Radio Days
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By Beppe Colli
May 5, 2021



On a macro level, the most important event of Summer 1975 in Italy was the enormous gains of the parties of the Italian left, especially the PCI, in the local elections. A triumph I could not contribute to, since at the time only those above the age of 21 could vote.

On a micro level, the most important event of Summer 1975 in Italy - one that would prove to have far-reaching consequences - was my decision to spend a few months in London.

My knowledge of English language - I'm for the most part self-taught - made it possible for me to avoid the grim condition of dish-washer. I managed to find honest work, the meager pay being counterbalanced by my having a room with bath all by myself. I saw everything I could - Procol Harum, Kraftwerk, the just-together-again Van Der Graaf Generator performing their new, yet unreleased, album, Godbluff, in full - and bought as many LPs as I could. I also bought a portable record player, an orange Philips, so every day after work I spent a few hours listening to "my music".

Sounds like an idyllic situation, right? Well, there was also the minor inconvenience of having bombs exploding in London once in a while. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, there were phone calls alerting businesses of the possible presence of a bomb, but since one could never be sure about which was which, one had to run, fast (my room was situated at the other end of the exit, in a quite large, labyrinthine-like, building). In a hotel not far from the one where I worked, one more up-scale than mine, the owners thought that the best course of action was not to alarm their guests, calling them calmly to assemble in the hall. Unfortunately, it was precisely there that the bomb had been placed... (After I had gone back to Italy, terrorized colleagues told me of a bomb blast in the tube station nearby, the one we used to go to every day.)

Come the rainy season, on September 29th I caught a plane back home. After briefly trying to have my fellow citizens becoming a bit more "English" ("Don't you see that standing in line would make things more efficient and orderly?") I was confronted with two epochal events:

one, that in the framework of the aforementioned prodigious gains of the Left, Henry Cow - at the time, one of my favourite groups - had performed at the local Festival dell'Unit; and not only that: at the time of going to bed the group had received hospitality by some very good friends of mine (so I had lost my chance to ask John Greaves how he managed to have such a full, clean, tone on their studio albums);

two, that while I was in London quite a few FM radio stations were born in my town, which was something totally unexpected (it was even a rarity in more "modern" environments; I'll remind readers that at the time State-owned Italian RAI operated in a condition of monopoly).

It was the first week of November when my phone rang: friends of friends had started a radio station quite near where I lived, and they absolutely needed somebody "highly competent, and with great taste" to put music on the air 22.00 - 23.00. Absolute freedom, absolutely no pay. And so I spent those November nights broadcasting great music.

All those LPs I bought in London were a great addition - Neu! 75 had not been released, nor reviewed, in Italy; Frank Zappa's One Size Fits All I had bought (in a tiny Virgin shop in Tottenham, where one had first to enter a shop selling shoes in order to access the stairs to the first floor) without being aware of its being released, and so on.

Since I am of the opinion that a radio show has to broadcast new music side-by-side with music listeners already know - I think nobody can benefit from being bombarded for an hour with totally unknown music, often quite difficult or at least unusual - I had fun broadcasting from the "catalogue", i.e., my personal record collection: Frank Zappa, of course; King Crimson; Nico; Gong; Brian Eno in his "songwriter" mode; much-maligned Hawkwind; Henry Cow and Slapp Happy; all those German groups I loved: Amon Dl II, Can, Faust, Neu!, and Kraftwerk circa Ralf & Florian.

I didn't talk much, since - in so, opposite to writing - when it comes to radio, words are always followed by music (thanks to the Web, today things are different; it's the framework that's changed). My ideal is having people listen to the same track twice, a critical presentation situated in-between. The problem being that those who broadcast music usually know those pieces quite well, sometimes not taking into proper consideration the "response velocity" of those who listen to a piece of music for the first time, who don't necessarily focus on those aspects that the one doing the broadcasting would like being perceived immediately.

It goes without saying that at the time I inhabited a "homogeneous" world, in the night shift. But the following month I started working for an established radio station - they paid me - and I had to ask myself a lot of questions. The night shift existed autonomously, like an independent republic, but what about the rest?

This is the moment one has to acknowledge the existence of the mainstream. At night, broadcasting Henry Cow off their LP In Praise Of Learning was not a problem Maybe the short opening track, War, so brief and lively, could work just as well in the afternoon? This is not a difficult question to answer, provided one has the terms of the issue quite clear. In 1975, on an Italian radio station that did not regard Italian music as a flag, except in a very precise shift, mainstream was represented by Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run; and the Eagles' One Of These Nights (readers can add Led Zeppelin). Could one broadcast War by Henry Cow between Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles? Of course, "could" is not about one's receiving permission to put it on the air, but about the possibility (not that some listeners are annoyed by having to listen to this track but) that nobody likes it.

To give another for instance: in so differently from In Praise Of Learning by Henry Cow/Slapp Happy, its "twin" album by Slapp Happy/Henry Cow, Desperate Straights, had received absolutely ferocious criticism, Dagmar Krause's vocals being compared to Yoko Ono's (at the times, this amounted to maximum infamy). The people at Virgin headquarters in London I had talked to were absolutely horrified when I noticed I considered Desperate Straight as a "Henry Cow"-related LP. The saving grace of this album being that most featured tracks run at about two minutes.

Of course, the more I worked at a radio station, the less I listened to the radio. One day I happened to listen to a program on (State-owned) RAI 3 where they talked about Desperate Straights, which I admit was not an easy album to discuss. Before having the track Some Questions About Hats on the air, they had an Italian translation by a poet/poetess who had tried to replicate the formal attributes of the original text into Italian. So, one had: an austere-sounding presentation of the group; a brief intro about the poet/poetess; the reading of the Italian text, in a funny tone; the actual track.

I can only add that those who don't want to understand a point, won't. Of course, here I have to assume that the goal is to have people buy the Slapp Happy album. But if the goal is to have listeners being amused, and the name of the poet/poetess on the air, well...

Readers will find here below a brief description of three albums that represent quite well what I put on the air at the time.


Neu!
75

I recently thought about how the stuff I purchased in the first half of 1971 was quite different from what I purchased in the second half. What I mean is that while the albums I bought in the first months quite resembled what I had previously bought, this was not true of what I bought later in the year. In a way, this had to do with the calendar - this is the case when it comes to, say, Harmony Row by Jack Bruce and Hunky Dory by David Bowie; on the other hand, it was now easier for me to have access to albums that featured "newer" styles. In this category a special place was reserved for such groups as Amon Dl II, Can, and Faust, and - a bit later - Neu!.

I remember quite well all the arguing about the "rhythmic inflexibility" of the music featured on Tago Mago, the first album by Can I bought, fresh off the presses. And since at the time I had also developed a liking for Hawkwind, it was the liner notes penned by their leader, Dave Brock, that convinced me to buy the first album of a German duo called Neu! (the Italian release had a cover in bright orange, in so replicating the U.K. edition; both Neu! and Hawkwind were on Universal; hence, I assume, the Brock-penned liner notes).

While not too many appeared to like the music by Can on Tago Mago (talking about my friends and acquaintances), even fewer people appeared to like Neu!: their "rhythmic inflexibility" was even greater than Can's, and their "songs" sounded weird, with the sound of those oars in the water. My suggestion to those who have never listened to the group or this album is not to stop at the "obvious" tracks, i.e., Hallogallo and Negativland, even if when one argues about "the history of rock" not many tracks have been as subterraneously influent (and precursory) as those.

While Neu! was released in '72, I'm sure I bought it the following year. 1973 was the year the group's second album, not surprisingly titled Neu! 2, was released. The total absence of news about the group was the reason I bought the album in London, at the same time I bought their new LP, the fresh-released Neu! 75.

Neu! 2 is not just a "replica" of the first album, as is it's easy to see after a few listening sessions. The real surprise was their third album, with Side One taking one of the components of the music played by the duo - a rarefied lyricism that by now sounded positively "classic" - to the extremes; and Side Two bringing to the surface a kind of spirit that ex post it's inevitable - but also quite reductive - to define as "punk".

The music recorded by Neu! was without a doubt among those I broadcasted most often in my first year as a "radio personality". Whether people appreciated it, I can't really say.


Roger Powell
Cosmic Furnace

The aura surrounding all that was labeled as "electronic" - a tag quite difficult to pinpoint - with its corollary of keyboards and synthesizers, made "a famous name" of such groups as TONTO's Expanding Head Band - does anybody remember Zero Time? Of course, a lot of "German artists", at first especially Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, came to the fore. The fact of the album not being distributed in Europe, and barely promoted in the States, greatly contributed to making Roger Powell's Cosmic Furnace disappear, though in a short time it became one of my most broadcasted LPs.

A Robert Moog protg, Powell soon became the most skilled performer of ARP synthesizers, which are the main instruments featured on this album, alongside a grand piano.

It's quite likely that readers have already seen the name Roger Powell, somewhere. Maybe on one of many albums released by Todd Rundgren's group Utopia. Or for his being a featured player on the David Bowie tour which gave us the double album Stage (one can easily find online a live version of Station To Station where Powell is alone at the synths, at the start of the piece). Then, for a long time he had a career working for firms that made synthesizers, music software, and so on (just check Wikipedia).

An excellent specimen when it comes to timbre - remember: those were the times of the horrible Moog "meow" - Cosmic Furnace is definitely first class also when it comes to music, "rock" with a pinch of classical influences at the close of Side One, featuring echoes of "big bands" with "impossible" saxophones on Side Two.

A perfect starting point being first track, Ictus - a rhythmic stress, not the vascular accident - featuring music that I'll leave to readers to explore, for an album that to my ears still sounds surprisingly fresh (I listened to it a few days ago, for the first time after about thirty years). Just listen to the beauty of the "guitar" timbre: we all know the pioneering work of Jan Hammer with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and later, but in that case the verisimilitude is for the most part derived from the musical intelligence of the notes played, and from a masterful use of the pitch-bend wheel; while here it's Powell's perfect knowledge of the "synthetic" instrument that makes it possible for him to expressively replicate the sound of the plectrum when placed over the guitar's pick-up while playing.


Jukka Tolonen
Crossection

I hope I won't be accused of being a card-sharp when I say that this album was released in 1976. But I could have broadcast these tracks in 1975, had I possessed the original albums from which they are taken. Which is a convoluted way of saying that - as I first learned just a few days ago (!) - Crossection is an excellent "best of" that features six tracks taken from Tolonen's solo albums released in the first half of the 70s.

(I hope readers will be patient. The version of Crossection I'm talking about, released in U.K. by Sonet, has only four tracks in common with the version of the album released in the States by Janus, as I was dramatically made aware upon buying a new copy, my original having been trashed by too much radio broadcasting. The USA edition featuring, by the way, two tracks performed by Tasavallan Presidentti, the Finnish group of which Tolonen was a member: listen to Last Quarters, a track obviously influenced by Gentle Giant.)

I found my copy of Crossection in a Ricordi record shop. I liked the album for its variety and its clean mood, with a certain "Californian" air surfacing here and there in the guitar solos, strange "jazz-rock" moments la Brian Auger, fine melodies for flute giving a touch of "Nordic", and a track - Silva the Cat - whose perfect solo I always managed to include in my program. (The fine opening track, Northern Lights, was for a long time the music I used to start my radio show.)

I have to confess that this album is very dear to my heart, but not for personal reasons. For me, Crossection is part of that category featuring albums that are not "fundamental", are not "historical", but at the same time are definitely not "minor". It's that their not being part of a specific "Zeitgeist" makes them almost an object of ridicule to some people. Which is one more reason to listen to it, as I did quite recently. (To my ears, Side Two is the better side. But Side One is not bad, either.)


Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | May 5, 2021