Piccadilly Radio started broadcasting 50 years ago. It’s a portal back to Manchester’s grimy, glorious past
Phil Griffin recounts a night at The Electric Circus, and a morning in Collyhurst looking for everything he lost
By Phil Griffin
Piccadilly Radio 261 began jangling out of transistors across Greater Manchester at 5am on Tuesday 2nd of April 1974. A newsreader told us that the foreign secretary, James Callaghan, was about to get tough with the EEC. The bright new Piccadilly DJ Roger Day, formerly of Radios Caroline and Luxembourg, wowed with “Good Vibrations” by his beloved Beach Boys among a flurry of compressed close-harmony jingles.
“Piccadilly Hit Music for the Northwest” was hesitant and a touch mic-shy in the early days. It rapidly grew in confidence and character, without much help from me. I had various roles between that opening spring morning and my eventual autumn departure four years later. Though my portrait stood alongside my presenter peers in the windows above Brentford Nylons on Portland Street, I was never particularly up to the billing.
Piccadilly Radio brought new levels of localism and bounce to Manchester. Colin Walters, the programme controller, placed great store in local news, phone-ins, outside broadcasts, football, t-shirts, and car-stickers. The newsroom was well-manned and well-qualified, the sports desk proudly partisan (reporters Tom Tyrell red; Brian Clarke blue). The advertising sales team was especially energetic, and radio ads and promos for Washway Car Wash and End of the Line American fast food crashed up against noisy slots for Lookers Ford Dealership and the Daily Mirror. Piccadilly was catnip to school leavers, students, shop floor workers and shelf-stackers, taxi and bus drivers alike. There was a popular weekly kids’ show called Tripe & Onions. By the time of the Queen’s visit to Trafford for her Silver Jubilee in June 1977 (I was part of the commentary team, live from the roof of Longford Hall), it was as Manc as the ship canal.
All of this will be half-remembered with gulps and sighs, and variously eulogised in late March at a big half-centenary dinner in the Piccadilly Hotel. Survivors from the first decade will be there, memory-aided by nametags and with much to thank the NHS for. You can Google all this stuff and even read a book, For the Record, Celebrating Piccadilly Radio’s Fiftieth Anniversary, by Brian Beech and Tony Ingham, to learn more.
When I think back to Piccadilly Radio, I’m jogged backwards through a portal not only to the radio station itself, but to the wider city of the time: still grimy and pockmarked by war and abandoned industry, thrashing for a lifebuoy, desperate to survive. Not that everyone saw the city like that. In 1975, I bumped into the painter LS Lowry on the pavement of Fountain Street; later, in Albert Square, gazing at the Town Hall (then, as now, shrouded in scaffolding), he quietly mused, as though asking the family dog why it has been sick on the carpet: “Who allowed them to clean up all these lovely black buildings?” Not me, Mr Lowry, but I thank them for it.
In late summer 1977, I was heading for an eventful night at the Electric Circus, formerly the Palace Cinema, in among the housing clearances of the Collyhurst flats. I was with my friend Colin and three women, including a mother and daughter you’d take to be sisters who both had eyes for Colin. We were in a Hillman Imp driven by the unrelated girl. She parked on Teignmouth Street close to the gig — not that the word ‘gig’ was quite in usage yet — and I stashed my embarrassingly affected leather satchel beneath the front seat.
Collyhurst wasn’t quite a mile from Oldham Street, and what we now call the Northern Quarter. The language of ‘regeneration’ didn’t yet exist, but council house clearance and renewal was a city priority. Much of Collyhurst was built on either side of the war, and had not aged well. There was a post-industrial millpond that oozed even in late summer, afloat with gutted skeleton buildings, big as barns and abandoned like old mattresses. I first met a young councillor, Allan Roberts — Manchester’s youngest ever housing chief — when he took to the controls of a mechanical wrecking-ball for a photo-op at Collyhurst flats. He was a charming, reckless, visionary man, who in his way was more punk than anyone on the bill at the Electric Circus that night.
Allan had a soft mouth and a sharp mind. In 1975, he said: “We have always advocated that life should be brought back to the city centre and see no reason why working people should not be able to afford rented accommodation in the central area.” This was his argument for the Smithfield mews development on Foundry Lane and Len Cox Walk, behind Band on the Wall — the most original and considered council housing anywhere in the city. Allan was elected MP for Bootle in 1979 and supported Tony Benn for the leadership. He was the first MP to sit on the green benches of the House of Commons in jeans. An out gay man, the Electric Circus was way too straight for Allan Roberts. When he wasn’t hosting outrageous parties in his house on Shady Lane in Wythenshawe, he was diving deep into the gay scene in Berlin, from whose cellars he often emerged visibly the worse for the plunge.
In the Electric Circus, I tripped over a copulating couple on the floor. This was ten years on from the ‘summer of love’, and the couple were pretty clearly consenting. I got a can of Red Stripe. Cans, vigorously shaken, were essential punk accessories, though I was more inclined to drink the stuff than spray it at the stage. The Jam were the first band up, despite not even featuring on the bill. They’d just released their debut album In the City, and this would be my first sighting of Weller, Foxton and Buckler. Bruce Foxton’s bristling brush of copper-red hair was the liveliest thing on stage that night.
Bolton boys Buzzcocks were up next. This was the night they signed their record contract with United Artists, and they excitedly sprinted through “Orgasm Addict”, soon to be released as their first single, and its b-side “Whatever Happened To….?” Howard Devoto had already handed the band to Pete Shelley. Howard’s girlfriend Linder Sterling produced the genuinely iconic image of a female nude with a clothes iron head, for the single’s sleeve.
The Electric Circus was tight, in many ways — straight off the street, a small front lobby; toilets directly above — but it was not watertight. Of course, the toilets flooded. There was a film crew that night. I recognised local celebrity Tony Wilson from the telly, and from our school days, when we debated each other in a thinly disguised manoeuvre to cop off with Loreto and Adelphi girls, called the ‘Catholic sixth-form debating society’. The gig was being filmed for Tony’s series So It Goes. He was talking in the lobby, white Afghan coat draped across his shoulders, and a brown broad-brimmed fedora hat, which was soaking up the continuous drip-drip from the ceiling, below the Gents. Tony was oblivious. Jon the Postman — the Manchester punk mascot who jumped on stage and took the mic at the close of gigs, like Postman Pat on MDMA — rounded off the night with his band Puerile (he was misnamed on the Granada-printed ticket as ‘Ted the Postman’). I was in reach of the door when someone groaned into my ear, “Elvis is dead.” I was gutted. I was really into My Aim is True, Elvis Costello’s outstanding debut album. So young. So sad.
Outside, the Imp had been turned inside out. Windows smashed, seats tipped up, leather bag nicked. “My contacts book,” I wailed. “Get me to Piccadilly.” A man called Tim Lyons was on-air. He allowed me to make a slurred plea for the return of my possessions, especially my precious contacts book. “Shame about Elvis Presley,” Tim said as I was leaving the studio. I paused and nodded, like it wasn’t news to me.
Piccadilly’s reception was in the corner of a wide, draughty, unpopulated first-floor piazza. The following morning, kids sidled in and dropped items on the front counter, then scampered out again. A wallet, empty, as it was anyhow. A small Mason Pearson hairbrush, that I have to this day, with no use for it, hair long-gone. A red hardback A6 book, the kind that was called a password book, with indented alphabetic tabs, broken-backed, gripped by a broad brown elastic band. Bingo! Life could go on. The lad who had just handed me back my life left a message with Pat the patient receptionist, saying that if I wanted my bag back, I was to go to the Collyhurst flats that night at 5pm and someone would find me.
What the hell? I went. As I wandered through the gutted chambers, a teenage girl came forward from a stairwell, followed a couple of paces behind by a younger lad, probably her brother. She hooked the leather satchel off her shoulder and lifted it towards me. “Our kid nicked it,” she said, “When mum heard you was off the radio, she gave ’im a right battering.” I took the bag. “Please,” she said, “I really like your key ring.” It was like a small split chrome bracelet, with ball bearings on each end. If you removed one end, you could slide the keys on like charms. “Where d’you get it?”
“Malcolm Bishop’s on Wilmslow Road in Fallowfield,” I started to say. I stopped then, unscrewed a ball, slipped off my keys and handed it to her. “Thanks,” she said. “No. Thank you,” I replied. I hope she’s had a good life.