I have been fascinated by the radio since a young age when I started playing around with a small transistor radio, moving on aged 11 (ish) to borrow my parents’ large Grundig radio with its better sound quality. I listened to pop music, naturally, from BBC Radio 1 but also from Radio Luxembourg (English service in the evening) and from the pirate radio stations operating off the Dutch coast.
Then I expanded my listening to include shortwave radio stations from distant lands, as well as news, documentaries, drama and comedy on BBC Radio 4 – and in those days there was comedy on BBC Radio 2 as well (Hello Cheeky anyone?).
My interest has stayed with me for more than 50 years. Today I have a large collection of radios including internet radios, on which I can listen to radio stations from all over the world in good quality sound.
So I was intrigued when I came across a podcast called the British Broadcasting Century, something of a labour of love for its host, interviewer and researcher Paul Kerensa.
The podcast’s website describes it as: “100 Years of the BBC, Radio and Life as We Know It. Be informed, educated and entertained by the amazing true story of radio’s forgotten pioneers.”
It makes for fascinating listening. Thank you Paul.
One edition of the podcast featured a modern recording of an old song about radio listening in the 1920s. It reminded me of something I had seen on social media – the sheet music artwork for a song called There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart.
To cut a long story short, Paul was interested in the song and we agreed that my wife Kathie, a musician, would make a recording for his podcast. Kathie was able to obtain a copy of the actual sheet music and discovered the song dated from 1913.
There’s A Wireless Station Down in My Heart has words by Ed Moran & Joe McCarthy, music by James V Monaco. The song was written when wireless did not mean wi-fi like today and even pre-dates radio broadcasting in the sense that we know it. Instead the song celebrates wireless communication via Morse code, in a rather saucy way.
I had to laugh when I first read the lyrics to There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart. The title is catchy enough but I don’t think you can beat an opening line like: “Oh, there’s something nobody knows/I don’t suppose anyone knows”. It’s surprisingly naughty for such an early song, though people were probably just as naughty then as they are now.
It is another of these recording projects I take on where I think ‘oh, that will be easy and quick’ and four weeks later I’m still messing around with the arrangement. It began with piano for the accompaniment; because of the time period it’s an excellent, ragtime-style piano part and really good fun to play.
When I’d added the vocal I thought it sounded like it needed a bit more. So I added some old fashioned-sounding acoustic drums in the background. (Using software, I hasten to add. I’m a lousy drummer.) It needed a clarinet and a trombone, obviously; sadly I was unable to fake a banjo part which I felt it could have used. Eventually I stopped messing around with it and ended up with the arrangement you can hear now.
One difficulty I had was the form. We were lucky to find the sheet music online but when I looked at it I wasn’t sure what the order of the sections should be. The chorus has a repeat marked at the end so one would assume you play it twice through. But there are two verses. I decided to just go with what seemed the most obvious structure (verse/chorus/chorus/verse/chorus/chorus) but that has meant it’s quite long – it clocks in at over four minutes.
I remember thinking that couldn’t be right because I didn’t think the recording mediums of the time would hold that much music. But doing a quick online search, I see that the predominant recording medium of the 1910s were flat discs, usually made of shellac resin. A 10” 78 rpm disc could only hold three minutes of music – this has survived to this day as the ‘ideal’ length of a pop single – but a 12” could hold up to five minutes. So it’s not inconceivable that the song may have been as long as my version of it when it was released. Assuming it was ever released as a recording.
I had to look up the authors in order to register my arrangement and recording with PRS, the performing rights agency in the UK. I could find nothing on the lyricist Ed Moran, but Joe McCarthy (1865-1943) went on to write You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It) with the composer of ‘Wireless Station’ James V. Monaco (1885-1945). McCarthy has a long list of credits including several Ziegfield Follies from 1919 to 1930 and film credits including Irene and Rio Rita. His most famous song is I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. I do find it amusing it took two men to write the lyrics to ‘Wireless Station’ (“Ev’ry time he sends me a spark/he hits the mark/right in the dark” etc).
Composer James V. Monaco had a stellar career with his songs recorded by Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland among others. His first hit was two years before ‘Wireless Station’ with a song called Oh, You Circus Day from the Broadway review Hanky Panky. Four of his compositions were nominated for Oscars.
It was great fun learning all this while working on the song. And it’s interesting to think about the changes in musical styles as well as the technology for broadcasting and recording these men would have experienced during their lifetimes. They were both born before the advent of wireless radio communication but during their lives it moved from Morse code through the invention of the telephone to proper radio broadcasting as we’d understand it today. Recording technology began as wax cylinders then changed to 78rpm flat discs (which were the forerunners of today’s trendy-again LP records). Both men died just before the advent of LPs and using magnetic tape was just beginning to be seen as a possible successor to wax for capturing music. They would have first experienced recording with the musicians grouped around a large horn to convey the sound to the cutting stylus; a decade or so after ‘Wireless Station’ was written, microphones became more commonplace in recording studios, creating a seismic change in singing styles that led directly to popular music becoming such a dominant force in music.
It’s a lot to pack in to a cute little song about a lonely girl and her anonymous operator sending her sparks in the dark when she’s lonely and blue. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did recording it.
You can listen to Paul Kerensa’s podcast The British Broadcasting Century via this website or via other podcast platforms. Kathie’s version of There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart appears in the podcast which has as its main subject matter “Early Black British Broadcasters” (released on 8 August 2022).
To stream or download Kathie performing There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart – either in stereo or old-time mono – please visit Kathie’s Bandcamp page.
Kathie Touin & Graham Brown