I used to think of myself as an album person, preferring to listen to an album all the way through, rather than choosing one or more tracks selectively. Many of my favourite bands wrote and released material specifically for the format. However, with a love of shuffle on my iPhone and being extremely disappointed with the When LPs Ruled The World ‘season’ on BBC4 this week, I’m beginning to change my mind about the album’s importance.
The most interesting aspect of this season was Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown, although the concept of sitting around talking about LPs with only the occassional track being played to illustrate one of Baker’s contextual monologues, felt at complete odds with the format being discussed. The series looked at Rock, Pop and RnB in turn. During the Rock programme, being subjected to Jeremy Clarkson stating that The Clash were a more appropriate soundtrack to the Grunwick strike unfolding on television in the 1970s than the heavy rock he previously listened to, while salient, was strangely unsettling a statement to hear the double denim fashionista make—unsettling because the thought of the politically right of centre Clarkson listening to The Clash and watching striking workers with sympathy on TV made me want to burn my copy of Sandinista. The Pop edition featured the ever listenable Boy George, alongside the ever annoying Grace Dent. Overall, the best of the three programmes was the RnB episode, which at least did seem to have a genuine socio-political take within the discussion on the rise of the genre and in doing so, made some justification for the importance of holding such a discussion. Martin Freeman proved to be an enthusiatic and informative fan, while Trevor Nelson was an eloquent and intelligent counterpoint to the histrionics of Mica Paris.
Despite this, Baker demonstrated a deft approach to handling his guests pontifications on all things vinyl, being an amiable and knowledgable host. It remained, however, a questionable format for a programme that seemingly never quite understood what its true identity was; part chat show, part discussion panel, part history lesson, part music show, part debating society. None of these truly shone through as a raison d’être and the whole felt nostalgically irrelevant and vapid.
The main Friday night programme that Baker’s triptych built up to was, unfortunately, completely disappointing, and at times, factually incorrect. As a result of all this, I was left asking: what exactly was the point of this ‘season’ other than filling schedules with cheap TV?
And so, as I continually reassess how I consume music, and the more I am distanced from my own past by such poor TV programming, I can’t help thinking that Bill Drummond has a point in the Singles Verses Albums film he made after turning down the offer to contribute to this series of programmes:
It is good to see that BBC4’s Punk Britannia ended on a high note as it looked at Post Punk, after my previous comments here. I was not in the mood to be disappointed, having blown out a gig I really wanted to go to because I felt unwell earlier in the day, (sorry Rocky). Several medicinal whiskeys later, and laying on the sofa, I was braced for an anticlimax to an anticlimax. But it did the period of 1978–1981 some justice, with most of the key names present; The Fall, Magazine, PiL, Gang of Four, The Slits, Wire, etc. It strayed into anarcho-punk, electronica, and Two Tone, but still took a wide berth around industrial music. There was much else missing as well, just like in the previous programme, and again, it focussed mostly on music. Although their was a brief section that broke off to talk about how Rough Trade changed the music industry; there was still a distinct lack of discussion about other art, design and media revolutions in the wake of punk, such as fashion, publishing, broadcasting and graphic design.
The harking on about the grimness of the 1970s started to grate after a while, but the talking heads were genuinely funny, despite the austere music that came from many of them. Jah Wobble eulogised his love of bass, and clay pigeon shooting, (!); Mark E Smith slurred along with a can of Tennents ever present, (the logo was blurred, I guess, at Tennents’ request of not wanting him to be an advert for their product, rather than advertising censorship from the beeb); Colin and Graham from Wire came across like an old married couple as Graham objected to Colin stating they were grumpy old grand dads; and Mark Stewart out-quoted John Lydon, having Claire and I in stitches of laughter at various points: “Punk is about experimenting… not about some fat fart lecturing you about Punk on BBC4”, with his packet of fig rolls on the coffee table as ever present as Smith’s can of lager.
If you know nothing of any of the bands discussed in this post, go watch the programme, this one felt at least a little educational, and is certainly entertaining.
The BBC is doing Punk this month, with Punk Britannia on BBC4 on Friday nights, along with a host of associated programmes, while 6music is having a month of Punk with guest DJs and themed programming.
A month is a long time, especially when most things I’ve watched and heard so far are bereft of analysis; tending to veer between re-documentation and nostalgia. In the words of Crass, I’m left asking, ‘so what?’
Here’s a round up so far:
Firstly, the good. The Evidently…John Cooper Clarke documentary was excellent. Intelligent, honest, respectful and it held no prisoners in terms of discussing Clarke’s heroin addiction. None of the ‘stay away from drugs, kids’ patronising schtick you usually get from celebrities who come out the other side of smack. With John Cooper Clarke it is more a case of it happened, he moved on, he survives. The messages are left for the audience to deduce, and the fact he couldn’t write for almost 20 years while under the influence, with his regret written across his face, says more than any rhetoric could. Clips of him reading his poetry were mixed from different eras, with some (unusually) perceptive talking head pieces from those that have been long time fans. Well worth watching, and the best thing that has been on so far.
This Friday BBC4 screened an Arena special called Who is Poly Styrene? Made in 1979, it follows the band X-Ray Spex in the studio, sound checking, and in the back of a van on the road, with a rambling monologue from Poly Styrene herself. It had a distinctively fitting ‘distant’ feel, and Poly came across phased and remote most of the time. The overall effect was compelling, and very 1979.
The previous week I fell asleep through much of We Who Wait: TV Smith & The Adverts, which appeared interesting, but not enough to keep me awake. But then I never ‘got’ The Adverts, and have had many arguments with friends about their supposed greatness.
I have so far missed the first two month of Sunday’s guest DJ slots on 6music, where John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux chose records to play, but I have caught some ridiculous features on different programmes, such as listeners phoning in with their most ‘punk moment’, “but nothing illegal please”, came the caveat from Nemone this morning. Hmmmm! Unfortunately, I will have to listen to this trite again as I missed the interview with Viv Albertine of The Slits.
In terms of the flagship programming for this series though, the Punk Britannia Friday night triptych, it has so far been a mixed, and disappointing bag. The first looked at Pre-Punk, and was genuinely interesting, discussing how pub rock in the mid 1970s helped to fuel the desire for live music in London for anything that wasn’t Prog Rock. However, it completely failed to mention the importance from the US music scene, in terms of what followed. I understand that this series is about British music, but the influence of The Stooges and MC5, et al, was completely overlooked. The fact that these bands created the musical aesthetic which so many of the early British Punk bands styled themselves on, is a massive oversight. And the omissions continued into the second episode—first screened this Friday—which failed to mention many bands within the UK Punk scene in 1976 and 77, focusing mostly on the scene bands. Where were Eater, Wire, X Ray Spex, Alternative TV; to name but a few? And what of band wagon jumpers like The Lurkers, Nine Nine Nine, The Vibrators etc? All these bands were just as important as the majors to the story, regardless of quality. This is especially true because their inclusion would have demonstrated record companies moving in for the kill, and an over saturation of similarly sounding bands which ultimately made the Punk Rock aesthetic boring and obvious. Further to the musical aspect of this movement, the contextual story being told was one that has oft been repeated; Pistols held back from No 1—tick. River boat antics—tick. Spitting—tick. Safety pins—tick. Swearing on television—tick. It was so obvious and a missed opportunity to go beyond this nostalgic rough ride through the facts. What about Situationism, Dada and nihilism? What about the importance of Punk in influencing other mediums outside of music; from publishing and fashion to broadcasting and film?
Of the three episodes in this series, I always suspected the middle one, focussing on 1976–78, would be the weakest. Well, until the Post-Punk episode has aired next week, I can’t be certain, but it is looking that way. I truly hope the BBC doesn’t fuck up Post-Punk, being, in my mind, much more of an important time in music than either Pre-Punk or Punk itself. And it is a story that doesn’t get much of a showcase. Most of my music tastes were formed by this period in popular music history—Public Image Ltd., Wire, Gang Of Four, Magazine, The Au Pairs, Pop Group, The Fall, Crass; and on into Two Tone and early British industrial/electronic music. These innovative and explorative bands are the truly exciting things to come out of Punk, much more so than the Pistols, Clash and Damned. However, I’m not holding my breath that the BBC will do it justice. To do that, they should just set Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up And Start Again book to film, job done.