I think I’m like most working-stiffs. I put in my 10-hour work day for the benefit of my corporate masters then stagger out of my home office to dinner followed by the inevitable collapse on the couch in front of the television. My ten year old self would be amazed at the plethora of viewing options I have now. When I was a kid we had three channels – ABC, NBC, and CBS. I grew up middle-class but my dad was one of those, “close the door we’re not trying to air condition the entire outside” kinda guys. The thought of spending extra money for “basic cable” was outside my dad’s wheelhouse. I was in my teens before I ever saw HBO at a friend’s house on a sleepover. We watched Linda Carter, the first Wonder Woman, in a movie where she appeared topless which changed my life… It was like discovering the formula for nuclear fusion. Now, perhaps as a direct result of seeing that Linda Carter movie, I have all the movie channels, Netflix, Amazon Prime and god knows what else. I am continually amazed that with all these options I still can’t find shit to watch on TV. I am continually bored, which I’m told is a sign of a weak mind.
Radio was a different story, it was free. We had all kinds of selections to choose from on the radio. There was AM radio, which was a favorite of my father. It featured a lot talk radio programs. My dad is huge sports buff so whenever we were in the car he’d crank it all the way up to hear people talk about the Royals. I don’t remember people discussing the Chiefs much when I was kid… they kind of sucked. Then there was the FM side of the dial, “FM, no static at all” as Steely Dan used to sing. The first radio station I can remember was Q104. They played pop music. When we were real little kids my brother would have my mom tune into Q104 whenever we were in her car and it was his turn to pick the station. We never really listened to the radio in the house, we weren’t a musical family, sadly. My mother liked KUDL, aka “Cuddle,” the shitty mellow pop station. Yacht Rock would have been considered thrash-metal on “Cuddle.” Before my rock n roll “awakening” the only time I turned on the radio was when I was listening to a Royals’ baseball game in bed at night. After discovering the Rolling Stones and rock n roll my station was KY102. I had to have the radio on for all waking moments except when doing homework… I had to focus.
Despite my family’s rather narrow radio focus, there were a lot of choices. There were the weird Public stations and weirder still college stations at the smaller end of the dial. Any radio station broadcasting under the number 90 was weird in our eyes. There was a classical station. There was an oldies station. I’m gonna guess that there was a country music station but who really cares? I grew up assuming that everybody had this wild, varied selection on their radios… well, not in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. When I lived there they didn’t have a decent radio station by anybody’s standards. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started reading about Britain, the BBC (The British Broadcasting Company) and pirate radio stations when I realized the airways were ruled differently in far away places.
I know the BBC does TV also, I get that channel here at the house (thank you Linda Carter). But for purposes of a rock and roll blog, I’m only thinking about radio here. I think, and can’t verify this, but the BBC was the only radio station in Britain up until the late 60s when the Pirate Radio movement happened. Pirate Radio were a bunch of outlaws who set up radio broadcasting equipment on ships off the shore of Britain who broadcasted all kinds of stuff that the BBC wasn’t broadcasting. I think in the late 60s other radio stations emerged over there which seems late in the game but my research on this is inconclusive…
Even so, I think the BBC was quite a big deal for popular music in the UK. I’ve read all about artists who talk about being on the Beeb. They would appear on Top of the Pops or on a program with legendary DJ John Peel. Even a rock and roll obsessive from Kansas knows about John Peel… he was friends with a lot of the rock and roll bands I worshipped. Not only was getting your records played on the BBC a big deal, often bands would go into the BBC studios in London and play live. Either live in studio or sometimes they’d play live in a theater to a small crowd and the BBC would broadcast the performance like a British “King Biscuit Flower Hour,” complete with rather posh-sounding accents from the DJs. Broadcasting a live performance to a largely “captive” audience had to be a huge boost to the band’s career. I mean “captive” in the sense that there was no where else to hear this stuff.
It’s my understanding in bootleg circles these BBC performances were somewhat widely circulated. These radio broadcasts would be the perfect fodder for a bootleg recording. Finally record companies realized they had a treasure trove of unreleased music from these BBC recordings and started releasing the performances. I don’t know what the hold up was on this, it seems like a really good idea that was way overdue. Maybe the BBC wasn’t cool with it or the artists were concerned about sound quality. I am a huge fan of live music and live albums (BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums). And there are a few of these BBC releases that I just love, much like my ardor for the old MTV Unplugged series, B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs. I feel like these following six “BBC” albums are essential to each artist’s catalog. The sound quality on these are very bootleg-like, in spots it can be a little rough. But if you can handle that, there are some revelatory performances to be found here… amidst some, as I said before, rather posh British accents which are really cool. As you would expect, my favorites are generally the greatest bands of all time. There were plenty of recordings to select from. Honorable mention goes to the Faces (who put all their BBC stuff on the superb box set Five Guys Walk Into A Bar), Cream and the Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac. The latter are 2 great recordings, just really hard to find. Queen and Free released most of their BBC stuff as “bonus material” on later remasters of their LPs and deserve mention here as well.
- The Beatles, Live At the BBC – The Beatles are, arguably, the biggest band of all time. It’s hard to estimate how big they were and remain today. In the latter half of their career, they holed up in the studio. They stopped touring all together. They made some of the most imaginative, creative music in all of rock, truly elevating this “pop” music to the level of art. On Live At the BBC, we go back to the days when they were “Fab.” This is the sound of a working band. They play their asses off. There are so many covers songs that they never got around to recording that everyone needs to hear. I even love their banter with the DJs, its all very Beatlesque. This album, along with Live At the Hollywood Bowl (LP Review: The Beatles, “Live At The Hollywood Bowl”), puts a little meat on the bones of the legend.
- Led Zeppelin, BBC Sessions – During their lifetime as a band, I’m not sure that Zeppelin ever captured an “essential,” must-have live LP. The Song Remains The Same was certainly a snap-shot of a point in time. I think BBC Sessions might be that essential live LP. It covers their career through the first four albums. They expand “Whole Lotta Love” to over 13 minutes. The power of this music is unmistakable. They also have a few unreleased, rare tracks – “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and “Something Else.” The sound quality is pretty great throughout as well. .
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience, BBC Sessions – I know there’s a ton of live Hendrix out there but this is yet another essential album for Hendrix fans. The opening track on this collection, “Foxey Lady” explodes from the speakers. The Experience is so tight on this thing and yet so powerful. Hendrix does some great covers, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” (Dylan), “Day Tripper” (Beatles) and “Sunshine Of Your Love” (Cream) proving Hendrix could do anything. No matter how psychedelic his music became he was firmly rooted in the blues and he plays a ton of it on this album.
- David Bowie, Bowie At the Beeb – This one may be my favorite… We trace Bowie from his early, early career (pre- The Man Who Sold The World) to the superstardom of Ziggy Stardust. There are some rarities that I’d never heard – “Cygnet Committee,” “Karma Man,” and “God Knows I’m Lucky” – to name a few… although I’m not the deepest expert on anything Bowie put out before The Man Who Sold… I love the version of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For the Man” here. There isn’t a ton of great live Bowie out there so this is a great addition to anybody’s collection.
- The Who, BBC Sessions – The Who muscling through hits (“My Generation,” “Substitute”), cover songs (“Good Lovin’,” “Just You And Me Darling”) and rarities (“Leaving Here,” “See My Way”). The Who started by playing a lot of R&B stuff and you really hear the influences on this album. I love that like the Beatles it chronicles that early period of the Who’s career. They end with a great version of “Long Live Rock.”
- The Rolling Stones, On Air – A BBC Recording – Like the Beatles and the Who on this list, the Stones entry focuses on the early part of their career. This disc chronicles the blues-heavy, Brian Jones’ days of the band. I will say, disc 2 seems a bit short at only 35 minutes (and the sound quality gets rougher on disc 2 as well). I love it when the Stones play the blues. They also do a lot of great Chuck Berry covers. I dig the version of “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” found here.
I know there are some Siouxsie and the Banshees fans out there who clapback at me on my list… Her BBC album is three discs long. Thin Lizzy has a great box of BBC performances but it’s like 5 discs long… I stuck with my favorites here. If I’ve missed one that you love, let me know in the comments.