Jimmy Savile DJ Originator Or More Smoke And Mirrors?


Just over 12 months ago, on October 29th 2011, the TV and radio personality Sir Jimmy Savile died 2 days before his 85th birthday (he was born on Halloween 1926). He was regarded as one of the great British eccentrics, but there were always rumours about deviant behaviour, although nothing proven. Apart from his contribution to broadcasting, Savile was also said to be the first DJ, not only in Britain, but the World, to use twin-turntables, back in the 1940’s, making him an unlikely icon to DJ’s of the modern era.

Following the programme ‘Exposure: The Other Side Of Jimmy Savile’, shown on ITV last month, the lid has been lifted on a Pandora’s box of sexual iniquity, which has shocked the nation to the core. With the Metropolitan Police now referring to Savile as ‘a predatory sex offender’, and Operation Yewtree, their investigation into his alleged exploitation of hundreds of victims, opening in excess of 400 lines of enquiry, needless to say he is no longer regarded the national hero he was lauded as being at the time of his death, but, instead, he is now reviled as the most notorious child abuser in British history.
The photo above shows Savile on the set of Top Of The Pops in 1971, surrounded by dancing teenagers. The blonde haired girl in the middle was called Claire McAlpine, and, just a few weeks on she’d taken her own life. She left a diary that told how she’d been ‘used’ by a number of radio DJ’s and show business personalities. At the time, despite being in such close proximity to her in the picture, Savile denied ever having seen her, and after her death an inquest was held in which the coroner dismissed her as a wannabe, a daydreamer who’d killed herself because she’d come to the conclusion that her hopes of becoming a pop star would never materialise. Nobody was arrested by the police with regards to the allegations of sexual abuse in her diary (which was, apparently, never returned to the family) and a 15 year old girl with everything to live for was, in death, dismissed as a fantasist.
This has been a difficult article for me to write, but one I felt I must attempt  – the main thrust of what I want to cover being the cultural significance of a man we now know to be a monster, a man who just so happens to hold an esteemed place as a pioneer within my own profession. However, it wouldn’t feel right for me to detach this aspect of his legacy from the wider picture, that of Savile’s unchecked abuse of the young and vulnerable, and how this was able to take place on such a vast scale, and for so many years, so I’ll share some observations from what I’ve read since the whole scandal broke, as well as my own experience of growing up during the period Savile was at his most predatory, and why I believe such behaviour was continually brushed under the carpet in what was supposedly a civilised society.
Firstly, I’d like to link you to 2 of the most insightful articles I’ve read on the subject – both of which get right to the core of the matter as far as I’m concerned.
The first, by Grace Dent, TV columnist for The Independent, looks at how widespread sexist attitudes created the climate in which young girls became ‘fair game’ for older men in ‘less enlightened’ times.
The second is by the Scottish writer, Andrew O’Hagan, detailing a dark history of alleged abuse at the BBC dating back many years.
One of the most revealing quotes I came across was from Savile’s own 1974 autobiography ‘As It Happens’ (re-published in 1976 as ‘Love Is An Uphill Thing’), where he writes of an incident at the Mecca Locarno ballroom in Leeds, which he managed in the late 1950’s. When a female police officer came in with a photograph of “an attractive girl who had run away from a remand home”, Savile writes: “‘Ah,’ says I all serious, ‘if she comes in I’ll bring her back tomorrow but I’ll keep her all night first as my reward’”. He then reveals that the girl did indeed go into the club and “agreed that I hand her over if she could stay at the dance, [and] come home with me”. He wrote that the following day he did then hand her over to the “lady of the law…[who] was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me”.
On the surface, this sounds like macho fighting talk, but by taking half of the station with him he clearly meant something altogether more devious. As someone versed in the twilight world of post-war nightlife, he was well aware of the shady goings on around him, often involving policemen who indulged in the less savoury perks of the job. His attitude was that if they took him down, he’d take some of them down with him, and this approach is likely to have served him all the way up the social ladder, hence his ability to constantly cover up what he did, despite so many people, as it now transpires, knowing exactly what he was up to. As the saying goes, ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, but, in Savile’s case, it was likely to have included the addition ‘and what you know about them’. He was undoubtedly a master manipulator who, it would seem from what he said, covered his back by having others fear he might expose their own transgressions.
This, along with a bit of old fashioned physical threat, were no doubt his stock-in-trade when it came to avoiding prosecution.  In the fascinating Louis Theroux documentary film from 2000, ‘When Louis Met Jimmy’, he boasts of inventing  ‘zero tolerance’, suggesting that he dealt with troublemakers harshly when managing dance halls, as ‘judge, jury and executioner’, by tying them up and leaving them down below in the boiler room until he was ready to dish out his own rough justice at the end of the night. He freely admitted he was ‘always in trouble with the law for being heavy handed’, although a slap on the wrists seemed to be the worst retribution he received.
The moral upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s played right into the hands of sexual schemers, of which Savile was an extreme example. My own generation, those who became teenagers in the 70’s, had greater opportunity to explore our curiosities. The 60’s is historically regarded as the permissive era, with the liberating factor of the pill enabling people to engage in sex without the fear of unwanted pregnancy – this happened whilst pop culture flourished, skirts shortened,  and the hippie movement advocated that we should ‘make love not war’. However, it wasn’t the 60’s, but the 70’s when things really opened up, with more and more people experimenting sexually, given these new found freedoms.
The rise of feminism forced us to look at our traditional gender roles, and, as teenage boys, we had to painstakingly unravel the misogyny we’d grown up with, where girls were largely regarded as objects of our male lust, there to be remorselessly taken advantage of wherever possible. Women’s liberation confronted these issues head on, with our chauvinistic activities rightfully condemned. Some guys carried on regardless, and still do, whilst others gradually grew a conscience.
Remember, back when I was a teenager there was still very much this outmoded expectation of marrying a virgin. The girls were supposed to remain virtuous whilst the boys were given a pat on the back for ‘sowing their wild oats’. This led to girls having their ‘reputation’ left in tatters due to a night of indiscretion – good girls didn’t do that type of thing. Boys would boast of their ‘conquests’ and girls would be called ‘scrubbers’ or ‘sluts’ as a consequence.
So it’s no surprise that, in this environment, a young girl who’d been molested, or even raped, was unlikely to report this, for her own reputation would be besmirched in the process, regardless of whether or not she was believed  – men didn’t generally go for ‘damaged goods’, whilst women would whisper ‘no smoke without fire’. When, with regards to the Savile revelations, people said ‘why didn’t they say anything at the time’, they fail to take into account the sexual landscape back then – a time when, if a rape accusation actually made it to court, the judge was overwhelmingly more likely to side with the man than the woman.  Against this backdrop it’s no wonder that all forms of sexual abuse, especially those against children, often went unreported.
For the mother of Claire McAlpine, her beautiful daughter had not only been abused in life, but also in death. Ironically, just a week before the Savile story broke, Vera McAlpine died, aged 90, the tragedy of her daughter’s suicide unresolved. Now, over 40 years on, what she wrote in her diary back then is finally being taken seriously, and, no doubt, those who suspect that their names were included on her list of shame will currently be cowering at the prospect of a knock on the door – it was only supposed to be a bit of fun, wasn’t it? The Guardian ran a piece the week after Claire McAlpine’s death headlined ‘BBC May Set Age Limit For Top Of The Pops Dancers’, but nothing changed, enabling Savile (and allegedly others) to defile more impressionable youngsters at  what he was said to refer to as his ‘happy hunting ground’.
This brings us to one of the main dilemmas thrown up by the Savile revelations. Although it’s now easy to revile him as a seedy paedophile, all those supposedly harmless eccentricities now unmasked to reveal a sinister manipulator, how about all those stars and celebrities we hold close to our hearts, but who, like Savile, also used their position to bed adolescents? When talking about girls as young as 13 making themselves available for sexual favours, another BBC  figure remarked in an interview for the Guardian, back in the 70’s; ‘Well, of course, I didn’t ask for ID…all they wanted me to do was to abuse them sexually which, of course I was only too happy to do’. That’s a shocking thing to admit in this day and age, but it passed by pretty much without question at the time, and also 2 decades later, when it was brought up by Julie Burchill in another Guardian article, written in 1999. What makes this comment all the more disturbing to modern day sensibilities is that it wasn’t uttered by Jimmy Savile, or by fellow presenter Chris Denning (jailed at various intervals since 1974 for a string of sex offences against young boys), but by the much-loved Radio 1 DJ and ‘national treasure’, John Peel.
The fact of the matter is that, like John Peel, numerous DJ’s, Pop / Rock stars, TV celebrities etc. weren’t asking for ID either – wide-eyed ‘groupies’ were fair game, even if they did appear somewhat on the young side, scant consideration being made for their emotional immaturity and the long-term damage that might result from such a reckless liaison. Little thought was given to these things, and, unlike Kevin Spacey’s character in the film ‘American Beauty’ (1999), who having obsessed over his daughter’s teenage friend, realised that it would be morally wrong to take advantage of her when the opportunity arose, most men only thought of their own sexual gratification, and stuff the consequences (no doubt because there rarely were any consequences).
The veteran English music journalist, Charles Shaar Murray, summed up this generational shift in The Observer last month; “So: are we projecting modern attitudes back into a very different time? Yes, we are. Are we right to do so? Yes, we are. Many things once considered "normal" – ranging from institutional racism and legal suppression of homosexuality to drinking and driving or smoking in public places – are now proscribed, and we are, both as a culture and as individuals, better for it”.
The various DJ forums I follow all had threads on the Jimmy Savile revelations as they unfolded, but the most insightful discussions I came across were via Tony Prince’s Facebook group. Prince, like Savile, is a former Radio Luxembourg disc-jockey (dating back to the late 60’s), who is also known to a later generation as the founder of DMC (Disco Mix Club), which still organizes the World Mixing Championship, and the dance music magazine, Mixmag, which he sold to the EMAP group in the mid-90’s. Tony Prince counted himself as a personal friend of Jimmy Savile’s, so the accusations of Savile’s serial child abuse hit him particularly hard. The span of people commenting ranged from contemporary DJ’s (including 2 Acid-House legends who took opposite viewpoints) to people, like Prince, who were part of the broadcasting world in the 60’s and 70’s. It was this older generation, some of whom had known or had met Savile themselves, whose words were particularly revealing,  a number of them taking the stance of ‘now he’s dead, let the man rest in peace’ and even shifting the blame onto the victims, accusing them of being money motivated or outright liars. In true King Canute style, some still defended him after the ITV ‘Exposure’ programme had been aired and public opinion overwhelmingly turned against Savile.
As Tony Prince put it so succinctly, the era had lost its ‘nostalgic glow’ as a result of the revelations. Prior to the ITV programme, Prince, as you’d expect, defended his friend, but once it had been broadcast he was resigned to a truth he, and others of his generation, never thought they’d have to face. The reason for this was because Savile’s actions had left a dark smear on what were previously regarded as more colourful fun-filled times. “Tonight was the night ITV killed Jimmy Savile’ Prince lamented, ‘no one can recover from such allegations but I don't doubt for a minute, having heard these rumours for many years, that Jimmy was out of control”.
Less than 12 months after he appeared on Sky News, paying tribute to someone he regarded as a mentor, he felt obliged to make a statement, under the title of ‘A Message To The British Public’, defending his broadcasting colleagues from back in the day, which began; “I can assure you of one thing, No well-known radio DJ ever socialised with Jimmy Savile let alone shared his penchant for young girls’. It concluded; ‘None of us really knew him because he only showed us what he showed the public”.
I felt for Tony Prince, and the others of his generation, even those who were obviously burying their heads in the sand and, despite the undeniable evidence, continuing to defend the indefensible (including, most shockingly, a number of women). The more allegations that have emerged, the more the memories of their youth have been sullied, a situation that has continued with the subsequent arrests of other former BBC employees and once popular entertainers.
Now the people of that generation and, indeed, my own generation, have been forced to look in the mirror, they no longer see the bright young things they once were, but the veneer has been removed and now the sinister underbelly of those romanticised times, formerly hidden behind rumour and innuendo, is clearly in view. Back then there were no paedophiles, or, more precisely, the word wasn’t in common circulation, instead we had ‘dirty old men’ in their grubby macs who prowled the parks or the public baths, but were easily identifiable for the oddballs they were. The reality however is that there were paedophiles all along, masses of them of all ages and across the class spectrum, and what’s more, back then it was easier for them to operate, with blind eyes turned at every curve. In this environment of denial it’s likely that Jimmy Savile’s whole career was based on his intention to place himself in the proximity of young girls, not on a desire to be a DJ revolutionary.


Which brings us to the aforementioned question – now we know what we know, should this affect Jimmy Savile’s DJ legacy? Will people who’ve revered him as a seminal force in our profession now airbrush him into a lesser role, or even completely sweep him under the rug of history, as has been the case with regards to Gary Glitter’s contribution to 70’s Pop, in the wake of his own child abuse scandal – should Savile’s sins negate his cultural significance? Furthermore, in a contemporary sense, did he deserve to be lionised in the first place as the man who originally introduced twin-turntables to the World, and kicked-off DJ culture as we know it, or was this yet another deception? Simply more smoke and mirrors?
Jimmy Savile came from the culture of ‘show biz’, and what he successfully did was apply that to playing records in nightspots, and subsequently on the radio – that’s his true legacy to DJ culture (although he was very much of the long outmoded ‘personality DJ’ persuasion, where the music took a supporting role to the person playing it) and, given his huge popularity in the 60’s, he could certainly be described as the prototype ‘Superstar DJ’. However, by the 70’s he was already regarded by young people as something of an ‘embarrassing uncle’ – past his sell by date, but somehow hanging on in there in the role of youth spokesman via his BBC TV and radio presence.
Back in 1975, when I started out as a club DJ, aged 15, Jimmy Savile was already viewed by most people of my age group as a relic of a bygone era. With his long bleached blonde hair and garish appearance, not to mention his tired catchphrases, he was someone you tolerated on the Thursday nights when he very much came into your orbit as one of the presenters of Top Of The Pops, essential viewing back then for any self-respecting teenager (Savile had hosted the programme’s very first edition, back in 1964). However, to an older generation, he was a hero – a ceaseless charity worker and loveable eccentric whose popularity was at an all-time high following the runaway success of his Saturday evening TV show, ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, which was launched earlier that year and would run right through until 1994, by which time he’d become Sir Jimmy – a British institution who made peoples’ dreams come true (or, as it’s transpired, a pantomime ugly sister in the role of fairy godmother).
DJ’s of the modern era probably wouldn’t have had any idea of who Jimmy Savile was, but for the somewhat surprising more recent revelation that he was supposedly the first DJ in the World to use 2 turntables (having, he claimed, paid a metal worker to weld them together in 1947) and therefor ‘the father of DJ culture’ as we know it. This ‘fact’ was the source of much amusement – all of a sudden Mr ‘now then, now then’ Jim’ll Fix It was elevated to the status of seminal DJ, alongside the likes of Francis Grasso, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, the originators of what we now term turntablism. In fact all subsequent DJ’s, Grasso, Herc, Flash and Theodore included, were apparently indebted to Savile, for without his 2 turntable innovation the art of mixing, cutting and scratching would never have developed in the way that it did. Jimmy Savile as the originator was an incredible proposition, but it appeared to be true, at least on the surface.
What’s not in doubt is that Savile, when employed by the then powerful Mecca chain of British dance halls, was clearly instrumental in bringing the role of the DJ more to the fore at a time when live entertainment was still the order of the day (he’d claim that ‘I finished up running 52 dance halls and employing 400 disc jockeys’). Nick Cohn, the author of ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom ‘(1969), an early history of Pop / Rock, had acclaimed him in the book as England’s best DJ, going as far as to say; ‘to me, he was our only disc jockey’. He certainly revolutionized the way music was consumed in these venues, but was he really the first DJ to use 2 turntables (not just in the UK, but on the entire planet)? We only have Savile’s word for this – as far as I’m aware, there are no photographs to help verify his assertion.
The story, it seems, originated in his autobiography which has been widely quoted as the source of this claim. He said that he was the first person to use 2 turntables and a microphone at the Grand Records Ball at the Guardbridge Hotel in his home city of Leeds way back in 1947, billed as 'Jimmy Saville introducing Juke Box Doubles'. Almost 2 decades on from the book’s publication, after this information was relayed in a BBC radio documentary about club culture, people wrote to the broadcasting weekly, Radio Times. to dispute this, pointing out that ‘dual turntables’ were illustrated in the BBC Handbook as far back as 1929, and advertised in the magazine The Gramophone a few years later (there are even earlier examples, designed for cinema use, dating back to France in 1910). However, he could still claim that nobody had applied this in a space where people came to dance.
In 1995 ‘DJ Culture’, by the German author Ulf Poschardt, became the first book to attempt to chart the history of the DJ – its starting point being 1906 when, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, Reginald A. Fessenden played Handel’s ‘Largo’, the first recording transmitted over the airwaves. In a short section outlining the development of DJ’s in Europe, Poschardt repeated Nik Cohn’s pronouncement that Jimmy Savile was a trailblazer; ‘the first British DJ who clearly identified with the bright and exciting world of youth culture’. However, he never mentioned anything about his claim to be the first DJ to use 2 turntables.
That wouldn’t become a common perception until the publication of Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ in 1999. As with Ulf Poschardt’s book, it outlined the evolution of the DJ, but this time with, amongst other things, a far greater appreciation of the British lineage. ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ would quickly supersede ‘DJ Culture’ as the authoritative text on the subject, and Jimmy Savile’s role became more central, the book describing him as ‘probably the great-grandfather of today’s DJ’ and, building upon Nik Cohn’s ‘our best DJ’ / ‘only DJ’ quote , bestowing upon him the title of ‘Britain’s first Superstar DJ’, which would be about right given his massive celebrity in the 60’s when, as well as presenting Top Of The Pops, his shows on Radio Luxembourg, and subsequently BBC Radio 1, were hugely popular.
With regards to the all-important twin-turntables question, ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ proclaimed, in relation to his working for the Mecca organization; ‘For his first gig in Ilford, Savile commissioned a proper disco system – albeit rudimentary – built by Westex. To cut down on the gaps between records, he had the idea of using two turntables. This, the fundamental technical advance on which modern club DJing is based, Savile did in 1946’. It was unequivocal, this placed Savile right at the vanguard of DJ culture, and, all of a sudden, as with landmarks like David Mancuso’s New York Loft parties, the UK’s Northern Soul scene, Kool Herc’s block parties in the Bronx and the Sound System culture of his Jamaican homeland, Sir Jimmy Savile's groundbreaking use of 2 turntables in those post-war years assured him an iconic place with a younger generation of DJ’s Worldwide, fascinated by roots and history, to whom ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ opened up a whole new realm of exploration.
Having interviewed Savile for a second time, ahead of the 2006 updated edition of the book, its authors were more ambiguous about his claims, amending accordingly. His idea to use 2 turntables in Ilford was still mentioned, but this time without the key sentence; ‘This, the fundamental technical advance on which modern club DJing is based, Savile did in 1946’. It couldn’t have been in 1946, at least not in Ilford, as he didn’t work there until the mid-50’s at the earliest (accounts as to precise dates vary). That said, the fires of those original words had spread throughout the DJ community, with Jimmy Savile becoming a cool name to drop for younger DJ’s who prided themselves on knowing their history and older ones still relishing the irony of it all – in 2010, the year before he died, DJ publication Mixmag would even shortlist Savile for their ‘The Greatest DJ Of All-Time?’ award (which was subsequently won by the more contemporary Tiësto).
To add a further twist, there were now 2 more names in the frame when it came to both the question of who was the first DJ to play records to dance to in a public space, as well as the first DJ to use 2 turntables. A BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Other Mobiles’, broadcast in 2004, interviewed Bertrand Thorpe (then 80) and Ron Diggins (then 87), arguably the World's first mobile DJ's, Diggins plying his trade 87 miles from Savile’s home city of Leeds, in Boston, Lincolnshire. The Guardian reported that; ‘in 1941 Bert would stand charismatically with his back to the audience playing "music for dancing" at 78rpm through a 30-watt amp. Ron takes credit for building the first custom DJ console in 1947. The ‘Diggola’ was made of wood and required four hours of winding to function’. Savile’s account (as outlined in ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, rather than his autobiography, where he states ’47) still pre-dated that of Diggins by a year, but whilst he didn’t have any photographic evidence to add weight to his claim, Diggins did.
As illustrated by the amendments between the editions of ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, there were obvious discrepancies in what he’d said, but you didn’t question Jimmy Savile, if he told you that he was the inventor of twin-turntables, given the lack of evidence to the contrary who were we to dispute this? After all, this was a man who’d been honoured by Queen and country (and Pope for good measure) – an upstanding citizen, let alone a living legend. Perhaps, as with his catalogue of abuse of underage girls, he pulled the wool over our eyes in positioning himself at the genesis of DJ culture, when really we should have been looking towards more marginal figures like Bertrand Thorpe and Ron Diggins, or similar pioneers in other countries. There’s no doubt that Jimmy Savile was ahead of the curve, and deserves the credit for the policies he implemented within the Mecca group, but we only have his word with regards to what happened before that. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that, as with the invention of the steam engine, a number of people in different places came up with roughly the same idea around the same time. Even if we do believe that Savile was using 2 turntables before Diggins, or vice versa, can we be sure that either was aware of what the other was doing?
On a personal level, I agree that Jimmy Savile was undoubtedly an innovator of UK club culture, as well as being the first Superstar DJ in this country, but I find it difficult to regard him as a DJ father figure when he patently wasn’t a man of music – by his own admission; “I’ve never had a record in my life. People would buy somebody a record for their birthday or Christmas or something like, that. People used to play records in their houses. I used to borrow. I only had about ten records. That’s all I needed. And I’d borrow them from anybody”. When I look at this statement, in contrast to what I know about later DJ’s like Guy Stevens, James Hamilton and Roger Eagle, Rhythm & Blues obsessives who went to great lengths to hunt down the best dance music of their time, and would have spent their last penny on records, you can see the cultural split – Jimmy Savile was a showman who was always mainstream in his aspirations, whilst Stevens, Hamilton and Eagle were vinyl evangelists to whom the music was primary, affecting culture from the underground out. As a British DJ, these are the inspirational figures for me – I’ve no doubt that, due to their huge passion for music and their intrinsic need to share this with others, they would have made their impact regardless of Jimmy Savile, because their entry point was completely different.
Whilst his contribution to DJ culture is debateable, I can’t help but think that Jimmy Savile’s attitude would have been that once he was dead and gone he couldn’t care less how he was perceived – it was all about what he could get away with in life, that’s where he clearly got his kicks, and he might have even revelled in mentating on the infamy he was destined to acquire. He was obviously a highly intelligent man, and must have known that the truth would surely come out after his death, without the threat of lawsuits to silence his victims. If there’d just been a handful of incidents, perhaps we’d never have known, but now we’re told that the numbers run into the hundreds, there’s only so much you can hide. He duped us good and proper for all those years, getting away with the proverbial blue murder, and now we’re stuck with him, his legacy looming large as a modern-day Great British bogeyman.
Written by Greg Wilson.


This article has been shared on Ransom Note with the permission of Greg Wilson. The article originally appeared on Greg Wilson's superb website on 21st November.