Was there ever a musical performance in a TV studio that didn’t made you cringe just a tiny bit? All those awkward glances, the queasy close-ups, the drummer from Slade gurning like a muppet doing a poo. In fact, as a child, I used to have nightmares about Freddie Mercury’s wet lips and his teeth clashing against the tin mesh of his microphone as he loomed large in the living room. SHUDDER.
BBC Four returns to those overlit, golden days every weekend with their ransacking of the Top of The Pops archives, and it looks more awkward than ever. Even the most magnetic musicians are reduced to the status of a loner at a wedding, not knowing whether to put their hands in their pockets or leave them dangling at the sides.
As far back as the 1960s, the camera brought out the worst in everyone. The Beatles turned into divvies from Liverpool and Dusty Springfield looked like she was standing at a bus stop. In fact, the only musician who ever managed to do a TV performance without coming off like a bit of an idiot was Elvis, who did the decent thing and just melted the camera with his crotch.
The thing is, the TV studio is the wrong place for music. What works with an audience of drunk idiots and their iPhones live doesn’t work with a sober audience in a studio, pretending to be at a New Year Hootenanny in the middle of August. Take Later… with Jools Holland, which is always an exercise in interminable studio-based standing around. Here’s the Tin Can Orchestra of Bulawayo waving sadly at the camera! Here’s Emmylou Harris looking like she’d rather be anywhere else! Who’s that? Why, it’s Queens of the Stone Age wondering when they can go back to the hotel! After which they’re all inevitably subjected to the musical equivalent of waterboarding, as Jools tinkles all over everything. It’s excruciating.
At least Elvis did the decent thing and just melted the camera with his crotch.
It’s the same with Top of the Pops. Even though its corpse is constantly being reanimated, it really has had its day. Compared to a Major Lazer light show in the Dorset Cereals tent at Glastonbury or a carefully stage-managed appearance at the Brits, it just doesn’t cut it. Now it would just be too real, too HD for comfort. Everyone would see that Calvin Harris didn’t have his decks plugged in or that bogey wedged up Ariana Grande’s nose. The camera would stare too closely into Little Mix’s souls, and be left wanting.
Anyway, the pop machine has moved on. They have fire now and LED walls, and anything to distract from the fact that musicians are fragile humans, prone to smashing their teeth on the mic and looking like the drummer from Slade on the toilet. And I, for one, prefer it when they keep their distance.