Back in 1981, we spent most of our time listening to jaunty, wholesome pop songs on BBC Radio 1 – performers such as Cliff Richard, Kim Wilde and The Human League were among the most frequently-played artists on national and commercial radio networks.
Then, without warning, a meteorite struck this musical landscape in the form of a single called ‘O Superman’ by the American Laurie Anderson. Instead of the usual guitars, keyboards and verse-chorus structure, this bleak record (which went on for eight minutes) consisted of a repeated vowel like the pulse of a neutron star; at irregular intervals, Ms Anderson would deliver banal phrases through a vocoder. Roger Bourland, writing in July 2006 on his eponymous website, gives a beautifully perceptive account of this song – both its structure and impact.
Everybody talked about this song; thousands of copies were sold, and it entered the upper reaches of the pop charts. The programmers at Radio 1 sensed a new interest in electronic and avant-garde music, and began to broadcast occasional shows where the history of alternative music was discussed. One show even included ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’ and ‘Poeme Electronique’, two works which remain starkly at odds with most mainstream electronica.
The BBC was in the lucky position of not having to chase audience share; if only a handful of listeners wanted to hear some of these disconcerting works, then the Corporation would grant their wish. Similarly, the BBC would devote an evening to classical Indian Ragas during the Henry Wood Prom Season; and for many years it was customary for Wagner’s Parsifal to be broadcast in full every year on Good Friday.
I was reminded of this enchanted period of my life by a recent article in The Guardian, ‘The Rest is Noise: Southbank festival to celebrate contemporary classical music’ which describes the renewed popularity of modern classical music. And back in ’81 when I was a teenager, I had no idea that four years later I would be at the Purcell Room listening to Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, or that I would have a CD collection (what are CDs?) including gems by Lutoslawski, Dutilleux and Birtwhistle.