As you’d expect from someone who’s been on the radio for 32 years, ROGER HILL is very good at talking. Thankfully, despite his warning that he may “waffle on a bit”, he has a lot of very interesting stories to tell. As we retire to a quiet corner of BBC Radio Merseyside, home of his weekly alternative music show PURE MUSICAL SENSATIONS (aka PMS), there’s a strong desire to sit and listen to every single one. For the last 40 years he’s written them all in a daily diary, part of which will be serialised in a documentary, currently in production. Punk Snow focuses on the period between 1978 and 1980, as the explosion of three seemingly opposing musical styles – ska, punk and disco –created a seismic sea change in Britain’s musical landscape. The action focuses on legendary Mathew Street venue Eric’s, and its place as the hub of the Liverpool punk scene.
The film’s catalyst was Hill’s friend and filmmaker Matthew Fox, founder of The Outsiders Film Festival: “A year ago Matthew read my diaries; nearly three million words, starting in 1972 and running right up to today. After reading the entries in the middle period, starting from when I arrived in Liverpool in 1978, he told me ‘there’s a film in here’.”
Production is being handled by Thinking Film – a social enterprise aiming to use film and media to inspire and educate people – with a helping hand from the Heritage Lottery Fund. “We’d gone to Creative England, who weren’t looking at it as a 90-minute feature, but the Heritage Lottery Fund jumped at the idea. They, like Matthew, and Danny Kilbride at Thinking Film, were keen to concentrate on that two-year timespan, which I feel was my embedding period.”
Hill was 28 when he moved to Liverpool, still finding his feet from a musical perspective:”I was already a fan of punk, but I hadn’t been to many gigs. I heard about Eric’s as Liverpool is no stranger to letting people know when it’s got something good – whether it was Eric’s back then, or Cream in the 90s. Very quickly it became the focus of my musical interests and ambitions.” Eric’s became a much-needed refuge, allowing a young man to develop a sense of belonging in what was an unforgiving, economically bleak Northern city: “Liverpool was hard back then; a city that could really turn its back on you. But that was because it was going through hard times. You had to find somewhere to belong in order to survive.”
The connections made during that era spread beyond music. Hill began an enduring relationship with another cultural totem that’s undergone a recent facelift – The Everyman Theatre, eventually becoming Associate Director. Arguably his most influential meeting was with Ronnie Flood, who asked him to help set up burgeoning fanzine Merseysound; a publication that survived beyond Eric’s, documenting the venue’s demise in early 1980. As someone who embarked on a similar instant immersion into Liverpool culture some 26 years later, I recognise the excitement in Hill’s voice when talking about Merseysound: “I got to interview bands for the fanzine, as well as seeing all of the significant acts of the time, often for free. Back then the media hadn’t caught on to Punk, but those of us in the know could see what was coming, and over those two years it made its way into the mainstream. In Liverpool it gave permission to a lot of very interesting musicians – who weren’t necessarily punk – to fly the flag for their alternative musical styles.”
Flying the flag for alternative styles has been the modus operandi of Pure Musical Sensations since Hill was asked to fill in for Phil Ross’s Rockaround show, in 1982. Like all of his most enjoyable experiences, the life-changing call came by surprise: “Phil had moved to London at short notice and asked me if I’d be interested in taking over. I was a regular guest on both Rockaround and the arts show Phil produced, so he knew I could talk! At that time I also produced tapezines for Merseysound – the purpose being to hear the music, alongside the interviews. In a way I’d already started on the radio but I’d have never dreamt of it as a career choice until that ‘phone call.”
Over the years, the scope of the show has evolved, in accordance with the changes to what we understand by the term ‘alternative music’. “We see ourselves as the world of music in one programme. A lot of the old specialist shows have been lost,” says Hill sadly. “As each passed, we’ve assimilated them all into PMS, to make sure fans of those styles still have an outlet.” Hill’s most cherished aspect of Pure Musical Sensations is the musical freedom he retains – a freedom beyond that of any of the countless multi-millionaires employed by our public broadcaster. “I’ve had completely free choice every week for 32 years,” he proudly proclaims. Just last month PMS were able to air a song that featured swearing, after a brief disclaimer: “I have a good relationship with the management here and so I explained to them that the quality of the music outweighed any potential offence at the obscenities.” Although rightly proud of Radio Merseyside’s reputation as a fierce champion of music over personalities, Hill acknowledges these kinds of concessions could only be possible at his current midnight Sunday timeslot. It’s clear he laments PMS being slowly pushed back from the original 6pm-8pm slot over the years – “There’s no doubt we would have more listeners if we were on earlier,” he insists – but one suspects that he wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice his freedom for a few million extra listeners, let alone a few hundred.
Sitting opposite such an energetic, vibrant man, it’s hard to believe he’s fast approaching pensioner status. I’ve certainly never met another man in his 60s who looks comfortable in bright-pink drainpipe jeans. But the only fear Hill holds for the future is that, when he does decide to quit, the BBC might ask him to take PMS with him. “The current framework of the show involves more than just me – it’s a combination of the tastes of all the people working on it. I believe eclectic programming will be the norm in 10 years’ time. People won’t need the security blanket of a particular style of music. In that sense PMS should always have a future beyond me.” That’s certainly a future to look forward to.
Pure Musical Sensations is on BBC Radio Merseyside Sundays from Midnight-2am.