WILL SIMPSON: How Radio Luxembourg ruled the airwaves
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Eighty-five years after it first broadcast in English, WILL SIMPSON tells the amazing story of one of the world's most influential broadcasters.
One of the EU's six founding members, Luxembourg is best known in 2018 for its low taxes, high finance and for being the home of the European Court of Justice. But for most of the 20th century, its name was synonymous for something far more exciting: broadcasting pop music. In fact, as far as the UK is concerned, the concept was pretty much invented in the Grand Duchy.
The story of Radio Luxembourg starts with a transmitter – a 100 watt one installed by radio pioneers Francois and Marcel Anen at their attic room in Luxembourg City. They used it to broadcast mainly military and orchestral music until in 1929 the Anen brothers jumped into bed with Radio Toulouse to create Compagnie Nationale de Radiodiffusion Luxembourgeoise. When the transmitter was further boosted to 250 watts – enough power to reach the UK – CNRL saw a business opportunity, and a chance to break the BBC's monopoly, and in 1933 launched an English language service broadcasting popular entertainment over the Channel.
The BBC were, of course, fairly peeved by this, and complained bitterly about the intrusion of this 'pirate' broadcaster. But British listeners, keen for more choice and starved of popular music and entertainment (especially on a Sunday when, under John Reith, only 'serious' or religious programming was permitted), flocked to it.
During the Second World War the station's commercial services ceased, though William 'Lord Haw Haw' Joyce broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain via its transmitter. It wasn't until the 1950s and the coming of rock n' roll that Luxembourg's revolutionary potential was fully realised.
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The BBC was still largely turning its nose up at pop, but Luxembourg eagerly embraced the new music and gradually its dramas and variety shows were discarded, leaving it as a music-only station. In our own era, when the entire history of recorded music is just a click away, it's hard to convey just how exciting this was, and how desperate people were to hear these incredible new sounds.
It's this yearning that Van Morrison located in a single from his 1990 album Enlightenment that paid tribute to this now dimly-remembered era. A collaboration with the Irish poet Paul Durcan, In The Days Before Rock N' Roll mixes tinkly piano, ethereal radio dial sound effects and a distracted-sounding Durcan intoning 'I'm searching for Luxembourg... Athlone... Budapest' before underlining the station's role in spreading and popularising rock n' roll: 'Fats did not come in/ Elvis did not come in/ without those wireless knobs.'
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Luxembourg was the first station willing to serve a teenage market hungry for rock and pop, a groundbreaking role that anyone who was involved in the station is, to this day, still proud of: 'We wrote the book,' says Benny Brown, an American DJ hired in the late 1970s. 'There was really no competition in England. The BBC was busy being the BBC – they programmed what they thought people should hear. But we gave 'em what they wanted, both barrels, at night time anyway. And it worked.'
The irony was not lost that this excitement and glamour was being smuggled into the UK from what, back then, was something of a backwater. Brown remembers arriving in Luxembourg in 1979. 'It was quaint, quiet little place, sleepy. Narrow roads. A population that was not terribly concerned with the outside world; completely unlike what it is now – in the European fast lane, all high finance and banking institutions.'
Luxembourg – the Fab 208, the Station of the Stars, as it styled itself – may have stolen a march, but by the 1960s others were playing catch-up. The pirate stations provided competition, deliberately echoing Luxembourg's populist approach and style. And in 1967 the BBC finally relented and provided the nation with a legal pop station in the form of Radio 1.
But Luxembourg still had its place. As it only broadcast at night, when Radio 1 concentrated on specialist programming, it was still the only station to hear chart pop after dark. It was around this time that my own relationship with Luxembourg began. As a child my mother had a old radiogram in the kitchen onto which were marked the names of the stations – Nantes, Hilversum, Luxembourg etc. The idea that you could pick up radio signals from mainland Europe fascinated me. When I was old enough to own my own transistor I would turn the dial late at night and trawl the megahertz, discovering distant voices from faraway countries. Most I couldn't understand, but eventually I stumbled onto 1440 medium wave and the English (and occasional American) voices of Radio Luxembourg. There was something romantic, and illicitly thrilling, about it.
It's a truism but it bears repeating: the emotional bonds that form between listeners and radio broadcasters are stronger than those in any other medium. Jan Bjerum, who runs the Radio Luxembourg Facebook fans group recalls how important the station was to him in Denmark: 'When I started listening in 1978 there wasn't any pop music on Danish Radio. I remember complaining to my dad about this – so he found an old radio and tuned it into Luxembourg. It was amazing. You'd hear records and news you just wouldn't hear over here.'
Further east, Luxy played a more subversive role. Marius Ziuraitis was living in Lithuania, then under Soviet occupation, when he tuned in in the 1980s. 'Radio Luxembourg was like a God to me,' he remembers. 'Information about rock music was minimal at the time in Lithuania. Local radio stations broadcast mainly Russian music – popular Western music comprised maybe 1%.
'Of course, there was a language barrier, and for us living behind the Iron Curtain, it was curious and unusual to hear a lot of commercials. But the DJs spoke freely and without tension – we were used to radio announcers reading pre-prepared text. And the music! Since vinyl records were very scarce, hearing any music was a joy. For me it was free lessons on the history of pop music of the west.'
On the other side of the continent, Luxembourg offered something a little different. To Paul Bedford, an early 1980s teenager living in Southport, there was a magic in hearing pop beamed back from mainland Europe. 'You thought 'wow, this is coming from so far away'. I've always liked the European way of life and the culture anyway so to me it made the station more exciting. To have an English language service coming from all the way over there seemed an incredible thing.'
Of course, no discussion about Radio Luxembourg is complete without mentioning the notorious 'fade'. Every few minutes the signal to the UK would dwindle away to silence before returning half a minute later. Needless to say, this was enormously frustrating. The fade meant you'd often miss chunks of your favourite record, or a back announcement of a song title you were desperate to hear. Even the DJs found it exasperating.
'We laughed and we cried about it at the same time,' recalls Benny Brown. 'We joked about it too, how the microphone in the studio was on a pully that would swing away from the DJ and then come back. But it was a skywave versus groundwave reception problem and the elements were against us. The rules of physics don't change, so you're never going to beat it. If you tuned it on today the result would still be the same. There has been no technological breakthrough to make skywaves and groundwaves co-operate with each other.'
For some of us the fade weirdly added to the romance, but by the late 1980s it wasn't helping to win many new listeners. Luxembourg's audience share was diminishing; its advertising revenue drying up. In addition to Radio One, the UK now had a network of brash local commercial stations. Most of these were transmitting on the FM band, which made crackly old medium wave sound pathetically primitive. 'The fading signal on medium wave was just not a desirable quality,' says Brown. 'Nobody wanted to know. When FM stereo came along it pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for Radio Luxembourg.'
The end came in 1991. Luxembourg shut down its medium wave service that December, though it remained broadcasting to a tiny audience via satellite for a further year. Appropriately, the last record played was In The Days Before Rock N' Roll. For hardcore devotees like Paul Bedford it was a sad night: 'I was gutted – I had tears in my eyes when it finished. I was 21 by then. It had been ten years and a big part of my life at that point.'
Since then there have been occasional attempts to revive the brand. An internet-only golden oldies station under the Radio Luxembourg name was launched in 2005 but by 2008 had bitten the dust. Benny Brown – who still resides in Luxembourg and broadcasts on a station owned by the Grand Duke himself – doubts whether it will ever now return: 'Its time has come and gone. You still have the guys that hang onto the memories and they love the old days. But I wouldn't have any of that stuff – the fading signals and records that skipped – back for love nor money.'
Those memories will surely fade further as the last generation to clasp the Fab 208 to our teenage hearts gradually reach our dotage, but this mini-nation's role in fomenting a mid-century musical revolution and inspiring young people around Europe won't - and shouldn't - ever be forgotten.