Pop On Trial Season, BBC4

by | Jan 26, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A largely pointless finale to a largely pointless trawl through the history of pop music, but made watchable by the superbly passionate Stuart Maconie who was almost matched by the erudite advocates.

What was good about it?

• We’ve watched most of the programmes in this series not for the wild dissemination of disinformation that has passed the lips of the studio guests analysing each decade but for Stuart Maconie’s excellent presentation. On the 80s programme it was a joy to observe him, as a supposed impartial host, rein in his overflowing adoration of The Smiths, while in this culmination – in which an advocates for each decade from the 50s to the 90s pleaded a case that it was the most influential era – he made the whole rigmarole far more addictive than it actually deserved to be.

• David Quantick’s inept advocacy of the 1970s, during, during which he did more to harm than good through his sprawling monologue that wandered off into the margins of music and squatted there like a recalcitrant child. It was also the funniest. Fortunately for Quantick, the music from the 70s was clearly the most influential – Kraftwerk, reggae, post-punk, birth of hip hop, punk, Bowie, 2 Tone, Led Zeppelin, even ABBA – that pretty much proved it was the birthing pool for all electronic music including techno, electro and hip hop, indie (before the baleful influence of post-1996 Oasis), metal and pop.

• The other advocates also did fine jobs promoting and defending the honour of the decade they represented. Pete Wylie simply repeated that the 50s had to be the best because everything else pop stemmed from there; Eddie Piller fell back on the dull bedrock of the Beatles and the Stones etc etc; and Miranda Sawyer bolstered her shaky assumption that Michael Jackson and Prince were somehow the Karlheinz Stockhausens of the 1980s with Public Enemy, The Smiths and The Specials.

• Meanwhile, Caitlin Moran threw caution to the wind with a skin-stripping maelstrom of reasons to love the 90s, managing to condense an alleged golden age of Top of the Pops, with Blur, Oasis (pre-collapse) and Pulp, into a period of about six weeks when in reality the appearances were probably spread over two years. It was a sanguine half-truth rather than a lie similar to the one that Britpop was founded on – The Verve, for instance, have suffered as the winds of time have blown the gloss off their pompous, slurred contrivances, which made the presence of Bitter Sweet Symphony, the true, gaping nadir of the pedestrianisation of Britain’s streets, at number three in the Radio 2 listeners’ chart for the 90s all the more repugnant.

What was bad about it?

• The jury who had been summoned to pass solemn judgement on this cultural leviathan were two failed pop stars-turned-journalists (Lauren Laverne and Paul Morley), one singer who is still introduced with reference to the only song anyone remembers him by from 13 years ago (David McAlmont), and one singer who fished like a rusty shopping trolley from a quarry lake each Christmas (Noddy Holder).

• After the advocate for each decade from the 50s to the 90s had introduced their argument, the majority of their case was put forward through a shrink-edited rehash of the hour-long programme that had been shown in the last week or so that focused on that particular decade. This meant that if you had watched those shows (as we had) it was simply a case of sitting through a truncated repeat.

• The jury’s interrogation of each advocate was also nebulous and baffling. Each of the four members of the jury would lob a loaded question to the advocate that sought to pick flaws in their case, but rather than precise, incisive enquiries they were: in the case of Noddy Holder ill-thought out prejudices, Lauren Laverne and David McAlmont spouted stuff learned from books, while Paul Morley posited his labyrinthine musical philosophies as though musing to himself on a laptop before stopping and expecting the advocate to have understood a word he’d uttered.

• And the answers each advocate gave sometimes matched the query for vagueness. Paul Wylie eulogised, “Music gave them a whole new attitude. The 50s was when attitude happened.”

• The whole process was undermined by the adjudication by the jury in a little side room. When asked to give their verdicts, Holder voted for the 50s, whether he’d come into this process with that opinion wasn’t clear, but his justification was simply the oft-repeated cliché of Pete Wylie that “it was where everything began”, which suggested he hadn’t over-analysed his choice. Both Morley and Laverne said they would have chosen the 70s before they arrived and that is what both voted for. Only McAlmont altered his preconception of the 70s being the most influential and switched to the 60s, and that was in part due to David Quantick’s rambling advocacy of the decade. So in essence, only one member of the jury was at all moved by the whole process, and what contributed to that change of heart was a poor presentation rendering the whole judgment element of the programme absolutely futile.

• The over-exaggeration of contrition each advocate expressed for the exploitation or ignorance of black music in each decade. Look, we know none of you advocates are racist, far from it, we know that black music has been ruthlessly pillaged for form, melody and inspiration by mostly white record company executives and some ‘recording artists’ since the inception of pop, and we know that MTV had to be coerced to play videos by black singers by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. But none of it is your fault, so there’s no need for such an earnest, over-egged condemnation – the facts, in these cases, speak for themselves and it doesn’t do any of you credit to use this abuse of black music to ostensibly vie to win a sanctimonious squabble to see who could appear the most disgusted by this neglect, fearful of being branded that most heinous of things in music “a white, middle-class snob”.

• Biffy Clyro, the music world equivalent of a dying lump of lumpen, lumpy, lump-ridden, lump-sodden, luddite lump of granite rock, being asked their opinion. It wouldn’t matter if they were asked what they thought of a piercing, pulchritudinous morning sun, they would still humbly metamorphose it into a five minute diabolical dirge that would numb fingers, lips and toes in a 12 mile radius.

• Kate Nash saying she thought the 70s was the best decade “because of punk”, which is like Margaret Thatcher saying she thought the 40s was the best decade for politics because of the embroidering of the Iron Curtain.

The chart of the ten best songs of each decade was left up to the whim of Radio 2 listeners, which is like trusting the education and tutelage of your firstborn to King Herod. For every Waterloo Sunset, Heroes, Blue Monday, Strawberry Fields, Ghost Town, Unfinished Sympathy, Paranoid Android and Smells Like Teen Spirit there was a Cliff Richard number, She Loves You, Creep, Maggie May, There She Goes, Back For Good and Bitter Sweet Symphony.

• It was during Eddie Piller’s defiance in the face of a bombastic bombardment from Paul Morley that you realised how utterly unnecessary and pointless this whole charade was. Accused that prog-rock was a ponderous, plodding dinosaur that smeared the 60s with creative inertia, Piller dismissed it all on the basis that prog-rock declined only in the 70s and therefore wasn’t his responsibility. And it was because of this encroachment beyond the territories of time for which he had to answer that suddenly enlightened you to as the absurd nature of corralling decades off into ten-year long chunks and then setting them in adversarial conflict. Should The Beatles be lauded or damned for their influence on Oasis 30 years later that in 1997 sent British music into a bleak nuclear winter from which it shows little sign of recovery? Were The Specials of the 70s or 80s? Why was Michael Jackson hailed for his commercial peak in the 80s rather than his creative peak in the 70s, especially as commerciality was (rightly) scorned throughout with the same derision as pigs applying for jobs as air traffic controllers?

• Caitlin Moran giving credence to something Jeremy Clarkson has said, when she’d have been better off taking life lessons from Mein Kampf.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

26/01/2008

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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