Live and let live, at least on stage - Tim Goodyer asks the question of where to draw the line between "live" use of technology and cheating.
I have a problem with live music. Perhaps I should say I have a problem defining the dividing line between live music and non-live music. A couple of guys thrashing guitars, a drummer trashing a drum kit and a singer screaming himself (or herself) hoarse sit pretty comfortably in the "live" category. Equally, a stage full of hi-tech keyboards designed to distract you from the fact that what you're hearing is actually coming out of a DAT machine backstage is just my idea of a con trick. But replace the DAT machine with a sequencer, add a few live keyboard lines and a live vocal and I'm not so sure. Andy McCluskey's description of a four-track tape machine backing up a couple of active keyboard players, bass and vocals gave me no trouble in last month's MT. If the tape replaced the keyboards and bass I'd have felt it was the wrong side of the line, but if a sequencer had taken the place of the tape machine, I'm not so sure. You see, for me it's not just a case of saying "if it's not the result of fingers on an instrument, it's a fake".
History bears me out on this one; "live" tape manipulation has taken its place in the catalogue of live performance, as has the live sequencer manipulation of the likes of Tangerine Dream. Somehow none of this helps. Do I have your sympathy?
This isn't a new concern for me, but it was recently revived by the "new look" Top of the Pops. In an attempt to give the show fresh appeal, the producers have chosen to run more live material - sometimes it's a whole band, sometimes it's just a vocal. And it sounds infinitely worse. Watching the programme, the pleasure of the "told you they couldn't play their instruments" posse is almost tangible.
But it's more than that. I was present at the recording of the first series of the Up The Junction independent TV series. On the bill were, amongst others, Mica Paris and Beats International. Mica - on first - sang live while her band mimed to backing tapes. The performance was competent but uninspiring. Large sections of the audience were bored to tears. When Beats Int took to the stage with a singer, two rappers and a pair of turntables, they took the place by storm. Watching the show broadcast on TV I saw Mica Paris put in what appeared to be a polished and professional performance, while Beats International sounded ragged and gutless. The camera often lies. (Incidentally, Beats recently put in another tasteful set for the current series.)
The fact is that live performance precludes any of the production techniques which we've all come to expect from recorded music. If you're in the audience for a live show, any shortcomings are made up for by the volume, the atmosphere and so on (that's the theory, anyway). None of this communicates itself via the television.
A video called The Lost James Brown Tapes has just been released by BMG. It's archive footage from JB's comeback in 79, which has previously been withheld from release for legal reasons - and it's good stuff. After the concert sequences there's a short interview sequence that was conducted directly after the show. At one point in this, the Godfather of Soul explains how he performs differently for the television cameras - for the reasons I've stated above.
Back in the TOTP studio they've now got the worst of both worlds: they're transmitting partly-live performances of music which is expected to be polished to perfection, and they're doing it without the atmosphere of the concert hall. Even with my own personal dilemma over what does and doesn't constitute live music, I've got to ask if there isn't a case for "keeping music taped". If nothing else, the performers would have the opportunity for posing as well as they know how without the inconvenience of having to sing or play at the same time.