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20th September 2015 - Planet Rock (And Roll All Nite)

So Planet Rock then eh? That escalated quickly…

I mentioned in my previous blog the notion of ‘luck’ and ‘right place/right time’ with regard to how opportunities in broadcasting sometimes present themselves. Well, the events that led to me making my presenting debut on Planet Rock last week is as good an example of that as any to me.

It’s no secret that I am a Classic Rock and Metal devotee – although my musical palette does stretch beyond those confines, as it should for anyone who ‘majors’ in a particular musical genre – and that passion has led me around the UK (and Europe on occasion) in varying modes of transport to play drums, guitar or even sing somewhere for a number of Rock tributes and originals bands. That has then led me after said performances to the same late night service station jaunts where I’ve ended up many times after my job reporting on football somewhere for talkSPORT!! Funny that…

My previous dalliances with music radio in the Midlands were with BRMB & Heart – stations that had playlists which largely eschewed the local artists that gave the world Heavy Metal in its formative years. There was no chance that you’d hear Black Sabbath following on from the latest Sugababes single, nor me linking from Judas Priest into Samantha Mumba…actually; there might be a gap in the market to exploit there…

Anyway, only rarely did I get a song to play that really meant something to me. I remember being very excited to be given the chance to play Foo Fighters’ “Next Year” and Aerosmith’s “Jaded” on BRMB, but those times were few & far between. Instead, we were encouraged to back announce any UB40 song with the phrase ‘Birmingham’s finest, there…’ (I never once did it on principle) and, in truth, the playlist reflected the audience, as it should, and not my personal preferences.

Planet Rock’s playlist, however, is pretty damn close to perfect by comparison. Since becoming a regular Planet Rock listener several years ago, the station has not only reawakened my interest in the back catalogue of many bands that had slipped from the forefront of my mind (Clutch, Rory Gallagher, Uriah Heep), but has also introduced me to new bands that carry the spirit of great rock music forward in their own way (Temperance Movement, Royal Blood, King King, The Treatment) – all whilst spinning stuff like ‘Stargazer’ ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Red Barchetta’ that formed my love of this music in my youth.

And so, when the offer came out of the blue recently to be part of the on-air team at PR HQ, it was all too easy to accept. The management there were keenly aware of my history as a broadcaster, musician and long-time headbanger, and wanted to know if I would like to cover shifts for the regular presenters when they’re not about. I said ‘yes’ of course, and was quickly made aware of the need to fill a shift on a Friday morning between 10am & 2pm, and did I fancy it? That’s a ‘yes’ again, then!

So there’s the ‘lucky break’ as I mentioned in the last blog – so now, the ‘hard work’ starts right? Correct - in a number of senses.

Creativity for one thing. If I’ve learned anything from my years in music radio, it’s that you need to try and find a unique selling point to your ‘act’ – something that sets you apart. With me, it was clear that my voices and my musical abilities could be the key. And as it turned out, my parody song library and voice repertoire that I’ve amassed of the years bears testament to ploughing that particular furrow.

Now that I was coming to Planet Rock, the idea of being musically creative was very exciting. It was obvious that doing parodies of Classic Rock tracks to suit current stories was right up my street, and the news of Ritchie Blackmore’s return to play 4 ‘rock’ gigs in 2016 was ideal as a basis for my first tune. The 1984 track ‘Perfect Strangers’, recorded by a then-reformed Deep Purple MkII was the template I chose.

The trick to parody songs is not to have them go on and on. Best thing I’ve found is to do no more than 2 minutes or so (usually meaning a verse or two and a chorus plus an ‘outro’ to allow for any final gag) as any more than that is testing the patience of the listener, in my opinion.

Also, you have to be clever with lyric construction. Look at the original lyric and try to use some of those phrases here and there to incorporate them into your ideas, rather than just matching a whole set of new lyrics to the melody that don’t nod to the structure and wordplay that the listener knows from the real song. That’s not really a straightforward part of the process, but once you have your basic ideas fleshed out, then you can start work on the music part, which I admit I’ve always loved doing.

In my BRMB days, recording music for my daily Barmy Brummies Drivetime Show was by today’s standards, somewhat primitive. I was in the radio station typically from 9.30 every morning to write ideas with my pals Sean and Andy, so the opportunity to use my own home studio to record songs wasn’t feasible.

So instead, I brought a couple of items in from home that I left permanently at the radio station’s spare studio to use day in, day out – namely, a Yamaha PSR keyboard (the sort with 100 sounds, 100 rhythms etc.), my Yamaha Pacifica guitar and a Line 6 Pod guitar effects processor.

I’d start with a drum pattern played on the keyboard, and record what I played onto one of two mini-disc recorders in the studio. Once I was happy with my drum part I would then playback the drum part from that mini-disc through the desk whilst playing the bass guitar part along with it and recording the mix between the two onto the second mini-disc recorder located next to the first. I would then continue going back and forth from mini-disc player to mini-disc player, adding guitar and keyboard parts, then all vocal parts one by one until the track with all the bits I needed was complete on one mini-disc master track.

The beauty of using mini-discs, of course, was that the quality of recording didn’t suffer from constantly being bounced between 2 machines. Essentially, it was down to me getting the takes right as swiftly as possible without being too anally retentive about being 100% accurate (99% would suffice LOL) and I soon had a finished master tune I could use on air.

For my Deep Purple parody in this day and age (as with the parodies I constructed for my weekly Heart FM show between 2004-6,) my Yamaha AW4116 hard-disk home recording studio and my musical instruments can now be used to their full capability. That means mainly the use of my Roland V-Drum kit, which allows me to play more naturally and get a far more realistic drum track than I would by playing a keyboard to approximate the parts. I have basses, electric/acoustic guitars and a piano/sound module to hand too, so there’s even more scope to match the instrumentation used on the song I’m parodying. It’s a process that I absolutely adore, and usually I’m done recording the whole thing including vocals in a couple of hours.

Sometimes it took a tad longer in my Heart days, depending on how complicated the tune was. I had many a ‘Les Dawson’ moment trying to accurately recreate the piano part on songs like ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ or ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’, or getting the guitar solo right in ‘Another Brick In The Wall Pt II’ much to the amusement of those in the house at the time. But I always got there in the end!

(I’ve attached the resulting song from my Planet Rock debut on the 'NEWS ticker' section of this site if you’re interested. However, I will say that if you don’t know the original song by Deep Purple, most of it will go straight over your bald patch)

And so to Planet Rock and doing my first shift…in a new studio! You have to remember that when I present shows at talkSPORT, you have almost no buttons to press – it’s all done for you by the tech ops through the glass in Studio 1. At PR, you’re on your own! Which is no different to BRMB & Heart in essence, but what IS different is the playout system you use to play music, adverts, jingles etc etc. Such systems have changed dramatically since I last saw one up close at Heart in 2006, and as presenters Wyatt and Paul Anthony guided me through the do’s and don’ts of this system, I don’t mind telling you I was absolutely panning myself at the prospect of ‘flying solo’ for the first time in almost a decade!

To be fair, there was the occasional technical ‘brainfart’ during the ensuing 4 hours on-air, so to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, I pressed all the right buttons, but not necessarily in the right order! But the parody song was well received (i.e. no abuse) I got to play KISS up first (naturally) and sincerely enjoyed every second - just the same as I do when I’m on talkSPORT. Here’s to more chances at both stations as the years progress. And to those (and there are some who’ve been in touch) who wonder how one can work at Planet Rock AND talkSPORT…as Gene Simmons once said, “Why can’t you have steak AND cheesecake?”

Wise words, mate. Not arf.

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