This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post on 11th September 2011.
If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on. Something terrible has just happened, possibly involving the death of the queen or an untold number of her subjects. If you’re a fan of ambient and chill-out music, try watching the rolling news with subtitles on and the radio turned up – you may never hear Chris Moyles play so perfect a selection of Ibiza sunset moments ever again.
Radio stations, especially big ones like the BBC’s national pop network Radio 1, are prepared for bad stuff happening: it’s called ‘obit procedure’. When a catastrophic news story breaks, such as the death of a royal family member, each network has an audience-appropriate mix of obituary music on standby that will ‘reflect the mood of the nation’, as the internal BBC documentation has it. As Music Programmer for six years in the early noughties, my job at Radio 1 involved selecting the station playlist and programming music for the daytime shows – Scott Mills, Sara Cox, Jo Whiley, Mark & Lard and Chris Moyles. In times of crisis this meant finding music that young people like, but which won’t be too noisy, upbeat or just plain offensive when something awful happens. It’s harder than it sounds.
Chill-out music is failsafe because it tends not to have lyrics to trip up on before you’re even out of the blocks. As long as the mood is sombre and vaguely reflective-sounding, you can be confident with an instrumental piece about not offending anyone – for example by failing to consider that line ‘catch you when you fall’, just as news arrives of Prince Andrew’s demise in a horrific helicopter accident. (Every music programmer has a horror story about playing a ‘howler’ like this. Mine came in 2002 when, scanning artists and titles in the music logs immediately following the Potters Bar rail disaster, I deemed Overload by the Sugababes sufficiently inoffensive to be played out of the news. My forehead hit the desk just as the chorus chimed in: “Train comes, I don’t know its destination. It’s a one-way ticket to a madman situation.”) While the terrace at Pacha might seem like an odd vibe to recreate during times of national tragedy, having a good hour’s worth of harmless, lyric-free tunes to hand buys you time while you work out what to do next.
But nothing could have prepared us for 9/11. During advance obit preparations I had scrupulously considered every lyric of every song, rejecting any and all references – literal or metaphorical – to death, crashes, explosions and natural disasters, before settling on the final list. Even the most innocuous lyric takes on a sinister undertone heard in obit mode. Dido’s insipid and cheerless pop ballads make her perfect obit fodder, right up to the point when you realise White Flag – “I will go down with this ship” – might sound a tad insensitive in the wake of a ferry disaster. So how exactly do you prepare for the world’s worst terrorist atrocity? How, to coin a phrase, do you imagine the unimaginable? You don’t.
Shortly after 2pm London time on September 11th 2001, I received an email from a friend instructing me, and presumably everyone else in his pre-Twitter address book, to “turn the TV on. NOW.” I flipped to BBC News 24 as TV sets blinked on in unison around the open-plan office, and watched in dismay as the second plane hit the South Tower. Mark Radcliffe was on air from Manchester at that time – a relief under the circumstances because, though the Mark & Lard staple was toilet humour and unbridled sexual innuendo, Radcliffe was a radio veteran who could switch into serious broadcaster mode at the drop of a hat. In the 2.30 news, an audibly shaken Claire Bradley reported that two airplanes had hit the Twin Towers, with a BBC commentator speculating that it could be a terrorist attack.
The song we played out of that first news bulletin is now lost in the ensuing frenzy; I’m not sure I even want to know. But I can be mercifully certain, since we had not yet received instructions to go into obit procedure, that it wasn’t Haunted Dancehall; given what we now know about the martyrdom aspirations of the 9/11 hi-jackers, Sabres of Paradise might be the most inappropriate artist we could possibly have marked the moment with. What became abundantly clear within moments of the story breaking was that our carefully laid obit plans were hopelessly inadequate. This wasn’t a national tragedy or royal death; it was bigger and more terrible by several orders of magnitude. The radio response, somewhat perversely given the dreadful scenes already being repeated on television, demanded a lightness of touch, not mawkishness or mourning.
At 3pm, just as the full horror of the atrocities was beginning to unfold, Radio 1’s most talkative presenter went into the studio with nothing to say. Chris Moyles, then entertaining millions in the afternoon drivetime slot with a daily repertoire of bum gags and fart jokes, rightly took the view that today called for a different kind of show: “Let’s just play music and I’ll throw to the news between songs.” Under any other circumstances this would literally have been music to my ears; programming for a personality jock like Chris is a kind of tug-of-war: at one end of the rope, a presenter who wants more talk and less music; at the other end, a Music Producer loudly pleading from the production office upstairs that he “play a fucking record” whenever a link (talky bit) entered its eleventh minute. By this process of attrition, the ‘clock’ for Moyles’ show – a kind of template by which all radio programmes structure each hour – had come to contain far fewer songs than those of other presenters.
Generally music logs are delivered to programme teams around 24 to 48 hours in advance of broadcast, allowing producers time to write any relevant editorial content into their scripts. Suddenly, just minutes before he was due on air, Chris needed twice the number of songs he normally played, every one of them screened to account for the sensitivities of the unfolding catastrophe. The first thing was to remove all songs that hit the wrong tone musically. Out went anything too jiggy, too banging, too edgy or too poppy, which didn’t leave much to play with – this was Radio 1 after all. Next, lyrics: Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve – out. Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl – out. U2’s Elevation – out. Within fifteen minutes of going to air, Moyles had played every song in what remained of his first hour.
By now Alex Donelly, my boss and Radio 1’s Head of Music, had come down from his upstairs office to manage the music response and lend a hand with the programming. A Dunkirk spirit emerged as the search for suitable music became more frenzied. We would interrogate the database for any ‘Mood 1 or 2’ songs (all music is graded in this way for radio, from very sad to very happy, in order to create an evenness of sound), feeding minidiscs into two hi-fi stereos in tandem as a final check before they went downstairs. Suddenly that throwaway lyric – ‘catch you when you fall’ – became menacing and real when people were literally falling out of the New York skyline, and nothing like it could go to air – even if it meant playing Zero 7 for the third time this hour. At one point we were delivering playlists with only one or two songs cued up in the studio, with a lot of air still to fill.
That evening, slightly stunned to find that it was still going ahead, a handful of us attended the Mercury Music Prize, in which PJ Harvey collected the first of her two awards, for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Improbably, she was on tour in Washington DC at the time. Holed up in her hotel room, she accepted the award by telephone; we leaned in close as Zoe Ball presented the award, the better to make out Polly’s soft, West Country lilt haunting the dancehall of the Dorchester Hotel: “It’s been a very surreal day. We can see the Pentagon from our window.” Chillers of free wine and champagne sat untouched on the tables in front of us.
It went on for days. Hitting the right tone was the toughest challenge, as much for presenters and producers as for us, the music team. Even the next morning it was difficult to judge the mood of the nation, as the guidelines demanded we do, so we took our cues from the talent, who had a direct line to the listeners. Just when do you get back to ‘normal’ after something like this, and what role should Radio 1 play in making that happen? When do phone-ins, competitions and knob gags go back in the script? When is Bootylicious fair game again, and when does Have A Nice Day by Stereophonics not sound just plain wrong? Musically we needed a kind of intermediary stage, one that would gently lift the national mood rather than yank the listener out of the doldrums and demand they feel fine again. We needed uplifting, anthemic guitar songs with shiny production and contemplative but hopeful lyrics that would bridge a gap between chill out and jiggy. We needed Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic. The days following September 11th 2001 may be the only time I have said this, but thank God for Coldplay.