Tube-tastic! But still Tops?

As the legend of The Tube is celebrated with a documentary and a 14-wee k series of reruns, Steven Poole questions whether all this retro-TV is really necessary amid today's music shows

Paula Yates and Jools Holland are sprawled, fetchingly entangled, on a bed. They're reminiscing about The Tube, the legendary ramshackle music programme of the Eighties.

"It really was genuinely anarchic, in the sense that they just did not give a toss," Paula says, amazed. Jools agrees: "It wasn't contrived; it genuinely was just...shoddy. A lot of it was diabolical - but at least it was true." "Yeah - at least we were honourable!" Paula giggles.

So why does this amateurish show, dissed into the ground by its own presenters, still shine as a treasured symbol of a bygone decade in the hearts of so many music-lovers? Channel 4's The Legend of the Tube (Wed 11pm) offers an explanation. A documentaryfeaturing interviews with performers and archive footage of classic Tube moments, it kicks off a 14-week series of half-hour highlights compilations, under the name The Best of the Tube.

Malcolm Gerrie, Creative Producer of The Tube, offers his theory about the show's uniqueness. "It's really important that any music programme sets its own agenda: that it isn't controlled by either the record companies or the latest fad in NME." And The Tube broadcast from Newcastle, not London - the famous acts were always playing away, without the safety net of a home crowd. They had to stand or fall on their performances.

And what performances they were. Remember when Terence Trent D'Arby was cool? You will when you see him screaming the life out of "If You Let Me Stay" - his first appearance on British television. And The Tube was also about seeing people you thought were has-been old grannies setting the place alight - Elton John doing "Sad Songs" faster and harder than was strictly decent still makes the pop veins tingle.

These Tube reruns make a fascinating historical document: the tinselly sets, the foul cable-knit jumpers and the fresh-faced stars-to-be all take us back to a time when it seemed that anything could happen in pop, and if it was going to happen, it would happen on a Friday at 5pm.

But hang about - is this nostalgia really good for us? We should be wasting what's left of our youth on today's music, rather than reminiscing about the good old days. We need a new Tube for the Nineties, but have we got one? Producer Trevor Horn, who discovered Frankie Goes To Hollywood on The Tube in 1983, thinks not. He says darkly: "There isn't a TV programme that could make anyone's career at the moment."

There's certainly no shortage of music television about now: the game old Top of the Pops; The Chart Show, which frankly cops out by only showing videos; The Beat, which showcases new music but is hampered by its graveyard scheduling and Gary Crowley's ham-fistedly uncritical presentation; The Word; Jools Holland's own Later... Pop has always needed television because it's never been just about the music: the kids want to glory in the same threads as their heroes, they want to copy their moves down the

club. Pop music without television is unthinkable. But if Trevor Horn is right, all these programmes are made, to adapt Jools Holland's celebrated phrase, by "ungroovy fuckers" who wouldn't know a Zeitgeist if it hacked off their ponytails.

Producer Graham Smith doesn't agree. For a start, he's sick of all this retro-TV - Tube re-runs, the BBC's Sounds of the Seventies and so on. He handles Tip Top TV, a "new concept" in pop music programming, which started off as a pirate radio show. It stands for "Totally Integrated Panoramic Transmission Of Pop", and it's very strange indeed. The pilot episode has a group of four giant teddy bears miming to New Order's "True Faith" - the Banana Splits, anyone? Hosted by Kid Tempo, who comes o n like a cross between Alan Partridge and a refugee from Space 1999, and the bearded Ginger Prince, it walks a very fine line between being a surreal celebration of pop and a vicious parody of all its values.

Smith is well aware of the danger of this approach. "If I ever thought Tip Top was merely taking cheap shots at pop stars, we would have completely lost the point. The irony is there for people who want it - it also works brilliantly as a kids' show, buttoday's pop stars like Damon Albarn are so steeped in the history of pop and the irony of it that television has to reflect that."

Maybe Smith is right. Maybe the spirit of pop is now fully self-conscious. Recall the legendary appearance on Top of the Pops by Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp. The Pops has undergone a tremendous renaissance of late, under the control of new producer Ric Blaxill. Partly by widening its remit, and partly by wresting control of the show from fatuous children's TV presenters and having it hosted by celebrities like Cocker. His stroke of genius on the show, a few months back, came when he announcedthe No 1 record. Cocker stared into the camera dramatically and announced: "This...is...Top of the Pops!" At a stroke he reminded us what that phrase means, what shuddering glories it conjures up, and pop was reborn in his image.

And Cocker's image is an ironic one: he's a Nineties pop star. But irony needn't be destructive; it can be a celebration. As if music were a fragile thing that falls apart unless revered by old buffs in Led Zeppelin T-shirts! We know it's stronger than that. So music has nothing to fear from Graham Smith. But still, Tip Top TV is no new Tube: it's a scream for half an hour, but it lacks that pioneering, searching spirit.

In that sense, The Tube was loyal to Lord Reith's founding principle for public television: that it be entertaining and educational. You'd see your favourite band, followed by someone you'd never heard of, who you might actually like. The contenders in that field these days are Later with Jools Holland and The Word. Very different shows: The Word's music programming is excellent, but you have to wade through an ocean of fashionable vomit to find it. Later is seriously groovy, eclectic and fun, but its no-frills format may be off-putting to pop fans who like a bit of glamour.

David Stevenson, Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for Youth Programming, is obviously taking a swipe at Later when he talks of his desire to be "intelligent about music without being a beard-stroking programme for pointy-heads". He's identified a problem, certainly, but he's also just failed to recommission Naked City, which took a lot of flak for its presenters but was shaping up nicely as a jolly musical goulash. Stevenson also thinks that the music scene is "atomised" these days - it's too cliquey for there to be an audience for a general music programme. This is a trendy idea, but it is completely wrong. What's actually happened is that the music media have become atomised, with more and more specialist programmes and magazines. But the REM fan whoalso goes clubbing is now the rule rather than the exception - producers credit the public with too little imagination.

So what, at base, should a music programme do? Perhaps Mark Frith, editor of Smash Hits, says it best. "It should crystallise in your mind the idea of a certain band at a certain time." That sounds simple enough, and by those lights, it's a far from doomy picture these days. After all these years, it seems that Top of the Pops can still cut it. Cast your mind back to just before Christmas, with Damon Albarn crooning a prettily poignant "End of a Century": yes, that was Blur in 1994. And November saw themuch-awaited first television performance by an unknown guitarist called Richard Oakes on Later: yes, that was Suede in 1994. Thanks, The Tube, but we're doing fine without you.

The Legend of the Tube, Wed 11pm C4

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