(Do You Remember) Needle Time?

Past of the M60 looks at the long forgotten practice of needle time

If you have a few records, CDs and cassettes in your collection, you may have come across this notice:

“Unauthorised public performance or broadcasting of this record is strictly prohibited.”

Today, this notice or the like refers to the public performance of any recorded music in a public place. If your employer or local hairdressers has BBC Radio Two on in the background, they need to get a licence from the Performing Rights’ Society (PRS). From PRS licences, some part of the money goes towards musicians’ royalties.

The reference to broadcasting could well refer to pirate radio stations these days. Before 1990, unauthorised broadcasting – with BBC and ILR stations – meant breaching the needle time restrictions.

From 1935 to 1990, broadcasters were subject to certain restrictions which protected the livelihoods of live musicians. They got around this by having their own orchestras, live sessions, and the performance of non-needle time records such as album tracks, library music and signature tunes. There was also more talk between songs and other features like quizzes, interviews, and phone-ins. This made for inventive programmes, though much to the chagrin of listeners only wanting the chart sounds.

In 1934, Decca and EMI banded together with other major record labels to form Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL). You sometimes see their signs in your local hairdressers. They also collect royalty payments on behalf of musicians, where recorded music is played publicly.

In 1935, the BBC paid £20,000 for the privilege of playing recorded music. With live dance bands and features like Workers’ Playtime, commercially-produced records made up a small proportion of the Beeb’s radio output. Being as radio waves have no jurisdiction over territorial boundaries, there was competition from a Grand Duchy far far away.

“208, your station of the stars…”

In a future East of the M60 post, Radio Luxembourg may be covered in greater detail.

After 7pm, the competition came from Radio Luxembourg’s English language service. The station was launched in 1933 with sponsored programming years before ITV and countless other commercial television stations. After being closed in 1940, the station was taken over by invading German forces with Lord Haw Haw on the airwaves.

For many people, Radio Luxembourg’s second commercial era has fond memories. During its 1950s and 1960s heyday, programmes included the Ovaltiney’s Concert Party, and the original radio versions of Take Your Pick and Double Your Money. Both quizzes would replicate their success on television.

Till the very end, The Great 208 gave us many star DJs – from Keith Fordyce to Noel Edmonds, Chris Moyles, and Tony Prince (The Royal Ruler from Chadderton). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Radio Luxembourg offered a real alternative to the BBC’s Light Programme, Home Service and Third Programme. On Sunday nights, it came into its own with a popular music chart countdown.

“Music hour-by-hour…”

With the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s most famous media export being a thorn in the side, the BBC wanted to extend its needle time hours. From 1955 to 1958, the Beeb wanted 75 hours a week across its radio stations. Instead they got 34 hours.

With the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit, the Beeb cannot sponsor their programmes nor have ad breaks. Radio Luxembourg did, and had the bonus of having no needle time hours. Then came the first offshore pirate stations – Radio Carolines North and South, Radio London, Yorkshire’s Radio 270 et al. Record companies could buy slots and attract the stars onto the pirate stations. Again, no needle time restrictions.

With the seemingly less with-it Auntie Beeb getting hot under the collar, the 1967 Marine Offences Act reigned the pirate stations in. On the 30 September 1967, Radio 1 and Radio 2 replaced the Light Programme. The Third Programme became Radio 3. The Home Service became Radio 4. Thankfully, many of the ex-pirate radio and Radio Luxembourg DJs came on board. For their troubles, the needle time hours were extended from 34 to 51 hours a week – across four national stations.

With 51 hours a week, this meant seven hours of recorded music a day. As Radio 4 was, and remains, a speech-based station, three BBC stations. As classical music was classed as non-needle time music, two BBC stations. In other words, about 3 hours and 40 minutes of recorded music. They also got around the restrictions by airing some programmes on Radio One and Radio Two simultaneously. The UK singles chart used to go out on Radio Two’s FM frequency as well as the 247m (later 275m and 285m) medium wave frequencies.

If used as part of a review programme, there was no problem with using needle time tracks. One of the most celebrated workarounds around the needle time hours was John Peel’s show. Particularly the highly revered Peel Sessions – many of which committed to vinyl on the Dandelion and Strange Fruit labels.

Needle time was all about ensuring the survival of live music. The BBC still has its own live orchestra. Radio Two’s Friday Night Is Music Night still champions live music as does The Proms. There was also the Northern Dance Orchestra headed by Bolton’s Alyn Ainsworth (who later wrote the first theme tune for Play Your Cards Right by London Weekend Television). The Johnny Pearson Orchestra provided musical backing for Top of the Pops.

A New Song?

Imagine you are a programme director: say somebody like the legendary Colin Walters from Piccadilly Radio. Then, try to imagine how you fill the rest of your schedules with non-needle time music. If your radio station lacked the resources for an orchestra or three, there were two ways to play today’s sounds. Either play another version or hire session musicians.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, this was the norm with Pickwick Records’ Top of the Pops compilation albums. Having nothing to do with the BBC’s programme (and using scantily clad models on their covers), session musicians would perform the greatest hits as near as possible to the original. The results were pretty patchy, yet they sold shedloads of these LPs in local records shops and branches of Woolworths. At Woolies, they coexisted with their equivalents on the Embassy and Chevron labels.

Another group could be hired in to play a version of, for example, Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Sometimes, the imitated version did better than the original. In the UK, Don Lang’s version of Witch Doctor was played instead of the original by David Seville.

From this avenue, some session musicians had successful careers of their own. One of them, some bloke in the early 1970s… less said the better about his private life. Another one, from Southampton, broke into the UK singles chart in 1983 with What Is Love? and a successful début LP in Human’s Lib.

Whilst studying at the University of Manchester, Howard Jones made his student grant stretch a little further by working as a session musician for Piccadilly Radio.

Getting around ILR needle time restrictions

From the 1970s onwards, needle time hours were gradually increased. With the addition of local BBC stations, another headache for the Beeb. With the new wave of Independent Local Radio stations, needle time hours also applied there. For the first version of LBC, no such issues. For an independent local radio station with aspersions on having a 24 hour service, a massive challenge.

In 1975, Piccadilly Radio became a 24 hour radio station. With few people up in the small hours, Colin Walters hit upon a cheap and cheerful solution: Night Beat. If you listened to Piccadilly Radio Night Beat programme, there was a mix of competitions, the playing of non-needle time music, and the odd play. It was also a proving ground for up-and-coming presenters.

An integral part of Night Beat was The Night Beat Band. They were session musicians that played today’s hits at stupid o’clock, along with a few other well-known songs. Howard Jones was part of The Night Beat Band that performed in Piccadilly Radio’s studios in The Plaza. Another regular, as seen in this video was Jeff Libby.

In the small hours when most of Piccadilly Radio’s listeners were fast asleep, we have the needle time restrictions and Night Beat to thank us for The Bradshaws. Starting out as a poem on a trip to Blackpool by Buzz Hawkins, his early hours recital led to one of Independent Local Radio’s most enduring comedy serials.

Set in Barnoldswick, the adventures of Alf, Audrey and Bill are all voiced by the same person. The scene is that of 1950s East Manchester, redolent of Hawkins’ childhood. Its success was that great, it led to the creation of a television series, countless theatre productions and spin-off merchandise. If you get the chance of seeing Buzz Hawkins’ live productions, grab it with both hands. You will be laughing in the aisles.

With the needle time restrictions, Piccadilly Radio’s schedules mitigated such issues by having a pluralist approach to programming. Agenda offered local government news. Performance gave listeners access to local classical music performances, whereas Richard Sinton’s Square One played recorded classical music. Brice Cooke’s Thank God It’s Sunday was – as you would expect – a religious programme. As we have mentioned many times before on this blog, there was also its legendary sports coverage, James Stannage’s programme, and Frank Sidebottom.

By the 1980s, needle time was looking more archaic. The age of the pop video meant seeing the odd promo clip on Top of the Pops, TV-am’s Good Morning Britain, or Thorn EMI’s Music Box. On the 01 August 1981, MTV was launched in the US giving subscribers all the latest video hits 24 hours a day. MTV would eventually reach our shores as MTV Europe on the 01 August 1987, opening with Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing. Back then, only available on cable.

With multichannel television only available to a small number of UK households, radio was our most popular way of listening to the chart sounds. There was the official UK charts, conducted by Gallup in the 1980s, which were broadcast on Radio One. In 1984, Independent Local Radio stations created the Network Chart which complemented each ILR station’s own charts. For many listeners, the only way of getting to listen to the latest hits besides buying a compilation album.

Back when Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes topped the UK singles chart, there was another game-changing radio station in the high seas. They were only on air for 19 months, but the impact they had on today’s commercial radio stations is still being felt today.

“Never more than a minute away from music”

From the start of Margaret Thatcher’s second term in office, her Conservative government embarked upon a programme of economic liberalisation which had its critics. This also meant “popular capitalism” by means of selling off our public assets. Also curbing the power of our trade unions and deregulating our buses – with disastrous results that are still being seen today.

In the media world, this meant breaking strong trade unions in television, radio and print industries. Job security would be replaced by precarious freelancing positions. Compositors and hot metal type gave way to computers. In 1987, the ACTT technicians’ strike at TV-am saw TV-am’s secretaries and their boss, Bruce Gyngell, operating the cameras – with odd episodes of Batman and Flipper.

Light touch regulation and the subsequent deregulation of TV and radio wasn’t far away. Needle time could well have been seen by some critics as part of the old order. An anachronism alongside print chapels, well paid employment, and the clock counting us down to Colin Weston saying “Don’t forget to switch off your set”.

Inland, the nail in the coffin for needle time was the government’s changes to ILR licences. Primarily the addition of incremental radio stations like Sunset Radio. This would lead to the creation of new commercial national radio stations like Talk Sport and Classic FM. On Independent Local Radio stations, needle time was scrapped in 1988, with the BBC’s stations following suit in 1990.

The launch of incremental local radio stations were designed to counter another threat: another wave of pirate stations. Inland, Kiss and KFM; offshore, there was Laser 558.

Laser 558 got around the needle time hours by being based offshore in international waters and owned by an American company. Whereas a 50:50 split between music and speech was imposed on British radio stations, Laser 558’s presentation was more akin to today’s Capital, Heart and Hits Radio stations. Minimum chat, minimal news updates, and more music. A more fast-paced style. It was claimed that Laser 558’s listening figures made a dent in Radio One’s figures.

In Tameside and Stockport, the same was true with the original KFM. Kiss performed a similar function with dance music in London. Whereas Kiss and KFM went legit, Laser 558’s demise came from a lack of advertising revenue.

Kiss would later become a national brand whereas the new KFM seemed to have lacked the staying power and immediacy of its pirate version. KFM would eventually become Signal Cheshire before changing its name to Imagine FM. Today, its offices are based in the legendary Strawberry Studios in Stockport. This clip from 1991 shows Rob Charles’ show on KFM.

The ghost of Laser 558

Thanks to an influential pirate station, the chances of needle time returning to our airwaves are about as likely as yours truly seeing Stalybridge Celtic lift the UEFA Champions League trophy. For many listeners, the template set by Laser 558 is the norm.

Laser 558 wasn’t the only nail in the coffin for needle time. A package called Selector was another coffin nail. As detailed in the Granada Tonight clip below, this American software package introduced format radio to the North West of England. With Selector, the disc jockey cedes control of the playlist.

As stated in the clip, its introduction saw increased listenership across Owen Oyston’s stations (Piccadilly Gold, Red Rose Rock, Red Rose Gold and Key 103). It also states how DJs could remain bubbly personalities so long as they stick to the playlist.

Today in our post-needle time era, the forerunners of Selector are with us on AM, FM, DAB, proprietary and open-source apps and other streaming services. The consolidation of Independent Local Radio stations has led to automatic stations being regional outposts of national brands. Though there may be support for the return of localised schedules on ILR stations, there is no clamour for the return of needle time.

S.V., 04 August 2019.

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