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Later... With Jools Holland and the Importance of Music in Television

Photo via BBC Music

‘Later’ first appeared on screens in 1992, and is currently on its 62nd series of filming. The show has always championed up and coming artists; allowing them to rub shoulders with some of the biggest giants the music industry has to offer: David Bowie, Jay-Z, Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran (just to skim the surface).

The show's dynamic formula comes from mixing music from all walks of life - something I got to witness first hand at a live recording in Alexandra Palace on October third.

Seated in the middle of the balcony, wearing all black, as instructed, I watched as they recorded performances from electronic band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, R&B artist Sampha, soul singer Izo FitzRoy, blues guitarist Christine “Kingfish” Ingram and Indie-rocker Willie J Healey. An undeniably diverse line-up of talent true to the ethos of the show.

The birds-eye view from the balcony lends itself to an interesting audience-performer dynamic, as the artists all face each other in a circle and the crew run around them, always just out of sight of the camera. The audience lords over the filming, separate from the action - but still obediently follows the directions of the stage manager, clapping when instructed. This separation makes it especially surprising when Jools pops up in the audience to talk about the BBC tribute to The Beatles; talking to George Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison who came to watch the show. A brief but lovely interaction, it highlights the constant little surprises and connections that come about within music television.

The night didn't have a single bad performance, but my personal standouts were Sampha’s soulful crooning and the raw electricity of Kingfish’s guitar shredding. My connection to Sampha took me by surprise. I had noticed him huddling with his band during the warm-up, a moment that stood out to me in the pre-recording chaos as calm and genuine, so I was disappointed that my view of him was cut off due to his position in the circle. When his turn came, the entire band kept a simple soulfulness through all their retakes. There was an authenticity in their performance that stuck in the mind.

Jools clearly took a liking to Kingfish as well, jamming with him before the cameras were on and gushing about him when they were. This is hardly a surprise though as the guitarist seems to have perfected the blues that Holland knows so well. Jools happily banging on the piano next to Kingfish’s shredding was such a joyful moment that I feel an immense sense of regret that it wasn’t caught on camera, even if that would have cheapened the moment.

Later… has undoubtedly carved out a space for itself on British TV filled with authenticity since its beginning. It has bridged a gap between television and music through its emphasis on live performance. The role of ‘image’ within music can be taken for granted against the obvious sonic element; but in an increasingly visual world, an aesthetic or look  plays as big of a role in launching artists to stardom as their actual music.

It can feel as though there has been a sharp pivot towards aesthetics through the rise of social media, especially the shift from the text-based sites like tumblr to video & image platforms like Tiktok and Instagram. Current stars like Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth were ‘discovered’ on sites like Youtube for both their potential as musicians and teen heart-throbs. There is a pervasive  idea that the music industry has become more shallow and focused on the look of their stars than the music as technology and social media has evolved.

However, before the rise of social media, there were shows like X-Factor and American Idol which began the careers of Jennifer Hudson, Little Mix and One Direction, amongst others, which did not shy away from emphasising the importance of an artist or group’s ‘look’. Even examples like The Voice, where contestants participate in a blind audition, have the irony of being on TV, where visuals are king. 

The Voice is a particularly interesting music television phenomenon. One of its most successful contestants, Melanie Martinez, is almost as well known for her distinctive style and imagery as for her voice and overall sound. This irony suggests the importance of image in music, highlighting the idea that the two are not easily separated.

MTV’s explosive debut in 1981 with ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by the Buggles pointed out the people’s want for visuals with their music. The channel juggled music news with videos, counting down the top songs and videos of the time. Exposure on this channel was often incredibly advantageous for new and more established musicians, putting them into the cultural spotlight with the repetition of their videos. However by the 2000s the channel devolved to a majority of reality shows and more general celebrity coverage.

So how has Jools Holland survived where MTV failed? Holland’s show does have a lot more authenticity and closer access to musicians than MTV has ever tried to have. MTV has always been more of a phenomenon of pop culture and celebrity infatuation than a show about the love of music, like Later… clearly is.

The real root of Music in Television can be traced back earlier than the eighties to shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and Top of the Pops. The Ed Sullivan Show was a cultural phenomenon during its 23 year run. It launched the 1960s British invasion in America with The Beatles’ legendary performance and was a major stepping stone in Elvis’ career. 

Top of the Pops had a similarly iconic run, from 1964 to 2006. Even today, clips of artists like Nirvana and Oasis switching positions and causing chaos circulate online. People still praise these artists for their rebellion against the pre-recorded soundtracks and their championing of authenticity in music. Ironically however, the laxing of the miming rule from 1991 was a major factor in the show’s decline. It became too similar to Jools Holland, and there was no more quality guarantee, so bad performances became more frequent.

Why reminisce on the history of music in television though? My fascination arises from the way it changed the world multiple times, from The Beatles to the Buggles. The increased importance of image in music have affected trends in aesthetics and fashions since the 50s’ teddy boys to the 80s’ punks. As social media eclipses traditional media and streaming becomes the titan of television, it is fascinating to see how the music and television relationship will change, especially in a world of increasingly fast trend cycles.

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief


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