By Gerard Casau
Deep down we know that there’s almost always something of (or a lot of) a performance in a live set. We know that the thousands of imperceptible details that conform the specificity of each show are dictated by a script and by fixed directions that determine what we’re going to see and hear. But when you add a camera to the equation, this calculation becomes an inevitable part of the game. I realised this around ten years ago, when by chance I found myself working as the lowest category member of a crew shooting a documentary about Catalan rock. During the shooting of the music piece of one of the participating bands, it called my attention the way in which the guitar player arched his back and bended his knees, closing his eyes with ecstatic expression. The gesture was always repeated at the same point in the song, and with each take it became more and more ridiculous, directly proportional to the exhaustion of the poor extras. It was then, I think, when I really understood what the big scam of rock’n’roll was all about.
End of the digression, and back to the set. When a band appears on a TV programme, it’s unlikely they will play in front of their natural audience. On the contrary, their goal is no other than to sell themselves before people that don’t know them, keeping quite present the teachings of Elvis and the Beatles, and conscious that finding the exact point between showing-off and respecting the rules of the cathodic space might make them kings of the world (at least, for a few minutes). For that reason, it becomes truly excitement for a musician to (voluntarily or not) dare to forget the rules and take his/her performance on TV beyond what was expected. Somehow, seeing a spark of that unstoppable energy that first made us music fans, coming up like a wild sprout in the least expected (and least adequate) place. The repetition, and capturing, of that legendary and unrepeatable moment is what we expect every time we get out of the house to go to see a gig at a concert venue.
Things that go BOOM
Did we say spark? For all those who watched The Who’s US TV debut, this was more than a mere choice of word. Used to finishing their shows really high up, in this occasion what they wanted to give Yankee spectators was proof of what English mod sound had to offer. Keith Moon used to make literal the explosiveness of his drum technique by blowing up some petards, but this time he exceed himself by using three times as many. Thus, when the band was finishing the (playback) performance of My Generation and Pete Townshend did the number of inserting the guitar in the amps to later on destroy it, a huge explosion took everybody by surprise (including the band itself), and its strength even cut the transmission sign for a while. Yes, on that day, the bang of rock literally blinded a whole country.
On TV, the guests’ dressing room is an off screen that the spectator’s mind turns into the scenario of consumption of all sorts of narcotic substances. But as long as everybody’s very professional and no one notices, we can act as though nothing happened… Well, now go and tell Iggy Pop that! In this appearance on an Australian TV show from the end of the seventies, James Newell Osterberg, Jr. no can’t stop; his jaw (and with it, the rest of his body) goes in all possible directions while the presenter tries to go ahead with an ill-fated interview. Iggy isn’t paying attention, but… is he out of his brains or is this a trick? At a given moment, he says, “David Bowie taught me what compromise means, because before I was… a real savage,” and we detect a barely suppressed smile that seems to mean that the rascal is more in control than what it would seem. And when the moment of his performance comes, the musician forgets all about the playback to give us what we could call a Greatest Hits of the Iguana’s Body Language. Liberated from the obligation of singing, he dubs himself to interpret I’m Bored in a rollercoaster of falls, jumps and replacement of the (not used) microphone between his legs. An Iggy elevated to the max, thanks to cocaine or to the hyper-conscience of the surrounding artifice.
The ventriloquist of himself
We’ve been able to prove that, in many occasions, the main cause of the disagreement between music and TV have to do with fake live show, playback singing and forcing the artists to a quite unnatural ventriloquist exercise. No one aired his contempt at all this as much as John Lydon, who appeared with his PIL on the programme American Bandstand to “interpret” Poptones & Careering (in all, a not very cheery track). When the song started playing, Lydon appeared sitting in a corner with a shrugged face, while his band mates went along with pantomime. When the singer’s voice finally came out of the speakers, he was already roaming around the set, doing silly things in the middle of the audience and encouraging them to take the stage. In the end, the silly simulation degenerated into a strange party, into real pop art (or, in this case, post-punk).
A change of plans
He wasn’t meant to be there. That 1977 night, the guest band of Saturday Night Live should have been the Sex Pistols (no less!), but a problem with their visas denied them to set foot on the glorious US. So the programme asked Elvis Costello and his Attractions, who were touring nearby, to replace them in extremis. It is believed that although Costello’s wish was to present new material, his US label pressured him to play Less Than Zero, a single that had already been successfully played in many of the country’s radio stations. At first, Declan Patrick Macmanus accepted making that concession, but when the time came, integrity got the best of him. He was but ten seconds into the song when he shouted, “Stop!” to then tell the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but there’s no reason for us to play this song today” and inform the band of a change of plans: playing Radio Radio, a song that wouldn’t be officially published until about a year later.
The wild gesticulation of Elvis Costello makes visible the precise instant in which a musician denies being a product to defend his artistry, informing the audience of what’s in his mind right then. The audacity would entail a long banishment from SNL for the author of Armed Forces, putting him on the list of affronts and transgressions lived on NBC’s 8H set; a list forever headed by iconoclastic Sinéad O’Connor.
And talking about Saturday Night Live, the producers of the programme had the great idea of having a gesture towards John Belushi and so they invited one of his favourite bands to the show: hardcore band Fear. The band brought with them a bunch of colleagues (among them, a very young Ian MacKaye, who at some point takes the microphone to scream “New York sucks!”) to teach the mainstream the meaning of the word moshing: a night of punk empowerment, with the mission of breaking things and opening some million pairs of eyes.
The young ones
At the end of the day, this is what televised rock should be all about, for all people who are never in direct contact with it to know what it’s like, and, with a bit of luck, to spread the fever. A good proof of that is the appearance of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a morning programme destined to children, crossing the set from beginning to end, touching anything that can be touched, breaking part of the props, and jumping on the audience’s seats while kids, still shy, ask themselves whether that is allowed or if someone is going to punish Jon and leave him without his tea. Green Day too, before becoming an epic-corporate monster, earned, not heaven, but a good degree of sympathy thanks to the sabotage of an Australian children’s programme they had gone to, in theory, just to be interviewed. But since they didn’t have much to say, Billie Joel Armstrong and his colleagues organised a mutiny, kicked out the spineless resident band and gave the more than happy kids a high of sugary punk-pop. But of all the TV contacts between music and childhood, my favourite might still be the unbelievable intervention of noise-punk-jazz combo The Flying Luttenbachers on fun programme Chic-a-Go-Go, surrounded by monsters, Martians and freaks. Their lesson for the kids? Destroying music, of course!
Play it again
In all this welter of music and TV disagreements, the presenter of the programme is always given the uncomfortable part of maintain his composure and help waters go back to their course. But in some occasions, the master of ceremonies is the main instigator of the excess. It happened, for example, the day in which rock-soul band The Heavy visited David Letterman’s Late Show. The English band, more effective than really brilliant, weren’t exactly a premier league band, but one should be very away with it not to notice that on that night they did an excellent performance of their How You Like Me Now? (a broken voice added to the insistence of metals is and will always be an irresistible resource). They did it so well that Letterman (let’s not forget, a person who for decades has been a privileged daily spectator of the transformations of rock and pop, having the best of the best in the world of music at hand) couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and skipping the minutely controlled schedule of the programme encouraged the band to play the song again, a real, and quite unusual, prime time encore. On their following visit to the show, apart from introducing their new single, The Heavy couldn’t help but please the veteran presenter, who said to them: “could you play again the one you did the last time?” From there to the running gag there was only one step, but it’s undeniable that having David Letterman as you number one fan already gives you some credit.
But if there’s a talk show presenter sensitive to music, that’s, without a doubt, Jimmy Fallon. A few weeks ago, Joan Pons reminded us of his History of rap with Justin Timberlake, and the simple fact of him having The Roots as their resident band already says a lot about him. Among his many feats we find being the introducer of hip hop collective Odd Future to US television. Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats appeared on his show to interpret Sandwitches, but they had to change the lyrics so much that we could almost talk about a new song (among other things, they changed the word “clitoris” with the presenter’s name). But the linguistic barrier didn’t frighten off the young rappers, who peppered their intervention by sporting balaclavas, placing dwarfs on stage and bringing the girl from The Exorcist to disturbingly roam around the audience. In the end, Tyler decided that the stage was too small and got off frame to scream at the faces of the audience, ending up jumping on Fallon’s shoulders. In two words: a triumph.
The clarity of a bugger
Stromae, without a doubt the musician that has made us pay more attention to body language in recent years, turns each performance of Formidable into a subversive act in which a character drunk of clarity makes his voice heard and demands attention towards otherness. His appearance on French TV wasn’t going to be an exception, and he faced a gallery of do-gooders that stand his discourse with bourgeois stoicism. It might all be part of a script evidently, but no one likes people spitting truths to their face.
New Year’s Eve
Sinatra sang in the early hours in which only broken hearts are awake. That moment in which TV broadcasts stuff without knowing whether there’s anybody on the other side, creating a certain space for freedom because no one’s “watching”. During New Year’s Eve, in 1976, Fernando Esteso also made a gesture towards those residual minutes, overtaking the screen when supposedly there was no one left celebrating the New Year, and sang two of his hits La Ramona and El zurriagazo. Since he didn’t want to be alone on an empty stage, he first appeared with his troupe, but then he started breaking walls to invite the technical team, cleaning ladies and any person roaming about to the party. The screen was revolutionised in a memorable moment epiphany moment that, for Javier Pérez de Andújar, symbolised the true arrival of democracy to Spanish TV.