The Rock Proms are at the moment just a glint in the eye of the chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, Patrick Deuchar, but I haven't the slightest doubt that such a potentially popular and lucrative idea will bear fruit. And it is not the only development being sought by the what we must now begin to call the rock establishment. The public funding of rock music and a new national rock venue are also on the agenda for debate.
Sitting in Mr Deuchar's box at the Royal Albert Hall for the Elton John concert last week, I discussed some of this with Mr Deuchar and with Harvey Goldsmith, the pop promoter. Their vision is one sign of how the rock audience and its expectations are moving imaginatively into middle age. And it is a vision not without irony. Students of rock will remember that in 1971, it was the Royal Albert Hall that decided to ban nearly all pop music from its premises for a decade. This followed a particularly inventive night by the late Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention, in which the audience were encouraged to wreak damage on Queen Victoria's gift to the nation.
The management's public statement at the time is worth recalling for a tone of voice that would have Messrs Deuchar and Goldsmith choking on their feedback. Announcing its decision to ban "pop and rock concerts", it said that only one of the 23 pop and rock concerts held in 1971 passed off without any disorder.
Those were the days. A little more hysteria and less thoughtfulness might not have gone amiss at Elton's lengthy journey through the past with just piano and occasional percussion last week. But times have, of course, changed. Even when there is a real band in full flight and an audience in full sweat, rock concertgoers no longer have the energy or inclination, thank goodness, to rip up seats and throw beer at stewards. The acts, too, are better behaved, and the likes of Patrick Deuchar and Harvey Goldsmith are successful, imaginative entrepreneurs who have grown up to the rhythms of pop.
Deuchar, married to one of the genuine stars of British musical theatre, Liz Robertson, has revitalised the Royal Albert Hall, always the most comfortable as well as the grandest of concert venues. And he recognises that the thirty- and fortysomethings
have a musical taste that embraces classical and rock and want to see both performed in comfort.
The rock proms do, in effect, already exist. They come under the headings of the Reading or Glastonbury festivals, where audiences may have a good time but may also be rained upon, where they may wallow in the mud and live for three days in a style to which most of the older fans have long since been unaccustomed.
Presenting the cream of rock music over a one- or two-week winter festival at the Royal Albert Hall, with no clash and no detraction from the real Proms in the summer, seems an ideal way forward. The Royal Albert Hall, almost alone, can offer what has always been needed in a rock venue - a floor where the seats can be taken up to leave room for those who like to stand, dance and generally irritate the people sitting behind them, while letting others sit in comfort with perfect sound and sightlines and even the opportunity to entertain friends in private boxes.
So roll on the rock proms. Roll on, too, a national rock venue. Incomparable as the Royal Albert Hall is, it seats only 5,000, and your average rock megastar can play to several times that number. Eric Clapton and Elton John may be happy to perform at the RAH for weeks on end, but others are not, and a large venue is needed to replace the soulless and acoustically imperfect caverns such as Wembley Arena. A 15,000-plus seater with floor space and comfortable seats above is needed to celebrate the one artform in which we lead the world.
A National Music Centre with a particular emphasis on rock is rarely mentioned as a possible Millennium Project, but I can think of few better schemes to which to devote a slice of the lottery profits. Rock music over the next few years could come of agewith concerts presented in comfortable venues that are a pleasure to visit, and prom-style indoor festivals. As a rock concert attender who has sat far too often uncomfortably, unable to see and overcharged, I can't wait.
And while you're about it, Harvey, can we have programmes and parking that don't cost an arm and a leg, a booking system that tells you exactly where in the hall you are sitting, and concerts that start at the advertised time?
It is when Messrs Deuchar and Goldsmith also urge the National Heritage Secretary to consider funding rock music from the public purse that I have to stand down from the "bring rock into the arts establishment" club. State subsidies, says Mr Deuchar "should go on the development of young acts, helping kids who cannot afford a guitar". Mr Goldsmith is even more direct: "A young classical composer writing music that has no relevance to anyone, and is unlistenable to, qualifies for an Arts Council grant. But if a Bhangra band that fuses classical, Indian and dance music went up for one, it wouldn't get in the front door."
The Arts Council does give money to some jazz and world music projects, but not, as yet, to rock. "It's not our bag," says a spokeswoman, attempting the vernacular. Nor, frankly, need it be. With arts funding still miserly, what money there is has to go to art forms such as opera, dance, classical music and drama, which are expensive to mount and struggle to draw large audiences or commercial support for innovation. Art forms that thrive commercially should not compete for funding.
Rock music at the highest levels attracts huge audiences and makes its practitioners millionaires. Even for the struggling wannabes - and a guitar is beyond the economic reach of very few households - there are numerous posses of record company A & R menscouring the clubs in the increasingly desperate search for new talent.
And yes, hackneyed as it sounds, rock music does need an element of struggle, an element of danger. The best groups remain those who have done the club circuit, singing for their supper, touring with a van, a roadie and a change of clothes, maybe.
I'd love to see Clapton headlining the first Rock Proms; but I suspect that if he had been given an Arts Council grant and use of a studio at 17, instead of going on the road with a bunch of precocious mods called the Yardbirds, he wouldn't be on the invitation list.Reuse content