Genesis of a Radio Masterpiece

Emotional scenes on the 8th floor of Broadcasting House last night for Zane Lowe’s last ever show on BBC Radio 1. Every producer he worked with over twelve years at the station came back to the studio to be part of it, each bringing a handful of their biggest tunes from their time on the show, programmed by Zane on the fly according to the mood in the room. Zane himself brought precisely one record with him – A Song For The Dead by Queens of the Stoneage, his last ever on Radio 1. The selection policy was a powerful reminder that, fearless and peerless broadcaster though Zane is, quality music radio is always a product of many great minds, and many of the greatest were in the room last night.

Chris on the banks of Wolf River. Memphis, Tennessee

It had me reminiscing about the birth of Zane’s ‘Masterpieces’ series, which had taken place on the banks of Wolf River in Memphis, Tennessee. Actually ‘conception’ might be a better word – the birthing part came later after a long gestation period and with the help of an experienced midwife . I was in Memphis with Joe Harland, a preposterously talented radio exec, old friend and extraordinary human being. He’s also the man responsible for bringing Zane to Radio 1, a fact about which his seemingly infinite humility prevents him from shouting, so allow me to shout on his behalf. Joe is one of my heroes.

Memphis was the midpoint of a coast-to-coast road trip marking, among many other things, the death-a-versaries of rock and roll heroes who had lived fast and died young in America. (Though we didn’t know it at the time, that journey would later become a book, imaginatively entitled Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America, incidentally available in fine book stores everywhere.) Wolf River was the scene of the untimely demise in 1997 of one Scott ‘Scottie’ Moorhead, better known to his legions of fans as Jeff Buckley.

Live Fast Die Young CoverSitting there in the dank, uninviting environs of riverside industrial Memphis, we reflected on the perfectness of the only album that Buckley released during his tragically short life, Grace. In the twelve or so years since it had come out, Grace had broken my heart, fixed it and then broken it again so many times it was hard to remember a journey, relationship or break-up soundtracked by anything else. I remarked to Joe that it was a body of work so perfect you could play it front to back on national radio, uninterrupted and complete with gaps between the tracks, and it would stand up alongside even the best programmed output.

Joe’s eyes lit up in that slightly demonic way that they do when an idea is being born. “You know, that’s a great idea for a show,” he said. “That’s a fabulous idea for a show,” I said. I can’t remember, but it’s very possible we high-fived. I do recall that we marked the moment by going for a beer at Hooters, which seemed appropriate given that Jeff was, as Joe put it, such a notorious tit man*.

The original Zane Lowe dream team: Rob Lewis, Annie Mac, Joe Harland

Back at Radio 1 we fed the idea through an enormous supercomputer known as The Colossal Brain of Rob Lewis –Rob was producing Zane by now – and out popped ‘Zane Lowe’s Masterpieces’, a unique series of specials celebrating classic albums from all eras and genres. The first half of each show examined the cultural impact of each album through in-depth interviews and archive material, while in the second half the full, unabridged album played out in its entirety, complete with gaps and no censorship.

Seven series and 28 albums later, Masterpieces represents a high watermark of creativity in music radio, having celebrated albums as diverse as Nevermind, Back To Black, Ill Communication, Original Pirate Material and Appetite For Destruction. It combines the power and intimacy of broadcast radio with the depth and breadth of the best music journalism, showing what can be achieved when creative people work together. Not only that, it breathes a new lease of life into the albums it celebrates, typically generating a sales uplift in the range of 1000%.

And of course Zane Lowe’s Masterpieces wouldn’t be what it is without the secret sauce that makes it possible in the first place – Zane Lowe. In anyone else’s hands the format would likely fall flat, but with Zane’s inimitable blend of passion, reverence and unparalleled music knowledge it truly comes alive.

I have just one tiny little gripe though, one which sadly – tragically, given Zane’s departure for iTunes – may never now be fixed. From the list of 28 classic albums given the Masterpieces seal of approval over the years, one very important one – important to me anyway – is missing: Jeff Buckley’s masterpiece Grace. #ThanksZane

*For the record Jeff wasn’t, as far as we know, a notorious tit man.