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Pop History on British Television April 30, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Music in the media.

The first documentary series on popular music history was probably Tony Palmer’s seventeen-part series All You Need Is Love which was broadcast on the British commercial television channel ITV in 1977. The full series is now on DVD, and extracts can be found online.


At the time of the DVD re-release, the series was criticised for its celebration of various international rock artists as being the future of popular music, dismissing disco, and missing out on the then emergence of punk (see, for instance, Lundy 2008). The criticism seems particular pertinent because the final programme in the series looks at the future of popular music through now little-known artists when, at the very moment of its screening in 1977, the moral panic about punk reached its zenith in the UK. Given that punk has taken on a position as a landmark of musical development in post-1980s histories, akin to that of rock and roll in earlier histories, the absence seems important. However, this is to suggest that Palmer did not make his history totalising enough, and that pop histories is simply about citing well-known artists or genre styles. Looking beyond artists names, we are presented with a set of themes that convincingly anticipate the characteristics of twenty-first century pop. These include both Glastonbury-like post-consumerist, collective, sustainable lifestyle music, and pop as a producer’s medium, slickly devised with scientific accuracy in studio technologies. More interestingly, he uses them to assert pop’s paradoxical and manufactured character, contrasting highly abstract with very personal styles, and stadium success with intimate rural retreat. While he misses the emergent energy of punk he does highlight the fusions of rock, folk and ‘world music’ ignored in most histories and the synthesizer-based, programmatic music that gave us disco, electropop and rave.

In a longer study of the series, Paul Long and I argued that perhaps because the series predates the print-based totalising histories examined in chapter 1, it avoids an overreliance on narratives of disruption, as well as downplaying the idea of musical roots which had dominated an earlier generation of popular music analysis (Long and Wall 2013). However, the series does consistently deploy the contrasts of margins and mainstream that are common in other pop histories, and which Palmer uses to present pop music as the voice of the people and of individual genius. Both for the time, and since, the series uses a relatively experimental televisual language to investigate popular music and encourage the viewer to about how it is meaningful. However, too often it ignores the popular culture which made the music, and tends to evaluate artists in the terms of high art. Nevertheless, we concluded that All You Need Is Love, and Palmer’s other popular music documentaries, insist that we seriously consider the past of pop and the questions that they pose to us, while more recent television histories seem more committed to reiterating an answer we already know.

By the turn of the twenty-first century television pop histories had become commonplace in the schedules. The BBC in the UK has been particularly productive in making such history documentaries, with most screened on the digital cultural programming channel, BBC4. The range has been impressive, and the value of individual programmes signaled by their central place in a themed evening of programming devoted to the subject of the documentary. Given the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, and the channel’s mission as “an originator of high quality, distinctive programming, … unashamedly intelligent yet stimulatingly pleasurable”, it is revealing to examine the well-regarded music Britannia histories of music in Britain. Starting with the broadcast of Jazz Britannia in 2005, the corporation has commissioned similarly named investigations of Folk (2006), Soul (2007), Dance (2007), Pop (2008), Prog Rock (2009), Synth (2009), Blues (2009), Heavy Metal (2010), Reggae (2012) and Punk (2012). Jazz Britannia created a template for following documentaries, with its history of jazz in Britain narrated by actor Terence Stamp, its impressive wealth of archival clips from television, film and radio, still images, press cuttings, and many original interviews with British jazz players from the post-war period, supported by critics and chroniclers of the genre. As part of our on-going study of the mediation of pop history, Paul Long and I have produced detailed analyses of the Britannia franchise (Long and Wall 2010; Wall and Long 2010). While the early Jazz Britannia and Folk Britannia programmes featured considerable innovation in bringing neglected parts of British popular music and culture to the fore, they did tend to work within totalising narratives. The jazz programme is constructed around a standard narrative of disruption in which the music moves back and forth between the margins and mainstream of popular culture. This structure also highlights the way that the programme mediates previous mediations of the music in the way it organises archive material from televison, film and the press. By this we mean the programme tells its story of the oscillating popularity of jazz in Britain using extracts of media material of the original events, which themselves offered a particular representation of their subject. Nevertheless, we concluded, in a comparison with the far better known, but often critiqued, Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, we note that the programme does not take an existing story as its template, and genuinely tries to place British jazz in its cultural context.

By contrast, the programmes which followed made use of the format of the two first series as a formula, and the some of the documentaries feature very superficial narratives. In Pop Britannia, the story is constructed around the idea that “for the last 30 years, British pop has been locked in a constant struggle between the forces of art and commerce” (BBC 2007). While this emphasis on art versus commerce in many ways reflects one of the themes Tony Palmer utilised in his productions in the 1960s and 1970s, Its use in Pop Britannia as the key narrative idea it is crudely totalising, only assigning meaning to different aspects of British pop on the basis of the degree to which they are perceived to be artistic or commercial.

Because the music Britannia programmes are so conventional, following a pattern established in many ways by Tony Palmer, it is often hard to see how else pop music history could be investigated. A useful contrast here is a programme made by the same producer/director responsible for the jazz and folk Britannia series, Mike Connolly, and presented by music journalist Paul Morley. Pop! What Is It Good For? was broadcast on BBC4 in 2008 as part of a themed three-weeks of programming that included Pop Britannia. Its form and approach could not have been more different from the latter programme, however. The conceit at the heart of Pop! What Is It Good For? is that we are watching a ‘made as-it-happens’ investigation of pop in which director Connolly and presenter Morley investigate how to make a programme about pop. Like all television, though, it is highly calculated. Built upon Morley’s 2003 book Words and Music, a 360-page investigation of the relationship between a series of records with which Morley was then obsessed, the programme concentrates Morley’s earlier argument into a journey of investigation around six songs. In an example of this connected reasoning, the programme title puns on the title of Edwin Star’s ‘War! What Is It Good For?’ At the outset the presenter poses a series of personal propositions over a montage of images from the music’s past: pop songs reflect and organise our consciousness; they compile memories sticking the past together, “showing me the future, the possibility of possibility itself”. Taking the theme of art and commerce common to Palmer’s work and Pop Britannia, Morley investigates it as a tension out of which pop culture is created. Narrating a journey across the UK to unpick how pop is made, marketed and consumed, director and presenter connect pop music as recording with its processes of production and personal identity. Cleverly taking Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ – for Morley “a song about a song – and connecting it in his own mind to US late 60s punk band the Stooges, 70s Euro-disco artist Donna Summer, and minimalist art composer Philip Glass. The programme then unearths the story of how it was made, assigned to Minogue and then promoted through interviews and demonstrations with the record’s producer and video’s director. Media archives here become fragments of memory, often presented on a split-screen with images of Morley assiduously pursuing his quest. The presenter and, slightly less often, the director pervade the programme personalising the investigation. Pop, the programme implies, is no longer something to place in an objective chronology, and organise with a totalising story, but a sophisticated web of meanings and cultural meanings. The six selected records take on the metaphor of six degrees of separation, in which one pop record is only ever six steps away from all other records, and the connections between records tell us something much more substantial about the culture of pop than the authoritative ‘voice’ of conventional documentary style.


BBC. (2007). ‘Pop Britannia: Episode Guide.’ from http://www.bbc.co.uk/musictv/popbritannia/episodes/.
Long, P. and T. Wall (2010). ‘Constructing the histories of popular music: The Britannia series’. Popular music and television in Britain. I. Inglis. Farnham, Ashgate: 11-26.
Long, P. and T. Wall (2013). ‘Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love – Television’s first pop history’. Sights and Sounds. B. Halligan, K. Fairclough and R. Edgar. New York, Routledge.
Lundy, Z. (2008). ‘All You Need Is Love’. PopMatters.
Wall, T. and P. Long (2010). ‘Jazz Britannia: mediating the story of British jazz on television.’ Jazz Research Journal 3(2): 145-170.