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by Phil Thornton


In an old column for Swine I predicted that the BBC, true to their nepotistic instincts, would keep alive John Peel’s ‘legacy’ by giving jobs to his progeny. I now admit to being churlishly wrong on this matter. No, it’s Channel 4 who have sorted JP’s son, Tom Ravenscroft, a nice little presenting job on their new The Tube radio programme. Yes, that’s The Tube, the lame old Channel 4 music programme, perhaps the most over-rated music programme of all time (and that includes Razzmatazz and Later).


The Tube was supposedly anarchic when really it was just plain shambolic and that’s not the same thing. The Happy Mondays in their late 80s/early 90s prime were shambolic yet superb, verging on the edge of chaos at all times, yet always providing genuine excitement and energy. The Tube was just middle aged MOR shite with the odd token indie/dance bone chucked to the trendies. Just look who they chose for presenters; Jools Holland, a boogie woogie Buddha of suburbia from pop-punks Squeeze and the pretty vacant punk-dolly daughter of TV tosspot, Jess Yates (later to be discovered as the secret daughter of fellow TV tosspot, Hughie Green). That set the stall out for Malcolm Gerrie’s self-indulgent hotpotch of mainstream chart pop and sub-Whistle Test dinosaur rock.


It’s only because the following twenty years of terrestrial music programming has been so unremittingly shite that The Tube is now fondly remembered as some kind of seminal programme. As I write this I’m sat watching an Old Grey Whistle Test DVD featuring everyone from The Wailers to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Curtis Mayfield to Edgar Winter, Tim Buckley to Alex Harvey, Bill Withers to Roxy Music, John Martyn to Captain Beefheart. Whistle Test itself was wildly inconsistent and totally ignored punk which is proved by disc 2 of this DVD noticeable for its ‘new wave’ and poppy takes on punk (Blondie, XTC, The Police etc). However, for all its prog-rock pretensions and BBC studio iciness, Whistle Test tried to push a few boundaries and provided an outlet for ‘difficult’ or ‘way out’ bands and performers. 


In its Andy Kershaw/Mark Ellen/David Hepworth ‘Whistle Test’ resurrection, the format remained resolutely live and rock biased in an era that was witnessing a revolution in how music was made. The thing you notice about those classic 70s performances is the virtuosity of the musicians. Make no mistake these fellars (and it was 99% male dominated) could PLAY. I mean REALLY PLAY. Edgar Winter showboats on keyboards, sax and percussion. These musicians had the technique and timing of seasoned professionals honed on endless tour dates. Punk replaced technique with energy and while that was amusing for a while, it wasn’t long before the likes of Rotten and Strummer tired with it and went back to their roots aping the alien soundscapes of krautrock and reggae with PIL and Sandinista era Clash. Musicianship was back but then along came hip hop, house and techno and suddenly it wasn’t how you made the music that became important but what the end result was.


With this revolution MTV was born and the whole notion of music TV changed for ever. During the 80s and 90s it became almost a tag on for moronic yoof programmes or else degenerated into pick n’ mix video compilations with little or no editorial control. Whilst in Venice last December I watched a fantastic Italian music channel that didn’t front as a trailer for endless ring tone adverts and featured exactly the kind of innovative, experimental and interesting bands (the Rogers Sisters followed by DFA followed by Four Tet, followed by Sigur Ros; that kinda thing) which is exactly what should fill our screens on a daily basis instead of the ridiculous parade of Channel 4 Music/TMF/MTV lightweights. This is a world where The Magic Numbers – good as they are – are regarded as ‘radical.’ Where Jools Holland – yes that self-serving nasally challenged TWAT – has assumed a kingmaker position for countless dullard singer-songwriters, karaoke rockers and world music bores.


The myth that there is no good music being made any more has become an accepted truth but the opposite is true; there’s too much great music being made, along with all the shite ofcourse. The nostalgic glow we feel watching Top of The Pops 2 reminds us of when such programmes were part and parcel of the nation’s cultural experience. But those days are gone and good riddance to them. We don’t need two separate worlds, one of cosy golden years nostalgia and one of ‘mainstream indie’, where curly mopped stylist primed presenters give us 21st century ‘irony.’ The recent BBC sponsored ‘Electric Proms’ was a decent attempt to present music in a different way and force musicians and broadcasters alike to – ahem – ‘think outside of the box.’


To return to The Tube and lucky old Tom Ravenscroft, isn’t it depressing that the once self-consciously ‘alternative’ channel has lost its way to such an extent that it boasts about regurgitating a 25 year old format – all be it on radio – using the children of former TV ‘legends.’ The digital media age was supposed to usher in a brave new world of exciting ideas but all we get is wall-to-wall quiz programmes for morons too dumb to even sit through The Jeremy Kyle Show Unplugged. Now that’s I call progress.  


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