Sunday, 15 April 2012

This Is Serbia Calling

I picked up a copy of Matthew Collin's book This is Serbia Calling last week and have just finished reading it. The title caught my eye as it is a line used in the KLF's contribution to the War Child charity album Help

I bought the War Child album on cassette when it first came out and also on cd shortly afterwards when I went all modern and got myself a car with a CD player. It is an album I've played consistently since buying it and although not every track is a classic I think it would be one of the CD's I'd grab first if the house was on fire. That KLF track (listed as being by 'The One World Orchestra', although the CD & tape don't have track-listings) is by a long way the track I've played most often, so when I saw that the book was about underground radio in Belgrade I made the connection and bought it. 

The lines used in the KLF track are spoken by Fleka, a DJ at Radio B92 in Belgrade; the radio station which Collin's telling of the collapse & disintegration of the former Yugoslavia is built around. The full line Fleka recorded was "Serbia calling... This is Radio B92... Humans against killing, that sounds like junkies against dope... Message follows." Drummond & Cauty use this repeated line against a drum-and-bass beat over the Magnificent Seven film theme. The combination and contrasts of Elmer Bernstein's classic film music, the drum-and-bass beat and Fleka's gravelly, almost haunting voice is, for me, the KLF's finest work. It's disturbing, jaunty, triumphal, menacing, catchy and desperate all at once and a track I can listen to over and again, with the impact of the music depending on the mood I'm in. I never tire of it.

So having fortuitously found the book and made the connection with a much-loved tune it also piqued my interest as the subject matter is radio, specifically the underground / independent radio station B92 whose story is also that of Yugoslavia's splintering into smaller states warring not just with each other but with themselves too. Collin's book is a terrifyingly graphic description of Yugoslavia's descent into anarchy, chaos, war and hatred. B92's 10 year campaign of resistance to and agitation against the oppression and corruption of the Milosevic regime is an inspiring tale. It tells of how a group of determined and courageous individuals united by a love of alternative music and an absolute determination to remain independent and have their voice heard made a difference to the harassed, deceived and often terrorised people of Belgrade. I can't recommend it highly enough. It isn't an easy read - largely due to the weight of the subject matter. At times I found myself feeling claustrophobic, induced by the descriptions of living under arch-criminal Milosevic. It is, however, a thoroughly rewarding read. There are reviews on the web: here & here.

As there are more comprehensive reviews elsewhere - written by folks much brighter than me - I'll just mention one passage that particularly struck me. This relates to the station's music and news policies. The music policy was uncompromisingly, even defiantly alternative and anti-mainstream. The news policy was also uncompromising and sought to report the news that state-owned or regime-friendly stations wouldn't report. This led to tensions within the station as the music played was seen to be a turn-off to many listeners. Initially the station manager stuck to the no-compromise policy of not imposing a playlist on the DJ's, saying "Yes, they might be complaining about the music, but if I changed the music they wouldn't believe the news any more" (p140). However, after a listener survey found that many people tuned in for the news reports but couldn't abide the music which preceded and followed the news output it was decided to impose a playlist. To this end they drafted in an 'expert', a British radio consultant who had worked with commercial stations in the UK. This expert arrived with a copy of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles under his arm ("the Bible of a successful radio station") and attempted to persuade them that the way to go was with the 'tried and trusted' formula of "golden oldies, eighties hits and contemporary pop" (p141). B92  decided that a playlist did need to be imposed, but in accordance with their own musical preferences and definitely NOT those recommended by said expert. The station manager's response to this expert's gift was heartening to anyone fed up with the steady stream of bland, safe, mind-numbingly boring output of mainstream radio. He said of the book, "Of course I didn't open it. We will not play Mariah Carey or Phil Collins as he would have liked, but we'll play Massive attack and Pulp and Paul Weller."

To me this tale from a tiny station in a war-torn dictatorship many years ago can still be held up as an extreme and admittedly much-amplified example of the radio we are subjected to on the mainstream airwaves in the UK today. One of our SFR DJ's recently came up with an idea for a jingle along the lines of 'This is SFR, we don't have a looped commercial playlist' and it was those last three words that really struck a chord with me when reading the above-mentioned passages of This is Serbia Calling. My daughter goes to sleep listening to the radio every night. Her station of choice is Heart FM, not one I would choose but that's fair enough; it's her radio and therefore her choice. I always look in to turn her radio off before I go to bed and I'm amazed at how often I hear the same songs. Particular favourites seem to be Robbie Williams Angels and Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson - neither of which were decent tunes when they were made and surely should have been humanely put-down by now!

The radio expert mentioned above was horrified with what he found when he arrived at Radio B92, describing it as "pretty much a private music club" and "complete anarchy". Now that may not be everyone's cup of tea and if some people are happy with the same anodyne pap being dripped in their ears to sedate and mollify them then good luck to them. Me, I'll take the anarchy of the private music club every time thank you very much! The beauty of this private music club is that it isn't actually private. It's called internet radio. It takes more seeking out than just pressing auto-tune on your DAB set but for the discerning radio listener it'll open your ears and mind to the music you've always wanted to hear. I'm a lifelong music lover / obsessive but since I belatedly discovered internet radio a little while ago I have discovered more new music in the last year than in the preceding 40-odd years. Please don't take this post as a shameless plug for SFR or my own show, it isn't. My show is specifically a ska / reggae show; if that floats your boat then please have a listen but if your musical interest is elsewhere, do yourself a favour and get searching for indie radio on the web. You won't regret it, I promise.

I'm also fairly sure you won't regret getting yourself a copy of This is Serbia and the Help album too!

I had a tough time choosing another few tracks off the Help album to put on this post, as I said there are some cracking tracks on the album. I almost chose tracks by Portishead and Massive Attack but eventually plumped for these three:

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