Sunday 9th August 2015
The History of Music in Leicester
The second in a series of articles. These articles lay the foundations for a book bearing the same title. In this respect the articles sketch and outline a more substantial work into which much more detail will be deposited. This article has cantered through the content and has omitted a great detail of detail. My aim in publishing this article (and those that will follow) is to stimulate interest in the subject of Leicester’s musical history. The problem for me, in writing these articles, is not what to leave out – but what to put in.
Music and Technology
Imagine, if you will, that you are suddenly transported into a world where electrical gadgets do not exist. Perhaps this is our world, of today, and an alien power had beamed around the globe, rays that have disabled every small electrical appliance. We have no computers, laptops, smart phones, pads, tablets, radios, televisions… everything that we used to listen to music had been disabled. Now you are living living a world where, the only way you can listen to music is to hear it played live, in front of you, by musicians playing wooden instruments or other kinds of devices that can make sounds but without the use of any electrical power.
You are now in a world that existed before the invention of electricity. The only way you can hear music is the way that our ancestors heard it. It is always live and it is always played on instruments that are powered by the hand or the lungs of those using them. Since the creation of the very first musical sounds, that is how people heard music.
In Leicester, the introduction and mass ownership of electrical goods defined and shaped musical tastes. The gramophone, the radio, the television, the Walkman, the transistor radio and eventually the Internet changed the way people listened to music and changed access to music. Music lovers were increasingly given access to the music of other countries, cultures and eras. The depended on the introduction of either batteries or the availability of public electricity supplies. The first homes in Leicester started to be lit by electricity in 1894. The electric light bulb was invented around 1880. Electricity supplies began from around 1894 in Leicester.
What I want to do, in this article, is plot the time line of the way that electrical technology has changed the way that the people of Leicester have found and listened to music. Peoples’ access to music was revolutionised by the mass availability of the radio and the record player. Later the widespread adoption of television sets further increased access to music in the everyday lives of ordinary people. In Leicester the broadcast media, the growth of record stores and later on the emergence of the Internet, gave people more access to music than was the case when their only choice was live music venues.
Radios, record players and the television
Prior to the emergence of radio and record players, music was performed live and listening to it would have been a relatively rare event for the majority of people. This was changed by the advent of the mass ownership of the record player or phonograph
The record player was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. Also known as the Phonograph or gramophone, the record player began with a rotating cylinder, being replaced by flat discs in the 1890s. It was not until the 1980s that the traditional large record was replaced by the compact disk
To begin with, the phonograph was the preserve of the rich and did not achieve mass ownership until the 1930s, when factories began to mass produce players at a price that was affordable by the average household. This happened in tandem with the mass production of cheap records.
The rise of record players gave people access to music on demand and meant that people could listen to songs far more frequently than was previously the case, when going to a live performance was the only way that people could hear music.
It was not until the mid to late 1980s that the record player would be widely replaced by the Compact Disk player. The CD became commercially available from 1982 although its mass availability in the UK would have followed a few years later. A recordable CD – the CD-ROM – came out in 1983/5. It was not until the early 2000s that the CD player began to display the widely used audio cassette player. The first commercial CD was released in 1982 but it was not until 1988 that CD sales began to overtake those of the vinyl record. In the 1980s (and probably into the 1990s) unsigned local bands would have recorded their music on to cassette tapes, unless they were wealthy enough to produce their own vinyl records. In the 2000s, bands started to produce music CDs for their fans when players became cheap enough for the majority of fans to own one.
The early 1960s saw the introduction of the music cassette, a compact tape-player which began to reach a mass market when Sony introduced its Walkman in 1979.
During the late Victoria period and early twentieth century, musical instruments became more widely available. The guitar became a popular instrument that was easy to learn and which could be purchased either new or from shops that sold them second-hand. It was in late Victorian times that pianos became affordable and many homes began to have them. Prior to that it was only the better off in society who could afford to purchase and play musical instruments. This created a sense of being able to participate in music rather than being just a passive consumer of it.
It was the mass ownership of radio receivers that really transformed access to music as well as musical tastes. In the late 40s and early 50s,when I was a child, I remember the radio being more or less constantly switched on. Our family home also had a record player which was played frequently. My childhood was filled with music. We listened to the Home Service, the forerunner of what we now know as Radio 4. Whilst all members of my immediate family owned music instruments and could play them, my main access to music was through the radio. When I became a teenager, I had my own radio and could choose which programmes I wanted to listen to; so, in this regard, my experience is typical of my generation.
The first radio transmitter was erected in London in 1922. The BBC’s Broadcasting House opened in May 1932. Radio Leicester was launched on 8 November 1967. During the years of the second world war, the television service was suspended and everyone listened to the radio (mainly the Home Service.) Programmes such as ITMA attracted 16 million listeners. The Forces Programme was launched in 1940 initially for the troops in France.
I remember Family Favourites, which started in 1945, and, having parents from a naval background, this was required listening in our home. The programme had a huge influence on my childhood and my familiarity with popular music. Other programmes, such as Listen with Mother – boosted the importance of radio broadcasting in our home and I think that was the case for a very large number of other people born in the post-war period.
In 1959 the BBC began to broadcast Juke Box Jury and DJs like David Jacobs, Alan Freeman and Pete Murray, started to become household names. New programmes started like Pick of the Pops. Music stars were born; Elvis and Cliff Richard owed their emerging popularity to the radio, as well as to record sales in the shops. The radio introduced the top 40 chart programme and, on Sunday afternoons, a quarter of the population tuned in to listen to it.
This period also saw the rise of popular music magazines and newspapers, such as The New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Record Mirror. Paper-based national daily newspapers also printed stories about the world of music and its celebrity stars. The forerunner of The Leicester Mercury began in 1874. By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901, the Mercury was a widely read local newspaper and it had begun to include photographs. When World War Two ended in 1954, the paper reported ‘Hot off the press, the Mercury captured the mood of the nation by producing a special VE. edition, while 10,000 people attending a thanksgiving service in Town Hall Square.’ Even in those days, great moments in history saw people celebrating or doing things face to face. They might have read the news but their immediate reaction was to take to the streets in large numbers.
Even though the BBC had a legalised monopoly on broadcasting, people listened to pirate radio stations, such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio London in the 1960s. The 1970s and 80s saw a considerable growth in commercial radio stations. The English version of Radio Luxembourg began as early as 1933. Radio Caroline broadcast from a ship in the North Sea, outside of UK waters.
In the years from 1933 to 1939 the English language service of Radio Luxembourg gained a large audience in the UK and other European countries with sponsored programming aired from noon until midnight on Sundays and at various times during the rest of the week. 11% of Britons listened to it during the week, preferring Luxembourg’s light music and variety programs to the BBC. [Wikipedia]
Commercial radio made its mark on the audiences of Leicester in the 1980s.
Centre Radio was the first independent local radio station to serve Leicestershire. It was based as at the lavish Granville House, Leicester, England. Centre Radio launched on 7 September 1981 in a blaze of publicity. The station’s licence was re-advertised and won by Leicester Sound, which commenced broadcasting on 7 September 1984. Leicester Sound merged with Trent FM and Ram FM in January 2011 to form the regional station Capital FM East Midlands, based in Nottingham. [Wikipedia]
With the advent of mass ownership of television sets, people began to watch rather than to just listen to broadcast programmes. As a child, I vividly remember watching the live broadcast of the Coronation (2nd June 1953) on a small black and white TV set in my parents home.
Top of the Pops started in January 1964 and for many years of my early life, this was a ‘must watch’ programme, as much as listening to the radio on Sunday afternoons, to hear the latest chart hits. Today, festivals such as Glastonbury, can be watched on the television. On YouTube there are innumerable video films of artists performing at Glastonbudget and other open-air live music events in our local area.
The first music festivals began
Live music was by no means killed off by the broadcast media and the record industry. Music festivals began to be organised in the UK, bringing a whole new approach to live music and access to bands and singers.
1989 – believed to be the start of the Abbey Park Festival – would have been influenced by the growing national scene for music festivals, the largest of which began in the 1960s. Glastonbury began in the 1970s and the forerunner of the Reading Festival in the 1960s. It was not until 2003 that Download started on the borders of Leicestershire as a follow-up to the Monsters of Rock events held at Donnington Park between 1980 and 1996.
Free festivals were held in the UK between 1967 and 1990. Some people might remember Roger Hutchinson, who who created the iconic Stonehenge Free Festival poster of 1987.
Roger developed a passion for local history and for much of the decade was busy preserving barges and canals – seemingly light years away from tripping at Stonehenge, but I think connected . Whatever Roger was involved in, he gave it his all and he was, despite not being very well in the last three years of his life, creative and positive and keeping busy, whether it was making a film about taking his dog for a morning walk , or creating his superb drawings of his beloved Leicester for the canal group.
Many people with a knowledge of music from the 1950s through to the 1980s have contributed to articles available on the Internet.
Music festivals have, since their inception, rejuvenated interest in live music. By 2010, around two million people attended music festival in the UK. National events, such as Download, Reading and Leeds festivals and Glastonbury, have attracted large numbers of music fans from Leicester. These days, we can get some ideas of this from the postings they make on Facebook and Twitter. Many local festivals have attracted large numbers of people: Simon Says…, Summer Sundae, Glastonbudget, Strawberry Fields, Cosby Big Love, Foxton Locks, White Noise, all of these have proven to be popular with the people of Leicester and Leicester shire over the years. Many other large-scale public events such as Caribbean Carnival and The Belgrave Mela have provided live music alongside their other activities.
Record stores in Leicester
The mass ownership of record players changed the way that people in Leicester listened to music. Previously, only wealthy people could afford to buy them. As the electrical equipment manufacturing companies began to produce ever cheaper players, more and more people owned them and also the records to play on them. This gave rise to the record retail trade in Leicester. Rockaboom opened in 1988; it joined Facebook in 2010.
Ultima Thule was established in 1989, originally in Exchange Buildings in Rutland Street, moving later on to Conduit Street. It was run by Steve and Alan Freeman.
Ten years ago Leicester was full of independent record shops and they were a recognisable feature of our City Centre. Music fans spent hours flicking through hundreds of records on a weekend looking for that special edition picture disc, admiring the album covers referencing politics, fashion – you name it. [Raegan Oates writing in The Monograph in 2013].
St. Martin’s Records, originally in St Martins Square, later moved to Horsefair Street. Martyn Pole told me that he bought nearly all his records there when when has a DJ in the early 1980s. Leicester people will remember Ainsleys, Archer Records, Back Track Records, Boogaloo Records and St Martin’s Records. HMV’s store in the High Street and Virgin Records in The Highcross centre (then called The Shires) also provided retail outlets in the city centre. After 15 years 2Funky closed in 2012. In its time it was a popular destination for record-buyers, especially those wanting the more esoteric and experimental genres of music.
The record label – as a company that published recorded music – is less important now than it has been in the past. This is due mainly to the rise of Internet-mediated sources of music such as iTunes.
The rise of the record labels and their relationship with live music created a constantly changing scene in many parts of the country during the 1950s [Firth, 2010]
Music and technology
What is clear is that how people gained access to, and listened to, music was dependent on, and was reflected by, the availability of technology, as far as the electrical epoch is concerned. We can therefore divide musical history into periods characterised by the technologies that gave people the music they wanted to hear. Before the invention of, and distribution of, recorded music in the nineteenth century, all music was live. As the availability of electrically-operated music players grew, so various periods of music emerged: the era of the radio, the record player, the television, the personal devise and the growth of the Internet. These all figure in the timeline that I have used to divide my account of Leicester’s musical heritage.
Firth  Firth, Simon, 2010, Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, 1,1