Sounds of the Sixties will go on – but it may never be the same again

As long-serving host Brian Matthew prepares for his last edition of the Radio 2 show, dedicated fan Simon O'Hagan rails at its new 6am time slot and asks whether replacement Tony Blackburn will maintain the eclectic musical mix that made it so special

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I’ve been listening to Sounds of the Sixties on Radio 2 on Saturday mornings throughout the 26-plus years that the peerless Brian Matthew has been presenting it. The programme is a fixture in my life like no other on TV or radio. I am sure I am not alone.

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It’s so much more than a nostalgia-fest. With Phil “The Collector” Swern compiling and producing it, and Matthew behind the microphone, Sounds of the Sixties is an education and a delight — an architectural dig of a programme that unearths fascinating lost items in among familiar treasures. 

There’s a story behind every track played and Matthew takes you there in his wonderfully companionable style. He’s now 88 and to me he sounds no different from when I first heard his voice coming out of the family wireless in the early 1960s – one of the first non-establishment voices the BBC offered up.

No doubt it helps that I am of that generation – that I can remember childhood visits to Boots to buy some of these records when they first came out. But I still discover a huge amount of “new” music thanks to the show, and I’m convinced that it’s a treat for younger listeners too — a gateway to a magic land of astonishing richness and variety.

Too often we’re fed a simplified idea of the Sixties, comprising the Beatles and the Stones, Carnaby Street and Woodstock, and very little inbetween. Sounds of the Sixties shows how much more there was to the decade. Nowhere else would you hear, say, Doris Day followed straight after by Captain Beefheart. The 1960s were both far more old-fashioned and far more modern than a lot of people realise.

So the changes to Radio 2’s Saturday morning schedule, just announced, fill me with sadness. Regular listeners like me will have been bracing themselves because Matthew has been off sick since last November, his place taken by Tim Rice. A few weeks ago the story broke that he was being stood down, with Matthew quoted as saying how unhappy he was about the decision — that he was recovering from illness and was ready to come back and carry on. 

But that, we now know, is not going to happen. Matthew will be back for his last ever show on Saturday 25th February – what a bitter-sweet couple of hours that will be – and then the big change kicks in on 4th March.

OK, so the show “carries on”. And new presenter Tony Blackburn’s 60s credentials are impeccable. But Blackburn — after his uncomfortable months-long absence from the airwaves when he stopped presenting Radio 2’s Pick of the Pops — only recently returned in a Friday evening slot on Radio 2 on which 60s-era music is very present. And now we’re told that the Sounds of the Sixties that passes into his hands will be “throwing in some of Tony’s favourite soul tunes from the era”, all of which I’ve no doubt will be great but the beauty of the show is its even-handedness. No genre predominates. Every genre you can think of and some you can’t has its moment in the spotlight. And the truth is that there are genres – prog rock springs to mind – that you just don’t feel Blackburn is very comfortable with.

The brilliance of Brian Matthew was that he succeeded in making the show unimaginable without him — it was so clearly the perfect fit for a man who back in the 60s had fronted the pop-filled Saturday Club on the old Light Programme — and yet it was never “The Brian Matthew Show”. It was always Sounds of the Sixties. Matthew had a tremendous feeling for the music he played but he never imposed himself on it.

I loved Blackburn presenting Pick of the Pops, but with its singles-only panoply of hit after hit — a format that lent itself to his not unobtrusive delivery — that is a very different sort of programme to Sounds of the 60s. My plea to Radio 2 is to not let the latter become The Tony Blackburn Show. 

I actually wouldn’t have minded if Tim Rice had carried on as presenter. His is a nice easy presence. The music of the era is clearly in his blood, and his tastes seem wide-ranging.

Losing Brian Matthew is one thing, but moving Sounds of the Sixties’ start time is quite another. Yes yes yes we can all listen on catch-up but schedules still matter and they matter a lot. And now instead of 8am till 10am, Sounds of the Sixties moves to 6am to 8am. 6am! On a Saturday morning! That is not a time to be awake. Nor is it a time to put out a show that actually deserves to be listened to and not just have on as background.

And while it will continue to be made by the Unique production company, I am wary of “live and interactive”. I think I would rather have a show delivered with the judgment and expertise that are the Matthew/Swern hallmark – warm and relaxed but also crafted. And if that means pre-recorded, I don’t mind.

Live isn’t everything. Is Desert Island Discs live? I don’t think so. And it’s not as if Sounds of the 60s hasn’t been giving listeners a look-in. Listener requests have always been one of the show’s most charming elements.

Another has been the Matthew sign-off, the best in all radio, in my opinion. “This is your old mate Brian Matthew saying that’s your lot for this week, see ya next week.” I can’t bear to think how he is going to have to adapt this when his final show goes out. 

The Matthew era had to end eventually. But did it have to end like this?

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Brian Matthew’s last edition of Sounds of the Sixties is on BBC Radio 2 at 8am on Saturday 25th February