Book review: BBC Radio 2: Sounds of the Sixties by Phil Swern

Were you, like me, one of the late Brian Matthew's army of Avids?
BBC Radio 2: Sounds of the Sixties by Phil SwernBBC Radio 2: Sounds of the Sixties by Phil Swern
BBC Radio 2: Sounds of the Sixties by Phil Swern

This was the term he used for the 3.5 million ‘avid’ listeners who tuned in at 8am each Saturday morning for BBC Radio 2’s Sounds of the Sixties.

The veteran presenter passed away in April, aged 88, and had been missing from behind the microphone for many weeks before that due to ill health. Yet his legacy lives on with this book, written by the popular programme’s producer and compiler Phil ‘The Collector’ Swern.

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Subtitled The Ultimate Sixties Music Companion, it is a description that could easily have applied to Brian himself who, earlier in his BBC career – which dated back to 1954 – hosted two of the Light Programme’s top pop shows, Saturday Club and Easy Beat.

Yet despite what many listeners (and readers of the book) might think, he wasn’t the original presenter of Sounds of the Sixties. It began in 1983, introduced by Keith Fordyce, then other hosts followed.

But Brian was at the helm from 1990 for the next 27 years, making the show his own, and signing off each two-hour nostalgia fest with the same words: ‘This is your old mate Brian Matthew saying that’s your lot for this week, see ya next week.’

Phil Swern has packed 416 pages with potted accounts of records spun on Saturdays over the years, serving up fascinating facts about memorable hits from key artistes along with details of those hidden gems rarely heard anywhere else on the radio since their initial release.

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This giant jukebox ‘selection,’ split into 20 chapters, starts with ‘The Hits,’ 100 successful singles, all with a story to tell.

Who would have known, for instance, that the Bee Gees were inspired to write their first UK top 20 hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941, while sitting on the stairs in their record company offices during a power cut, imagining what it must have been like to be trapped down the mines?

Other sections include Beatles’ covers (59 of them from Frankie Valli to Plastic Penny), novelty records (does ANYBODY actually admit to buying Click Clack ‘65 by Dicky Doo and the Don’ts?), instrumentals, the psychedelic era, TV and radio themes, dance crazes, EPs and albums.

I have no idea how many of Brian Matthew’s Avids now set their alarm clocks to wake up and listen to the long-running Saturday programme at its new staggeringly earlier time of 6am, under the stewardship of DJ Tony Blackburn, who presents it live to the nation rather than the recorded format of old. I certainly don't!

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I prefer my sleep but that doesn’t mean I miss out. Instead, I hear – and still enjoy – the wide range of tracks from that golden decade played each week, at my convenience, courtesy of the BBC Radio iPlayer.

I suspect many other fans now do the same and will also have adjusted to the programme’s faster pace, with far more familiar records played and less individual features.

In the book’s foreword, Tony Blackburn admits that having been a regular listener to Brian’s series for many years, he was ‘saddened because we lost one of Radio 2’s most established broadcasters’ but ‘delighted to be asked to take over as presenter of this iconic show.’

He adds: ‘We all decided that we needed to produce a different sounding show and not try to copy Brian’s style or format.’

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The book ends right on top with ‘They Sold A Million,’ showcasing 40 singles that achieved that status worldwide, from Cloud Nine by The Temptations to Cream’s White Room.

Music lover Phil now has his own ‘Colossal Collection’ featuring in the radio show which offers more than a clue as to how invaluable this book should prove to be for anyone who enjoys 60s music either as a fan or hardened collector.

(Red Planet, paperback, £12.99)