Caught by the River

Radio On

Andy Childs | 13th February 2014

Andy Childs with his regular round up of personal highlights from the airwaves and digital frequencies:

One of the many advantages of working from home is that I get to listen to the radio whenever I want to. iplayer of course has granted us the freedom to listen to programmes whenever it suits us but I have lost count of the number of programmes I’ve made a note of to listen to and never got round to. Live radio is, most of the time, still the only way for me. So it was this morning, after a bracing walk to survey the eerie, glassy sea that is currently the Somerset Levels, I sat in my study with a hot cup of coffee and listened to Chris Watson describing the “lunar-like” landscape of, and, more pertinently, bringing us the myriad sounds of, Iceland. Islands Of Ice And Fire (Radio 4) is the first of seven new ‘Nature’ programmes in which our favourite sound recordist travels the globe to capture the often mysterious sounds of wildlife and nature in all its intricacy and glory.

Well-known by now of course for its beguiling pop music, the real sound of Iceland, as brought to us by Watson’s expert ear, is the thunderous cascading waterfalls, the shimmering near-silence of glaciers and lava deserts, the hissing steam of geysers, constant rumbling volcanic activity, the abundance of bird life, and the sound of new land being formed. Iceland was thrown up out of the sea by volcanic eruption around 20 millions years ago, is now twice the size it was 10 million years ago and remarkably is still growing. Not only that but the sporadic outpouring of lava around Iceland has the potential to produce new islands as was the case in the 60s when a new land mass, named Surtsey, emerged from the sea in a huge cloud of volcanic ash and smoke. A good chunk of the programme is spent investigating the phenomenon that is Surtsey – its geology and the way it has since been colonised by birds and insects. Watson enlists the help of eminent Icelandic geophysicist Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson and scientist Erling Olafsson to explain it all, but it is the sounds that he has recorded that really stimulate our imagination and draw us into and across Iceland’s unique landscape. Despite his obvious ground-breaking work on Attenborough’s television programmes I actually think that radio is Chris Watson’s natural medium, for without the distraction of ever more stunning visual images we can focus more intently on his soundscapes and appreciate more fully the extraordinary variety and textures of natural sound that he so adroitly captures.

With the sounds of snipe and redshank fading in the distance we left Iceland and headed south to Louisiana where a different order of sound man, distinguished record producer Joe Boyd, presented a compelling half-hour potted history of the great New Orleans pianist James Booker. Boyd persuaded Booker to make a remarkable solo record in the mid-70s – Junco Partner – and tells the amusing story of how he offered Booker $1,000 to make the record. Booker at first turned him down and then relented on the condition that a candelabra be installed on his piano. When Boyd asked “why?” Booker’s animated response was “because I’m the black Liberace baby!!” As this programme – The Black Liberace (Radio 4) makes abundantly clear he was much more than that. Allen Toussaint and Dr.John (Booker taught him how to play the organ) are but two eminent musicians who pay homage to Booker’s astounding talent and techinique. He was arguably the most accomplished and imaginative pianist of his generation, a “stream-of-consciousness player with a huge repertoire” he could play with one hand what other pianists needed two to accomplish and sound like a full band. He was expert in almost every style of music often combining them in supremely creative and unique ways and he could also imitate other players and sound better than the original. His prolific session work included appearances on records by artists as diverse as Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Bland, Geoff Muldaur, Jerry Garcia, John Mayall, and Ringo Starr; he played with Joe Tex, Huey Smith and Dr.John and in 1960 had a top-50 single in the U.S. with Gonzo. But James Booker was also a tragically flawed character who never attained the commercial success and recognition that his talent merited. There are several references in the programme to his sometimes unpredictable and eccentric behaviour, and that coupled with his drug problems seemingly made him a difficult proposition. Even though he made a number of very fine albums there was no way presumably to harness his mercurial talent and direct it to more commercial ends. Curiously he was feted more enthusiastically in Europe, especially Germany, than in his home town where he never really graduated from playing to small crowds who it’s hard not to feel may have taken him for granted. He remained under-rated when he died, in 1983, of a suspected drug overdose. Joe Boyd does a smooth, incisive job in letting us taste and begin to understand the genius of James Booker, and he makes a very strong case for his belated recognition as one of the unsung heroes of American music. I haven’t seen it yet but there is a recent documentary film on Booker – Bayou Maharajah – which Jeff recommends highly.

So a blissful hour of high-quality radio with more lined up next week. Open Country at the crack of dawn on Saturday and Living World at a similarly unearthly hour on Sunday (I will be resorting to iPlayer for these) both cover different aspects of the natural world in Dorset, Chris Watson follows Arctic terns on Tuesday followed by a programme on the UK’s ‘toilet circuit’ (anyone who has ever been to a gig where your feet stick to the floor will know what that is) and on Wednesday Radio 2 have scheduled David Attenborough and the Natural History of Folk. I can’t help feeling that despite the avalanche of podcasts and assorted online distractions old-fashioned radio is in good shape.