame - hadn't turned up, so Aitken had to take the sticks again for the soundcheck, playing along with the band. 'I played a bit of drums,' he tells Ariel, 'but not in the same league as Mike Giles.'

After that, McCartney asked if he wanted the gig. 'Luckily, with ten minutes to go, Mike turned up,' sighs Aitken.

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