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Black Sky Thinking

Why Live Music On British TV Needs More Than Just Jools
Michael Hann , April 13th, 2017 16:23

With the 50th series of Later... with Jools Holland underway, TV is in dire need of more than just boogie woogie, says Michael Hann

Spoon, who play the inaugral episode of Later's 50th series. Photo by Zackery Michael

Late on Friday night, a familiar, besuited figure will wheel on to our TV screens, bid us welcome, and unveil what is, apparently, the best new live music you could hope to see: the excellent Spoon, Anderson .Paak and Courtney Marie Andrews, the none-more-BBC Goldfrapp, and the plodding Kasabian. Fifty series in, Later… With Jools Holland is now the last show standing on terrestrial TV, music's only chance to reach an audience who haven't actively sought it out.

This isn't a nostalgic plea for the return of Top Of The Pops (though the repeats of that show on BBC4 present a more rounded view of pop music - the great, the absurd, the exploitative and the plain terrible - than any "curated" programme ever could), because one can easily argue we're living in a golden age of music programming. Boiler Room has brought scores of underground dance music scenes to light and to life; pretty much every band in the world can find some web channel or other to broadcast their live performances (the US radio station KEXP's video archive of live in-studio performances is pretty much a potted history of American guitar music).

In the UK, BBC4 and Sky Arts offer great documentaries and vintage performances one after the other (if you've never seen it, watch Metal Evolution on Sky's in-demand service; it's the best music documentary series ever, by miles). And Later … itself still throws up great stuff alongside the dreck.

So what's the problem? Is there actually a problem?

Yes, and it's the same one that occurs across society, with the Balkanisation of people's interests through the algorithms of social media. When that results in nearly half the population not understanding why the other half voted for Brexit, it's a serious issue. When it results in a band reaching only the already converted, there's less at stake, but it does still matter, for both bands, and for audiences.

The reason people of a certain age get all misty about Top Of The Pops isn't because they remember 'The Birdy Song' so fondly, or because Renee and Renato captured everything that was great about pop. It's for the memory of revelation, when something so extraordinary happened that you couldn't help but be transfixed by it, whether or not you knew the group, or even liked the music. At its most famous, this was David Bowie performing 'Starman'; a few years later it was Adam & the Ants making their TOTP debut with 'Dog Eat Dog'. It was New Order performing 'Blue Monday' live; it was Morrissey ripping off his shirt while The Smiths mimed to 'William, It Was Really Nothing'; it was Orbital doing 'Chime' or The Orb playing chess for their appearance to "perform" 'Blue Room'.

Pop's most divisive televisual moments have also been its most uniting, because they're the ones people remember, the ones people talk about for years to come. They're the ones where a group on the margins can suddenly, through force of personality, catapult themselves to a wider audience. And the audience in turn can see the possibilities that unfamiliar music can open up.

And those moments can still happen. For all the boogie-woogie-and-bonhomie of Later … With Jools Holland, it has also hosted thrilling performances - both Skepta and Stormzy have taken it by storm, though the fact that the young acts on Later get so easily swamped by the duvet of Radio 2-friendly "mature" artists blunts their impact. For real proof that the right performance on the right programme can still transform a group, you don't need to look back to the days of primetime music programmes, just to 3 March, 2014.

That night, a jobbing synthpop group, five albums into their career, made their debut on US network TV. Future Islands had been getting good reviews for years, and those who had seen them could testify to their power as performers. The only drawback was that so few people had actually seen or heard them perform. But when they performed 'Seasons (Waiting on You)' on The Late Show With David Letterman, everything changed. The power of old media - reaching everyone who cared to tune in - combined with the spread of new media, as the clip went viral.

The way to measure its success wasn't in the number of thinkpieces written about singer Samuel T Herring's extraordinary, unembarrassed emoting and dancing, but in the fact that suddenly people knew who Future Islands were, and wanted to know more. The album Singles went into the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic, and 'Seasons (Waiting on You)' headed end-of-year charts all over the place. Neither of those, almost certainly, would have happened without that Letterman performance imprinting the group in people's minds. It was a 'Starman' moment.

Whether or not you like Future Islands - and they do very little for me - that was something to celebrate. It was proof that the marginal need not remain in the margins, need not only maintain and expand its own cult, that it was possible to leap across boundaries. As Bowie had done, as Adam and the Ants had done, as the Smiths had done.

And that's what I want from music television in the UK again. I know Top Of The Pops is never coming back, and I'm fine with that. I can live with Later, though I can't help thinking it might be more talked about if it were Earlier. But I want one place, just one place, where musicians might appear in just the faintest hope that the next morning people say to each other: "Did you see that?" And then: "I'll send you the link."