Getting the last laugh

As the pop quiz is resurrected, Ben Thompson asks if rock'n'roll is the new rock'n'roll

Anyone putting forward the idea of a prime-time pop quiz in a BBC planning meeting three or four years ago would probably have left the building in a white van. But the extraordinary renewal and then extension of pop's cultural clout in the intervening years has given the advent of Never Mind the Buzzcocks - a brand-new pop quiz, presented by Mark Lamarr and produced by Talkback, the makers of the sports-based ratings-topper They Think It's All Over - an air of almost frightening inevitability.

Never Mind the Buzzcocks is to They Think It's All Over what Giles Smith's Lost in Music was to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - a surprise populist coup, craftily translated from sport to music. It's more complicated than that, though. The biggest thing these shows have in common is that they are both dominated by comedians. In a straight fight for laughs, you'd back NMTB's Lamarr, Sean Hughes and Phill Jupitus to beat TTIAO's Nick Hancock, Lee Hurst and Rory McGrath 19 times out of 20. But that would not dispel fears that we could now be subject to a sinister comedic hegemony where our only possible reaction to something of cultural value is to laugh at it.

"I'm not a believer in the attitude which says everything is trivial and nothing is important" - in Manchester on the third night of the Shooting Stars tour, Mark Lamarr tears himself away from watching Songs of Praise on his hotel television to fight his corner. "That said, we will be doing some pretty trivial stuff." Could we view the strong comedic presence in Never Mind the Buzzcocks as an act of collective atone- ment for comedy's recent attempts to steal rock'n'roll's clothes? "It would be nice if that was the case, but I don't think it is. To tell you the truth, there's not a single redeeming reason for doing it. I mean ... it's a pop quiz."

When the BBC made an ill-fated attempt to relaunch the old-fashioned, Mike Read-flavoured variant of this much-derided species a couple of years back, one of the contestants was a little-known indie-pop veteran called Jarvis Cocker. When he correctly answered all the questions in the quick-fire round, then punched the air in triumph to show how much this meant to him, Jarvis made a historic break-out from the pop-star paddock and into the wider celebrity arena. In the two years that followed, Cocker and his Britpop peer group rescued pop music in this country from dwindling minority-interest status and put it more incontrovertibly at the top of the nation's cultural agenda than ever before.

While this development is fit cause for rejoicing, there is danger in it too. There are few things more inimical to culture than consensus. Celebration is never more than a short bus-ride away from complacency. And as the amazing pop happenings of the last couple of years start to crystallise into myth, there must be at least an outside chance of boom turning to slump. In this context, a new TV pop quiz - albeit, on the first episode's evidence, an extremely amusing one - could be a dangerously hubristic exercise.

1996's striking conjunction of the Beatles' Anthologies, the Sex Pistols reunion and Oasis's stratospheric success has given rise to well-founded fears for the future: after thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, what next? The real significance of the past year is much more interesting and hopeful than that, though. What has actually happened is that pop has finally broken free of the restriction of a linear time-frame.

People have spoken and written before of pop music as existing in an eternal present, but the actual meaning of this statement has sometimes been rather hard to pin down. Just recently however, the ever-widening availability of pop's past has felt increasingly like a spur rather than an obstacle to original endeavour, as the music industry's determination to recycle its back cat-alogues in CD form has had an unexpectedly inspirational impact on the minds of a new generation.

A band as fascinating and hilarious as Gorky's Zygotic Mynci could probably never have existed without ready access to the bizarre tapestry of Sixties and Seventies psychedelic excess. And mouth-watering new prospects like Falkirk duo Arab Strap - who write sublimely sarcastic songs about failing to win the big cash prize in the canteen quiz, or the personality deficiencies of their ex-girlfriends - have grown up in a world where The Human League are as much a matter of historical fact to them as the Beatles are to Noel Gallagher.

Listening to Mark Radcliffe sitting in for Chris Evans on the Radio 1 breakfast show recently, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the nation's pop culture is in an uncommonly healthy state at the moment. Before getting listeners to fax in translations of the Welsh-language coda to the current Gorky's single, "Patio Song", Radcliffe played a sophisticated (no, really) game called "Bird or Bloke", in which listeners are asked to guess the gender of the following - AA Milne, BB King, Ce Ce Peniston, Dee Dee Ramone and ee cummings - and the first caller got it right. Would this have happened in Mike Read's day? It seems unlikely.

If there has ever been a time when British pop music could indulge in a good laugh at its own expense, safe in the knowledge that rock'n'roll is the new rock'n'roll, that time is now (and if the calibre of erstwhile Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson's display in the first edition of Never Mind the Buzzcocks is anything to go by, there will be a whole lot of laughing going on). So is Mark Lamarr looking forward to presenting a more cheerful face than the aggrieved scowl which regular Shooting Stars viewers have come to know and love? "Not really - I'm a very grim person by nature." But surely it'll be nice to be loved by the public? "This might sound a bit arrogant," Lamarr admits, heading off to match wits with Ulrika again, "but I don't really care too much about the public, because I've met them."

! `Never Mind the Buzzcocks': Tues, BBC2 10pm. Arab Strap: Borderline, WC2 (0171 734 2095), Mon. Their debut album, `The Week Never Starts Round Here' (Chemikal Underground) is released 25 Nov.

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