"My Experts Tell Me That It's OK"

I've been mildly obsessed with Ding Dong, George Harrison's Big Ben-based ostensible New Year's anthem which staggered limply into the lower reaches of the top forty early in 1975 (making him the first former Beatle to miss the top thirty in the process), ever since first hearing the almost belief-beggaringly uninspired slab of lyric-deficient nothingness on an edition of The Golden Oldie Picture Show, the bizarre mid-eighties BBC1 vehicle in which Dave Lee Travis linked 'videos' made for pop hits from the days before they had 'videos'; the fact that most of them had promo films was presumably neither here nor there. In case you were wondering, it was accompanied by footage from inside a bell factory. Years later, I would spend about a week laughing at Charles Shaar Murray's original NME review of Ding Dong, a single paragraph in which the disillusioned former sixties underground firebrand despaired of how we had got from The Beatles to here, zeroing in on the song's sheer uselessness with an intensity that all but eradicated the need to hear it for yourself.

Needless to say, Ding Dong was one of the first things that I looked up in The Guinness Book Of Rock Stars - an 'A to Z of the people who made rock happen' that I was given as a Christmas present in 1989, which charted pop careers in a month-by-month stat-heavy fashion - and even that blunt just-the-facts summation somehow managed to be amusingly damning. But it was then that my eye was caught by aspects of the Solo George story of which I had not previously been aware, primarily the 1971 court case in which he was accused of ripping off The Chiffons' 1963 hit He's So Fine for My Sweet Lord. These sort of cases were ten a frozen royalty penny in those days, affecting everyone from Joe Meek to The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, and almost always found in the complainant's favour; while even the most casual of observers could make a good case that while He's So Fine and My Sweet Lord have similar melodies, they are fundamentally different songs, try telling that to an early seventies judge who probably held a dim view of those erstwhile Beatle Boys and their long-haired antics, if indeed he didn't have to ask the prosecutor who they were in the first place. Followed in stark, detail-heavy black and white, the long and protracted course of the court case, and George's eventual defeat, is actually rather uncomfortable to read, and you do get a sense of how it must have impacted on a man who wasn't exactly having the happiest time of his life at that point. The entry for Ding Dong, released towards the end of the drawn-out legal proceedings, draws attention to the fact that "the b-side I Don't Care Anymore reflects his mood of the time". Although it's fair to say that Ding Dong also fairly accurately reflects his mood of the time, and that I Don't Care Anymore is as depressingly lazy and throwaway as it is sarcastic - you really do have to feel for anyone who bought that single expecting a faint echo of Beatle magic - I couldn't help but feel drawn towards the idea of one of the world's most famous musical figures waving a musical two fingers not just at his legal tormenters but at a public that had seemingly turned on him too. The quiet ones - and indeed The Quiet One - always have the best comebacks.

Yet even that was nothing compared to what I found a couple of entries further down. Late 1976 single This Song, the book dryly noted, "offers wry comment on the My Sweet Lord court case, referring in its lyrics to the publishers of He's So Fine". The idea of a world-famous musician - and an ex-Beatle at that - blasting back at recent personal troubles with a neat bit of public score-settling place-putting-in musical pissed-offness sounded to the very young me like the most amazing thing in the history of anything ever. With the reissue market and oldies radio not really having taken off at that point, and iTunes still nothing more than a vague notion at the back of the mind of whoever it is that thinks making each successive upgrade harder and harder to navigate in any meaningful fashion is in any way a good idea, the only place that you really stood a chance of hearing it was on Radio 1's Golden Hour, and indeed that was where I would finally hear it, during breakfast in a hotel on a family holiday, and I was rooted to the spot not just by even more acidic and virulent lyrics than I had been anticipating - the line "this tune has nothing Bright about it", referring to He's So Fine copyright holders Bright Tunes, still makes me want to punch the air with joy whenever I hear it - but by the startling appearance in the middle eight of the unmistakeable voice of Eric Idle, screeching away on full Pepperpot form about which Motown oldie This Song sounds most like. Monty Python, The Beatles and getting up the nose of the Establishment, my three big teenage obsessions, had collided in spectacular fashion and I can recall the pure rush that gave me as if it was yesterday. Of course, George was so disillusioned with the music business by this point that he took extended time out and set himself up as a film producer, resulting in - or, depending on which way you look at it, resulting from - yet another even more spectacular collision of those same three obsessions. But that's another story.

But the This Song story itself didn't end there. Years later, I discovered that George had made a promo film for This Song - stitch that, The Golden Oldie Picture Show - featuring him being dragged bodily into court and forced to give evidence to a courtroom of his music and comedy pals, miming, boogieing and mugging like an even more unhinged episode of Cop Rock, if such a thing was even scientifically possible. It's a subtle act of rock star defiance, especially by 1976's own specific standards, but it's one that all this time later can still have you crying with laughter both at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation that led to it, and at one man's determination to show them all just how much he didn't care any more. Put it on whenever you're feeling disillusioned or out of options - well, come on, not many people reading this are going to be sued for copyright infringement over a global multi-million selling single - and I guarantee you'll see the funny side.

The Nation's Not-Quite-As-Favourite

Some time ago, I had an idea for a book about comedy on Radio 1.

Well, it wasn't really a book at first. Initially it was just a list of transmission dates for all those Radio 1 comedy shows I'd once listened to religiously - somewhat ironic, considering the religion-baiting themes that many of them had mined for their humour - such as The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Blue Jam, Victor Lewis-Smith, The Chris Morris Music Show, Lee & Herring's Fist Of Fun and, erm, Intimate Contact With Julian Clary, really more for my own amusement than anything else. Then I started to get curious about all of those shows that I hadn't liked. And then the ones that I'd never even heard of. And what about all of those magazine, documentary and even DJ shows that were essentially 'comedy' in all but name? Needless to say, that list would soon expand into something far more substantial, so come with me now into the swirling mists of human inadeq...

Anyway, eventually, after long hours spent scouring randomly through Radio Times listings and attempting to negotiate copies of off-air recordings of the little-heard likes of Songlines, Windbags and Z Magazine from surprisingly cautious collectors, the time came to try and pester a couple of erstwhile performers and producers into answering a couple of questions, clearing up a couple of obscure details, and generally reminiscing about their days spent trying to fit jokes around Bomb The Bass records. And, surprisingly, nearly all of them were prepared to have a bit of a chat with the self-publishing nobody with the bizarre open-ended research project. From Mark Radcliffe and David Baddiel to Dave Cash and Danisnotonfire and even zany old Chris Morris, they were all more than happy to spend half an hour or so nattering about mostly long-forgotten shows that they clearly all still held a great deal of affection for, and seemingly everyone that I spoke to had an almost inexhaustible supply of amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes or recollections of sketches and routines that had given them a rarely-recaptured professional thrill. Needless to say, there were plenty of exciting moments in all this, from The Mary Whitehouse Experience's original producer Bill Dare breathlessly recounting virtually word for word his experiences both encouraging and bruising with BBC 'suits', to The Ginger Prince from Radio Tip Top suddenly breaking into character on the phone when I managed to track him down after months of effort, to Adrian Juste's extraordinary rant about how "it's very unhealthy to let politicians, and this preponderance of celebrity nonentities we have now, get away with the crap they spout uncontested... they are so up their own arse, and getting worse, if you don't stop them by pricking their little bubbles of pomposity... we all need a good laugh now and again - at their overpaid, mollycoddled expense". But, just occasionally, there were slightly more uncomfortable moments.

Sometimes, in the progression of the conversation, the names of some of the more comedy-averse (usually in both senses) 'old guard' of daytime DJs would come up, and that was the point at which many of the older contributors, from both in front and behind the microphone, would suddenly go a bit quieter. Often this went no further than moving rapidly on to the next question, but once or twice, one or two of them tried to subtly drop hints that there was some sort of potential minefield here that should be avoided at all costs. Without wishing to give too much away, one individual who was involved in an on-air prank at the expense of a now-discredited DJ darkly hinted that they weren't just sending him up as an affectionate in-joke, and virtually spat out every word when having to actually talk about him as a person. Meanwhile, one Radio 1 veteran went even further and, without even hinting at details, named names, warning against featuring them in any detail or even in any context because it wasn't likely to be long before "some stuff will come out about them and nobody will want anything to do with your book". What this 'stuff' might have been, I had no idea, and looking back now I'm glad that I didn't.

In the meantime, work on what would eventually become Fun At One continued apace and its scope increased dramatically, extending to cover not just such nominally non-comedy shows as In Concert, Collins And Maconie's Hit Parade and The Antiques Record Roadshow, but all kinds of other rarely acknowledged cornerstones of Radio 1's output like Newsbeat, live sessions and late night dance music shows; sorry, but you'll have to buy the book to find out exactly how and when they collided with the world of comedy. And, on top of all that, every time that I thought I'd finally managed to find the whole lot of them, the list of actual proper comedy shows kept on increasing too. The happily accidental upshot of all this was that, with a couple of notable (and thankfully all still respectable) exceptions, there was literally no room nor indeed need to mention any of the self-styled 'Welly Boot Mafia' as anything more than passing references. Which was handy as, frankly, none of them were ever that amusing, or even likeable, and in short there are few things less funny than someone who thinks that they are.

Eventually, after what seemed like endless amounts of research, writing and rewriting, not to mention a last minute change to the entire final chapter when Radio 1 decided to actually start making comedy shows again, Fun At One was finally ready to hit the virtual presses. Graham and Jack Kibble-White helped out with some amazing design work, Ben Baker came up with some great promotional ideas, and the few people who had read it in advance of publication all seemed to be confident that it would be a huge success. And then... well, you all know what happened next.

In fairness, quite a few people were very generous in their attempts to help plug Fun At One - I'm particularly grateful to Richard Herring - but, well, it really was just the wrong book at the wrong time. Regrettably, that cautious interviewee had been proved right; nobody was saying as much, but by then it really wasn't the done thing to be seen to be celebrating Radio 1 in any way, and, well, it seems that it still isn't the done thing. At the time of writing, Fun At One has been outsold three times over by my anthology of pieces on neglected TV Not On Your Telly, a good third of which had already seen print in one form or another. Even fan forums that I'd assumed would go wild for the book seemed to be giving it a wide berth. This isn't a whinge or a complaint by the way - it would be crass to intimate that a couple of pages about Sound Bites With David Baddiel was somehow more important than the vexing questions of how and why those scrawny old bastards got away with what they did for so long, let alone use it as an excuse for a sales pitch (though doubtless some prats on Twitter will accuse me of doing just that) - and sometimes it's just the way these things turn out. In fact, in moments of sharing the unease, I've actually considered withdrawing Fun At One from sale once or twice, though more sensible people have always talked me out of that.

What this is a plea for, though, is for an end to this tainting of the whole of Radio 1 by association. As Fun At One arguably demonstrates, there was - and is - so much more to the station and its staggeringly broad output than the off-air antics of a handful of presenters who were only there for a fraction of its existence anyway, and all of it deserves celebration and appreciation that now seems to be roundly denied. Which is understandable, but has to stop some time. So go out and listen to a BBC Sessions album by The Beatles, Belle & Sebastian, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or whoever takes your fancy. Catch the imminent repeats of series two of Blue Jam on Radio 4 Extra. In short, remember what you liked about Radio 1, and start liking it all over again. Because, let's be honest about it, nothing would have hurt those talentless egomaniacs more than being overshadowed by something that was actually good.

Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.