Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Chris Prior

The man was dubbed, or maybe it was self-styled aggrandisement,, the Rock Professor because, I guess, he knew a lot about rock, especially what we now call classic rock and all kinds of esoteric, fringe rock acts of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. For my money he may well have been the single most important DJ on South African rock radio, with only the guy form the Hobnailed Tekkie Show on Radio Good Hope to offer any competition, and Chris Prior is certainly the last rock DJ I made a point of tuning in to.

Back in my late teens and early twenties the NME was the fount of a large amount of information on the rock scene of the time, and some old stuff they covered, but the problem was that hardly any of the music the NME wrote about was freely or at all available to me. Chris Prior was the guy who gave me some practical knowledge of a bunch of acts I treasured then and still do today.

Prior had a regular slot on Audiomix, the youth oriented magazine programme the English Service broadcast in the late afternoon, and he gave short courses on acts he deemed worthy of our attention. This is where I first heard the Texas blues rock of Z Z Top and the folk punk stylings of Van Morrison. He must have had inserts on a number of other groups but these two stand out, perhaps because in time, some years later, I made an effort to acquire the music of both acts, and owned a bunch of records by each.

Prior also championed Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones end though I eventually started buying Tom Waits, mostly, though, due to the influence of a girlfriend of the time, with a little nod to the Waits music I'd heard at m y friend Sean's house.

Chris Prior went to work for Capital Radio 604, based in Port St Johns in the then Transkei so-called independent homeland and, as I could not pick up Capital Radio, Prior disappeared off my radar until het popped up as the late night jockey on Radio 5 in the mid-Eighties, when the station was being revamped and repositioned as a format free rock station, under a British station manager, a welcome change from the awful disco format it had followed under Pieter Human since shortly its inception.

As I understood it, the new plan at Radio 5 was to have a top-notch morning show guy, who turned out to be Martin Baillie, to draw in a large audience, with middle of the road rock and pop during the daytime and early evening, with specialist rock shows later at night, and on Saturday afternoons. From this change we got the Saturday Shadow Show, featuring Barney Simon who later kind of assumed the Prior mantle as guru of modern rock, and Rafe Levine's Friday night metal show, and of course Chris Prior's late night rock show.

At first the Prior show was on between 22h00 and midnight and when Radio 5 became an 24 hour station, the Prior show expanded into a 4 hour showcase for all that he considered top of the range rock, pop and esoterica. It is at about this time that the Rock Professor monicker appeared and it might even have been a pure marketing ploy dreamt up by the station's PR team.

I tuned in to Chris Prior most evenings as I had no television and listened to a lot of music and liked what he played.

By the late Eighties Chris Prior was so powerful he could even tour the country and present DJ set of clubs, filled with the best of his rock collection and could draw substantial crowds. He must have been one of the last local DJs, apart from Barney Simon, who could fill clubs without playing house or trance or any of the other genres of dance music that were so prevalent in the day of the globetrotting superstar DJ.

Prior was very influential and his imprimatur could make acts that were slightly outside of the mainstream, like The Waterboys, whom he played relentlessly, or local act Sankomoto. In a way, the Rock Professor ID could also be related to a slightly fuddy duddy approach to what he found acceptable. This meant, for example, that he could popularise The Waterboys but play only one or two of their songs and not much else from the albums. In a way he must have had a rigid playlist of sorts and if some of the choices of acts were adventurous, the selection of what he played was far less so.

One of the most interesting sections of the Prior show was the nightly Priority Feature, where for 30 minutes to an hour he featured the music of a specific artist. Once a week the Priority Feature concentrated on local rock and he gave exposure to bands and individuals who probably got very little radio play otherwise. Not only did he play the music but he had interviews with the musicians and publicised their ventures, such as the night when he chatted with Steve Louw about the forthcoming All Night Radio album, and played some acetates of a couple of tracks off the album.

Radio 5 paid lip service to the idea of promoting local rock music and did programme some of it during the daytime schedule but Chris Prior made a point of doing it, and doing it properly. This was long before the SA Music Explosion of post-1994 and there was not that much local rock that got recorded and released, and there was not that much good stuff among the releases, and to make the kind of effort Chris Prior made, deserved and deserves recognition. Nowadays you could programme a radio station to play nothing but local rock 24 hours a day and not have to repeat any song. Back then supporting local music was a brave act.

I have no idea when I stopped listening to Chris Prior or when he left Radio 5, or maybe it was already 5 FM by then. At the end 5 FM had been repositioned once again to be more of a top 40 station and with more autocratic imposition of playlists, even on the superstar Prior. Not only that but his show was cut too. To be honest, by the early Nineties I was kind of bored with Chris Prior and he really became the professor who was not prepared to be too adventurous anymore because he was much too stuck in the rut of what he thought of as good stuff. The end came when he insisted on playing Stairway to Heaven every night. I have no idea why. Did he think it was the best rock song ever written? Was it some kind of statement? Was it a big fuck you to those who were trying to dictate his playlist? Whatever it was, I was not happy with the concept and I was even less happy with the other songs Prior was playing, as it seemed that he was no longer the barnstormer I had grown to like way back. Perhaps it was also the constriction of the playlist he was forced to follow so that he became just an announcer of songs he had not chosen. Either way, the Chris Prior had lost its lustre and 'must listen' aura.

I must confess that I stopped listening to 5 FM altogether somewhere in the mid-Nineties. If memory serves Barney Simon took over the late night slot with his modern rock show. Although Simon should be as lauded as Prior for sticking steadfastly to his chosen genre and for being the poster boy for alternative rock, I could not stand him as a radio presence or persona. It amazed me that someone who had been a presenter for as long as he had been by then, could still sound as nervous and awkward as someone who had just started out. Only Tony Sanderson was worse.

Simon's choice of music was also not very compelling but the major turn-off was that he talked so much. He must have loved his own voice, or maybe he just did not have that many tunes to play and plenty of airtime to fill. I soon tuned out. In 1998 I went over to Good Hope FM for the latest in urban music, dance music, R & B, hip hop and whatever else they played.

The next radio station I listened to with any regularity was Radio 2000, in the period 2001 to 2006, when its evening format was a seamless rock playlist in a DJ free environment with lots of local music. One did not always know the act or the name of the tune, but the mix of old and new, local and international, rock and pop, was innovative and compelling. Sadly this is no longer the case.

I have no idea where Chris Prior went to after he left 5 FM. I think it might have been Radio 2000's daytime slots, or some other radio station that would allow him to ply his wares.

I am still thankful to Prior for introducing me to early Z Z Top, the Van Morrison of Astral Weeks, Listen to the Lion and the better Eighties stuff , John Hiatt (mostly Bring The Family but also earlier stuff), Linton Kwesi Johnson (mostly Tings and Times), The Waterboys, and others I cannot even remember now.

Chris Prior was important for bringing us good rock and roll, mostly pretty classic, sometimes innovative, but at all times his choice until the corporate structures took his freedom away and subjected him to a playlist system that stifled the very nature of the beast. Perhaps it was not such a bad thing, all things considered, because he had become a bit of a dinosaur anyway and needed to be shaken up, but it is always bad for a free spirit, and one with nous too, to be caged in such a way.

In the ordinary course I would no doubt have stopped listening to Prior regardless of the playlist because my musical tastes were no longer his and to a degree my perception was that I was a couple of steps ahead of him in my eclectic tastes and was far more willing to adopt, or just to listen to, all kinds of new music. Chris Prior did in effect become the fusspot professor who had made his mark so long ago that one could almost no longer remember the nature of the beast and who was then content to rest on his laurels and never again be as progressive and innovative as he had been when he was young. I suppose Prior's argument might have been that he had his classic rock slot and Barney Simon had his modern rock slot and their respective audiences preferred it that way, and that the two approaches were meant to complement each other, but frankly, I would rather have listened to Chris Prior introducing the kind of modern rock that Simon was championing than listen to the Barney. Chris Prior should have seized the moment and embraced all of the new rock out there in the late Eighties and early Nineties, as he had 4 hours of airtime to fill, instead of sticking to the old stuff he knew so well. There was no reason why Van Morrison could not have coexisted with Nirvana or the Stone Roses, or whoever.

So, Chris Prior turned from revolutionary to radio careerist and disappeared into the void. He must still be out there somewhere, spinning his tunes, in the relaxed style and air of assurance and authority that made him my DJ hero for a number of years, but I do not know where that radio station is or on what frequency it broadcasts and I am not sure I would care to find out.

It is never good to revisit a hero to find out what they are currently up to, as inevitably it cannot be as good or as exciting as what he had done to make him a hero in the first place.



John said...

Totally agree! We listened to Chris Prior religiously. He educated me musically so, to me, he is the Rock Professor!

Unknown said...

I was a student then and loved staying awake till as close to the of the Chris prior show as possible I remember being so devastated when he had to play play-listed sruff

Nick Coetzee said...

The Chris Prior Show lives! And you can download the podcasts here:

He's been broadcasting on DSTV Audio Channel now for a number of years now and it's a fantastic blast from the past as the show's format is almost identical to the show he had in the 80's. Same conversational schtick, same music although he's playing some really excellent recent stuff now.

Glenn-Allen said...

Hi Chris
I listened to your show in the eighties and so did hundreds of others in the place I was in. I was incarcerated in a maximum security prison and we were given the benefit of listening to your show every Wednesday. Funny story but true: We had what we called a PPP night (Wednesdays). The 3 P's stood for peanuts (we had this every Wednesday with our ration of bread), poisons (I will not elaborate but it came from Durbs) and Prior and we looked forward to this night like some look forward to that special Saturday night jol - only way better.
You made our time that much easier and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you sir, for the music, for the vibe, for special times. They never appreciated you but trust me - we most certainly did!

Miles Robertson said...

Cull the negative shit (no matter how intellectual or analysing it may be!!) Geniet net die moment!!
From capital to 1485, your sounds have brought GOOD vibes to my life. I remember a late night in freezing cold, running a stall at the Worcester Show (western cape), no business, but we were BLY huddled in my chommie's Kombi listening to "The Professor" and smoking a "ting"
GOOD memories

Salute Captain