Friday, April 27, 2012

The day that music died. A bit.

Plenty of things get up us Brits' noses. For a start, we're islanders, which means a predisposition to dislike foreign food. And foreigners who don't respect queuing. And foreigners.

Secondly, we get easily upset when you mess with our music television.

When Top Of The Pops was shipped off to a Dignitas clinic after 42 years of poor miming, a faux party atmosphere and the inexplicable contractual provision of work to 'zany' Radio 1 DJs, there was national outcry.

It was, nonetheless, a mercy killing, but it was received publicly as if Auntie Beeb had slipped something lethal into an elderly relative's mug of tea.

It had been a long time since "The Pops" had been 'destination TV', to use the terrible American marketing term. Conceived in 1964, just as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were getting up steam, two, even three generations grew up with the show.

In its heyday, BBC1 at 7 o'clock on a Thursday evening meant Bryan Ferry's creepily shrill vibrato and Alvin Stardust, dressed head-to-toe in leather with a gloved index finger pointing straight down the lens; The Sweet camping around to Blockbuster and Mud (with their culottes-wearing bass player, whose mum worked in my local Sainsbury's) jiving around to Tiger Feet; Ron Mael of Sparks spooking everyone out with his his mad stare and Hitler moustache, and Pan's People creating the first stirrings of pre-pubescent awkwardness by as they pranced about to a T-Rex backing track because the bookers couldn't actually secure Bolan's presence in in the studio.

TOTP survived punk and the invention of the pop video. It's only real competition - if you wanted to see pop stars in the flesh on TV - was Saturday morning kids' TV (a choice between Noel Edmonds' highly sanitised Swap Shop or ITV's more anarchic TISWAS) or the grown-up Old Grey Whistle Test, over on late night BBC2. Whistle Test, in any case, catered for bearded musos to "catch" live performances by the likes of the Edgar Winter Band or daft Dutch prog combo Focus. And it was also presented by bona fide music journalists like Richard Williams, not Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis, like its BBC1 cousin.

Given all this, Friday, November 5, 1982 brought about a minor revolution that would have unnerved even Guy Fawkes himself. Because that was the day The Tube arrived.

Broadcast for an hour and a half every Friday evening live from Newcastle, it reflected everything the brand new Channel 4 was about, and everything the BBC and even ITV wasn't. The Tube was brash, it was chaotic and it was at times so rough around the edges you wondered whether you were watching a rehearsal.

The Tube's debut was an aftershock of a larger temblor that had taken place in British broadcasting just three days previously: in the 20 years before Channel 4 arrived on November 2, Britain had got by with just three national TV channels. When you consider that, today, there are more than 30 channels on Sky devoted exclusively to music, a new music show on a new channel was a seismic event.

It's presenters were relative unknowns: Jools Holland had been the keyboard player in Squeeze, and won his gig on The Tube after being noticed larking about in a documentary about The Police, with whom he'd been on tour.

Paula Yates was born into an entertainment family (Jess Yates was supposed to be her father until she learned otherwise...) and was plucked from the showbiz desk of the Daily Mirror.

There was also a never-ending stream of new second-string presenters, such as the punkish Scot punk Muriel Gray, actress Leslie Ash (post-Quadrophenia and pre-Men Behaving Badly), and Nick Laird-Clowes, once of The Dream Academy, famous for the hit Life In A Northern Town.

The interviews were hammy at best: Holland wasn't - and still isn't - an interviewer of any depth, and Yates, who at least had some journalistic chops about her, tended towards grotesque flirtation in most of her interviews (meeting the zenith of her craft with Michael Hutchence...).

From time-to-time The Tube included magazine elements and filmed features, along with "alternative" poetry from Mark Miwurdz and comedy bits featuring Jim Moir - later to become Vic Reeves - various members of The Comic Strip gang (then Channel 4 darlings) and Rowland Rivron, a drummer friend of Holland's.

However, you didn't tune in to The Tube for variety, or to hear Holland losing his thread mid-question, Gray being sarky, or Yates fluttering her eyelids at some snake-hipped rock god. It was about music. But not as TV viewers knew it.

"It infuriates me," The Tube's executive producer Malcolm Gerrie told me in 1987 in an interview for LM magazine, "that we have to be compared with Top Of The Pops. Because when you broadcast pop music you are merged into a market, one area. If Channel 4 or ITV had asked to compete with Top Of The Pops you'd have seen a very different Tube."

As a platform for live music during its five-year run, The Tube provided storming early TV appearances for Madonna, R.E.M., Bon Jovi, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and a little four-piece from Dublin called U2. The Proclaimers can even point to their debut appearance on the show as the moment they took off with Letter From America.

The mainstream of the day was also well represented, with Duran Duran, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Alison Moyet, Elvis Costello, Paul Young, The Style Council, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston amongst hundreds more all performing live in an eclectic mixture that Jools Holland has continued today with his ...Later show. On any given week, Cliff Richard might be on with The Art of Noise, Bon Jovi, and the Cocteau Twins.

What made this all the more remarkable was the fact that The Tube was produced 300 miles north of where most bands, their managers and record companies were all based. It's possible that until The Tube came along, the last Londoner to head up to Newcastle had been Michael Caine as Jack Carter.

Music biz people thought Channel 4 and Tyne-Tees Television were mad trying to persuade bands to fly up to Tyneside for a TV show on a Friday evening. But that's exactly what Gerrie - a proud Geordie then - managed to pull off. "I think that if it came from anywhere else," he told me 25 years ago, "it would be a totally different program. There's an energy and freshness up here that seems a tradition in the rock bands from this area - from Bryan Ferry, Sting, Dire Straits and David Coverdale to even Hank Marvin!"

The Tube also helped put Newcastle on bands' tour schedules, as well as drawing attention to the north-east's own music scene - acts like The Kane Gang, for example, ("Before The Tube it used to be bloody difficult to even get an A&R ['artist and repertoire'] man up here", Gerrie at the time).

As the show gained in prominence, credibility and notoriety, it became required weekly viewing. Just as some radio DJs had become outlets for exclusive first listens, The Tube soon became the show to premiere new music.

On March 6, 1987 The Tube was given a world exclusive: the first play of the video of a new song by U2 - With Or Without You. Whatever your opinion of U2 now, this was A Moment, and the moment in particular that tipped them from simply "interesting" Irish rockers into global superstars.

I was lucky to be up at The Tube that particular Friday. It was the day of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster - I recall watching live news coverage of it in the reception area of Tyne-Tees TV.

By chance, it was the week that Holland returned from suspension, the result of 'accidentally' mentioning the phrase "ungroovy fuckers" in a live trailer that went out just before 5pm. Even for 'Channel Filth', as the Daily Mail branded it, this was a little bit too strong for kids' teatime TV.

Yates introduced the new U2 song and, as its first bars of synth pad progressed, the video faded from black to reveal Bono singing "See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side". Hairs on the back of every neck crammed into the control room of Studio 5 - including mine - were raised in unison. No one then in that studio knew what With Or Without You and its parent album, The Joshua Tree would go on to do.

One thing, however, that everyone working on The Tube that Friday did know was that the show was coming to an end. For months there had been rumblings: concern about the programming by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the resignation of a high-profile Channel 4 executive because of it, and then Holland's faux pas which resulted in the boogie-woogieist being suspended for six weeks, and the show itself being blacked out for three.

At the end of its 1987 run, The Tube came to halt. 25 years ago this week. Axed in its prime. All had not been right for a while, and the Holland affair merely accelerated the show's exit. There were murmurings from within the production team that the show had changed too much in five years, that it had lost its cutting edge and had started to become diluted. The end, it was suggested, was inevitable.

On Friday April 24, 1987, The Tube went out with a bang. Duran Duran, seen largely as poster boys for 80s glam pop and global warming (Smash Hits used to run regular features referring to the band's copious use of ozone-depleting hair spray), produced a storming live set which went on long after transmission had ended. It enhanced their reputation, no end, and perfectly underlined the strength of The Tube, that getting even pop's most pop bands to come on and plug in, they could showcase their musical credibility as much as their should pads.

Afterwards the production team, the presenters, the bands from the final show - and, I'm proud to say, yours truly - slipped off to a nightclub in Newcastle's Bigg Market for a rousing end-of-show wake. It was a glorious evening, one - which I'm also proud to say - went on long into the morning, as a somewhat inebriated What Would David Bowie Do? and comedian Rowland Rivron staggered through Newcastle in search of Central Station and our train back to London.

Some might say - and, indeed, did - that The Tube was an experiment that went on too long. "To be given the brief that The Tube has," Malcolm Gerrie told me all those years ago, "and to do that at 5.30 on a Friday evening is really difficult." He would have preferred a later show, one which would have been edgier by nature. But even now, credit must be given for a getting away with something which dared to be different, and didn't go for popularity or ratings. Its legacy wasn't the anarchy, or the chaos, or the other rough edges that attracted the tabloid attention. It was its sheer love of live music.

"It'd be the simplest thing in the world to pack the show with videos or Madonna or Springsteen or whatever meganames you want," said Gerrie. "But part of the brief was to showcase new bands. I'd rather have the penalty of lower ratings and have the freedom we've had on Channel 4."

Perhaps that freedom went to far, but today, please raise a hat to a show which, in the pantheon of television, may now, 25 years on, be just another entry, but which raised the bar high for British music television.

What Did David Bowie Do on The Tube - the Dame discusses Let's Dance with Jools Holland

David Bowie - The Tube Interview 1983 Pt1 on MUZU.TV.

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