My formative music years were the 70s. Early on, I discovered in myself an aversion to mainstream music radio and the endless walls of shit you had to endure in between the more acceptable fare. But I loved the radio itself, and loved to explore the medium wave dial, listening at night for the distant sounds of Radio Moscow and other voices in the dark bouncing off the heavyside layer. And so it was that one night I came across Radio Caroline, broadcasting from somewhere in the North Sea from the rusting hulk the Mi Amigo.
Dunstable was a long way from the sea off Frinton, but if you kept your finger on the dial and were prepared to endure the drifting parasites and intruding voices, you could hear the good stuff.
This was not the Caroline of its 60s heyday. That Caroline was eviscerated by the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences act. This Caroline was based over in Spain (not part of the EU until 1986) and had a loosely hippy philosophy based on Loving Awareness (Caroline’s take on the Golden Rule) and a policy of only playing album tracks. Through this I was introduced to a broad spectrum of 60s and 70s rock. I didn’t love all of it, but it was all at least interesting, and helped me to understand my own tastes. The closest Caroline came to playing punk or new wave was to give an airing to “Sultans of Swing”, and this avoidance of the spiky new stuff was fine by me. You heard that everywhere else, after all.
My favourite shows, by far, were the weekend “Personal Top 30s”, which were given over to listener choices in a way that puts the occasional requested track on mainstream radio into perspective. A two hour show would be given over to one listener’s preferences. Sure, a lot of it ended up being pretty samey, but that was just the way you knew you were in the right place.
This all came to mind again because I was listening to a re-broadcast of David Hepworth’s Radio 3 talks about authenticity in music. He mentioned that in commercial radio these days the idea that the DJ would get to choose any of the music on the playlist was complete anathema. And then I thought, if I were to send my own personal Top 30, as of now, to the Radio Caroline of my dreams, what would be on it? Most of it would be fairly recent in terms of release dates, but not all. And some of it, it turns out, would have been on my list in 1979, too.
Let’s start with the first five tracks.
30. Don’t Change on Me – Alan Jackson. This song, from his 2006 album Like Red on a Rose, is a perfect example of Mr Jackson’s musical philosophy. He just keeps singing this stuff, and it really doesn’t change much. I think this has a beautifully rich production, gospel-style backing vocals and hammond organ, and the kind of musical tastefulness that is his stock in trade. Of course, most of the Caroline listeners have switched off already, because this is a country song.
29. That’s Life – Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s last great song, from 1966, with more great hammond organ and Darlene Love, among others, on backing vocals. It is perhaps his most modern-sounding recording. The clips you can find of him performing this live tend not to have the backing vocals. The song sounds hollowed out without them, but you still get the tour-de-force vocals, with the defiant string of plosives which might only be there to demonstrate his incredible microphone technique. Oh, and it’s the late Hal Blaine on drums, too.
28. Dancing in the Moonlight – Thin Lizzy. One of the first albums I bought was Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. I remember being disappointed that it didn’t include “The Boys Are Back in Town” (should have checked the track listing more carefully), and also slightly unimpressed by most of the twin-guitar rock stuff. But this? A classic single, one of the great tracks driven by its baseline, and so much better than any other track which dares take this title in vain. Mentioning no names. I didn’t know back then about the excessive overdubbing that went on for that live album, but I probably wouldn’t have cared. Authenticity? What’s that? I do actually always get chocolate stains on my pants.
27. Not the Only – Sugarland. Pretty recent this, from their 2018 comeback album. I love Sugarland and could have chosen any number of their songs, but I realised when this came on the first time that I absolutely love hearing Christian Bush’s gravelly voice cutting against Jennifer Nettles’ power vocal, and on this he gets to sing on his own, too. It turns out, that while she’s the one with the huge voice, his is the one that creates the anthemic feel.
26. The Ceiling – The Wild Feathers. A recent discovery for me, but this track is from 2013, another anthemic country-rock song to give you a lift. You can trace a line back from this to the Radio Caroline 70s and the occasional Eagles or The Band track that would come on. Vocal harmonies and guitars, what’s not to like?