Music

The BBC is the repository of our cultural memory. Protect it at all costs

The national broadcaster holds a priceless permanent record of 100 years of Britain's history, art and culture. It's an archive like no other that must be preserved for every generation

John Peel

John Peel Photo: Independent / Alamy Stock Photo

If there’s a benefit to our national broadcaster beyond its vital ability to speak to and engage all of Britain’s citizens on a principle of universal geographic accessibility distanced from vested interests, not to mention enrage idiots like Nadine Dorries by its mere taxpayer-funded existence, then it’s how it functions as a permanent repository for the cultural memory of a nation.

The BBC is a kind of televisual Tardis, through which we can transport ourselves to practically any moment in the last century, and vicariously experience important moments as past generations did in real time, glued to the telly or the wireless.

When it comes to live music, the 100-year archive of the BBC is practically unrivalled in human history as a portal of posterity. Through which other single archive could you, for example, drop in on historic, if at the time inauspicious, broadcast debuts by all from The Beatles to Blur? Or revisit practically the precise hair-raising moment that David Bowie exploded into the mainstream, performing Starman on Top of the Pops on July 6, 1972, gazing down the camera directly into young hearts?

Ever wondered how Adele sounded before she was famous? See Later… With Jools Holland, June 8, 2007. Intrigued to hear The Fall in each of their many different line-ups between 1978 and 2004? There’s a John Peel Session for that.

As someone never more content than when rooting through classic Old Grey Whistle Test sets on YouTube, or falling asleep on the couch half-drunk of a Friday night to yet another repeat of Synth Britannia or Reggae at the BBC, I write this mostly from a position of gratitude and admiration. Not to mention as a rallying cry to protect the Beeb at all costs against the ideological ire of whichever witless right-wing ghoul might be gunning for it. And yet, I write too from a position of minor concern, as live music output across the BBC feels like it’s on the wane at the moment, presumably as a consequence of withering funding cuts and a legacy of the socially distanced Covid years.

Sure, come summer we can watch Glastonbury in such increasingly comprehensive and forensic detail that I’d only be half-surprised to hit the red button one day and find a livestream of the Worthy Farm cows getting milked, or Emily Eavis eating her morning toast (other festivals are available). More so, I refer to the BBC’s seemingly dwindling enthusiasm for capturing artists live in session, whether for TV or radio, with the same sense of curatorial freedom, curiosity and even eccentricity as it once did.

Lord of the sesh the late John Peel’s Radio 1 show from 1967-2004 yielded a goldmine of sessions – some 4,000 or so in all, most of them by The Fall (well, 24 of them anyway). Peel’s antenna for a great artist in the making may not have always been the most finely tuned – I don’t know how much history may wish to revisit Kanda Bongo Man or Funky Ginger. But Pink Floyd, The Specials and Nirvana are just three among countless many bands he had on his show before any other major British broadcaster.

Created in Peel’s memory and image, BBC 6 Music continues to fly the flag for alternative music to growing ratings, and yet it seems to have considerably reduced its live sessions output – once a regular feature of the daytime as well as nightly schedule – to just a handful per week. For all the extremely bad cover versions it has unleashed, Radio 1’s Live Lounge – also now available to watch online – probably does most to keep live music on the airwaves. Live Lounge Month in September just past featured sessions by all from Self Esteem to Rina Sawayama and The 1975.

TotP having long gone off this mortal coil, and attempts at replacing it proven tragically ill-judged, Later… remains the Beeb’s last bastion of regular live music TV programming. For all Jools Holland’s much-lamented enthusiasm for having a massive honky-tonk over otherwise perfectly enjoyable songs, it’s a show which has delivered countless performances for the ages in its almost 30 years.

But since returning to a “live” format post-Covid restrictions, as sets of stiffly recorded performances at a moody-dark Alexandra Palace Theatre, it seems to have lost much of its sense of adventure and occasion. I miss the wonky old in-the-round studio setup, with soused audience members hanging awkwardly about the fringes, and the lurching juxtapositions of, say, Robbie Williams being forced to follow the utterly ferocious spectacle of afros-sporting post-hardcore cult heroes At the Drive-In quite literally attacking One Armed Scissor with a chair (the single most exciting live performance the BBC has ever captured IMHO).

If anything, the BBC may have become a bit preoccupied by its own vast archive, churning out music documentaries and retrospective live compilations, when it ought to be more concerned with capturing the here and now, with the widest of lenses. Because how else can history be preserved without first recording the present?

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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