Colin H on BBC sessions
I wrote the following as an introduction to the booklet for the 8CD set ‘Bert Jansch at the BBC’, which was released last year (with an edited version of this text therein). I thought it might be of interest to AWers / the world at large. The photo above – purely for convenience – is Bert Jansch and Peter Kirtley rehearsing for a BBC NI TV appearance in 1992, taken be me.
BBC Sessions: A History
In the 1950s and 60s, any pop, folk or jazz artist in Britain was more likely to be heard on BBC radio, if at all, in the form of an exclusive session recorded for the corporation than in the form of a commercially released record. For the artist, these sessions were an opportunity to get their music heard; for the BBC, their function was to fill airtime, as long as they ticked the box of at least one of the aims of BBC founder Lord Reith: to educate, inform and entertain.
An audition panel existed to decide who was ‘entertaining’ enough to get through the door. Periodically, there would be press controversy when a virtuoso act was somehow turned down (as happened in the 50s to leading British jazzman Bruce Turner’s band, at a time when skiffle-boom amateurs were all over the airwaves). Sometimes, if an act that had previously been accepted for broadcast had a change in personnel, it would have to audition again (as happened to pioneering rockers Johnny Kidd & the Pirates in the early 60s).
This need to fill airtime by having musicians trooping in on a daily basis to any one of a number of BBC-owned studios and theatres, principally around London, to give a concert performance or put down a handful of numbers within a strict time frame, was based on a longstanding agreement with the rights organisation Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) and the Musicians’ Union (MU), whereby only a certain amount of time per day on BBC national and regional stations could be ‘needletime’ – the playing of commercially released records.
In In Session Tonight (1993), Ken Garner notes, by way of example, that when Radios 1 and 2 began in September 1967, they ‘went on air with only seven hours total needletime a day. Radio 1 had just three hours of this for its own peak-time programmes: at breakfast, midday and early evening. For the rest of the day it shared programmes with Radio 2, which consisted mostly, if not entirely, of BBC-originated music sessions.’
The great majority of these session recordings would have been in the realms of light entertainment – breezy pop covers by ensembles like Bob Miller & the Millermen (who had backed early British rock’n’roll personalities on Saturday Club, on the pre-Radios 1/2 Light Programme) or hours of light music by any one of a number of BBC orchestras and ensembles. Keeping the musicians in these BBC ensembles in work was the MU aim in maintaining its restrictions on needletime.
On the other hand, jobbing jazz musicians around London could earn useful money as accompanists to lounge singers on late-night Radio 2 – performing pop covers, standards and repertoire from the shallow end of jazz – given that the BBC had this obligation to fill so much of its airtime with exclusive recordings. Often, future legends would pay the bills with this ‘musical padding’. The Gordon Beck Quartet with guitarist John McLaughlin, for example, recorded no fewer than ten sessions for Late-Night Extra and Night Ride (non-John Peel episodes, presented by Barry Aldiss or Terry Wogan) in March and April 1968, backing American jazz/cabaret singers Joy Marshall and Mark Murphy. Ninety-one numbers – around five hours’ worth of music – were recorded and broadcast and, bar a handful repeated in May, were lost to the ether thereafter. (Happily, Joy Marshall cut 13 songs from her radio repertoire with the Beck Quartet in a studio during this brief period and these were released in 2018 as When Sunny Gets Blue: Spring ‘68 on RPM/Turtle.)
By the late 60s, all but the most dogmatic jazzers around London would happily accept MOR bookings like this along with the much less frequent opportunity to record a session for a bona fide jazz programme, going out at a sensible hour of the evening and likely to be useful to one’s career. In Gordon Beck’s case, he had one short BBC Jazz Club session during the period in which he recorded the ten late-night sessions mentioned above. Recording shallow-end stuff did the likes of Gordon Beck no harm but, ironically, in the previous decade, it was doing too many pure jazz broadcasts that could be dangerous for some musicians.
One example of this, which highlights the pre-rock-era world of jobbing musicians looking after their ability to keep working and making a living, is the case of Johnny Dankworth in 1951. Despite being a triple winner in Melody Maker’s annual jazz poll, Dankworth was on the front page of the paper on 3 March 1951 explaining that he was turning down bookings for BBC jazz programmes because it was essential that his band wasn’t pigeonholed as a jazz outfit. Quite simply, most of its work was playing at dances and other ‘commercial’ bookings and the risk of those bookings dropping off because of the jazz tag was too great. One couldn’t make a living playing solely jazz in those days. That would never really change in Britain, although by the middle of the 60s, the ability for anyone to make a living playing on the kind of ballroom/dancing circuit Dankworth was keen to keep in with had significantly diminished.
Perhaps strangely, Bert Jansch’s 1968–72 band the Pentangle, a fusion of folk, jazz and other influences, propelled by a fabulous jazz rhythm section in Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, would never be booked on any BBC jazz programmes, but their unusual qualities allowed an almost unique range of opportunities on radio and TV, spanning late-night underground rock shows to Saturday tea-time Light Entertainment telly, religious programmes, folk programmes and everything in between. By chance, for a few years at the end of the 60s, Bert Jansch had distilled his music into something simultaneously credible, commercial and eminently broadcastable. Thirty years later, he would tick the credible and broadcastable boxes once again, for an Indian summer of a decade or so as a living legend, a phone call away from appearances on BBC4, BBC Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music.
As the 1960s wore on, BBC radio’s needletime restrictions meant that it was becoming increasingly out of step with popular culture. The five major record labels in Britain (Decca, EMI, et al.) partly got around the lack of BBC airtime for their wares by literally buying time on commercial European station Radio Luxembourg, whose signal could be picked up in most of England and Wales and parts of Ireland. In 1964, London club-owner Ronan O’Rahilly founded Radio Caroline, a commercial station broadcasting wall to wall pop music to Britain, anchored beyond territorial waters and hence not subject to any British broadcasting regulations. A number of similar ‘pirate radio’ stations swiftly followed, only outlawed by new legislation weeks before BBC Radio 1 began, in September 1967.
During roughly the same period (1963–66), the London-based Associated-Rediffusion (ITV) Ready Steady Go! – shown in most of the ITV regions in Britain – was capturing the same popular music zeitgeist on television, with acts able to perform live from 1964 on. One of those who did so, to career-launching effect, was Bert Jansch disciple Donovan, who appeared on the show for three weeks in succession in 1965, bringing something of the much-vaunted ‘folk boom’ of that period on to a show previously focused on soul, beat and ‘Mod’. The BBC’s Top of the Pops began in 1964, belatedly chasing the same audience, and broadcast from Manchester for its first couple of years before moving to London. Bert Jansch never did get to appear on RSG, though in due course he would get on Top of the Pops. But only the once.
The advent of Radio 1, bringing with it new presenters (many from pirate radio) and forward-thinking producers and obliging them to work within/around the old-school system of needletime and session recordings, created a situation whereby – alongside sessions for daytime programmes by mainstream pop groups performing nothing that was likely to frighten any horses – extremely progressive artists could be given valuable airtime on evening and weekend programmes built around the tastes of individual presenters and producers. Some acts in this late 60s era, booked purely on the basis of the buzz they were creating around London, would get the chance to record one or more BBC sessions before even signing a record deal. That curious circumstance, wherein the publicly funded national broadcaster became, in effect, a free A&R department and audience-reaction focus group facilitator for commercial record labels, was something that could not have been foreseen by the MU, PPL and BBC back in the day, as men in suits thrashed out the needletime deal in a doubtless drab office, guaranteeing stable employment for members of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra and its ilk.
The classic example of the BBC radio presenter operating this national platform for musicians untroubled by other recording opportunities was John Peel. The ‘Peel session’ became both a badge of honour and a likely ticket to finding a record deal, or at least some kind of an ongoing listenership, and Peel’s stewardship of these opportunities spanned 1967 to his death in 2004, with the late 60s ‘underground’ era and the re-booting of rock during the punk era a decade later being his first two periods of real influence as a taste-maker and lightning rod for cultural rumblings. It is perhaps no coincidence that, in terms of the survival of off-air recordings (reflecting the perceived importance of his show), the early 70s is a rather lean period for Peel programmes.
Peel, though, was only ever one among several musically passionate broadcasters at a given time. Others that come to mind are Mike Raven, Alexis Korner, Tommy Vance, David Jensen, Bob Harris and Steve Lamacq, who all used their platforms to assist the genres and artists they cared about by giving patronage in the form of opportunities to record for their programmes or come in as a studio guest. Indeed, by the Steve Lamacq era in the mid-90s, at the height of Britpop, the idea of recording exclusively for BBC radio had become such a ‘thing’ in its own right that his programme was called The Evening Session. Where once the BBC radio session had been an administrative anomaly, of sorts, and simply a hoop to jump through for artists to get at least a version of their latest commercial release heard – and on the only broadcasting network in Britain – it had now become a sort of trophy for artists and a way for would-be taste-makers to virtue-signal their patronage. The BBC itself could not ‘endorse’ artists, but individual presenters effectively could. It was, after all, no more than Peel himself had done in 1968 when he wrote an effusive sleeve-note for the first Pentangle LP.
Commercial radio in Britain had begun, gradually, in 1973, and needletime restrictions ended in 1988. The BBC retained a reduced number of its own ensembles, but essentially, if sessions were offered to ‘outside’ musical artists, it was because the notion of doing so had become a sort of mutual-interest tradition between the broadcaster and the music industry by the 1990s and beyond.
Occasionally, in the modern era, this awareness of the exclusive BBC performance as a cachet for the artist, and BBC awareness of the biggest-name artists as steroids for viewing and listening figures, has led to controversy – because public service broadcasting and commercial marketing are, by their very nature, mutually exclusive. Inviting an artist in to record a session or TV spot is the former to the BBC and the latter to the artist and their label. This nod-and-wink arrangement was shattered by ‘U2 Day’ in February 2009, when it seemed as if the BBC had become a PR agency for an Irish rock band. U2 appeared on various radio shows and performed on the roof of Broadcasting House, explicitly in the service of launching a new record. Commercial radio stations, MPs and listeners complained. The BBC’s editorial complaints unit later acknowledged that aspects of the event had breached guidelines. The BBC had effectively endorsed a commercial business. When the boys delivered a U2 at the BBC TV concert eight years later, in 2017, it was more soberly as one act taking part in a series of such concerts (they happened to have an album out the following month, but at least it wasn’t that very day).
The cementing of the idea, first, of the ‘Peel session’ as a badge of honour with a commercial cachet began in 1986, when John Peel’s former business partner (in his whimsical Dandelion Records label of the early 70s) Clive Selwood launched the Strange Fruit label to release a series of vinyl EPs and later albums under the series title The Peel Sessions.
John and Clive had tried to interest people, inside and outside the BBC, in releasing sessions for his programme as EPs during the Dandelion era, to no avail.
‘The amusingly named BBC Enterprises seemed faintly appalled at my suggestion,’ wrote Peel, with just a touch of gloating, in a brochure celebrating eight years of the prolific Strange Fruit label in 1994. ‘As their catalogue at the time was rich with records such as A Handy Guide to Rose Growing and Great Wimbledon Champions Between the Wars: A Gentleman Remembers, I suppose Hendrix would have come as a bit of a shock to the Enterprises system. A few years later I had lunch with Richard Branson and put the Peel Sessions scheme to him. He left before the cheese and biscuits, explaining that he was going shooting with his father and would, er, let me know. He didn’t.’
It seems extraordinary now that no one saw the commercial appeal of this, even aside from the historical and artistic aspects, before Selwood’s shoestring venture. The Strange Fruit series drew immediately from diverse musical genres and from sessions spanning the 60s to the present.
One or two session recordings had sneaked out on third-party labels prior to this. In 1974, for instance, progressive British jazz act the Howard Riley Trio released its Synopsis LP on Incus, comprised entirely of a session recorded at Maida Vale in October 1973 for Radio 3’s Jazz Workshop. The reason for releasing the session rather than re-recording the material was simply because the trio were so impressed by the quality of the engineering. Nevertheless, Strange Fruit and its spin-off labels Nighttracks and Windsong effectively marked the start of BBC session recordings from the ‘rock era’ being regularly licensed out to third-party labels for commercial release – establishing a template of permissions and payments.
The BBC itself had, prior to this, danced lightly around the edges of releasing recordings it had commissioned. The second release on its own rather odd and short-lived 45prm label Beeb, in 1974, was a three-song EP drawn from late rock’n’roller Gene Vincent’s final BBC session – indeed, his last ever recording session – made for Johnnie Walker’s show in October 1971. (In 1987, four songs from this broadcast would appear as The Last Session on Nighttracks.) No other radio session tracks would appear on the label. In the late 60s, BBC Radio Enterprises/BBC Records became active in the record market, mostly issuing albums of sound effects, speech and songs from children’s TV shows. It did, though, deliver one LP apiece representing three of BBC radio’s specialist programmes: John Peel Presents Top Gear (1969), Folk on Friday (1970) and BBC Jazz Club presents the Bobby Lamb/Ray Premu Orchestra Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1971). In 1970, it also released Disc A Dawn – Folk and Pop Songs from Wales, being performances from a BBC Wales Welsh language pop/folk TV series. The Top Gear and Folk on Friday LPs featured session tracks from a handful of artists who might be described as fairly low down the ladder of success, generally unsigned to any label, and hence easy to do a deal with.
Perhaps indicative of this financial/logistical aspect, a Mr Pelletier, Manager of BBC Radio Enterprises, wrote in 1968 to uilleann piper (and regular 1950s BBC broadcaster/song collector on As I Roved Out) Séamus Ennis, care of a Dublin pub. He said that the BBC was keen to issue an album’s worth of piping that Séamus had recorded for it in 1958 and that, while it was free to do so without any royalty arrangement from Séamus, this was ‘not the Corporation’s way’. A £10 advance on royalties was offered on the proviso that Séamus write a brief sleeve-note and supply a photograph. As Séamus was rather elusive in this period, he never replied, and probably never received the letter. Perhaps Pelletier felt it wouldn’t be inappropriate to proceed; regrettably, for the sake of posterity, the album didn’t appear (although if some philanthropist showed an interest, it still could). The matter of rights has come a long way from Mr Pelletier’s ‘we paid for it so we can release it if we like’ approach, which is doubtless why the BBC does not itself commercially release such material these days.
The BBC does, however, own one British record label (Edsel) and has a special-access arrangement with another (Universal), in return for a reputedly vast one-off sum of money, which has facilitated a lot of audio and video material appearing on expanded reissues and occasionally mammoth ‘at the BBC’ box sets through those labels, of heritage artists such as Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and REM. At the same time, the BBC remains a resource that any other label or artist can tap into, although it’s often the case of not so much drawing water from a well as drawing some water from a usually fairly depleted well and trawling around elsewhere to see if anyone happened to save some of that water when it was spilt on the way down the hill – which might have happened 50-odd years ago.
The Beatles’ tenure as BBC radio session guests came and went before the advent of Radio 1, but most of the other culturally important artists of the 1960s – Cream, the Who, the Yardbirds et al. – traversed the bridge from the Light Programme to the new all-pop Radio 1. All of the above have had volumes of BBC session recordings commercially released, drawing to greater or lesser extents (almost entirely, in the Beatles’ case) from off-air recordings preserved by the faithful. In Cream’s case, a 2CD set crowd-sourced from off-air recordings by diehard fans beats the officially released single CD in both content and mastering. In the Yardbirds’ case, periodic discoveries in cupboards have resulted in a sequence of upgraded releases, currently standing at a 3CD set.
As Garner observes in In Session Tonight, of the perfect storm of hip new producers and presenters arriving at Radio 1 and 2 in late 1967 and the opportunity/obligation of having artists record exclusive sessions: ‘Almost by accident, this quest for broadcasting exclusives created a unique sound archive. It was never meant to exist, and the sessions certainly weren’t recorded with a view to building a historic tape library. They were and still are made for radio listeners. Each session is and was designed as an event, something unique to one night’s programme.’
Many of these Radio 1 and 2 sessions, be they on Top Gear or John Peel’s once-a-week esoteric tenure on Night Ride in 1968–69 (with poets and acoustic musicians joining him live on air in an all but empty Broadcasting House), or on folk music programmes or other shows, provided platforms not only to promote whatever your current release was but to air music that might otherwise never be recorded. Bert Jansch’s very first broadcast for the BBC provided one example of this, and it wouldn’t be the last.
To use the phrase ‘captured on tape’ would often, though, be going too far. The BBC sound archive that Garner referred to contains today only the tiniest fraction of what was recorded in pre-broadcast studio sessions and concerts in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, let alone whatever went out live on air in barely scripted shows like John Peel’s Night Ride in 1968 or on rather slicker entities like We Stayed In With… Jungr & Parker in 1993. For anyone seeking Bert Jansch performances from either, you can only hope that someone with a tape recorder and an interest was listening in. Happily, such an individual often was. Occasionally, a band member might have the foresight to ask a BBC session engineer to make them a discrete master copy of the session – a practice relatively common among British jazzers in the 60s and 70s, less so among rockers and folkies – and occasionally, a producer might opt to make a copy for themselves. We may never know why Bernie Andrews decided to keep a personal copy of Bert’s first BBC appearance, on Ken Sykora’s Guitar Club at the end of 1966, but we must be thankful that he did.
There is no getting away from the feeling of cultural snobbery within the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. Internal decisions were made to keep or erase things, after the contracted broadcasts, based on perceived cultural merit. On the one hand, tape stock was expensive and could be reused; on the other, some appalling decisions were made. In one instance, notorious even at the time, a 1966 London concert by pioneering free jazz musician Albert Ayler was filmed and then erased before even one broadcast, seemingly because Humphrey Lyttelton (a generally benign and pragmatic figure within British jazz and the BBC presentation of it) didn’t think it was any good. He may even have been right, but we’ll never know. More prosaically, but still on that quest to save tape, a similar controversy played out in the jazz press in 1970 when it became known that the BBC intended to wipe most of its 1969–70 colour TV series Jazz Scene at Ronnie Scott’s Club, featuring the great and the good of British and international jazz – a litany of pioneers and icons – retaining only one compilation programme as an example.
This publicly expressed preservation mentality was peculiar to jazz enthusiasts at that time. In other genres, the emphasis was on the here and now, not on the matter of history – be it yesterday or tomorrow’s wish for the retrieval of ‘today’. I cannot recall, from vast amounts of trawling period music papers, seeing any folk or rock people back in the day discussing the question of the BBC retaining things. British jazzers, however, were incessantly moaning about the BBC either not giving them enough airtime or not preserving broadcasts that were surely legendary, as well as moaning about receiving less in broadcast fees than classical musicians. They certainly had a point there – that cultural snobbery again.