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Pop Music TV

How television jumped on the pop bandwagon

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The existence of 'youth culture', forging new identities around music and fashion, is universally accepted today - although its manifestations, such as rap, still have the ability to provoke. But for the first generation of postwar teenagers the idea was nothing short of revolutionary.

Before the 1950s, young adults had largely dressed and behaved in a similar style to their parents. But changes in the postwar economy gave a generation of school-leavers previously unthinkable buying power: money that was soon being spent on clothes and rock 'n' roll records. Older generations were mystified and horrified in equal measure at this display of independent behaviour and, as has since become the norm, quickly blamed the music and its attendant culture for a disparate collection of social ills, especially 'delinquency'.

Whatever else it might have been, rock 'n' roll was clearly going to make for good TV, although broadcasters were at first unsure how best to approach it. Early attempts, including Cool for Cats (ITV, 1956-61) and Six-Five Special (BBC, 1957-58), combined performances with bantering compères to mixed effect. However, Oh Boy! (ITV, 1958-59) got the balance right. Its fast pace and irreverent approach better reflected the tastes of its audience and in the process helped create the mould for pop music TV.

Strangely, the BBC's main pop music show of the time could have worked as well on radio. Juke Box Jury (1959-67) featured a panel of invited guests who would listen to a series of songs and pronounce them a 'hit' or a 'miss'. Despite its lack of visual content, and a truly bizarre collection of panelists including actress Thora Hird (who appeared alongside Roy Orbison), the show was a huge success. Juke Box Jury was helped by securing an early appearance of all four Beatles (tx. 7/12/1963) and later the Rolling Stones (tx. 4/7/1964).

Arguably the most fashionable of early '60s pop programmes was Ready, Steady Go! (ITV, 1963-66), which turned presenter Cathy McGowan into a style icon, while its catchphrase, 'the weekend starts here', became the manifesto of a new youth hedonism that saw the weekend as a chance to forget work (or school) and party. What proportion of its audience actually lived the ideal was another matter. However, its eclectic mix of acts and its conspicuous live audience created a show that was both more artistically influential and more visually exciting that anything before it.

The most important date for pop music TV is 1st January 1964, the day of the first transmission of Top of the Pops (BBC, 1964-). Originally booked for a six-week run, the chart rundown quickly attracted a large and loyal audience and, crucially, the support of the record industry, which saw an appearance on the programme as a key element in an act's success.

Popular music quickly broke out of the confines of dedicated programmes. The Beatles perfected the move, with appearances on shows like Mike and Bernie Winter's Big Night Out (ITV, tx. 23/2/1964). Dedicated music slots still feature in a wide variety of programmes, including Saturday morning 'youth' shows, chat shows and 'stand-up' comedy.

The growing importance of the album towards the end of the 1960s saw the development of a new kind of programme that attempted to take a more serious approach to its subject. The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC, 1971-85) epitomised this approach, but was often mocked as overly earnest, a problem not helped by its somnambulant presenter, 'Whispering' Bob Harris.

The BBC also broadcast Rock Goes to College (1978-81), a series of unadorned performance from bands in front of student audiences that reflected an increasing interest in live music, partly as a result of punk, a genre that had revived fears about music corrupting the nation's youth. So it Goes (ITV, 1976-77), shown initially only in the Granada area, ignored the media outrage surrounding punk and treated its guests with a level of respect that helped elicit performances of often startling quality, including an electrifying appearance by the Sex Pistols (tx. 4/9/1976). ATV's Revolver (1978) also attempted to respond to the post-punk scene, but never won the confidence of ITV schedulers and lasted just eight editions.

The arrival of Channel 4 brought with it The Tube (1983-87), a live mix of performances, videos and interviews, which regularly appeared on the brink of anarchy. An early appearance by Frankie Goes to Hollywood performing 'Relax' (tx. 7/7/1983), surrounded by women in PVC bondage clothes, created a minor uproar. However it was the programme's main presenters, Paula Yates and Jools Holland, who attracted the most criticism. Yates was reprimanded for bad language and Holland was suspended for swearing during a trailer.

A fragmentation of the pop market during the late 1980s and early '90s, including the rise of hip-hop, acid house and indie, spawned a number of shows that attempted to address disparate audience tastes. Based on a shifting blend of studio performances and videos, shows like Snub TV (BBC, 1988-90) and Rapido (BBC, 1988-92) were shunted into the corners of schedules by broadcasters that largely failed to understand their potential. Specialist shows dedicated to black music, led by Baadasss TV (Channel 4, 1995-96) and Flava (Channel 4, 1996-2001), also emerged around this time, and were even more cruelly treated by the schedulers.

The growing popularity of the music video and a change in the broadcasting landscape helped break music TV out of its ghetto via a range of dedicated music channels, led by MTV. The Chart Show (Channel 4/ITV, 1986-98) pioneered a video-only format on network television. Mainstream broadcasters have also realised that pop music can have a place at the heart of their schedules, although the heavily sanitised Pop Stars (ITV, 2001) and its successors, like Fame Academy (BBC, 2002) were never going ignite fears that they could corrupt the young.

As pop music entered its sixth decade a mawkish nostalgia crept into its TV coverage with packaged 'best of' shows such as the BBC's I Love the Seventies (2000) and its successors, which mixed chart tunes with jokey celebrity reminisces about the decade in question. The BBC had revisited pop music's past to better effect in The Rock 'n' Roll Years (1985-87), a documentary series that charted popular music's progress from 1956 to 1980 with a mix of music and newsreel footage. Since then TV has largely shied away from serious analysis of one of the defining features of postwar Britain in favour of a more trivial approach typified by Channel 4's Top Ten Holiday Hits (tx. 24/2/2001). One notable exception is Later... With Jools Holland (BBC, 1992-), a thoroughly 'grown-up' music show in which the former Tube presenter hosts an eclectic mix of live performers, treating musicians of all hues with a respect, even reverence, once associated with Whistle Test.

Anthony Clark

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Juke Box Jury (1959-67)

Juke Box Jury (1959-67)

Early pop show in which guests rate the latest singles releases

Thumbnail image of Later with Jools Holland (1992-)

Later with Jools Holland (1992-)

Long-running, stylistically adventurous late-night live music show

Thumbnail image of Oh Boy! (1958-59)

Oh Boy! (1958-59)

Energetic ABC pop music show based on live performances

Thumbnail image of Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)

Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)

Long-running, album-oriented music show for grown-ups

Thumbnail image of Rapido (1988-92)

Rapido (1988-92)

Stylish Anglo-French pop show hosted by the inimitable Antoine de Caunes

Thumbnail image of Ready, Steady, Go! (1963-66)

Ready, Steady, Go! (1963-66)

Definitive Sixties TV pop show that captured the spirit of a generation

Thumbnail image of Revolver (1978)

Revolver (1978)

Shortlived ATV music show for the post-punk generation

Thumbnail image of Six-Five Special (1957-58)

Six-Five Special (1957-58)

Early pop music show featuring the latest swing, rock 'n' roll and skiffle

Thumbnail image of Thank Your Lucky Stars (1961-66)

Thank Your Lucky Stars (1961-66)

ITV pop music programme that capitalised on the Mersey Beat era

Thumbnail image of Top of the Pops (1964-2006)

Top of the Pops (1964-2006)

Long-running, hugely influential chart-based pop music programme

Thumbnail image of Tube, The (1982-87)

Tube, The (1982-87)

Hip, irreverent music show from Channel 4's early years

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