After kicking off a special gig night in Birmingham, BBC 6Music is celebrating exotic sounds and obscurities, as Simon Harper reports
Fashions come and go – every year a particular hue is the "new black", and popular culture spins on its heel-shaped axis, glancing longingly over its shoulder at bygone eras.
Music is no different, and DJ Sean Rowley’s phenomenally successful Guilty Pleasures brand has seen the reappraisal of hitherto derided acts such as ELO and Hall and Oates.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, a similarly cultish trend has gradually been taking shape. BBC 6Music’s Freak Zone, presented by Birmingham-based journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, has cultivated a dedicated audience by celebrating forgotten gems, obscurities and exotic sounds.
Akin to Guilt Pleasures’ rise, the radio show has recently moved into "gig night" territory – albeit with a characteristically freaky twist – beginning with last week’s event at Birmingham’s Glee Club.
An evening featuring live music from the city’s own ZX Spectrum Orchestra and Misty’s Big Adventure was recorded for broadcast, and proved a massive success.
Justin Spear, the show’s resident expert on all things obscure, reveals why he thinks the show has gained such popularity. "I think people like non-patronising radio; radio with integrity. The ‘Children of the Zone’ are a cool bunch of people and whenever listeners email the show they seem truly into what we are doing.
"I think they like the fact that there’s no playlist and no wacky features . . . the email response is amazingly encouraging.
"The idea behind the show is simply to play quality obscure and forgotten music; if the music is interesting and exotic to the ear then we are doing the job.
"Favourite areas include psychedelia, jazz, post-punk and European obscurities, but it’s an open door policy."
With more similar live events likely to take place in the future, it seems that the potential for reassessing the careers of more abstruse artists is now certainly feasible. The Freak Zone has been instrumental in the renaissance of Vashti Bunyan, the legendary folk singer who in 2005 unveiled her sophomore album, more than 35 years after her revered debut was released.
"I think that reassessing forgotten bands has to be one of the Freak Zone’s biggest strengths," says Justin. "It’s always great to dig out something special, and again the listeners always back this up. When we played the Shelagh McDonald tracks – the 1960s folk singer who apparently vanished into thin air – an article ran soon after that she had finally come out of the woodwork. This still remains a mystery though.
"Playing the music of French singer Brigitte Fontaine signalled a really strong barrage of email, and we have featured her a lot since."
Thanks to people like Johnny Trunk and Twisted Nerve label boss Andy Votel, this ultra-obscure, often decidedly psychedelic music is finding an increasingly large audience, especially at the annual Green Man festival.
And with bands such as Stereolab and local favourites Broadcast revisiting those loungecore sounds, curious music fans are being converted to the deliciously odd oeuvre of Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone, Can, Wire and Captain Beefheart, as well as many other innovative performers.
So who among the acts is most deserving of a career reappraisal? "It would have to be the Italian multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Alessandroni," remarks Justin, the son of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stalwart Roger Ruskin Spear.
"He is most famous for whistling on Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks, but made his own totally weird records during the 1970s where he sang, played sitar and guitar, and whistled!
"He did all styles and had a baroque, skewed musical mind. He had his own record label for a while, where he had the rare freedom to go mad."
It’s not just music from the 1960s and 1970s which hits the airwaves during the Freak Zone’s timeslot though.
Contemporary bands such as Philadelphia’s psych-folk troupe Espers, Sargasso Trio, North Sea Radio Orchestra, Blonde Redhead and Deerhoof feature heavily, firmly keeping alive the intrepid outsider spirit of Beefheart, Zappa and the Radiophonic Workshop, among others.
What is most surprising though is that a show playing the finest of strange and beautiful music exists in an early-evening weekend slot on a mainstream national network.
Indeed, it’s something that the team behind the show are proud of, and they seem genuinely pleased to be able to reach a devoted audience.
"When Stuart took over, the show was moved to 5pm-8pm, a great time to be on, and an amazing time to be playing the music we love. People often say that they cook their Sunday lunch alongside listening, which is great. They have recently begun sending in recipes too.
"I wish this was due to public service broadcasting, that’s a lovely idea, but even John Peel – however hard he tried – was constantly marginalised. We are on BBC digital radio and it is due to the democracy of digital I think.
"I’m sure I can speak for Stuart too when I say that we are truly grateful for being able to sculpt the programme exactly how we like. It’s a rare thing in radio. If a spirit of public service broadcasting still exists then I hope we are part of that."
The Freak Zone – BBC 6Music, Sundays 5pm-8pm on DAB Digital Radio or go to bbc.co.uk/6music