This blog post covers the development of my musical taste. If none of what I talk about in this piece had happened I certainly wouldn’t enjoy the wide range of music that I do and neither would there be a radio show called the Quiet Revolution. Whilst the latter began effectively in 2007 when HFM Radio was awarded a permanent community radio licence, there was a considerable musical journey of discovery for me preceding this. In response to my post on Twitter suggesting putting together a show playing some of the key influences in my musical education musician Dan Whitehouse said with some accuracy, it would be the story of “how the revolution started”. Devon duo Harbottle and Jonas spoke in terms of it being an exploration of “what shaped the revolution”. Thanks to everyone who offered words of encouragement. This blog is intended to sit alongside the Quiet Revolution show from 16 June.
If I were to identify the four key things that most influenced my musical taste they would be radio, the singer songwriter Al Stewart, the Cambridge Folk Festival and an ongoing curiosity to discover the new.
Radio played a big part as I will explain. It’s entirely reasonable to say that what follows is about both my discovery and love for radio and music. The two went together for me. My initial radio listening through school days was the BBC’s national pop channel Radio 1. This was the much maligned Smashey and Nicey era where the daytime playlist was dominated by top 40 chart hits and golden oldies. Very firmly in the mainstream with only John Peel as the late-night champion of more adventurous music. I confess that he wasn’t an influence for me in terms of what he played yet what did appeal was his clear love of music an interest in unearthing the new.
So national radio at this point didn’t have a great deal to offer me. However, as we moved into the mid-1980’s and my interest in music was developing further I started to consume lots of independent local radio (ILR) starting with my local station (Hereward Radio, in case you were wondering). If I was anywhere else, on a car journey or on holiday in another part of the country I’d tune in to different stations to hear what they had to offer. I would probably be described as a geek in today’s terms. That’s okay, I’m comfortable with that.
Chart music and oldies dominated much of ILR output although there was a greater opportunity for presenters to influence what they played on their shows during this period. This is what I honed in on. I started listening to a presenter on my local station who I found had good taste in music and dared to be a little different. One evening on his show he played Crosby Stills and Nash. I’d never heard them before but was immediately drawn to Southern Cross and Wasted on the way from the band’s 1982 Daylight Again album. Such was the impact of the latter it remains to this day my all-time favourite song. Another thing I loved about CSN were those glorious vocal harmonies.
The same presenter starting featuring tracks from Joni Mitchell’s Thomas Dolby-produced Dog Eat Dog album. This was 1985, and I was hooked. It’s worth adding that CSN’s Daylight Again and Joni’s Dog Eat Dog haven’t ever really been viewed favourably by music critics yet they are stand out releases for me. I bought both albums and then began to explore their back catalogues. I also discovered Jackson Browne through the same radio show with my point of entry being his Lawyers in Love album, especially the song Tender is the night and the title track. Again there was much more to discover in Browne’s earlier albums too. It seemed I’d a great deal of catching up to do.
Having been introduced to Joni and Jackson, I was starting to develop the beginnings of a passion for singer-songwriters. This led me to Bob Dylan. Of course I’d heard his more well-known songs from the 60’s on the radio but that was as far as I’d got . So I started to explore further afield with Blood on the tracks the first album I bought. Lyrically it was astonishing. I remember wondering why I’d not started to investigate his music earlier. Blood on the tracks is still my favourite of Dylan’s albums. I then went on to discover his Desire album and realised that someone called Emmylou Harris sang backing vocals on the album. That was possibly the start of my dipping a toe into the worlds of country and alt-country and initiated my long-standing appreciation of Emmylou’s work. From Desire I moved onto Street Legal. Another inspiring album for me and, a little like Slow Train Coming, which I also like, one that tends not to garner plaudits from the music press. I’d go further and say I found myself enjoying Dylan’s albums from the 70’s more than any other period of his career. Sure they’re not all gems but there’s much to enjoy.
It was also becoming clear I found story songs incredibly compelling and whilst being familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s songs there was a gap in my knowledge of Paul Simon’s solo releases. I felt I needed to put that right so I worked my way through his albums and found songs like Train in the distance, Rene and Georgette Magritte and their dog after the war and the Late great Johnny Ace drew me in every time. From there it was on to Randy Newman. I think I heard one of his most unrepresentative songs first, I love LA and picked up a copy of his best of album which had that song on it and many more. I became a fan from there. Randy Newman didn’t shy away from making social comment in his songs, often with a touch of humour, a quality I realised appealed to me in a songwriter. This was to be something I subsequently came to appreciate through folk music which often explores the experiences of ordinary working people from a traditional or more contemporary perspective. Sometimes, of course, traditional songs written for a particular time resonate and become relevant again even though written in an earlier age. I suspect when I later went on to find Loudon Wainwright III’s music what drew me in at the start was his willingness to tackle social and political issues in his songwriting. He also wrote in a confessional way about his own experiences and could be barbed, funny and heartbreaking too, sometimes in the course of the same song. I found him very much up my musical street and quickly realised there was far more to him than the ‘hit’ Dead skunk in the middle of the road!
It was through independent local radio too that I came to hear the music of Al Stewart. I had heard his ‘hit’ Year of the Cat which though a fine song would have been difficult to avoid but I grew more interested in him after hearing songs like Time passages, On the border and Lord Grenville. I really liked his voice and the clever way he was able to weave history into his songwriting. I’d not heard anything quite like it before. He was different. It was almost certainly via Al Stewart that I went on to explore the music of Nick Drake and John Martyn. I suspect he also pushed me in the direction of Richard Thompson.
Beyond the genres of folk or americana I had developed a love of the music of Steely Dan which I seem to remember was through that DJ with good taste on my local radio station again. This underlines the significant part radio can play to introduce you to new music, providing you have a trustworthy guide. I must have heard some of Steely Dan’s more well-known songs such as Reeling in the years and Rikki don’t lose that number yet I think it was via Donald Fagen’s solo record The Nightfly that I found my way back to exploring the band’s back catalogue. Working through all of their records the one that was my favorite then and remains so to this day is the Katy Lied album. The jazzy elements present in Steely Dan’s music were intriguing in that I’ve never really got into jazz or maybe I just didn’t understand it! John Martyn, who I mentioned earlier, certainly had this jazz vibe running through much of his work especially beyond his earlier more folky releases with one of the best examples for me being his sublime song Fine lines. So perhaps I just didn’t enjoy jazz in its natural form!
By this point it was the late-1980’s and moving into the start of the 90’s. Radio 1 had moved on, at least in some respects, and although relatively unchanged in its daytime output they’d adopted a less ‘safe’ approach in some of their evening programmes. I spent late nights and early mornings listening to Bob Harris’s overnight shows followed by bleary eyed days at work. This was before the arrival of listen again or the Sounds app!
I must have gone to my first gig in about 1990 or 1991. I was quite a later starter when I think about it now. I went to see Van Morrison at the Derngate Theatre in Northampton having heard his music again on the radio circa the Avalon Sunset and Enlightenment albums. I remember it being a superb gig musically but coming away rather disappointed with Van’s, er, minimalist approach to audience engagement.
My next gig was at the same venue and it was to see Judie Tzuke. I’d liked her music since hearing songs such as Understanding and For You. Judie was excellent although for me the support artist Phil Burdett stuck in my mind even more. I’d never heard of him before that night as he wandered onto the stage with his guitar and a can of Old Jamaica ginger beer. I liked him already! When he sang his first song and certainly by the time he had got further into his relatively short set I was captivated. There were influences, to my ears anyway, of Van Morrison, blues and country. I was incredibly keen to buy some of his music but this wasn’t possible as he didn’t have a record deal. I waited for a number of years and eventually his debut album, including many of the songs I’d heard at the gig was released. I’ve stayed with him since then and followed his music, and played it regularly on the show through the years.
In about 1992, another national BBC station, Radio 2, was going through the beginnings of a change and introduced a weekly country show called, rather unimaginatively perhaps, New Country. The show proved a surprisingly useful gateway for me to some of the less ‘traditional’ country artists. Sure there was a fair chunk of polished Nashville mainstream music included which really didn’t appeal to me but every so often you would hear something that was edgier, more left-field from, say Mary Chapin-Carpenter or Steve Earle. I think I first heard Gretchen Peters on the same show. So this was a very welcome nudge in the direction of getting a taste for what was possibly then called alt-country. Indeed one of the reasons I still use the term alt-country on one of my show ID jingles and my online blurb about the show is to acknowledge the significance of discovering this genre. On New Country country-rock was occasionally featured and I seem to remember tracks being played from an album called Common Thread where doyens of the new country world explored the back catalogue of The Eagles. This served to remind me, though often derided , I did rather like The Eagles. So I started to re-discover them. And what was becoming the norm for me was I found I usually liked their lesser known songs such as My Man, seemingly about Gram Parsons, rather more than the hits. In fact when I first became involved with HFM Radio as part of their temporary licence broadcasts back in maybe the early 2000’s I did a Tuesday night show which at the time I called country-rock. To be honest a good deal of the playlist was americana (the artist formerly known as alt-country) but I wondered at the time whether that would mean anything to people so went for country-rock instead! I now wish I’d been more bold.
In around 1993 I started going to festivals. Well one festival in particular to be honest, the Cambridge Folk Festival. There were to be many other festivals that I subsequently attended but Cambridge was an annual event for many years. What was especially appealing for me was the broadness of the festivals booking policy with line-ups encompassing americana, blues and world music in addition to folk. So I was able to begin to appreciate contemporary blues from artists such Keb Mo and Eric Bibb and also discover world music which I developed a real and enduring liking for. My tastes were expanding further.
As we moved through the 90’s and into the 00’s through tuning into Bob Harris’s Saturday night show on Radio 2, and coming across the Sounds of the New West americana/alt-country compilations that were issued free with the music magazine Uncut I was at another turning point in my journey. Lots of artists made their mark on me, too many to mention here, yet a real fork in the road was Kathleen Edwards 2002 debut album Failer. It’s been such an important record for me. To this day it’s in all time my top 10 americana/alt-country albums.
It was at Cambridge some years later, probably around 2001, where I stumbled upon Show of Hands. I’d never heard of them before, wasn’t sure I’d even like them. I really shouldn’t have had any worries as Steve Knightley and Phil Beer were a revelation. Amongst other things they offered a bridge for me between contemporary and traditional folk with influences on their music drawn from the worlds of rock, country and blues. I’d had a bit of a blind spot for more traditional folk music before seeing them and they helped me start to get beyond that.
Through Show of Hands I also discovered Martyn Joseph’s music. Steve Knightley, Tom Robinson (who I’d liked since first hearing War Baby in 1983 or ’84) and Martyn had developed a side project called Faith Folk and Anarchy. They sang each other’s songs, recorded two albums (one studio and another live) and did a tour. I went along to see their gig at Stamford Arts Centre. I bought and devoured the albums. And I’d found someone else whose music was a real discovery, Martyn Joseph. He was someone else who wrote songs about ordinary people’s lives and incorporated social comment and elements of protest into his material which appealed to me.
And back to radio for a moment. In 1987 Mark Germino put out an album called Caught in the act of being ourselves. One of the songs from that record was called Rex Bob Lowenstein. The character in the song, and yes it’s another story song, was a radio DJ who was notable in that he played what he wanted to play on his show irrespective of genre. He didn’t adhere to the rigid playlists as his bosses demanded. If I was trying to develop my musical tastes now it would be less likely to be through the radio, or should I say it would probably not be through commercial radio. As patterns of ownership have changed the radio landscape beyond recognition a few large corporations run the majority of radio stations and the playlists are set in stone, sticking firmly to the mainstream, offering nothing new and certainly not rocking the boat. Community local radio stations are thankfully different and, like the one I’ve found a home on, can be more innovative, take a few risks and offer shows like the Quiet Revolution.
Before I conclude you might be asking why the name? What made me call the show the Quiet Revolution? I thought about leaving this a mystery but it’s part of the story. So here goes. The whole idea of the show, the sole reason I do it, is to introduce the artists and bands I like to others. This after all was what I learnt to love about radio, that I was able to hear artists and bands I hadn’t previously encountered and to get that buzz of excitement that comes from finding something new. So I work on the basis that people listening are just like me, they enjoy and are open to discovering new things. So it’s all about the music and not me. To emphasise that I wanted to ensure the programme I put together was not called the Adam Wilson show. I’m there to show case the music, not myself, so it needed to have a name that didn’t simply include my own. If listeners like the way I present things and how I put the programme together, that’s great but my role was always intended to be a secondary one. The music is the attraction.
The show is certainly about going against the grain, doing something different. Offering an alternative. I have total musical freedom. Quite a revolutionary concept in itself in today’s radio landscape. Certainly the majority of the music I play is on the quieter end of the spectrum, hushed, often acoustic but with a lot to say. With that in mind, as I mentioned earlier, many of the songs I play incorporate social comment and reflect the times we’re living through, or those that earlier generations have lived through or reflect our experience of history repeating itself. Some of the tracks I feature are contemporary protest songs. Vive la revolution!
In terms of the style of presentation, I’m quietly spoken. I am possibly the least likely person to shout at you through your radio. I want to allow the music I play to whisper it’s charms to you through my playlists and for you to be suitably intrigued to want to find out more about the artist or albums and buy a record or go to a gig, ideally both!
So the show I’ve developed embraces all of these distinct elements and the name the Quiet Revolution just seemed to bring everything together. The revolution may be quiet, but it continues… Thanks for being part of it.