How live TV copes with very live music.
Coming for a look behind the scenes, asked the people at Tyne Tees TV? And so it was that David Sinclair found himself down in the Tube station at 5.30.
Doctor John had suddenly been taken ill and hospitalised; Wham! singer George Michael had been ill all week, but made a (non-singing) appearance nevertheless, causing havoc; the Rolling Stones were front page news in the Sun, the Star, and the Mirror after the Tube's decision to screen that video (and furthermore to haul Mr Jagger himself in for questioning). There were four live bands — the Call, Carmel, the Fixx and the Assembly - jostling for attention in Studio Five, cameras at the ready on the studio floor, in reception, in the green room, and even in the Rose & Crown pub next door.
Meanwhile executive producer Malcolm Gerrie broke off from telling me his life-story, and looked distractedly at his watch. "Excuse me," he said, moving toward the studio gallery, "we're on the air in two seconds." It was business as usual down at The Tube.
There's no doubt that live television has an edge and a sparkle absent from even the most vibrant pre-recorded broadcasting. It's back to that most basic tenet of the entertainment business, 'the show must go on', and no matter what unexpected contingencies arise, that joyous, dangerous celebration of the moment will go ahead, and sometimes the cracks will show. Rock music is probably a greater beneficiary of the spontaneous approach than most areas of television entertainment, the tension of live performance being so central to the rock dynamic.
But how does The Tube cope with the sophisticated and increasingly complex business of mounting live performances by three or four bands in one studio in less than two hours, every week?
Gerrie cites the old Sixties show, Ready Steady Go, as a sort of spiritual model fo the The Tube. His aim is to capture that raw, sparse vitality and somewhat anarchic ambience for which Ready Steady Go was so loved in its time. But those were the days when the Who and the Rolling Stones were able to get their entire sound systems to the show in one Transit van; when the two WEM columns that comprised the PA took up less space than the drum kit, and the unmiked Vox combos were wheeled on and plugged in half an hour before the group came on.
The new technology demands far more exhaustive and exhausting preparation, and the only other programme previously to present a variety of bands on a regular basis in a club-type atmosphere, LWT's Revolver, eventually collapsed in the face of the enormity of the task of setting up, soundchecking, rehearsing, and eventually filming six to eight bands a week, not to mention the costly and time-consuming editing and post-production work. The Old Grey Whistle Test wisely confined itself to a maximum of two studio bands at a time, but failed over the years to capture the raw spirit of live band and audience interaction, while Top Of The Pops is diametrically opposed in its style of presentation: pure television which happens to be about music.
However, in fairness to Whistle Test and other contenders in the ever-expanding field of television rock, they are limited by the resources at their disposal, and the scale of The Tube is a measure of how seriously Channel 4 is prepared to take the business of producing a quality rock programme.
While the BBC programmes are turned round in one day in studios used for a variety of purposes, The Tube takes three whole days of preparation in its own massive, purpose-built studio before it goes on the air at 5.30 each Friday. The programme has seven cameras at its disposal, where Whistle Test has only four, and access to virtually whatever equipment is needed for the job of producing top quality sound both on and off the box.
The studio has three sizeable stages set at slightly differing angles facing inwards from three corners of the room. Each stage is equipped with its own monitor facilities provided by Entec. Before each show the different acts are put in touch with Entec and inform the PA company of exactly what equipment they want for their onstage monitor sound. Entec then bring in whatever is requested for every band that appears, so they can exactly duplicate (if they so wish) their 'real' stage monitor set-up. Entec also provide a fixed house PA for the studio floor, consisting of JBL speakers mounted on the walls well above head-height and all around the room.
Perhaps surprisingly, the sound going on in the studio has got practically nothing to do with what goes out on the air. The band can bring their own monitor person, or use one of Entec's staff, and go for an onstage sound that would be exactly what they would have at any gig. I asked Joe Reed, bassist with the Call, if the set-up was to his liking.
"It works. You get the effect of a band actually working on stage, and I assume that's the aim of television rock, so it doesn't feel like Top Of The Pops or those old TV shows where you're stood up there trying your best to 20 watts or something. This is exactly how we play on stage; it's the same sort of levels, it's the same mix were getting. We feel much more comfortable. I think it's a good setup."
But what of the sound that finds its way out onto your tin(n)y television speaker? The Tube's stage manager Colin Rowell explained the set-up: "While the group are working with the monitor soundman in the studio, we take the group's out-front sound guy or producer of the record or whatever and put him in the transmission box with the Tyne Tees soundman. The Tyne Tees man actually operates the desk, which keeps the unions happy.
"Even a few years ago it was never the practice to let the group's soundman up there (they still don't at the BBC) but we insist that the guy is there. Now obviously he knows the sound that the group are looking for and the Tyne Tees man knows what's going to work through a television set, and what isn't. The end result is a compromise between the two. They've got some Auratones — we call them awfultones — little speakers that give you an idea of the television sound, as well as the Tannoys.
"We actually have 96 channels for the sound from The Tube. We use anything between 12 and 15 channels for ordinary things in the studio, presenters' microphones, audiences, effects mikes, things like that. Each week we have at least three completely live bands and one band that uses backing tracks with live vocals, and they take up the rest."
How long does it take to get the groups set up? Producer Paul Corley outlined the schedule: "The groups are committed for two days. On Thursday they come in and do a soundcheck. We do all the bands between 11am and 7pm on Thursday. On Friday afternoon from about 1.30 onwards, the bands come in again, do another soundcheck, a camera run-through; then at 4.00 the bands stop. We have a dress rehearsal of the linking of the programme, the presenters' links and so forth, which lasts till about 5.00. Fifteen minutes break, and we're back to line-up the show for transmission at 5.30."
So, two days of soundchecking for a gig that lasts about ten to 15 minutes. Was it all worth it? Jamie West Oram, guitarist with the Fixx, seemed to think so. "It's a good sound here; good clear monitoring. We had some technical problems of our own and we spent the day yesterday sorting out various gremlins. We've just come over from America and our equipment got held up at customs, so we had to hire absolutely everything. We were lucky to have that much time to get it all sorted out. Generally the results seem to be pretty good on The Tube. Also, when you do get to play, going out live gives it much more of an edge. I really like it."
The Assembly's Feargal Sharkey was slightly less enamoured of the arrangements. Due to a misunderstanding with Entec he didn't have quite the equipment he had requested; extra side-fills had to be put in place at a fairly late stage on Friday afternoon. Sharkey was singing live, but the musicians were miming to a backing tape — this was underlined by the fact that there was no drummer to account for the prominent drum part. I asked Colin Rowell if this didn't run counter to The Tube's stated policy of being a 100% live programme?
"Well at the moment the Assembly aren't really a live band. I don't think, when you've already got three live bands, that having them on to do one number with a backing track is too out of line. It's just that we had the chance to get them and they're an interesting band: they've got Feargal Sharkey, Vince from Yazoo, and Clem Clempson (ex-Colosseum) so it was a chance for people to see them for the first time. I wouldn't want to have more than one band not playing live; we prefer everyone to play live, but we want to be flexible when there's a chance of showing something good."
Sharky used a lot of digital delay echo on his monitor vocal sound to compensate for the lack of a big out-front PA and large hall. In a television studio the vocal sound will often tend to be very dry, and the echo in the monitor boosts the singer's confidence, coaxing a better performance. The echo is not broadcast in the television mix.
Carmel ran into a timing problem. It is often difficult for rock bands, who generally have a notional perception of the differences between say an hour and an hour-and-a-half-long set, to submit to the discipline of television people, who are used to scheduling items in minutes and seconds. Carmel's second number ran for six and a half minutes, at least two and a half minutes longer than their allotted timespan. They decided to do something else, but the replacement song wasn't well-rehearsed, and didn't seem to gel. After a couple of run-throughs it was announced that they would only do one song.
Once the show started there was even more of a dichotomy between what was going on in the studio and what the television audience was watching. The show is not transmitted over the monitor screen in the studio, so the audience was completely unaware of items on Ray Davies, Supercar through to Terrahawks puppets, the contentious Rolling Stones' video and Mick Jagger interview, and even Jools Holland bashing a lonely piano (in the absence of Dr John) in the reception area. Instead, the intention is to create a club atmosphere on the studio floor, and while the pre-recorded inserts and events in other parts of the building are going on, the studio is given over to a disco.
Unfortunately it's a bit of a damp squib. The DJ is caught in the impossible position of having to urge the crowd to loosen up and get going while simultaneously trying to keep them in line with the needs of the studio.
"Hi kids, welcome to The Tube. I want you all to have a good time, so let's PAARTY!! Hey-uh, no dancing on the catwalks right, you must not dance on those catwalks, it's not safe. OK here's another one. You can really let your hair down to this one. Look — would you people please move back from the stage over there; everyone move back." There is no alcohol, for obvious reasons (see Loose Talk), and although every effort is made to distil the essence of real rock excitement, when the bands walk out on to the stage it is to do a television appearance and not a gig.
Perhaps it was just the bands they had on that week — not as inspiring a line-up as some. The Assembly and Carmel were veneered and subdued, while the Fixx hit a danceable stride without sparking much enthusiasm. The only moment that provided some real excitement and a touch of gentle anarchy was when the two Wham! boys, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, appeared on the floor to do an interview with Tony Fletcher. They were instantly surrounded by a gaggle of over-excited recently-pubescent girls pressing in on all sides. The floor staff held them at bay while the interview uneasily ran its course, but once it was finished the emotion was too much and as the Whammers tried to make their escape they were all but swamped by the girlies.
More floor staff went to their aid (Wham!'s aid, that is). Meanwhile, presenter Leslie Ash was struggling to introduce the next band, the Call. Unfortunately her microphone was not switched into the studio PA so nobody heard her, least of all the band. In this sort of event, the procedure is for one of the floor staff, linked by headphone to the control gallery, to give a visual cue for the band to start. But the floor staff were all caught up in the Wham! ruck. For a moment everyone was running around in different directions, frantically waving at the immobile Call to start. Eventually Wham! got out and the band got started. I never saw how it looked on TV, but it was a great moment in the studio.
Inevitably, for any band, it's a weird gig playing on television, and there are bound to be uncertainties attached to the performance. The Tube have put a lot of effort and expense into placing their featured bands in a situation that gives them the best possible chance to shine, given the restrictions of a television show. The production and technical staff are all sympathetic to the aims of the programme, and you don't see anyone dashing around with dB meters, or hear any talk about 'unacceptable' volume levels. (The Whistle Test had to give up featuring heavy metal bands in the face of agreements governing maximum noise levels in London BBC television studios.)
Colin Rowell is described in Rob Burt's book 'The Tube' as 'the only true rock 'n' roll stage manager in the history of television', and it's clear from his past work as road manager for such diverse artists as Shakin' Stevens, Hawkwind, and Iron Maiden, as well as stage managing the Reading festival, that Rowell is a man who knows about bands, and understands their requirements.
Malcolm Gerrie, too, with his background as a drama teacher and rock band promoter, is less of a television person that he is a rock 'n' roll devotee. Their rules are simple: keep the preparation tight, be flexible, and let it rock on the night — a philosophy that's been some time in coming to rock programmes, and that most bands are more than happy to abide by. The Jam chose it to play their last gig, the Pretenders are planning to debut their new line-up on it, and Mick Jagger, despite the dust-up with presenter Muriel Gray over that video, calls it "probably the best TV rock show in the world".