The television appearance is an important part of the promotional armoury. Not a video (I’ve covered these in various posts before), but simply a live* rendition of a current song that maybe gets a band out to an audience that otherwise might not know about them. I’ve also excluded TV-aired festival appearances, too. One thing, though, is that those opportunities for TV slots are greatly diminished nowadays, so most of this list goes back a bit…
You’ll perhaps note a lack of “Later…with Jools Holland” here. There is a fairly simple reason for this – as laudable as the concept of the show is, the inherently “safe” nature of the bookings mean that there has been little memorable performances that came to mind. This is, of course, a UK-centric list. Memorable US appearances (with links if possible), I’d love to hear about.
I mentioned earlier that opportunities for so-called “alternative” bands to promote their wares on TV have diminished – and they really have. Despite there being lots of “music” channels, even the alternative-leaning channels like MTV Rocks (or MTV 2, as it used to be known), Kerrang and Scuzz aim into particular areas and rarely deviate from a prescribed rotation meaning that for the most part, many bands simply don’t have the options on TV to promote that they used to – especially as aside from BBC4’s continually brilliant Friday night music coverage, there is rarely anything on the “mainstream” channels now that isn’t a Simon Cowell-led (or one of his competitors) “talent” show
But back when we had less choice, when satellite/cable TV over here was still a minority thing, we at least had a few programmes that were offering something to those of us who wanted to hear something different, and those precious appearances frequently ended up as a “gateway drug” into a new world of music that some might never before have seen.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Top Of The Pops (1991)
The first show where this was absolutely the case was Top of the Pops. That venerable institution eventually withered and died on the vine as singles became less important, and sales reduced to almost embarrassing numbers (when at their peak it would take hundreds of thousands of sales to get to Number One, by 2006 or so, it was just 20,000), but as younger, more enterprising DJs and producers took control of the show at the end of the eighties and into the nineties, all of a sudden the floodgates were opened for all kinds of bands to appear (and thus increase sales). Nirvana’s explosion into the public consciousness in 1991 saw them on Top of the Pops when Smells Like Teen Spirit entered the UK singles chart at #9…and they created an instant talking point for us teenagers at school the next day (TOTP was on a Thursday night at the time), when Kurt Cobain decided to take the piss royally by singing his live vocals an octave lower than usual – the music was mimed as usual at the time. Other points to note from the video – the remainder of the Top Ten is fascinating (with quite a number of forgotten songs, intermixed with a couple of thrilling singles, oh, and Michael Jackson, but I’ll come back to him), and just listen to the crowd clapping away, until they are kinda stunned into silence by the stage invaders at the end!
Top Of The Pops(1994)
Remarkably, this seething piece of post-punk fury was the lead single from the band’s uncompromising (and quite brilliant) album The Holy Bible, and their appearance on TOTP to perform it has passed into legend, mainly because of the controversy it caused. It is clear from the clip (that week it was presented by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer!) that the band had somehow been allowed to open the show with this song, and they took to the stage in various military outfits, most notably with vocalist James Dean Bradfield wearing military green and a paramilitary balaclava – and the perhaps predictable result was a subsequent avalanche of complaints to the BBC (it has been reported since that there were over 25,000 complaints). Of course, the controversy can’t have hurt either the show or the band…
Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe
Top Of The Pops (1994)
One of the real joys of being a fan of alternative music in the mid-90s was when a hitherto unknown band to the mainstream get a freak breakthrough into the charts, and appeared on TOTP. Whale’s moment in the sun came with their gonzoid hit Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe, which had been a Europe-wide hit in the year before, and we’d long been bouncing along too on MTV Europe – but it felt like something of a vindication when they made the top 20 with this, and duly celebrated with a rather interesting set of comedy outfits on the show. They never bothered the charts again, but no matter – this song was their killer moment anyway.
The Blue Room
Top Of The Pops (1992)
TOTP was one of those strange environments where bands weren’t really allowed to be themselves. Miming was the norm, even if it wasn’t really something that was discussed, and at some point vocals were allowed to be live (hence the hijinks that Nirvana and the like got up to). Otherwise they could just show videos if bands weren’t going to appear in the studio, but some acts decided to tackle the miming bit head on. And if you’re an “ambient” act like The Orb, with no vocals and not a lot to do, what do you do when the longest single ever released (just shy of forty minutes in it’s full version!) gets into the Top 40? Well, Alex Paterson and Thrash decided sit on the stage and play chess… [Note: unfortunately the sound on this version isn’t great]
Pretend We’re Dead
The Word (1992)
If you wanted uncensored, live entertainment involving alternative bands around this time, though, it was all about The Word late on a Friday night. It was frequently lewd, outrageous and at points frankly disgusting, but was essential viewing for all of it. There was Kurt Cobain (on the same promotional tour as on TOTP above, I’d think), declaring Courtney Love “The Best Fuck In the World” live onstage, there was Mark Lamarr ripping MC Hammer in an interview, not to mention calling out Shabba Ranks for being a homophobic idiot. There was also the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, as I recall, as one point (something I’d rather not watch again!).
And then, there were the music performances. I could have mentioned loads of them – particularly as it should also be added that there is an absolute treasure trove of clips from The Word now on YouTube – but two in particular from the show spring to mind. One of these was this appearance of alt-metallers L7, who hit the headlines in the UK with another stunt at Reading, and then Donita Sparks dropped her trousers on The Word (live!) while the band were roaring through Pretend We’re Dead. It’s hard to think that any show would ever be able to get away with such events nowadays.
The Word (1994)
Less controversial, but much heavier, mind, was the appearance of Brazilian metal titans Sepultura to close one show in 1994. We knew something was up when it was revealed that the Sep fans were…being kept in a large cage (to protect the rest of the studio audience, presumably!), and sure enough, come the end of the show, Dani Behr seemed rather nervous releasing said fans out of the cage. Controlled chaos ensues, needless to say, as Sep rip into Refuse/Resist, Max Cavalera roars “Fuck shit up” and the moshpit absolutely explodes. Few metal bands ever got this kind of exposure, frankly, and maybe it’s best that few others did, as fun as this was…
Reverend Black Grape
TFI Friday (1995)
During the mid-90s – and very much a product of the Britpop era – a new show became the “watercooler” talking point post-weekend, taking the mantle from The Word but moving things to the early evening on a Friday. This show was TFI Friday, presented by the-then hugely popular (and divisive!) Chris Evans. The show was a studio-based one, with random conversation and sketches, and music was an important part of it – and indeed broke quite a few bands (including probably taking the blame for the early popularity of Ocean Colour Scene, which is absolutely a blot on its copybook). But one particular reinvention was of note. Shaun Ryder had been the frontman of “baggy” band Happy Mondays, a band that collapsed amid herculean drug and booze intake and left Ryder in something of a state. So this funky, loose-limbed – and an awful lot sharper – band had a fun-time, multi-faceted sound that sounded like an epic party, and also seemed to show that Ryder might have cleaned up – as their first appearance on the show with fantastic debut single Reverend Black Grape showed. Sadly the lustre on both the show and band faded relatively quickly, and Ryder has never been as lucid since either.
Tomorrow’s World (1979)
The only band I can think of who were so technologically important that their first appearance on British TV was on Tomorrow’s World (in fact, they were on twice!). Their first appearance was in 1975, featuring Autobahn, with the marvellously breathless statement at the end that “Next year, Kraftwerk hope to eliminate the keyboard altogether, and create jackets with electronic lapels that can be played by touch” (see also here). But for the purposes of this entry, I’m plumping for their second appearance four years later, as their robot models are so iconic. Oh yes, this is when their robot doubles were first introduced to British audiences, and indeed all we see in the slot to start with are those robots and the unmistakable chimes of the live version of The Robots. It still blows my mind that this song is thirty-five years old.
Superbowl Half-Time Show (2007)
One of the biggest audiences on TV anywhere is for the annual Superbowl, the climax to the American Football season which has become so much more than just a sports event, with the halftime show becoming one of the most high-profile music slots of all. Many big, big stars have done it, and interestingly the “tradition” of a mega-selling artist doing it only came to be around the turn of the eighties into the nineties – driven by the huge interest in Michael Jackson’s appearance in January 1993. It took until 2007 until Prince appeared with the the last word in Superbowl appearances, one that has made every other one before and since seem a bit dull and uninspired. He rolled in covering four other band’s songs, as well as touching on four of his own – all in just twelve minutes! – climaxing with a frankly fucking amazing take on Purple Rain.
BRIT Awards (1996)
Nowadays an event so stage-managed that they desperately try and avoid anything controversial to get in the way of the back-slapping (much as the Grammys seem to do), it’s sometimes easy to forget that jaw-dropping moments really did happen at the Brits once upon a time. Sadly the KLF (with additional Extreme Noise Terror) appearance has been expunged from YouTube by the BPI, so it doesn’t get a separate entry (but can be seen in poor quality here).
But, a few years later, Michael Jackson got something of a comeuppance in the UK, live on TV. The previous year’s HIStory had a promotional budget that dwarfed the cost of most band’s careers, and it was becoming perhaps increasingly clear just how detached from reality Michael Jackson was. An “artist of a generation” award had been concocted to award Jackson at the BRITs, and he performed a vast, lavish ten minute version of Earth Song (probably the most pompous song he ever released), with countless children singing and performing onstage, culminating in Jackson looking like Christ “healing” everyone. While everyone looked on dumbfounded, a no-doubt drunk Jarvis Cocker (himself riding a wave of popularity at last after his band Pulp had finally hit the big time) crashed the stage and made a few gestures, that needless to say were the talking point of the night the next day in the press. There were attempts to prosecute him for something, anything, but they came to nought, Cocker became something of a folk hero in the press for it…and Jackson? Well, the rest is history, I guess.