The Weekend's TV: I'm in a Rock 'n' Roll Band, Sat, BBC2
Modern Masters, Sun, BBC1
Eyewitness, Sun, BBC2
Watch out – the egos have landed
Monday 03 May 2010
You've got to be a knobhead to be a lead singer," said one of the contributors to I'm in a Rock 'n' Roll Band, the first of a six-part series that promises to anatomise the individual components of popular music's elite fighting unit.
Had it been a drummer or a roadie who said that you might have dismissed it as sour grapes, but since it was Shaun Ryder, the lead singer of Happy Mondays, it was clear that he spoke with some personal authority. And though the programme that followed never entirely pinned down the psychology of the rock frontman it did suggest that Ryder's anatomical metaphor conveyed an essential truth. The lead singer gets most the attention and most of the pleasure. The line was also confirmed in a different way by a coarsely solipsistic remark from Kelly Jones of Stereophonics: "If women don't want to fuck you and men don't want to be you, then I don't see the point in being in a band." He certainly seemed to fit Shaun Ryder's bill.
It isn't a natural role for the shy, even if some charismatic lead singers have been painfully shy off stage, such as Ian Curtis of Joy Division and Kurt Cobain, offered up here as examples of the transformative power of stage performance. And it brings with it the occupational hazard that you will succumb to LSD, not the drug on which Jim Morrison sealed his reputation as a Dionysiac god during a notorious performance at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub, but Lead Singer's Disease, a condition in which the sufferer becomes convinced that the band is there for them instead of them being there for the band. You can easily see how it might happen. If the Silver Lady on a Rolls-Royce had self-awareness you'd probably find it quite difficult to convince her that she was just a glorified ornament, rather than the only reason the car existed at all.
It all meandered a bit – in an enjoyable enough way – touching on the rivalry between lead singers and lead guitarists here, exploring the mysteries of crowd control there. But I wasn't sure that it discriminated quite clearly enough between performers who bully you into noticing them, and those who would draw your eyes even if they were standing in the shadows. At one point, Noddy Holder proudly recalled the prop that ensured that audiences would never go away from a Slade gig uncertain about who was the frontman: "A top hat with mirrors," he said, "that was my own invention." But if you turn yourself into a human glitter ball, or set fire to your head (as Arthur Brown did) or arrive with a large python round your neck (as Alice Cooper still does) it's surely possible to doubt that natural charisma has played much part in your magnetism.
Art programmes need their frontmen too and the BBC appear to believe that Alastair Sooke has the right blend of sex appeal and self-assurance to get the job done. They've given him the telly equivalent of a first-record deal anyway, with a four-part series Modern Masters, which borrows its title, though not its intellectual approach, from a famous Fontana series of monographs. Sooke tends more towards the Blue Peter end of the spectrum than the academic thesis, enlivening his beginner's guide to Andy Warhol with various exercises in aesthetic suck it and see. He had a go at the blotted-line technique with which Warhol first made his name as a New York commercial illustrator, was made over as a Warhol clone by one of Gok Wan's sidekicks and visited Gerard Malanga, Warhol's print-maker, to produce his own pastiche Warhol self-portrait. He also had a big CSI evidence board, on which he slowly accumulated a lot of pointy arrows and scrapbook images as if he was building his way to a prosecutable case. But in the end, the rhetorical questions ("What is it about Andy's images that makes them so popular today?") outnumbered the answers, though it offered a straightforward guide to the essentials of Warhol's art and a more implicit one to the reasons for his continuing appeal, which is that an allusion to Warhol will dignify an interest in virtually anything, however lowbrow. You're not just gawping at Big Brother, you're celebrating a Warholesque confluence of democratic fame and banality. It was left to the actor Dennis Hopper to deliver the money quote, when he told Sooke that "Duchamp said the artist of the future will be a person who points his finger". What remains ambiguous about Warhol – enhanced by the studied naivety of many of his pronouncements – was whether he was pointing a finger of blame or just going "Gee... look at that!"
Eyewitness, a fascinating series about the deep unreliability of human certainty, concluded with a study of cognitive interviewing, a method that essentially puts up crime tape around a witnesses' memories to stop a lot of well-meaning policemen mashing them out of recognition with their size-10 boots. Curiously, after presenting the case history of a woman who'd experienced at first hand how dangerous inner conviction can be (she had, without malice, been responsible for an innocent man spending 10 years in jail), it left you with another anecdote, about a witness who'd successfully identified a violent art thief. "I knew I was a 100 per cent that it was him," she said. I'd have felt happier if she'd said 96 per cent.
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