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Radio-Activity II: Today, Bowie & Evan Davis' Pierced Nipples
Jude Rogers , January 12th, 2013 07:12

In the second of her Radio-Activity radio review columns, Jude Rogers asks why the otherwise excellent Today programme can't get music right, and praises programmes on The Zombies, bogs and Delia Derbyshire.

How brilliant it is when the BBC brings you a surprise in the morning.  Usually, when Today kicks into life I hear one of several things: a) the sweaty hiss of John Humphrys turning puce as steam cannons from his ears b) the oily symphony of a Tory smarming his (it's usually his) rotten arse off or c) a badly-researched arts item with a thesis as watertight as the Herald Of Free Enterprise. All of the above are safe bets to generally rocket me out of bed, but not on Tuesday. Oh no. On Tuesday, just after 6am, Evan Davis told us all that Radio 4 were about to premiere... the... new... David Bowie single?

After I checked that the contents of my Monday night dinner had been entirely legal, then came the miracle. But sadly the quality of Radio 4's  relevations still lingered in the c) camp. "Being the Today programme, we won't play it all," said Davis, awkwardly, before his gaffers deigned to play 75 seconds of it. Joining him was Front Row presenter John Wilson,  saying that Bowie's partner in the video was Björk (it wasn't), and that Bowie disappeared for good a few months after making 2002's Heathen (I feel sorry for 2003's Reality). Then Davis, obviously grappling with the worry that few of his listeners would care about this item, offered this turgid shrug: "he's not doing it because he needs the money, is he?"

The whole air of the broadcast was one of unease about the item's relevance – and it wasn't for the first time. Often when pop music is mentioned on Today, its presenters act as if the next item's been introduced in Klingon. 'Haha, aren't we wacky, this beat music will never last, harumph, harumph’. And then I think – hold up – Evan Davies has pierced nipples, for God's sake, and he's not even 50 yet. And what's so wrong precisely about interrogating the world that's around us now? Today's more than happy to do that when Nick Clegg as much as has a fart. It's also been, oh, 56 years since critic Richard Hoggart gave pop culture a stiff examination in The Uses Of Literacy, and made questioning this sort of stuff intelligently, very reasonably, an academic pursuit. Humphrys, Davis and co are also perfectly happy to entertain Richard's son, Simon – The Guardian's political sketch writer – but here they are crinkling at the 66-year-old David Jones, who first played in a band when Evan Davis had yet to be toilet trained.

Bowie on Today: LISTEN HERE

This is an ongoing problem. I've been on Today once, just over a year ago, as part of a feature about Steve Lamacq's Wear Your Old Band T-Shirt To Work Day. Oh, the contempt that crackled through that room could have peeled off the wallpaper... you'd swear that James Naughtie had barely contemplated the t-shirt as a fashion item, let alone a t-shirt with some words on it.  I'm not implying that I want Today to have a BBC3-style fashionable makeover either; bar getting rid of the Shipping Forecast (the tune I've already demanded being played when my coffin slides behind the curtains), I can't think of anything worse. But here's an idea. A radio programme for adults which acknowledges the real world in which we live, – politically and culturally. A world in which today's pensioners were born, you know, after 'Rocket 88’ was released. Wouldn't that be a start?

A better treatment of music came on the World Service's art strand, The Strand. I dip in and out of this online, as I'm usually in the land of zzzs when it's on. This edition included a slot on Burmese band Side Effect, who decided to make their own music after getting bored of hearing groups only playing covers of Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses. Their frontman, an enthusiastic chap called Darko C, gushed about finding inspiration online: "most of the music, we got it from the internet. The amazing internet actually." This sounded joyfully naïve, until you realised that only 6% of the population in Myanmar own cable connections, and that military-controlled censorship is still rife. Side Effect have recently toured Germany too, which Mark Coles – an engaging, unpatronising presenter – stresses would never have happened a few years ago. He then asks Darko, with concern, if he could end up in jail for writing a song. Darko C laughs swetly. "Of course!" Coles final comment – "Good luck to him" – is genuinely touching.


Otherwise, my other recommendations hang heavy with the whiff of the old, content man that this 34-year-old woman is fast turning into. A Guide To Mountain and Moorland Birds (Radio 4, Thursday, 13.45) is the loveliest radio imaginable, with recordings of golden plovers, dunlins and greenshanks made by Chris Watson, the sound recordist often seen (and heard) over on the Caught By The River website. Yes, the one that used to be in Cabaret Voltaire. This week's episode had a nicely late '70s punk name too: Bogs and Mires.

Bogs and Mires: LISTEN HERE

Also, several people on Twitter told me that I had not, as I had feared, missed The Zombies on late-night Radio 4 classic-album series Mastertapes before Christmas, as all these are now available as podcasts for later listening. And how great this one was too. John Wilson of the aforementioned Bowie comments does a much better job here, leading a two-part dissection of the band's astonishing 1967 album, Odessey and Oracle. The story of 'Butcher's Tale (Western Front) 1914’, the most terrifying song I've ever heard about World War One, was described, and sung, movingly by Zombie Chris White. Paul Weller also pops up in the audience asking a question; he's introduced as a "working musician".

Zombies on Mastertapes: LISTEN HERE

And finally, this morning was broken with the sound of Delia Derbyshire. 6Music regular Colin Paterson took us to Manchester, where three women calling themselves the Delia Darlings were preparing for an event celebrating their heroine: Delia Derbyshire Day. Their compositions and comments were interesting and weren't patronised, while clips of rarely-heard compositions from Delia were also shudderingly powerful – particularly some terrifying drones from a 1967 RSC production of Macbeth, directed by Sir Peter Hall, and starring Paul Schofield. Back then, these very different worlds co-existed quite happily. If Auntie could only learn from her own lessons, this could happen again.

Delia (from 08.18): LISTEN HERE