In the late 1990s in Britain there was a thriving alternative music scene, independent of the mainstream manufactured pop music that dominated the commercial charts but for most there was no radio station playing the songs they yearned to hear. Even with the explosion of Britpop and a surge in popularity for Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede and countless others it still seemed that fans of indie and alternative music were at the time shunned by major radio stations. Kick Out the Jams – The Story of XFM details the fight back by a plucky group of individuals who truly wanted to do something different.
Kick Out the Jams – The Story of XFM largely covers the growth of XFM from the pirate radio scene in the UK, to covering the Reading Festival and providing the radio for Oasis fans at the legendary Knebworth gig, all the way up to the launch of the station in 1997 and the sale to Capital in 1998. Obviously XFM would continue under Capital's stewardship long after this and provided an alternative to the mainstream radio stations within the M25 and would later become Radio X, but this documentary focuses on the impact of the founders of this pioneering offering, Chris Parry (then-manager of The Cure) and Sammy Jacob, a pirate radio legend in his own right who would become the creative driving force behind the formation of XFM.
One of the biggest strengths of Kick Out the Jams – The Story of XFM is the talking heads and archive footage. Getting Ricky Gervais, now a household name, on board for a significant contribution as well as having Stephen Merchant, Jacobs, Parry and a raft of former DJs including Claire Sturgess and Steve Lamacq really gives this documentary a sense of legitimacy and authenticity. It's clearly very well researched and put together with some interesting stories about how XFM came to be.
The focus in the early part of the documentary about the “wild west” of pirate radio transmissions with XFM's predecessor Q102, the involvement of The Cure themselves in the early days of the project and the general rock'n'roll, DIY ethos of the station is fascinating and speaks really strongly to a different time in broadcasting. The advent of digital radio and the expanded availability of technology with the internet has made radio far more accessible in recent years, especially with the way society consumes such mediums. However, this is a great reminder of the struggle faced by those who wanted to broadcast in a time before such advances without the budget or resources of a major radio station. The launch, the troubles with timing (the station unfortunately launched the day Princess Diana passed away in 1997) and the growth from bedroom to fully-fledged player is a very compelling transition.
However, one thing that slows down the documentary significantly is the shift in focus to Ricky Gervais for a large portion of the middle of the film. Gervais is arguably the biggest star who worked for XFM and his involvement behind-the-scenes is interesting up to a point. Once that point has been reached this continues to the point of becoming something of a love-letter to Gervais which doesn't derail the documentary, but definitely feels like it pulls focus from the legacy of the radio station overall.
Another detrimental issue for Kick Out the Jams – The Story of XFM is perhaps a lack of any real sense of struggle. Although the story follows the rise of the pirate station to the mainstream, it largely seems like they got a license then messed around having fun for a year and sold the company. There isn't a real sense of any turmoil or difficulty, which is almost certainly something that existed but it's not really conveyed effectively here. Even the sale, which the DJs such as Sturgess and Lamacq lament, doesn't carry a huge sense of gravitas because Sturgess continued to work for XFM under its new corporate owners for many years and it seems that everyone moved on as the station grew exponentially under Capital's ownership. Perhaps this is the point, that like all things that begin as homemade, “punk” projects either burn out very quickly with minimal commercial success or become the very thing they rallied against.
XFM's legacy is without doubt an important one. During a period when access to alternative music was difficult, before the transformative nature of the internet truly unfolded they were a beacon for many who felt underrepresented elsewhere. Their story is an important one to tell, and Kick Out the Jams – The Story of XFM will certainly provide a fantastic nostalgia trip for those who were around at the time and understood the monumental nature of its formation. Even if it doesn't quite fulfil the potential on paper that it may have and could have done with a slight altering of focus, with tremendous archive footage and a great array of contributors this is certainly an entertaining watch for music fans and those who aren't familiar with XFM's place in broadcasting history.
Signature Entertainment presents Kick Out the Jams: The Story of XFM on Digital Platforms 2nd September