Monday, 4 July 2011

Back to the Future

The 70s were great, weren’t they? Playing out in the street until sunset, summers that lasted forever and top quality pop. We had proper music back then, remember?

Actually, I don’t. Without wishing to sound too smug, I’m probably a fair bit younger than the average Rocking Vicar parishioner, which means I didn’t experience even a minute of the 70s. I grew up in the 90s as a music fan but not one in thrall to the NME, therefore my knowledge came second-hand: a cavalcade of “classic” tracks on the radio, retrospectives in magazines and stories from my elders about how much better things used to be in the 1970s. Of course, there were some phenomenal songs and albums from the decade and I’ve come to love Nick Drake, The Faces and Stevie Wonder. But there’s also been plenty of good music in every era since the birth of pop, so I figured people were just being nostalgic.

The trouble with so much music broadcasting and publishing is that it aims either for the ‘up-to-the- minute’ brigade or the heritage market, and they both get romanticised in the process. Which is why I was looking forward to the BBC4 “real-time” re-runs of Top Of The Pops so much; I’d get an objective view of what was really going on in the past, warts and all. In times of infinite choice, it’s actually something of a novelty to listen to music from a precise moment in time.

Of course, anyone who was there at the time was also looking forward to these re-runs but for different reasons. I was swept along in their enthusiasm, imagining the fusion of disco, glam, soul and pop I would be feasting on week after week. I was also prepared to see punk gradually creep into the nation’s consciousness over the months. Punk barely existed in mid-1976, but soon became the most important musical revolution since Elvis or The Beatles. I was breathless with anticipation.

So, what did I find? The mighty Led Zeppelin succumbing to an onslaught from the brutality of The Clash? Not quite.

Brotherhood of Man, ABBA, terrible knitwear, acres of AOR, bands whose mothers had probably forgotten they existed, and vocoders. Lots of vocoders. My initial reaction was one of shock and denial. The notion this was just a bad week and soon the real quality would emerge. But next week, Brotherhood of Man were still number one … and the week after.

I loved it. I was hooked.

This isn’t some kind of ‘guilty pleasure’ admission; it’s a genuine feeling of warmth towards old episodes of a much-loved show. Pop music has been a huge part of my life since I could talk, so I’m interested in every aspect of it. That’s why I find these broadcasts endlessly fascinating - taking the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad - and forming my own opinions. It’s a rare opportunity to observe cultural history without editing, cherry-picking or prejudice.

Of course, some of the music is terrible, and I sit through the offending acts impatiently waiting. However, I’ve made several discoveries. The height of sophisticated pop it is not, but S-S-Single Bed by Fox is a marvellous record. I never knew Isaac Hayes took a funk monster like Disco Connection into the Top 10. I’d never heard the Sensational Alex Harvey Band or Sailor before. Nor did I have any idea The Wurzels had had a chart topping record and it was news to me that reissues of Beatles singles were high in the charts in 1976.

What I’ve come to realise is that this show is part of our national heritage. It is tremendous these shows were broadcast in the first place, but the realisation that so many are still available in the BBC archive really is marvellous.

In 2011, we’re all equal. It doesn’t matter if you were there or not, every Thursday, we all get to revisit 1976 in all its synthetic, tacky, glittering, snarling, bombastic and melodramatic glory. And that’s more than enough for me.

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