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The Guardian
Time to face the music
After 27 years on the road, presenting a radio show means a crash course in pop

Articles by TR for the Guardian newspaper:

1) Radio Diary 2003
2) Face The Music 2002
3) Letter to Tessa 2001
4) Call that fair ? 1999
5) Werner's Visit 1990

Guardian Comment
Saturday June 15, 2002 by Tom Robinson

In March this year BBC Radio launched 6 Music, its first new pop station for 35 years, and offered me the job of presenting a weekday evening mix of interviews, records and sessions. Having whinged about the state of music radio in these pages less than a year ago, I distinctly heard the sound of a gauntlet hitting the floor. Go on then - show us. And so after 25 years as a chef in my own small creative kitchen I suddenly find myself a professional gourmet - employed to sample and compare the very best on offer and then share the results with an appreciative audience.

"How nice it is to listen to a channel where you get intelligent, adult music..." wrote one listener recently, before adding, "...then you play Eminem, what a letdown. Please stick to music for us - not music for our kids." Ah well. Appreciative or not, nobody's going to like absolutely everything on the menu - in fact, it would be worrying if they did.

I was five when Bill Haley rocked around the clock. My brother saved up for the 78 and wore out our meagre supply of gramophone needles playing it over and over again. It was a raucous wake-up call to our sleepy postwar fifties existence. Grownups loathed it - even at primary school our headmaster took the trouble to denounce rock'n'roll in assembly as a tuneless and brutal travesty of music. Plus the lyrics were rubbish. And - even at that age - something told me I was into something good.

In succession rock'n'roll, skiffle, Merseybeat, R&B, psychedelia, protest rock, glam, punk, ska, new romantics, hiphop, acid house and gangsta rap have pissed off people who were perfectly happy with what went before. That's how pop evolves. So does this make Eminem the next Bill Haley? Or Mike Skinner a latterday Tommy Steele? Perhaps not - though in pop's long history, odder things have happened.

6 Music's target audience is 25-55 year olds still passionate about their albums and artists, and my job is to play pretty much anything interesting, relevant or good from the past 40 years. Which definitely includes Eminem, whatever we think of him as a person. But the network can only be heard via cable, digital radio, internet or a Sky satellite dish. At times it felt like 6 Music was one of the country's best-kept secrets.
For me this has been rather a good thing because, boy, did I have a lot of catching-up to do. Getting New Musical Express again after so long proved a massive shock to the system. I knew I'd drifted out of touch, but had no idea how far. I mean, Prodigy and Oasis - everyone's heard of them. But who were The Dandy Warhols, what was "emo", why were the Stripes White and how did Roots Manuva? Here were literally hundreds of happening acts I'd never heard of in my life.

My first step was to buy a pocketbook and meticulously note every new name I came across. As acts cropped up a second or third time, I'd add a pithy description lifted from NME, whose review headlines are near-haiku in their succinctness. "Mancunian duo's frosty retro disco" is Alpinestars in a nutshell. "Junkyard noise blues crooner" nails Tom Waits with poetic precision.

The next problem was working out which bands actually mattered and which were mere flashes in the critical pan. Thankfully, 6 Music recruited a sparky new broadcast assistant with encyclopaedic pop knowledge to be my spirit guide. Sarah patiently set about my re-education and, if appalled by my ignorance, she was way too considerate to say so. She and producer Yolisa Phahle introduced me to the Electric Soft Parade, Blak Twang and Basement Jaxx. I learned (the hard way) to say Doves, not the Doves.

Sarah Cohen & Tom

Once, about to announce a new single from Miss Black America, I asked Sarah who she was. "Angry young four piece from Bury St Edmunds," she hissed in the nick of time, and the day was saved. Saves The Day, of course, are "chartfriendly emo upstarts from New Jersey" - I know that now, too. And in case you're wondering, "emo" means either "emotionally charged white indie rock bands" or "sad tossers with guitars whinging about their girlfriends", depending on who you ask.

After a final acoustic tour earlier this year with Steve Knightley and Martyn Joseph, I hung up my own guitar. It's been good to take a rest after 27 years on the road. Broadcasting has brought less stress plus regular hours. But above all it's rekindled my love of a good tune. After the demise of London's GLR I'd simply given up both on music radio and on critical recommendation. And these days, now that I have actually heard the stuff the Guardian's rock and pop critic, Alex Petridis, is going on about, it all makes sense. His featured album artist of last week - Ms Dynamite - was someone I'd already been playing on air for several weeks. I've honestly bought more records in the last three months than in the previous three years, and burned a large hole in my credit card in the process.

If you too have found yourself losing faith in popular music, at least believe this: every word Alex says about Ms Dynamite is true. The Minuteman single and Hundred Reasons album will restore your faith in white guitar rock (guaranteed). No one with a pulse can fail to be moved by Dublin's Ten Speed Racer or the superb Gemma Hayes. If you buy The Bees album or Athlete single and don't like 'em, I'll personally give you your money back. And if you only go and see one club gig in the next year make sure it's Hamell On Trial (see - nothing else comes close.

After playing all these people and more on the radio, it's been fascinating to observe some of the bigger names at first hand as they turned up for live sessions and interviews. Moby was shy and workmanlike - giving brief articulate answers to every question and then stopping dead in readiness for the next. Damon Albarn was tired and defensive, but soon lapsed into fascinating anecdotes as the interview progressed. One overhyped trio of leatherclad poseurs were sullen, monosyllabic and (gratifyingly) murdered their own songs with perhaps the most hamfisted acoustic session in living memory.

The huge joy is to mix and match the best of this contemporary excellence with everything that went before - from Nina Simone to The Smiths, Led Zep to Massive Attack. And many of the greats, whether recognised or not in today's fickle marketplace, are still producing fine new music. On Monday Suzanne Vega flies in specially with her bass player to play for me right there in the studio. All I have to do is sit, listen and ask the occasional question - nice work if you can get it.

Now, where did I put Eminem's phone number?

Tom Robinson

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