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Johnnie 'Bloody' Walker
My dad had a saying, more of an axiom really of “Don’t touch my tackle,” which in broad terms meant, if it belongs to me don’t touch it. I’ve inherited his trait.
As you do over the Christmas/New Year period, de-cluttering becomes a distraction from food, booze, TV programme re-runs and family. I’ve decided to attack a couple of dusty boxes which have been slumbering in the loft for more years than I wish to recall. In the form a of a niece and nephew I have a couple of Santa-type willing helpers.
"Uncle Owen, what’s this?" comes a cry from the loft. Niece and nephew are “helping” sort out boxes whose contents need to be used or ditched. I’m not overly keen on their assisting hands.
Making my way back up the loft ladder I can see them rummaging through a box which says 'odds and ends'.
“Uncle Owen, what’s this?” They are touching my tackle. I’m not happy.
The item in need of identification is a cassette. They say they’ve never seen one before. God, I’m getting old. Trying to explain “it's like yesterday's version of a CD” doesn't really work. My effort is a bit half-hearted.
“I tell you what. Shall we play it?” I ask with feigned enthusiasm. “Yes, please” they both demand accompanied by vigorous hand clapping and beaming, eager smiles. Also in the box is a rather forlorn looking Sharp cassette player. Its black matt coating with a variety of scratches and dents are a reminder from bygone days. The cassette isn’t labelled which is unusual as I was reasonably consistent on titling my musical stuff. I’m guessing it’s a blank cassette.
Like a school science teacher I take them through the process of plug connection to adaptor and the placing of the cassette in the slot provided. Having wiped off the dust, one of them places the cassette in the slot and the other presses play.
Within fifteen/twenty seconds they have two questions for me:
“Who are the people talking?”
“Uncle Owen, are you crying?”
The voices emanating from the tinny cassette speaker are my parents. I’d like to say they are in the midst of a conversation, but it is more edging on the argumentative, providing authentication it’s my parents. They had a motto of "Why chat when you can argue." I wasn’t prepared for this. They passed away many, many years ago. The children look frightened. I’m feeling as though ghosts have been unleashed into the loft's rafters. I’m not dealing with this sudden spring back in time and subsequent rush of emotion.
The rather fraught exchanges are all about Johnnie Walker, the legend of the radio airwaves for over fifty years. His new title during this spat between Mum and Dad is Johnnie “Bloody” Walker. Let me explain.
During the early to mid 70’s I was creating a niche for myself at school as a very poor scholar.
“Owen is easily distracted, and has poor concentration levels. He can and must do better. Too much of his time is taken up with sporting activities” read one of my many poor reports. Ah, the days when I was going to captain England’s football team. (according to my over-optimistic dad!)
Music along with girls were beginning to do strange things to my body, but football was still my true love. My musical mentor at the this time was Radio 1’s Johnnie Walker.
Throughout my teenage school years my parents wouldn’t/couldn’t pay for my school dinners, so each day I went home home for lunch. If I ran from school to home, had my lunch and ran back I could catch about forty/forty-five minutes of his daily lunchtime show. It was good, but not enough. I wanted the whole two hours. But how?
My dad worked as a maintenance fitter on steam locomotives. It was a dirty, dangerous, unrewarding manual job. He left the house at 5.00 a.m. every morning come snow, rain or wind. He was the wage earner, head poncho. Any new purchases were sanctioned on his say so. The spectacle always began after he’d had his evening meal or "tea" and was sat in his chair with the evening paper and a mug of tea (drinking).
It went like this:
Mother (clearing her throat): “Owen needs a bigger school blazer.” Dad (continuing to read the paper): “Move the buttons.”
Mother: “His school trousers are too short. He’s growing up.” Dad: “Let the hem down.”
Mother: “I need a new dress.” Dad: “Why? Where are you going?”
Mother “The studs on his football boots need replacing.” Dad: “To be expected. We’ll get him some on Saturday”.
Mother: “Oh, and he wants a cassette player." Dad: “What’s a cassette player when it’s a home?”
Mother: “It can record music.” Dad: “And who listens to music in this house?”
Mother: “Owen does”. Dad (now putting down his newspaper): “Since when?”
Mother: “When he comes home for his lunch”
She knew these were just the preliminary exchanges. Mum knew how to play the trial judge. Anything of urgent need was re-presented to the one man jury on a Friday evening. The end of a working week after an evening out, the flow of alcohol always provided a different, positive outcome. She rested her case. Another win for the female family barrister.
So, on Saturday morning we went into town and a brand new Sharp cassette player was purchased. Dad didn’t say a word. He had the of a look of a man having seen a magician's card trick, scratching his head unable to work out how the end result was achieved.
Music wasn’t really his thing. His idea of modern music was Al Jolson, George Formby or a good old rendition of 'It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'. Mum gave me a wink accompanied by a warm parental smile as the new purchase was handed over. Job done.
In matters of importance she was the boss. He never quite worked out the dynamics of female manipulation for the benefit of a family unit. Now there was just one more hurdle, how to work this state of the art piece of technology. On this, I was flying solo.
With much trial and error, emphasis being on the error, I finally mastered which buttons to press. With a few dummy runs Mother dropped in the cassette, pressed the buttons and most importantly stayed silent. Recording of the Johnnie Walker show was now a daily event.
We had our problems along the way. Some days she would forget the recording. Hence I would be treated to her rendition of a baby’s lullaby as she went about her daily chores, a kettle being brought to the boil or a chat with the barking dog.
“Oh, Mum,” I grumbled, pointing out the break in recording etiquette. ”I’m sorry but I was busy,” she would explain.
With practice it all came together. She liked the routine and soon fell into the recording of Johnnie Walker. It became as ingrained as her preparing Dad’s evening meal.
“Is recording this radio programme okay? It doesn’t interfere with what you have to do?" I asked over a soup and sandwich lunch one day.
“Oh, it’s fine. I just go and do something upstairs or pop out to the shop,” she explained, but probably lied in the caring ways parents seem to do.
Up in my room cassette re-wind completed, I entered the world of Johnnie Walker. The music, the stories, anecdotes, philosophies on life. He would sometimes read from magazines and books which had or were at the time an inspiration into his life. Music would become a secondary distraction. Listeners couldn’t get enough, me included.
I soon become exposed to Hall and Oates, Paul Simon, the Eagles, Bowie, Dr.Hook, the Bellamy Brothers, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, the Steve Miller Band, Leo Sayer, Elton John, Mike Oldfield. Some of the artists became fleeting affairs of the heart. Others became loves of my life: Janis Ian, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell.
Walker was a free spirit willing to breakdown the barriers of contemporary radio, willing to usher in the unorthodox, the unusual. He wanted to share his world with the listening audience. I was part of his world and audience. So when he eulogized on the books of Robert M. Pirsig ('Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance') and Richard Bach ('Jonathan Livingstone Seagull') I signed up with eager purchases. Understanding their themes came much later in life.
For me the one track which encompases Walker's mid 70’s period was the John Miles classic of 'Music Was My First Love” produced by Alan Parsons and orchestrated by Andrew Powell. Walker would discuss the track in Biblical proportions like a Messiah blessing his disciples. Touching on six minutes of jawdropping, orchestral, aesthetic brilliance it was the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of its time.
He seemed to play it every day, sometimes back to back and other times asking the listener to focus on one particular section.
It begins with a simple piano solo, with Miles balladeering how “music was my first love and it will be my last.” Nothing prepared you for the journey ahead. A guitar solo follows, with accompanying string section. Then two minutes into the track, like a parting of the Red Sea a huge orchestral cacophony of sound crashes through the tranquility, striking like a hammer on an anvil. The percussion section probably had the whole of Radio 1's listeners beating out the rhythm on tables, desks, chairs, knees, steering wheels. It drives, and drives, and drives to crescendo...then there is stillness. The storm is over. Only for a second or two, but the effect even now has dormant hair follicles coming to life. Miles along with piano solo and strings returns to the lyrics of “Music will be my first love.” The recovery period is anything between one hour and never each time it’s heard.
All was going well with month after month, hours upon hours of recorded JW on the radio. Then one day…
It was a Monday. I came home as usual for lunch. Dad was home. The standard dialogue ensued. We had those long deep, meaning conversations which bond father and son.
“Hi Dad. What are you doing home?” I enquired to the seated man behind the newspaper, like I was talking to a pair of legs and working boots.
“Night shift,” he said.
As usual there were far too many words, too expressive, too compassionate.
He hated night shift. It meant leaving the house after 14.00 returning home after midnight. He was scheduled on night shift duty for six weeks. Great. He would be even grumpier than usual. Welcome to day one.
“Did you manage to…?” I didn’t get to finish my question. Mum was way ahead of me.
“No, not today, love, we’ll sort something out,” she said with a nod over to the masked newspaper man. the message was received, understood with a foreboding. Was this the end of JW lunchtime recordings?
Well, if Mum couldn’t record with Dad around, I would revert back to snatching forty minutes during lunch until I could work out another plan.
On Tuesday I came home from my school run, said hellos to Mum and Dad. Mum shook her head, a silent note confirming recording duties were still off bounds. No problem. I headed for the monster of mahogany radiogram. Here I twiddled the tuning knob, until the needle rested on Radio 1…”Take it easy/ Take it easy/Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” Excellent. The Eagles' 'Take It Easy”. That was a good start to my lunchtime.
When an animal senses a predator it can be by smell or maybe the sound of a breaking swig. Mine was a rustling newspaper. Oh, oh here comes trouble.
The paper wall came crashing down.
“What are you doing?” Dad demanded.
“I’m listening to this radio programme. I put in on during lunch,” I said pointing to the radio, as in there lay the culprit.
“Well, I was listening to the bloody news. I don’t want to hear this bloody rubbish. Put the news back on.” The paper went back up.
I knew this wouldn’t be the end of this particular incident. Once he had his teeth into some issue he wouldn’t let it go, as though he had to go through the process of clearing his head of the episode.
The paper went down. “Don’t you think it would have been manners if you could ask to turn over the radio?”
It was an adult question where the only answer is yes.
“Yes, sorry, I should have asked,” I said in humble apology.
“I should bloody well think so and all.” The paper went back up.
A couple of minutes passed. I was at the table with a bowl of soup. The inquisition wasn't over.
His paper came down again. He had had more thinking time.
“By the way who or what is so bloody important on the radio you suddenly forget all your manners?" he asked.
“I listen to Johnnie Walker on Radio 1 at lunchtime…”
“Not for the next six weeks you don’t, my lad” came Dad's interruption.
“Johnnie Bloody Walker isn’t stepping a foot inside this house whilst I’m on nights. And get you bloody hair cut as well.” The paper went back up with lots of muttering and the occasional “Johnnie bloody Walker in my house, cheeky bugger….”
I digress (easily distracted, as my school reports foretold.) Back to the cassette in question.
There’s music playing, a little background noise but not enough to upset the recording. Then in the background I can hear the thud, thud of footsteps which is my Dad coming down the uncarpeted stairs. For some inexplicable reason he always wore his work boots in the house, much to my Mum’s annoyance.
I hear my Mum whisper, “Shhhh, I’m recording something for Owen. You need to be quiet.”
Dad joins in with the pantomime whispering game. “Recording?” he asks quizzically. “Recording what?”
“You know that radio programme he likes listening to in the afternoons,” she replies.
Obviously Mum had entered wholeheartedly in the routine of recording the JW afternoon programme and was trying to continue even under the enemy fire of her husband.
There is maybe three seconds, but it could be a maximum of five before Dad bellows.
“Is that Johnnie Bloody Walker?”
I won’t go into graphic detail on the following tirade. It generally covered restrictions in his own house (radio recording), working all the hours god sends, rubbish Ted Heath government, no better under Jim Callaghan, cold weather, price of coal, his paper being delivered late, the next door neighbour, noisy kids, night shift duties etc.
“Enough...That is enough,” she yells. The volume and tone of instruction I have never heard before. Then the cassette recording falls silent.
Here I sit, alone with cheeks full of tears, a nose blocked with sniffles and head spinning with memories and emotions which had been locked away many years ago. Was that it, the end of the recording?
“Try it again, press that button and then those two together.” Mum is saying in a calm, instructory manner to someone.
To my shock and amazement the student is Dad.
“Is that it? Did it work this time?” he asks, his personal tornado of anger clearly having blown itself out, or more likely been doused by his wife.
“We can play it back and check,” Mum enquires.
“No, you can do that, I don’t like the sound of my own voice,” he says somewhat sheepishly.
Oh, how I wish I could have seen her face when he uttered this oxymoron.
“Right,” says Dad like he can now build a space rocket. “I will do the recording for Owen tomorrow and anytime you're out when he comes home for lunch, but remember not a word to him. Agreed?”
”Agreed,” she says.
What comes next was rarer than pigs flying, hens' teeth, blue moons, the number of men who have stepped on the moon's surface. A kiss between them. I heard them kiss. A peck rather than passionate overload, but there it was.
After all those years, nay decades here is was all along, the answer. Why for the remainder of his night shift tenure when I came home from school he was sat in the front room (the parlour) with his tea and paper, whilst in the other room Johnnie Walker was in recording mode. Mum's only contribution to my quizzical look upon accepting the recording of JW was now back in place.
“Don’t ask! Just accept the end result.”
I’d listened to a little cameo, a private moment into the inner world of two people, who some days could be strangers, other times loving parents.
In 1976 Walker left his BBC Radio 1 lunchtime slot, heading for KSAN in San Francisco.
I recall recording his final show, wondering what would replace those many happy hours. What would fill the void?
Although Walker returned to the UK during the early 80’s the bond of my teenage years had been broken. I guess it’s called growing up. These days I occasionally tune into his 'Sounds of the 70’s' show and reminisce when a long forgotten song throws up memories of youth, plans, dreams and, of course, my whacky parents. But for me Johnnie Walker was the 70’s. Inspirational, educational, unorthodox and fun.
Having composed myself I made my way down the loft ladder greeted by concerned family faces.
“Are you okay?” someone asks.
How to explain? “Yes, just dealing with ghosts, and of course Johnnie “Bloody” Walker.”
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When he discovers an old cassette recorder in his attic, Owen Peters is met by a flood of memories of his teenage years listening and taping DJ Johnnie Walker's 70's lunchtime show and his argumentative parents
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