Beginning soon, Ronnie and Barry, the two scamps from Mrs Moran’s class in 1960, who’ve introduced us to ‘Food in the 1960s’ will be taking us with them on their journey through the music of their formative decade. Here, Ronnie sketches out what they were up against.
It’s looked back on now as a kind of golden age. Of social progress and civil rights. Of post war austerity finally ending. And particularly, the 1960s are remembered as a golden age of popular music. But at the time, living in a northern provincial city, albeit one that was briefly at the centre of the earth, the music could be pretty hard to find. And that was largely because of ‘light entertainment.’ Let’s go back there.
It’s New Year 1960, we’ve only recently rented our first television and I’m watching a strange ritual. An old man in a wheel-chair, the Old Year, is being wheeled off stage. Seconds later the New Year, clearly the same portly old gent, comes bouncing back on. And the celebrations for the new year and the new decade begin. This is Billy Cotton, and whatever else you might remember from the 1960s, he will bestride the decade with his light entertainment.
Him and his band were actually a 1930s dance band that had simply kept going until they became a staple of both radio and television in the 1950s. There was no getting away from them. Every show would begin the same, Billy hollering ‘Wakey, Wakey!’ And the band playing ‘Somebody stole my gal.’ And every show would continue the sing-along-the-same. To our utter despair.
There was also a Scottish equivalent, ‘The White Heather Club’ – a horribly tartanised version of Scottish culture that seemed to contain the same people and the same songs every week. I would eventually come to love traditional Scots and Gaelic music but it took me years to recover from years of this. Go on, just see if you can stick more than a minute of it.
While these two were annoying and boring, they were at least harmless. Not so the most popular of the 1960s light entertainment programmes.Whilst Rosa Parkes and Martin Luther King were standing up to the discriminations of America and saying ‘Enough and no more’ – we were having to watch the Black and White Minstrel Show.
It beggars belief now but throughout the 1960s this throw-back piece of black-face ‘entertainment’ was regularly pulling in audience figures of 18million per programme. From 1967 onwards the BBC were receiving complaints about it being racist. But they let it run until 1978.
Not that I knew enough to know it was racist in those early 60s days. I just thought it was yet more boring light entertainment and it was weird the way the women were all white and the men were all wearing this bizarre make up. I didn’t realise how bizarre. Apparently on black and white TV black make up didn’t work well so during the nine years that the show was broadcast in black and white, the black-face makeup was actually red!
‘Well, no one was making you watch this stuff’ I hear you saying about me putting up with this boredom back then. But actually two things were conspiring to make it almost obligatory. First, there was definite family pressure to all sit together and watch the same things in those days. Second, there was no central heating yet, so for much of the year the living room where the TV lived was the only warm room in the house.
But as we move towards the mid-sixties things do start to improve and it becomes easier to find the real music. Which is just as well because even on the radio, up to then, things had been hard. You’d sit the whole way through ‘Two way family favourites’ on a Sunday just praying somebody would request the Dave Clark Five or Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, never mind the Beatles, and the best you’d probably get was some game but lame British cover of an American hit by the likes of Craig Douglas.
So thank goodness for Brian Matthew, Saturday Club, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Top of the Pops and, best of all, Ready Steady Go! All of which we’ll be returning to, along with Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations, as Barry and I recall both growing up in the golden age of pop music in the 60s and how hard it could be for us to actually find the music.
And how, sadly, as the 60s progress, access to good music doesn’t continue to improve. Light entertainment strikes back in the form of a seemingly endless series of cosy variety programmes hosted by Val Doonican, Rolf Harris, Harry Seacombe and, sadly, our Cilla. Where they mostly all do guest slots on each other’s programmes and we wait forlornly for the very occasional ‘proper’ guest to appear.
Like an episode of the Billy Cotton Bandshow from 1968 (yes, I told you he would bestride the decade) where I recall voluntarily sitting through an age of the usual slush for a two minute glimpse of Scott Walker. Some things are just not right and never were.
Much more of this coming soon as Ronnie Hughes and Barry Ward, intrepid juvenile explorers of ‘Food in the 1960s’ turn their attentions to the glorious music that coloured in their lives.