Remembering Brian Matthew: a broadcasting pioneer every bit as influential as Sir Terry Wogan

From Saturday Club to Sounds of the Sixties, Simon O'Hagan pays tribute to the beloved BBC Radio 2 DJ who has passed away aged 88

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“That’s your lot for this week, see ya next week”. It was with these words that Brian Matthew, who has died aged 88, always signed off at the end of his Sounds of the Sixties show on Radio 2 — he hosted it from 1990 to 2017 — and they captured perfectly the modesty, geniality and warmth that helped make him one of the greatest broadcasters of all time.

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Terry Wogan was such a giant of radio that the BBC have re-named one of their buildings after him, now called Wogan House. The case for a Brian Matthew House is also very strong. He mattered that much, and he was loved that much.

Matthew’s durability was astonishing. Those of us of a certain age can still remember when he began making his way in BBC radio, as presenter of a show called Saturday Club on the old Light Programme, the precursor to Radio 2.

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His belief in, and endorsement of, such music was a pioneering act in itself. He brought it to the attention of countless numbers of people who were never going to be able to get to the Cavern Club.

The millions of pop record sales that powered the whole staggering enterprise that was early pop could in considerable part be attributed to Brian Matthew. You heard a record on Saturday Club and went out and bought it.

BBC radio was still pretty strait-laced at the time, its music broadcasts typified by the classical music of the Third Programme and by Light Programme content that did exactly what it said on the tin. Matthew changed all that.

Matthew was never what you would call hip. He never had the brashness that was all too often a feature of the DJs who took over the airwaves when Radio 1 launched in 1967 and came to define what a pop broadcaster was — although Saturday Club itself continued until 1969 and Matthew’s own career carried on with enormous distinction, in particular with his show Round Midnight. He seemed to know — and was certainly known by — everybody in pop, and in the 1960s few acts went uninterviewed by him. On these occasions his easy manner invariably produced results. 

Broadcasting styles have come and gone but Matthew’s never changed. He was always completely himself, a broadcaster whose naturalness — and respect for both the music and his listeners — was what endeared him to so many. His delivery was measured. He was never rushed. He was in complete command of his material and he had the Wogan gift of talking one-to-one.

Matthew was born and brought up in Coventry, and he was one of the first non-establishment presenters to be heard on the BBC airwaves. His classlessness was an important part of his appeal at a time when there was a lot of snobbery about pop music. 

Sounds of the Sixties, which had begun a few years before Matthew took it over, was a programme made for him. He was immersed in the music he loved and he succeeded in conveying the 1960s as a much more multi-faceted era musically than it is often presented as. 

From novelty records to prog rock, it was all in there, and with the help of his longtime producer Phil “The Collector” Swern, Matthew always provided fascinating background detail to the records he played, deepening one’s appreciation of them and adding to one’s delight in them. In his own relaxed way he was quite scholarly. The show was so much more than a nostalgia fest.

The muddle that occasioned his standing down from the programme in February this year (or being stood down, it was never clear) presaged the far worse muddle that occurred when his death was prematurely announced.

Personally, Sounds of the Sixties and the voice of Brian Matthew were a huge part of my listening life for many years. Millions of others felt the same. We are still adjusting, and may never adjust, to the controversial post-Matthew Saturday schedule, the show moving from 8am to 6am, with Tony Blackburn taking over the host’s chair.

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There were plans for Matthew to present one-off shows looking back on moments in his career. We can regret that those programmes will never be made, but all that really matters is the incredible joy that Brian Matthew brought to millions of radio listeners over seven decades.