It is a time of innocence and a place of no consequence as we soar through the night air, carried along by the vibrations that inform, educate and entertain a nation. Over the moonlit, Christmas-cosy rooftops and between the softly smoking chimney pots of suburban Middle-England, we see avenue after crescent of semi detached houses. Closer now, we see the glow of hearth and home, illuminating the netted windows of each one as the families within, settle down at the end of another weekend. There, a woman draws the curtains at the floral, leaded window to keep the frosty nip of the late December air at bay but inside a fire roars, guarded by a sleeping cat.
Behind those curtains, another world unfolds. Mother - in her powder blue, lambswool cardigan, knits. Her legs demurely tucked to the right. Father, with pipe and slippers, reads the Sunday paper, smiles and dunks another digestive in his Ovaltine. But there, sitting cross-legged on the rug between the cat and the side table by the fringed floor lamp, is Timmy Brewster in his red dressing gown and pyjamas. His hot milk - cupped between eager hands and his eyes firmly fixed on the walnut veneer box that stands on the table next to father. He is being drawn in through the latticed, brass porthole on the front of the box by polished, cut glass voices that softly crackle through that comforting silence of the room. They’re voices that are taking him far, far away from home.
“Oh Reginald. When will this beastly war ever be over?”
“Vera, my darling. That was back on Earth, It’s all behind us now - in space and time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes my dearest. Here in the twenty second century, we are safe from the Gerries but not, I fear from the Order.”
“Yes, my love - The Ludwigian Order.”
“Oh yes, that Order. Sorry, you’re overwhelming me with expositions.”
“If they should ever discover that I brought you here, well - the consequences could be dire.”
“Oh no, is it terribly dangerous?”
“Not as dangerous as it is back …there. But the most important part, is that you establish the mining settlement here. As an eminent geologist, that shouldn’t be difficult. When we, or rather you, finally find the motherload of Seedstone, the world will be at our feet. Don’t you realise that darling? It will bring us riches beyond our wildest dreams.”
“Oh I do love you Reginald.”
“And I love you too Vera.”
“But …last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of thinking since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you must go back to Earth where you belong.”
“But, Vera, no. How can you say that?”
“Now, you’ve got to listen to me! Have you any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we’d both wind up in a concentration camp.”
“You’re only saying this to make me go.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside, we both know you belong on the radio. It’s the one thing that keeps you going. If you don’t let the magic radio take you back, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
(Mother looks at father and they both laugh. Timmy cannot understand why and he shushes them.)
“But what about us?”
“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have: we’d lost it until you brought me to planet Galena and then, well - we got it back last night.”
“I meant it when I said I would never leave you”
“And you never will. But I’ve also got a job to do. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. Look, I’m no good at being noble, Reginald, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little people doesn’t amount to a hill of seedstones in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(As the organ music makes its final crescendo, the warm tones of a familiar voice take over.)
“And there we must leave the magical world of yesteryear and return to the present. Let’s switch the magic radio off and let it cool down. There we go. Now …wasn’t that an exciting adventure? I wonder who we’ll meet next. We’ll just have to wait and see. I do hope you’ve enjoyed your little journey through time and that you’ll want to take a trip with me again next week. You do? -oh that’s wonderful.”
(In the background, an orchestra begins to play the final coda of the show’s signature tune: Al Bowlly’s “Any broken hearts to mend” as the voice continues:)
“Well, this is your ‘Uncle Reggie’ saying goodnight until next time. Goodnight children …wherever you are.
(Then there is a silence.)
“This is the BBC and you can catch up with the adventures of Uncle Reggie at the same time next week, when he once again invites you to tune in to his magic radio. It’s very nearly eight O’Clock on Sunday the thirtieth of December and in a moment it’s: ‘Take it from here’ starring Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and June Whitfield. Later this evening, Richard Dimbleby takes a look back at 1956: the year that saw the Suez Crisis and petrol rationing, the Hungarian revolution and the dawn of transatlantic telephone calls, in a programme entitled ‘Review of the year’. That’s at nine O’Clock, but first…” CLICK.
“Now come on Timmy, it’s past your bedtime. You know it’s a treat to stay up and listen to Uncle Reggie,” says mother.
“Yes son. We’ll have no backchat here. Do as your mother says and get yourself to bed now,” says father’s gentle voice and Timmy kisses them both on the forehead takes a last look at the Christmas tree sprouting from a bucket on the table in the bay window.
He watches the lights and baubles as they twinkle then leaves to climb the stairs to dream. “Goodnight son,” they call. Through the closed door of the sitting room, he hears them switch the radio back on, quietly. Alone in his bedroom, he lays in the darkness and looks out into the night sky in the chink between the spaceship print curtains that his Grandma bought him for his tenth birthday.
I wonder if Reggie is really out there, he thinks to himself.’ (Journey into space’ and ‘Orbit one zero’ were Timmy’s long standing favourites on the radio but Uncle Reggie’s stories were, for him - ‘proper magic’: incredible adventures lived by ordinary people, he thought to himself - like me.) I wonder if Reggie really can travel through space and time, he thinks as he slowly drifts into his own world.
“Good morning, good morning, goodmorning! All you layabouts, it’s time to get out of bed and get yourself to work. Shake a leg or an arm or whatever. You are listening to the one and only Chris Moyles breakfast show and it’s five past eight, or summat like that, and anyway, it’s time you were up. But hey! Guess what gang? IT’S FRIDAY!”
The radio alarm blared the start of a new day into Bradley’s ears with a rudeness that focussed his hangover all the more heavily as he fumbled a hand from under the duvet to hit the snooze button, missed and sent the clock crashing to the floor. The muted sound of the clock radio continued under Bradley’s bed: “This is Lostprophets and ‘where we belong’ as he stumbled out of bed and inspected his face in the bathroom mirror.
“I Don’t Need A Vision. A Light To Embrace. I Don’t Need False Promises, Hopes And Wishes,” he sang, off key, to the distant radio as he scraped the ginger stubble from his chin. Looking at himself, he saw a man of 27. Medium build, red hair, moderately attractive, mildly amusing and immensely talented - if only the world would recognise it yet. He’d been five years out of university and the freelance circuit was only just starting to open up to him. It’s just a matter of time, he thought. The next big break, and I’ll be up there with John Peel, Lester Bangs or Julie Birchill ( - well, maybe not her,) he thought as he pulled on yesterday’s Rolling Stones T-shirt and went downstairs, without showering. (Today was not a ’shower day.’)
Eating hot buttered toast to the sound of ‘Don’t stop believin’ on the kitchen radio, he strutted the length of his hallway, past the abandoned bike to the front door, to get the morning’s mail: the usual collection of Domino’s vouchers, LoveFilm offers, bills and - unusually - a jiffy bag with a London postmark - this caught his attention and he discarded the rest on the radiator shelf near the door (as he always did) and walked back to the kitchen, tearing open the package as he went.
“Dear Mr Gardener. Further to your recent communication, please find enclosed a cd that we wish you to review. Yours sincerely, Krissi Murison, acting editor, NME.”
“Yes!” Bradley punched at the air. “At last - something I can get my teeth into.” And then he looked at the cd that fell from the envelope. Sitting at the kitchen table and slurping his morning tea, he turned the case over in his hands.
“Uncle Reggie’s Magic Radio?” he said, incredulously. “Random or what?” he laughed but in spite of himself he loaded it into his laptop and quickly transferred the contents to his iPod. His phone and his laptop were his world, they contained all the films, music, podcasts, books and friends he’d ever known along with his thesis and every unfinished article he ever wrote. Without either of them, he knew that he couldn’t function properly and in particular: his phone. It was his prize possession and the centre of his personal orbit.
He repeated the name over in his mind as he paced about the kitchen, making more tea to the perky melodies and not unpleasant, hypnotic tracks he heard and before long, he was enchanted and had to learn more, not only for the review that he had to write but also to satisfy his own curiosity. The sleeve notes revealed that the band had taken their name from a legendary (and now largely forgotten) radio show. Bradley scratched his head. He’d certainly never heard of it, in spite of his cultural studies qualifications. He opened a Google page, started searching and it wasn’t long before he paradoxically found a lead.
Reginald ‘Uncle Reggie’ Merryweather. Born 1912. Reginald was a brilliant scientist who became a mediocre (but highly loved) broadcaster during radio’s golden years with such legendary programmes as: ‘My gypsy life’ (1930s), ‘Missed your chance’ (1940s), ‘Suspenders’ and “Uncle Reggie’s Magic Radio Show’ (1951 − 1961). However, his experiments with his time traveling radio inventions in the late 50s led to his eventual downfall and departure from the BBC when he unfortunately and successfully erased most of the historical records of his existence and achievements. He disappeared from public life in the early sixties due to mental health problems and only emerged again during 2008 when a British northern pop group took the name of his children’s programme for their own.
“What the…” laughed Bradley. Incredulous that he hadn’t heard of him before. But then, as he thought over the implications of his conclusion, quickly realised that it wasn’t so remarkable after all. If it were true.
“This has to be an elaborate marketing stunt, right?” he said to himself as his typing became more intense and his surfing - more detailed. “If he was born in 1912, that would make him …” he quickly negotiated some basic mental maths, “ninety eight. Wo!” he said softly, then began to wonder as the Wiki entry didn’t give a date of death. Sure enough, he soon found a Twitter page: @therealreginald and it gave the location as Bedford. From there he found a blog page with a link to contact and he sat at his computer, gripped in excited wonder as his fingers poised over the keys like Nosferatu.
“Dear Mr Reggie…” he began. “Nah. That’s pants,” he said and started again. “Dear Sir… oh dear God.” He rubbed his head and looked out of the window. A pair of ladders appeared and then a young man, about his age, with a gray chamois began smearing pigeon droppings across the pane until the glass looked like one of those shops that have closed for refurbishment. Bradley took a deep breath. “Dear Reginald…”
What if he doesn’t even read his email messages, he thought as he watched the window cleaner scrape frothy water into semi-circles of a Streatham street scene. It might take weeks for him to answer. Perhaps a phone call might be better, he finally concluded.
“Hello? yes hello there. I’m Bradley Gardner and I work for the NME. What? …no, not the enemy,” he looked away, considering the idea for a moment then continued: “The New Musical Express. Yes, that’s right - a newspaper, of ‘sorts’ and I’d love it, if I could come over and interview Mr Merryweather. Your number? Oh I found it in the directory. Hmm? Ex-directory? No, it came up under ‘vintage radio repairs’. I’ve rung hundreds of numbers this morning, and… Oh, would you? that would be fantastic. Great, I’ll wait to hear from you then. I sent an email but let me give you my number. This afternoon? Brilliant”
The phone at his ear was becoming slippy but he just had to tell someone:
“Gaz! hey, it’s Brad. Yeh, not so bad mate, listen …er, something’s come up and I don’t think I’m going to be able to make tonight. I know, bummer. Why not? Well I’ve blagged an interview with Reginald Merryweather. Reginald …yes, Merryweather. You’ve heard of him right? Big radio star in the fifties? Well, anyway, there’s this band who named themselves after him and I’m doing a review of the cd for the NME - Yeh! I know! and, well anyway look: I’m expecting a call, I’ll give you a bell at the weekend right? Cool. See you Gaz. Don’t drink too much yeh?
As he put the phone down, Mrs Jiggery’s email surprised him with a ping and told him exactly what he had been wanting to hear:
Dear Mr Gardner.
Mr Merryweather would be delighted to welcome you at his home for an interview and has asked me to extend his hospitality by suggesting that you stay for the weekend if you so desire. Our house is easy to find, and the address is below. Please don’t hesitate to phone if you wish to know any further details and we look forward to seeing you.
Best wishes. Florence Jiggery.
PA and housekeeper to R.K. Merryweather.”
Every so often, popular music culture undergoes a ‘sea change’. It seems to occur every ten years or so, and usually about half way through each decade. Arbitrarily speaking, It happened in 1977 when the Sex Pistols broke onto the scene with their snarling three chord, stripped down anthems of disaffected youth. It happened in 1967 when America embraced The Beatles, LSD, San Fransisco and Jimi Hendrix but in 1957 something very different happened.
There are many events that claim to have been the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and music historians will still argue to this day, but that is the whole point which I’ll come to in a moment. Events such as Ike Turner recording “Rocket 88” in March 1951, to the first ever rock concert (Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball) in Cleveland in March 1952, to Elvis Presley recording “That’s All Right Mama” in July 1954. But there is one single fact that all music historians agree on: the “Breakthrough”. The point at which rock ‘n’ roll exploded from being a teen fad with a cult following, into hugely successful mass market awareness and acceptance. That event happened in the first week of July 1955. That was when the song “Rock Around The Clock” performed by Bill Haley & The Comets - became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to ever reach the number 1 position in the US charts. However over here in England things were more complicated than that and British youth were still at the mercy of not only the archaic radio networks but also the simple fact of the lack of availability of the records.
The release, in 1955, of a feature film called The Blackboard Jungle which starred Sidney Poitier helped the Bill Haley record reach a new and eager audience in Britain, It was a tense, urban socio-documentary about a teacher and his class of teenagers and Bill Haley’s music was used in the film causing teenagers to jump from their seats and dance in the cinema. It was the first time they had probably heard anything like that, and naturally they associated it with the rebellion inherent in the films narrative, which suited them just fine. But even though this new and dangerous music managed to tap into the spirit of the moment, the band still had an image which was clean, respectable and in many ways like their parents. The stage was wide open for ‘one of their own kind’.
Elvis Presley had established an underground presence during 1956, and his earliest 45 r.p.m recordings from that time are much sought after by collectors (Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog, which again were featured in films doing the circuits at the time). However Elvis had to wait until 1957 to get his first UK number 1. On the week ending the 28th Jun 1957 he had his first UK number one hit with “All Shook Up” which was number one for 7 weeks. Not only did he capture the emotional mood of the teenagers of the day, he was stylish, he was arrogant but most of all he was sexy and he was young. But rock and roll ‘per se’ had effectively been around for a good twenty years or so under a different name. Before Elvis, it had been almost exclusively been played by black people and they called it ‘jump and jive’; ‘hollerin’ the blues’ or just simply: ‘rhythm and blues’. Bill Haley made the revolutionary decision to blend it with the songwriting style of white country music, and it was that unison that caused the uproar.
Prior to this, teenagers had been fed a diet of what The Guardian referred to as ‘Pre-Rock’: “Pre-rock was pure escapism, a cultural comfort blanket, and that’s what was needed. The world was broken; most people wanted to forget the immediate past and were terrified of the post-Hiroshima future. Instrumentals – Mantovani’s Moulin Rouge, Frank Chacksfield’s Limelight, Les Baxter’s Unchained Melody – worked as balm, lullabies for wrecked communities. They tucked a nation into bed while the new world was constructed outside its windows. As the foundations were placed for the new towns of Stevenage, Crawley and Basildon, the bucolic idyll of Donald Peers’s In a Shady Nook (By a Babbling Brook) played on the wireless.” And all of this was additionally and indeed directly due to Trade Union action.
Following the war, the British Musician’s Union placed an embargo on the United States musicians which prohibited them from performing or selling their records in this country. The ban lasted until the mid fifties but under it’s blanket lay a genre which effectively passed by almost without notice in Britain (save for a tightly knit community of enthusiasts) called: “Bebop”. British audiences were fed a diet of big band swing (courtesy of American troops being stationed here) right up to the sanitised, balladeers of the early fifties as though nothing had happened between the years of 1945 and 1955, but in the States very big things had been happening. The likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw may have ruled the roost in the dance halls, but after the show was over, American audiences wanted to chill out and the ‘supper club’ was the place to be. A small, intimate, bar which usually served food and featured a house band made up of (usually) musicians who had been playing earlier that same night. Such was the demand for these smaller ensembles that a huge number of them sprang up, and at the top of the pile was a young saxophone player from Kansas called Charlie Parker. Such was his overwhelming virtuosity as an improviser - he could sell out any venue he appeared at and he soon attracted a massive army of deeply dedicated followers.
Jazz music was not really considered as ‘specialist’ back then. It was all they had, it simply was the popular music of the day and it was huge. The artists of the time were the equivalent of today’s rock stars and enjoyed massive cult status. And in typical ‘rock and roll’ style, when Charlie Parker got his royalty cheques he went out and spent it on hard drugs and women. But, as history has shown when you live life like a rock star you die like a rock star. Parker died on March the 12th 1955 of a ridiculous combination of drug and alcohol related side effects and abuse. Two years later, in 1957, Parker’s long standing trumpet sideman: Miles Davis release an album called “Birth of the cool” which in many ways heralded the end of an era. In every tune you can hear a sense of ‘the end of the party’ as indeed it was. Parker was aware of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and in truth he didn’t know what else to do. But over in Britain, audiences had no idea of the impact that he had had on the music of the time. When American teens had been swooning to the ballads of Frank Sinatra and jiving to the swing of Duke Ellington, Parker gave them the equivalent of punk music with his loud, fast and ugly, jagged (lyric-less) small-band music. It divided audiences. Those that liked it, loved it, and those that didn’t understand it hated it. It was revolutionary. But in Britain it was irrelevant. Unheard and forgotten even after it had ended.
Although Bill Haley may have indeed synthesized the various musical elements that we now know of as sounding like a kind of music we call “rock and roll” he couldn’t escape the fact that, at the time, he looked like someone’s dad. Whereas Elvis was (as they’d say now) “one of us” - he was a teen rebel. He had the poise, the sound and the looks to carry off the innermost painful yearnings that all teenagers could identify with. But, prior to him a whole generation of musicians had been doing just the same, except in Britain they went from being the hottest, hippest thing to being the ‘music your parents listened to’ overnight. And in that context, Elvis Presley killed Jazz. Forever.