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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Switch that rubbish off

A side-effect of reading John Eden’s (excellent) post about a dire-sounding “history of indie” programme for BBC4, was the thought: has TV ever done music well?

I’m honestly doubtful. Top Of The Pops? Bad to the bone. OK, fun when you’re 14 (just), but now exposed to the ironic gaze of a 2011 audience scoffing at a 1976 dog’s dinner of tunes, it’s good for no-one. Actually wasn’t it always just tacky Jimmy Saville-fronted stuff?

If TOTP was essentially Smash Hits TV, where was the more serious music and the programmes to showcase it? Er, nowhere. The Old Grey Whistle Test? Nope. Another enervating format: smug presenters, TV studio, band playing to the presenters and technicians. Dull. So It Goes? The knowing Vonnegut reference and Tony Wilson’s access to genuinely good acts aside, it was still dullsville music television. Check it out. Even the Sex Pistols doing Anarchy is a poor watch (except the edited Rotten glare at the end).

After this I don’t think there’s anywhere to go. The Tube once ruled the roost but its format was no advance whatsoever and it was always going to expire because of it. And Jools’ “mature” stuff? Well, the least said about that the better. Later, as they say.

Meanwhile, getting away from the ancient band-in-studio format, there was a time when video looked like it could be going places. When I was young there was a relief in catching a music video on Tiswas - a moment of escape from Spit The Dog into the mini-world of Elvis Costello or something. Then, better still, Max Headroom let the videos themselves do the work. In one sense this was not a bad idea. Cut out the middle-man and get to the music + images. But this too was still an artistic dereliction really. Where was the creative fusing of the media, of sound and vision? You’re left with just record company-produced video fodder, rarely rising above the band-as-heroes/sex symbols level.

To me this is why music has often been most satisfying visually in the cinema. Two random examples: Popul Vuh’s electronic-ambient-cum-krautrock soundtracks for Herzog’s early films or Aphex Twin’s low-key pastoral sounds for Sleep Furiously.

(By the way, I think there’s a whole other area to be thrown into all this: how bands have chronically under-exploited visuals - especially video/film - when playing live, but I’ll leave that for another time …).

Before I reach for the Off switch I’ll just say that I think TV long ago lost the plot over working creatively with music-makers (in fact I don’t think it ever did). Now, when you revisit some of TV’s time-warped musical embarassments (a Rock Goes To College or, further back, a Ready Steady Go), you also stumble upon YouTube videos put together by amateurs and other enthusiasts who’ve done what 50 years of TV never managed: to match interesting music to new visuals, often with amazing skill. Meanwhile, from what I've seen, recent breakcore artists (like Piotr Rosztajn) have been doing some interesting things with their videos, which, I assume, are rarely or never shown on television. (Who does show them, I wonder? Presumably we're talking about websites and the odd left-field club night).

Along with the standard-issue (but to me still fascinating) iTunes Visualiser, I think the new era of web-based music-visual artistry has left music on the TV for dead. By me at least, it will not be missed. [Off].

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