Friday, May 16, 2014

Television: Bjork

 This probably belong here.


I loved Top of the Pops. On this side of the pond it was both the chart TV show and the only  music show for many of the population, sucking in massive audiences for it's heyday between the early sixties and late eighties, aka my childhood and young adulthood. Usually on thursdays, BBC1, for about half an hour, the format was broadly unchanged until it fizzled out in 2006. With a set designed to look like a naff nightclub, actually probably not, but that's how it was, gurning adolescents dancing badly, cheesy disc jockeys announcing each act in turn, with  a tacky dance troupe to cover no-shows, the occasional specially made film and, when they were invented, 1 or 2 videos. But the highlight was always the artist "performances", mimed or played with backing tracks, sometimes wildly dissimilar to the original, with no regard to anything other than who was in the top 30 at any one time. So novelty schlock songs would follow out and out rockers, bookended by crooners and whirling motown soulsters. Anything and everything fitted, highly appropriately, as it was truly a whole family entertainment show. I recall watching it with my sister and parents, my mother being the one to make the most caustic remarks about the shaggier representatives of my counter-culture. Who's that, she would say, and I would bite my tongue, for fear of being outed as either a fan or seeming to be. Of the wrong person. I lived in fear that she think I liked T.Rex, for instance.

Here's a good example of the style, conveniently being scottish punks the Rezillos, performing, on the programmed, their homonymous (and solitary) hit. Through the mists of time I am uncertain now whether their gaucheness was even ironic or just as they were. Hoping the former, I fear the latter.

Buy it!  (sadly the best I can offer is a 2nd hand single.........)

There were a number of other songs that referenced the show, commemorating it's place in the pantheon of british broadcasting iconography. Here's another, The Boomtown Rats, wherein "little Judy's tryin to watch Top of the Pops". And if you think Geldofs sax playing is, well, um, optimistic, later on, with the song newly number 1, he "played" the same break on a candelabra. Particularly in this era and later, there would be deliberate lampooning of the supposed "live presence", reaching it's nadir as the charts became taken over by dance music, where the musicians were, at best, faceless. Here's a good example, where the trick is even whether they were plugged in. (Answer: Not!) Ultimately this probably killed the show, a combination of anonymous dance music and the death of the singles market, ironically now on a wave back to viability. Of course there have been other shows, before and since, notably the magazine format Old Grey Whistle Test, beloved by chin stroking proggers, and Later, fronted and hosted by Jools Holland, invariably allowing him to join in at some stage, as various assorted acts play genuinely live and in the round. But TOTP, as it was acronymed, is always the one remembered with most reverie.

I wish it could come back, if only to ask my children, and theirs, what this claptrap thump thump thump is.....

STOP PRESS: So who were the Rezillos? Why, only Edinburghs most famous New Wave Beat Group. Sort of a lighter hearted Cramps. Centred around dual frontline singers, Fay Fife and Eugene Reynolds, they had an explosive sense of fun, in their all too brief first  incarnation, 1976-8, with, for me, extra delight in that the singing was all unapologetically with broad scottish accents. When Jo Callis, their dour faced guitarist left, to join the Human League, on synthesisers, clearly, going on to co-write most of their hits, including here on Top of the Pops, Fife and Reynolds re-grouped as the Revillos, on and off until the original name became revived in 2001. They still tour.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Television: I’m the Slime

Frank Zappa: I’m the Slime


After a remarkable burst of posts regarding radio, it would seem that Television has us at a loss here at Star Maker. How can this be? Television surely occupies at least as important a place in our culture as radio does, yet I confess it took me a while to think of songs for this theme. I think it has to do with how we relate to TV, at least here in the United States. Television embarrasses us. If you want to insult an actor, tell him he is a television actor. For every John Travolta, there are ten Adam Wests. And most people forget that Travolta first became famous as the Fonz, a fact I would bet his publicist does not emphasize. We all have TV shows we love, that have influenced us greatly, but we don‘t discuss them with the same pride as a favorite movie. And so it is with songs about TV as well. You will find affectionately mocking covers of theme songs, but no one takes the originals seriously as great music when they cover TV themes. Original songs about TV have this same gently satiric tone; I hope to get to one of those later. But I know of no songs that simply embrace TV as an art form or an inspiration without apology, although the case can certainly be made

Frank Zappa, predictably, doesn‘t even try. He comes right out and spells out bluntly what makes us so uneasy about television. To him, it represents all the worst excesses of mass media, with all the big brother implications. Ironically, the video I have chosen is a television performance of I‘m the Slime. It comes from a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live, and features an unlikely collaborator named Don Pardo.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Radio -->Television: Video Killed the Radio Star


On a basic level, “Video Killed the Radio Star” harkens back to a time when the emergence of television supplanted radio as the primary source of information and entertainment. On a general level, it can be interpreted as a reflection on new technology replacing the old. In the cultural history of the 20th Century, because it was the first video ever played on MTV, the song has come to represent the emergence of the music video and the marginalization of radio.

I’d argue, though, that while music videos and MTV probably didn’t help radio, it wasn’t the only thing that caused the decline of the medium. Even MTV stopped playing videos years ago, I think that two different forces more powerful than video combined to render radio less vital. (Note—these opinions are about rock radio—I would not even presume to opine about the state of urban, Latin, country or other genres).

First, as I alluded to in my prior piece, I think that radio’s success commercially resulted in consolidation of ownership and a homogenization of content. Independent owners, willing to take risks and hire edgy DJs and program directors, were replaced by media behemoths that sanded off the rough edges and used market research to cater to the masses. There has always been a balance in radio programming between leading the listeners and following them—in other words, trying to determine the right mix of music that you think the audience will or should like and the music you know they already like. I think that the balance on commercial radio has shifted way toward playing the known, and avoiding risk. The spirit of adventurous radio still lives on in the occasional independent station and on college/noncommercial stations. Unfortunately, these stations tend to have small listenerships, can swing too far toward the strange and unknown, and often have difficult to listen to student DJs (which I can say, having been one).

The second force is, of course, the new technologies, mostly digital music, and the Internet and satellite “radio,” that allow listeners to create their own playlists, stream music from around the world, download music easily and find stations that narrowcast in limited genres. This allows each individual listener to decide, on a moment to moment basis, the balance between the known and unknown, and how much the listener wants to rely on their own taste, and how much to leave to someone else’s decision. And videos have become a way to circumvent the tight playlists of commercial radio and the small listenership of noncommercial/independent radio by getting the product directly to the consumer.  Videos, however, remove some of the mystery, because they create a codified, unitary version of a song's meaning.  The ability of every individual listener to imagine a personal vision is gone.  I have no memory anymore of what I thought the first time I heard Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" on the radio--now, all I can think of is claymation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this—it is just reality. It isn’t as easy as when I was a kid, when there was a choice of a few radio stations, you pretty much knew that one station played top 40, another played album rock, and another was “free form.” Or you put on a record. And I lived in the media capital of the world, so I can only imagine that radio was even less varied elsewhere. Now, if you like popular hits, you can find a way to listen to them. If you want to only listen to obscure indie rock, you can do that. And if you want to mix things up, you can do that, too. But all of this choice requires more work than I think most people are willing to do, and can simply be overwhelming. Maybe not to most people who read obscure music blogs, but most regular people.  I wrote this earlier this week, and here's an op-ed from today's New York Times that discusses some of the same issues.

Although I would expect that most people reading this were in fact aware that the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video on MTV, I am willing to bet that a significantly smaller percentage of you knew that it was not the first version of the song released. The song was written by Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley, all members of the Buggles, and it was a demo of the song that helped get the band signed. Apparently, it took the trio about an hour to write. While recording the album, Woolley left amicably, formed The Camera Club and released his somewhat less “produced” version of the song on the album English Garden. Here it is:

Shortly thereafter, the remaining Buggles released their version, which became the huge hit and a cultural icon. And to show there were no hard feelings, Woolley appears in the video. Downes and Horn started to work on another album, but instead joined Yes, in what was at the time a true head scratcher. The second Buggles album was later released, to less acclaim, and Downes joined Asia and has been part of other bands. Horn has mostly made his name as a producer. The Camera Club’s second album went unreleased, and Woolley has become better known as a songwriter, often for movies. One of the other members of that band was Thomas Dolby, who must also have recognized the interplay between TV and radio. His debut album was called The Golden Age of Wireless, and the first track was another early MTV staple, “She Blinded Me With Science.” The second track? “Radio Silence.”