Tired of bad music television? Yearning for the halcyon days of The Tube, NB, Snub TV, even The Old Grey Whistle test? Fear not, now there is a new force in music television and it comes to you from that seemingly unlikely source – home of Top of the Pops, the BBC. The BBC in Scotland, to be precise. What’s the catch? Well, of course there had to be one, although it’s perhaps not as big a stumbling block as you might imagine, though when you hear that it’s on digital TV you might be disappointed. Don’t be. Read on.
Music-based shows through the ages have promised much and delivered little – anyone remember Revolver? – or promised little and inadvertently from among the chaos delivered something memorable – step forward The Word. More often than not, however they’ve survived for one series (if they’re lucky) and been howked from our screens prematurely – The White Room is a pretty good example. BBC Choice Scotland’s new venture The Beat Room has a chance of success. The show’s already been on air for a while now in a naescent form – occasional broadcasts of live gigs from T in the Park, the Bowlie Weekender and lower profile events such as Electrophobia and an early series of custom showcases from the Polo Lounge. Now they’ve extended the format with a 5-nights-a-week setup which does include the tried and tested showcase gig format which in series 1 had everything from the Delgados to the Jengaheads, though they’ve upped sticks to a venue that Glasgow gig-goers will be familiar with already – G2.
One difference the Beat Room will have is that it’s made for music lovers by music lovers – and people who have that extra insight into what the public want and how the musicians tick. Series producer Ian Ross was a music promoter in Australia while co-producer Angus Macintyre is a gigging musician in his spare time, and consultant/presenter Duglas T Stewart is of course still working as a member of Glasgow indie stalwarts the BMX Bandits – so we’re hardly talking Paula Yates or Noel Edmonds here. The 3 met while working on Fred Macaulay’s radio show and realised that the advent of digital television offered some interesting possibilities.”I felt there was a real lack on tv of a music show that was offering an alternative to music shows either on ‘proper’ music shows, or the Ocean Colour Scene scene that was getting celebrated the likes of TFI Friday” says Stewart of the state of mainstream music television. “To me there’s an awful lot of interest in pretty varied music styles which aren’t covered – soul, heavy rock or whatever – so we thought it was a good idea to develop a show for that.”
But with Stewart’s connection, bands, especially the often media-shy local indie bands, should be easier to bring round to the medium of television. However, the show’s not just just about the Glasgow underground scene or obscure US garage bands, however tempting that style of programming might be. “Sometimes you have to turn away from ‘is this what I would buy or listen to at home?’ and say ‘there’s value in this as well’ – a certain group of people are going to get excited about this as it’s valid and there’s going to be a platform for it. So that’s trying to judge things on their merits whether it’s only your thing or if it’s everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes you can get blown away by things you might not expect – if you have a band on the show you’re not overly enthused by, when you get them on the show and actually get the chance to talk to them in the context of an interview you go away with a much greater under standing and appreciation yourself.”
The future of music
So thats’s how the Beat Room has a collection of live sets from acts as diverse as Neil Finn, Chip Taylor (writer of many hits including ‘Wild Thing’) to Mercury Rev and Stereolab, to Scottish big wee acts such as Geneva and Superstar. But you would still expect that Duglas, with his background would be tempted to push the balance in favour of the wealth of relatively obscure local bands? “I’m not saying the Pepsi Chart or TotP shouldn’t be there as they’re serving audiences who have just as much right to be represented but we’re doing something a bit new and a bit different from that.”
The encouraging thing about the Beat Room’s musical direction is that they genuinely don’t seem to feel the need to compromise to bring in audiences – something which can only be good for everyone. “It’s great to catch bands who are just starting out who you know are probably going to set the world on fire.”
And when they do unearth a gem it’ll all be there on tape, ready to be exported to anyone who wants it. BBC Worldwide sell a variety of different shows all over the world – from David Attenbourgh to Fawlty Towers to music programmes such as the Beat Room. Film of the Bowlie Weekend at Camber Sands has already appeared on Choice UK while the Belle and Sebastian documentary recently shown on BBC2 Scotland also came from the same production team.
With that we enter the Beat Room itself. It’s a bit of a surreal experience, but by no means an unpleasant one. The basic setup is that 2 bands, sometimes quite contrasting in styles, play short sets, 6 songs or so, all in one take if possible – just like a normal gig. However, if there’s a hitch then they have the dubious luxury of starting again, which is unlikely in a ‘normal’ gig – an understanding audience is mandatory in this situation, but most of the audiences at the G2 filmings are comprised of friends and family of the bands, plus their biggest fans. Onscreen it’ll look quite different – sets will be rearranged to fit the TV format; different bands may appear on different nights and sets will intermingle with dressing-room interviews. Care is take to keep it natural; only the generation of applause makes reminds you that this isn’t a gig as we know it – basically the crew build up a library of clips of the audience cheering so that the gaps between numbers can be filled seamlessly. Oh, and occasionally you might get a cameraman between you and the band, though for the shameless ligger this may not be a bad thing, provided they’re pointing towards the audience. Stewart: “We wanted to make a show which maybe had a few rough edges since rough edges can be part of the exciting thing about rock – and we want the bands go away saying had fun doing that show, and didn’t get told ‘Wear this!’, ‘Can you make this song shorter?’ – we want to capture the bands the way they are.” We arrive as Quinn have retaken the stage, having been given the opportunuity to re-record a song earlier curtained by the ubiquitous ‘technical hitch’. There’s a definite sense that although the styles of the bands are almost diametrically opposed – alt.dance versus very.metal – the bands and even the audiences are all pulling together to offer encouragement and generous applause.
In front of the camera
After the now familiar few minutes of hand-warming exercises, Macrocosmica take the stage and launch into their first number which goes off note-perfect, and for the volume that the band play at, with remarkable clarity, though the team working behind the scenes are due some credit for this. Brendan announces “we’ll have to do that one again” and the audience groans in disbelief. “Well, I had a hair out of place.” Ironically they have to halt one number halfway due to some difficulty, but this is simply slotted in at the end of the set. When you see it on TV you won’t notice the join. Cerwyss, bassist in the band, found it an unusual experience. “Having a camera on you was quite odd, but the camera-men were fairly unobtrusive. It kind of had the spontaneity of a gig – we liked the fact that we got to play the songs through without much of a break in between – that made it seem much more natural. And an obvious bonus was that we got to re-do ‘Out of the Night…’ The venue was great, the production people were very nice and the sound was a bit on the quiet side for us, but otherwise good. It’s great that the programme makers are giving bands like us (i.e. ‘unsigned’) the chance to get this sort of experience and maybe some exposure. Filming/broadcasting a band’s entire set (or almost) is so rare these days, unless you’re a ‘big’ band.”
There are 12 or so people working in the camera and sound crew at the gig and there’s the same number again working on production and editing. The whole team has a part to play at some stage in the process of presenting the bands in the best light. For less ‘visual’ acts, this function becomes more vital. Stewart again: “Well, for example we had Jengaheads on, so you are thinking in a tv perspective, but we are trying to capture the bands as they are so I think what the people in charge of visuals are doing really well is rather than trying to alter the band to suit what we want visually, they’re just taking what they do and presenting it in the most interesting and positive way . So we’re not trying to get bands to be all singing all dancing because that’s not what they do – if you watch great classical performances you’re not necessarily going to get the first violinist putting on an amazing visual display, but the music is what’s important, as long as it’s well-filmed.”
The series is constantly recording; you’ve already missed the free gigs with Geneva and Nectarine No.9 but still to come are acts as diverse as Abba/Ramones cover band Gabba and Glaswegian indie/jazz crossover act Bill Wells, plus the aptly-named Alternative TV who sum up Stewart’s desire to document important acts – “ATV, who to me and a lot of other people who grew up in the punk generation, were a much purer form of punk rock than bands like the Sex Pistols. The ICA had a retrospective exhibition of Mark Perry’s fanzine Sniffin’ Glue and a major publisher is publishing a book of it, but they’ve never appeared on tv, ever – I think its a crime that no-one really documented it; and I know we’re getting him 22 years later on, but it’s better late than never.”
So, the $64000 question – favourite acts from the series?
“That’s one of those questions, like your favourite child! There are things that I’m particularly proud of, like being the first tv show to record Corenelius live, that’s a really big one for me as I think he’s a really important artist. And also, one of the most inventive musicians we’ve produced in this country is Momus – he’s one of those guys were people either love him or hate him but he’s always doing things that are very challenging, always very fresh, innovative ideas, and I think we were the first show to have him on doing a live set so I’m proud of that, but apart from that I’m totally excited about most of the things we have coming on this series.”
the Choice is yours
But the Beat Room is actually more than a corner of G2, or a bunch of live gigs. It’s a series, which runs 5 nights a week for a mammoth 4 months – two shows are ‘standard’ Beat Rooms i.e. the live sets that give the series its name, plus one Pop Century show per week, featuring the likes of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch singing his favourite tunes from the 1920’s and ’30’s. There are also 2 video review slots, but these, as with everything else in the series, aren’t conventional, as Dulgas Stewart explains: “It’s not always possible to get band X in from Japan or Germany for a live set, but we can show videos of bands you wouldn’t usually see on MTV – videos which aren’t necessarily high budget, they just have great or quirky ideas. It’s a video review show but when we say ‘review’ it’s not just showing the latest pop videos, we’ll show videos from the past, and have the stories behind them, talking to the bands – things we wouldn’t necessarily be able to cover just showing bands playing live.”
Now, we’re not here to sell you a digital box, but it maybe seems that way. BBC Choice is one of the standard channels you get for your ‘standard’ digital tv package at £7 a month or so – which, for more than 10 hours of music a month, can’t be bad. Digital TV itself is probably as revolutionary as the Sex Pistols appearing with Bill Grundy all those years ago, but with shows like the Beat Room, BBC Choice shouldn’t be seen as minority broadcasting for long. Alternative TV indeed.