I caught an episode of Beat Beat Beat last night, the magnificent German music series from the latter half of the Sixties, on Sky Arts, which is becoming one of my favourite television channels (if only for the Onion News Network, which is a thing of brilliance). Seriously, just this week, they’ve shown Cream’s Disraeli Gears on Classic Albums; Kelly Jones from Stereophonics is next on The Ronnie Wood Show; and Michael Morpurgo is talking War Horse with Steven Spielberg on The Book Show.
Anyway, it was a performance from the Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded on 29th May 1967, the trio in all their frilly, floral finery; bassist Noel Redding in dark sunglasses, drummer Mitch Mitchell with very large hair and Jimi, playing the guitar with his teeth. The teenage audience of beatniks trying to look like Art Garfunkel, some dancing, the majority awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other in their select zone of a dance floor surrounded by bleachers. It’s priceless.
Here’s more than just a taste of it: a certain ‘Hey Joe’ followed by ‘Purple Haze’, I’m sure you know them well.
Beat Beat Beat ran from January 1966 until February 1969, 26 gloriously crisp black-and-white episodes in all, shot in Hamburg and produced by the Frankfurt Hessischer Rundfunk network. The show was also broadcast on the US Armed Forces Radio network. Apart from a few early episodes, the memorable host was the late Mal Sondock, a cheery Texan DJ who’d slip between German and English without releasing his near-permanent grin, later replaced by Charlie Hickman.
To think of all the music programmes from the time (Ready Steady Go!, Shindig, Hullabaloo), I still think the two from Germany – Beat Beat Beat and Beat-Club– were the best. Needless to say, you can find loads of evidence to support or counter this claim on YouTube. May I recommend memorable performances by The Kinks, The Spencer Davis Group and The Move (featuring a clean-shaven and sore-throated Roy Wood).
Was Top of the Pops ever this good, and I’m thinking specifically of the Sixties? Sure, in its Seventies heyday, when the Collective Consciousness Society version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was its theme tune, it pulled in an impressive 15 million viewers a week. And I know they weren’t the only ones doing it, but the miming and backing tracks were much mocked and too many musicians, frankly, took the you-know-what (drummers drumming the air with their backs to their kit, guitarists wearing boxing gloves, power cables draped atop keyboards to reveal, as if they were surprising anyone, that they weren’t plugged in). Famously, the much-loved DJ and presenter John Peel even pretended to play mandolin on a performance of ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart and The Faces.
More importantly, most shamefully, the insane BBC policy of deleting old programmes, something they did until 1978, means that almost all of the first decade of Top of the Pops’ recorded output has been lost for ever. In fact, of the first 500 episodes, recorded and broadcast between 1964 and 1973, apparently only 20 complete recordings remain, and – brace yourselves for the shock of disappointment – only four of those are from the 1960s. Remove the names of the Beatles and Rolling Stones from the show’s list of big-name attractions to even things out a bit, for many of the very brightest stars never cast their golden glow across those Beat Beat Beat bleachers, and for having the good sense to cherish the recordings and not only archive them for the sake of posterity (damn it, BBC), thus brightening someone’s dull evening 45 years later and thereby providing the inspiration to prompt other music lovers to reminisce and research, to bring forth their favourite clips and to demand with a stamped foot no less that all these glorious programmes – such as Musikladen and Old Grey Whistle Test – be repeated all across the world, all the time, on VH1, like they used to be, Germany wins hands down. Give me Beat Beat Beat over Top of the Pops any day of the week.
Although I’m not convinced that many young and vibrant acts will be delighting new listeners 45 years from now in the way that Hendrix still can, let us urge well-meaning musicians to stop faffing around with ostentatious, over-produced music promos and haul their capable backsides into a television studio, usher in some kids to shuffle about gormlessly but with good intentions (turtle neck sweaters can be provided at modest cost if they want them) to offer if only the pretence of live music to future generations. You know it makes sense.