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Alan Freeman

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42365738 06 fluff peel88 bbc
Freeman with Peel in 1988
"If there has ever in the whole history of popular music been such a thing as a great DJ ... this is the man." (John Peel, This Is Your Life)

Alan "Fluff" Freeman (1927-2006) was a colleague of John Peel at Radio 1 from 1967-1978 and 1989-1993, and at BFBS in the 1980s. Before that, he had been the pioneer of modern-style pop radio broadcasting within the BBC, and enjoyed a mutually friendly and supportive relationship with Peel during the 1970s, when Peel and John Walters regularly contributed skits to Freeman's influential Saturday afternoon show. In later years they drifted apart musically, but Peel remained a major admirer of Freeman throughout his career.

Freeman came to Britain from Australia in 1957, and became determined from the start to introduce a fresher, more upbeat style to British radio presentation, akin to that on North American pop radio and also on the Australian stations he had worked for. It is entirely probable that Peel heard some of Freeman's late 1950s shows on Radio Luxembourg, and he may have seen Freeman when he appeared on Juke Box Jury in the summer of 1959 (famously proclaiming that Cliff Richard's "Living Doll" wouldn't sell a copy). In 1961 Freeman became the presenter of the BBC's first chart show, Pick of the Pops, initially on Saturday nights but moving to Sunday evenings from the start of 1962, and achieved huge audiences otherwise starved of guaranteed airings of the original versions of hit records (as opposed to needletime-saving studio versions). The show remained hugely popular even as the offshore stations, modelled on US pop radio, thrived, though Peel was living and working in the US from 1960 onwards, so he missed Freeman's ascent to the nascent concept of celebrity. Freeman also continued to present shows on Radio Luxembourg for many years (probably leaving around the time of Peel's brief involvement with that station in 1971/2) and became a regular presenter of Top of the Pops from its launch in 1964 until the end of the decade, though Jimmy Savile was the main presenter on the one edition of TOTP that Peel presented in that era.

In 1967, when Peel returned to the UK and presented the Perfumed Garden on Radio London for a few heady months, he took pop radio further than it had ever been before from Freeman's more showbiz approach. When the BBC launched Radio 1 soon afterwards, Top Gear initially preceded Pick of the Pops (by then extended to two hours), and later succeeded it when it was moved later in the evenings. The shows could not have been further apart - Top Gear was Radio 1's token gesture to the British underground, while Pick of the Pops would play whatever was popular, often the highly uncool likes of Engelbert Humperdinck. Freeman by his own admission initially regarded Peel as something of a freak, almost an alien from outer space, but he listened hard to the shows, and realised that he was missing something, that his own show had become comparatively narrow. As a result, he began to pick up on bands such as Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young etc., who had received initial UK airplay from Peel before they reached their later commercial status, and would play their records in the opening section of Pick of the Pops which covered new releases and album tracks. By the early 1970s, Freeman was becoming an enthusiast for heavy metal and progressive rock, and was moving away from being purely a pop DJ - a change that was largely the result of Peel's influence on him.

The original Pick of the Pops ended in 1972, and the following year Freeman was also taken off his weekday afternoon show, partially because he had played too much Black Sabbath and not enough Donny Osmond. In the summer of 1973 he was given a two-hour Saturday afternoon show to do what he wanted (carried on Radio 2's VHF transmitters), and this show - in which the obvious megabands such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer would rub shoulders with acts as diverse as John Martyn, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Van der Graaf Generator and the Chieftains, always interspersed by classical excerpts - would become essential listening for most "serious" rock fans during the mid-1970s, sharing much of its audience and a good deal of its playlist with Peel's shows of the period. In January 1975, as a partial compensation for the loss of the late-night weekday VHF rock shows, Freeman's programme was extended to three hours, and would be followed until September of that year by 'Rock Week', the only FM programme Peel had for those eight months. Peel and Walters - who by this time had a good working relationship with Freeman - began contributing humorous skits to Freeman's show, which would be fondly remembered by many, although in later years Peel found them embarrassing to hear again.[1] A further element of crossover with Peel's shows lay in the fact that Freeman's producer, Tony Wilson, was also responsible for producing many of the contemporary Peel sessions, selected tracks from which (although rarely, if ever, the complete sessions) would duly turn up in the Saturday Show, always trailed by Freeman as "Tony Wilson Recreations."

Come 1977 and the upsurge of punk created a major generational gulf within pop and rock music, and Freeman retained a greater enthusiasm for the earlier bands and styles of music than Peel did. However, Freeman did not ignore punk altogether as was claimed in some of his obituaries - a Saturday afternoon show of his from July 1977 features The Ramones, Slaughter and the Dogs, The Jam and other acts who would have been strongly associated with Peel at the time. Freeman was one of the very few DJs other than Peel to give airtime to the Sex Pistols, and also became an early champion of Althia & Donna's "Uptown Top Ranking", which went from Peel's shows, via Freeman, via daytime DJs such as Paul Burnett, to the number one spot. By 1978 the two shows had more of a complementary role and appealed much more to separate audiences than they had done two years earlier, but Freeman continued to play the likes of the Buzzcocks and Ian Dury while Peel continued to give tokenistic (and unwilling) exposure to the likes of Boston and Yes (21 August 1978).

Freeman departed Radio 1 in August 1978 with his popularity still on a high - Peel paid tribute to him in his next show after Freeman's last (28 August 1978). His departure from Radio 1 brought about a reorganisation of Radio 1's rock output, where the old and new waves were definitively separated when Tommy Vance took over Peel's Friday night airtime, effectively absolving Peel of the duty to play more traditional rock, and also began a Saturday afternoon show 'Rock On' which covered many of Freeman's old bases. Freeman would not broadcast regularly again in Britain until January 1980, when he joined Capital Radio to present a rock show, which swiftly moved (as Vance's show also did in this period) towards a much greater dominance by heavy metal, a genre rarely played on Peel's shows and generally distrusted by the subculture Peel represented. Peel and Freeman would never be close musically again, but they retained a strong friendship, appearing together on the 20th anniversary edition of Top of the Pops. Later that year, Freeman - by this time also presenting a chart show on Capital, Pick of the Pops Take Two (which combined the then-current chart with a chart from years gone by) - good-naturedly told the NME that he enjoyed reading it so he could ring up Peel, who would then explain it to him. Also, during his stint at Capital Freeman also presented a rock show on BFBS, where he again became a colleague of Peel.

Peel and Freeman became colleagues again in January 1989 when Freeman came back to Radio 1, presenting the Saturday Rock Show and an all-oldies version of Pick of the Pops on Sunday lunchtimes. Although there was no musical crossover to speak of between the shows, the two broadcasters remained good friends and admirers of each other - the Saturday Rock Show was initially on from 11pm-2am, and when it moved earlier in the evenings in October 1990 to make way for Peel's show, Freeman would regularly plug Peel's show, recommend it and mention who would be in session. Also, Freeman's show regularly featured archive BBC sessions, some of which had originally been recorded for Top Gear, Sounds of the Seventies and other shows presented by Peel. In the Radio 1 25th anniversary book published in 1992, Peel cited Freeman as his favourite DJ of all time (though he had earlier described Johnnie Walker as the best DJ Radio 1 had employed in an article he wrote for The Times on the station's 15th anniversary). He also paid tribute to Freeman when the latter deputised for Tommy Vance on the Friday Rock Show of 31 July 1992, which at that time preceded Peel's show, and in an article he wrote for Radio Times on the station's 25th anniversary, where he cited Freeman's rock show as one of the shows on the station driven by music rather than celebrity. Freeman finally departed Radio 1 in October 1993 as part of the station's shift towards a younger image when Matthew Bannister became controller; the following week, Peel's Saturday show moved forward to take over part of the Saturday early evening slot that Freeman occupied by then.

Freeman went on to work for Capital Gold, and presented a rock show on Virgin Radio in 1996/97 which included certain bands, such as Nirvana, who Peel had championed while Freeman was very much preoccupied with "hair metal". Freeman appeared on Peel's edition of This Is Your Life in 1996, and Peel continued to allude to Freeman from time to time, always positively even if he acknowledged Walters' barbed comments (05 April 1992 (BFBS)) or simply an affectionate, if codified, allusion (23 October 1997 (BFBS)). By the late 1990s, Freeman was regularly presenting yet another revival of Pick of the Pops on Radio 2, where the two broadcasters became colleagues for the last time when Peel occasionally appeared on the network to present documentaries such as As I Roved Out: A Century of Folk Music. Freeman retired from regular radio work in 2000, and died in 2006, an event as sad for many as the death two years earlier of Peel, who to the last always acknowledged the debt he, and everyone else in British pop radio, owed to Freeman's pioneering work at a time when Peel was fully ensconced in the system of radio that Freeman's listeners - like he himself a few years earlier - were dreaming of.


References Edit

  1. A selection of the trails are available here, as well as on Purely Peel.
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