16 October 2023

I can't dance to that music you're playin' : 1970 : Emperor Rosko, The Paris Theatre, London

 “Would you like to dance?” the girl asked.

I was dumbfounded. Nobody had ever asked me to dance. Particularly a girl!

“Er, no thanks,” I mumbled pathetically.

“Oh, go on, please,” she chivvied. Anyone else would have been flattered. But me? I was terrified. 

“Sorry, but I can’t dance,” I tried to explain. The girl looked disappointed but gave up and walked back to the stage. It might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But I blew it.

It was true. I have never been able to dance. Too self-conscious. Too buttoned-up in that English way. The last occasion I recall dancing wildly was the 1977 Trevelyan College Summer Ball to which fellow student Zena Carter had generously invited me and whom I must have embarrassed immensely with my feeble attempt at ‘Saturday Night Fever’ moves I had just seen at Durham’s cinema. All the posh male students in attendance wore black tuxedos, while I looked completely out-of-place in a borrowed white suit, jigging around to the local live band ‘No Exit’ featuring a certain ‘Sting’. I still cringe. Three years later, my job would be adding hit songs by his next band ‘The Police’ to local station ‘Metro Radio’s playlist.

But that was in the future. Back in 1970, another reason I turned down the girl’s invitation to dance was that I had become terribly shy. At primary school I had considered myself no different from my classmates. Then, after moving to grammar school in 1969, I was developing a creeping sense of inferiority, not comprehending why my termly school reports criticised me for not being sufficiently vocal in class. Achieving classwork and exam results near the top of my year of sixty students was seemingly judged insufficient unless you flaunted your cleverness by regularly sticking up your hand in class and pushing yourself in front of teachers. In my new ‘streamed’ school, populated by many privately educated ‘prep school’ protegees, it appeared a boy might inexplicably be considered deficient for simply being ‘quiet’ and demonstrating no interest in blowing his own trumpet. I responded to my school’s reproaches by retreating into shyness in company … which dogged me for decades to come.

I might have felt less self-conscious about the girl walking up to me in the end seat of the fourth row on the left side of the centre aisle, had my mother not been sat right next to me. I was embarrassed. I was twelve years old, though I appeared older because of my height. I had written to the BBC Ticket Unit to request a pair of tickets to attend the live broadcast of Emperor Rosko’s Saturday lunchtime ‘BBC Radio One’ show at London’s Paris Theatre. None of my new schoolfriends appeared to be interested in the music I followed, so my mother had accompanied me on the train from Camberley.

The Paris Theatre had been an art-house cinema showing French films in Lower Regent Street until the BBC acquired it in 1946 and equipped it with a radio studio to record concerts and live comedy shows before a seated audience of around 400. From 1968, the weekday lunchtime ‘Radio One Club’ show had been broadcast live from the venue, hosted by a station DJ and showcasing a live band in front of an audience who had all sent to the BBC for their ‘Club’ membership cards. It was the station’s earliest attempt at outreach to its listeners and, by the 1970’s, was extended from London to cities around the country. In 1974, it was replaced by the touring ‘Radio One Roadshow’ whose format was similar to the large summer outdoor events Rosko had been organising independently since the 1960’s.

I was a huge fan of Rosko’s weekly radio show because he played reggae and new American soul records as yet unreleased in Britain. At that time, when around 100 new singles were released a week in the UK, record companies would wait to see which American singles proved successful in North American charts before committing to a British release date. This delay could be months, often allowing British pop artists to ‘cover’ American soul hits before the original was available in shops. My parents owned Julie Grant’s single of ‘Up On The Roof’ which had reached number 33 in 1962, but they had never heard the original by The Drifters which failed to chart in Britain. Grant successfully parlayed her chart success into several television appearances and a concert tour with The Rolling Stones, another British act recycling American black music at the time.

Each week I would record Rosko’s 90-minute Saturday show onto an audiocassette and listen to it repeatedly on headphones while I did my homework, before recording the next show over it the following weekend. This was the first occasion I heard James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ single, Rosko playing the A-side one week and its B-side the next. It changed my life! Many outstanding tracks like this recorded onto my cassette I went on to buy as imported American singles from ‘Contempo’ at 42 Hanway Street or ‘Record Corner’ in Balham, the main retailers for new American black music as yet unreleased in the UK. Many of those songs first heard on Rosko’s show I still know by heart and treasure to this day. Without the benefit of a black music radio station in Britain (London soul pirate ‘Radio Invicta’ did not launch until December 1970), Rosko was the nearest experience available, even though he mixed reggae and soul with some pop and rock tracks.

What marked Rosko’s shows out from the rest of ‘Radio One’s output was that he simultaneously operated a mobile discotheque (the ‘Rosko International Roadshow’) and compered concerts by American soul artists touring the UK. That gave him a unique insight into the specific music British audiences wanted to hear, something that many of his studio-bound radio colleagues did not understand. The other factor was that Rosko was allowed to choose his own records to play on the radio, whereas the music in most shows was selected by ‘Radio One’ producers, the majority of whom preferred twee British novelty acts to ‘foreign’ reggae and soul. These ‘gatekeepers’ could determine through national airplay whether a record was to become a hit or not in Britain, so the charts inevitably reflected their value judgements.

I was fascinated when analysing the British singles charts from this period to discover the volume of chart-topping pop songs that are never played as ‘oldies’ nowadays because they sound embarrassingly quaint or sentimental. Compare that to the significantly lower chart positions achieved by many black music recordings considered now to be ‘classic’ or ‘standards’ [documented in my book ‘KISS FM’]. It is forgotten just how ‘white’ the BBC’s popular music station sounded overall, despite valiant attempts to play more soul by daytime DJ’s Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis. My appreciation of reggae was sparked by Rosko but had to be developed by evenings tuned to ‘Radio Luxembourg’ which Trojan Records paid to play their latest reggae releases. In 1971, singer Nicky Thomas even recorded the song ‘BBC’ to chastise ‘Radio One’ for not playing enough reggae, its release accompanied by a protest march to Broadcasting House. This had no evident impact on the station’s producers who were almost exclusively recruited from the white middle-classes and who moulded ‘Radio One’ in their own image.

This was why my visit (without dancing) to the Paris Theatre that Saturday was to become such a memorable experience, having enjoyed some of my favourite soul and reggae tunes played loudly through Rosko’s enormous sound system loudspeakers. When the girl asked me to dance, Rosko had been playing Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, a remarkably innovative Motown production by Norman Whitfield recorded to protest the Vietnam War with its chorus: “war … what is it good for? … absolutely nothing!”

A few years ago, I created a Spotify playlist of several hundred Whitfield productions, such remains my unbridled enthusiasm for his work (often with songwriting partner Barrett Strong). At the beginning of October this year, something prompted me to return to this playlist and update it with songs Whitfield subsequently recorded for his own label, notably by Rose Royce. I spent the following days listening non-stop to songs from my enlarged playlist such as ‘War’, ‘Stop The War Now’, ‘Friendship Train’, ‘Unite The World’ and ‘You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth’ all recorded half a century ago, all explicitly criticising violence and promoting peace. This was the music I was listening to only days later when news broke of atrocities committed in Israel. The music was appropriate … but the timing was inexplicably spooky.

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