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Sounds of the sixties: the unsung heroes of the BBC

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Sounds of the sixties: the unsung heroes of the BBC

1964 (Alamy)

On October 5 1991 the first half hour episode of a ten-part pop and rock archive series I produced called Sounds of the Sixties was broadcast on BBC Two. Since then it’s been repeated more than twenty times, most recently in March of this year, on BBC Four. And it’s often been carved up and re-fashioned. Not least, so as to remove the several super creeps and scary monsters, including one Sir Jimmy Savile OBE, who have fallen from grace since it was made.

The most striking thing about the series for me is the fact that over a third of the archive performances (31 out of 87) were not, at the time, to be found in the official BBC Film and Tape Library. I hinted at this, for those in the know, by giving a “research” credit to three people, none of whom were, in any conventional sense, TV researchers. Two of them had left the BBC more than a decade before the series was made, the third was a VT (video tape) engineer. They were the most prominent members of a small band of enthusiasts, working in the bowels of BBC Television Centre, who had preserved some of these historic records of popular music performances because they couldn’t bear to see them destroyed, in accordance with BBC policy at the time.

(Take, for example, Top Of The Pops (TOTP), the most important BBC pop music programme of the 1960s: from its first broadcast in January 1964 up until the end of the decade, the BBC had kept only three full episodes of the show – which was transmitted weekly – plus a very small handful of bleeding chunks.)

When I began work on Sounds of the Sixties, the existence of this cache was a closely guarded secret. More than 40 hour-long video tapes were, in effect, hidden in the Video Tape area of Television Centre; some in lockers, some in the sub-basement, some on top of heating ducts. Snippets of this alternative archive had been used in a very successful series begun in the mid 1980s called The Rock & Roll Years , and the programme makers had put me in touch with the late Bob Pratt, a VT engineer and the main guardian of the precious hoard. He kindly and enthusiastically made the tapes available to me.

But there were still some strange and frustrating examples of performances Missing in Action. Mystifyingly, a programme – that, rather remarkably, had been kept by the BBC – celebrating ten years of TOTP , in 1973, included several brief clips that were not to be found amongst the VT stash. Despite weeks of trying, I simply could not find the source material for these tantalising treasures. But then Bob put me on the trail of the man who had preserved them.

Alan Colegrave had worked, not in VT but in the Tele-Recording area, where live TV broadcasts were recorded onto film. Every time he saw that TOTP was being recorded (or rehearsed), in 1964/5, he would wind a spare chunk of otherwise unusable film (known in the trade as a “short end”) onto an idle “ TK ” machine and record it. Unbidden. This material – about forty minutes of it – he then shared freely with anyone who wanted to watch it. He it was who had provided the archive for the tenth anniversary of TOTP . When he later found the reel of film sprawled, can-less, on the Telecine suite floor, he decided that if the programme-makers themselves couldn’t be bothered to look after it, he’d take it home and put it in his attic. And then he left the BBC. Finally I met up with this accidental archivist, got my hands on the precious reel of film and had a broadcast-quality transfer made.

John Hughes Top of the Pops’ producer 1967 (Alamy)

Thirty years later I can still vividly remember putting on a VHS copy of this pop TV El Dorado for the first time, sitting on my own in a small, bare office smelling of carpet cleaner. I felt like a scientist waiting for the results of a crucial experiment.

The opening shot was mute. A man was stood with his back to camera. Not a great start. But then he turned round and sang the opening words of Go Now . It was Denny Laine and The Moody Blues. I had never seen a frame of this before. And material completely new to me kept coming. The Stones’ Not Fade Away , Gerry & The Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross The Mersey , The Hollies’ Just One Look . Fifteen of these performances went straight into Sounds of The Sixties.

The very earliest performances — if one could call them that — were strange. In one, Savile does a cheesy introduction while holding a 45 rpm 7” disc, then puts it onto a turntable in front of him. The music begins and then the camera reveals Herman’s Hermits miming the song, with Savile still at his record deck and the audience in the same studio. The Musicians’ Union put a stop to this practice, and after that bands — especially those who couldn’t actually play all that well, and whose instrumental parts had been played on the record by session musicians — were allowed to mime. So long as they, or the session guys, went into a studio and were paid to record an entirely new version of their hit.

And yet when I needed to add back the musical intro of some records that the wretched DJ had wittered over, my sound mixer found that the music on the recording was, note for note, exactly the same as what was mimed to in the studio. (Sometimes the vocalist sang live; sometimes they mimed too.) This seemingly uncanny coincidence (or was it musical prowess?) can be explained by the existence of what became known in the business as an “ Andover tape ”. Nothing to do with the Troggs, who hailed from that region, and were famous for tapes of their own. The phrase emerged because the television gofer sent down to supervise the session would be lured to the nearest pub, while the musos smoked a few spliffs and an engineer ran off a copy of the original track. An hour later, the tape would be ’anded over. As the phrase went, “Wow, you managed to get an orchestra on this in just that time!”

Later on, bands had to mime their hits with the backing music actually played live in the studio by the BBC Orchestra, hidden behind a curtain. As Bev Bevan, drummer with The Move, once told me, “I had to think, crikey, what’s the drummer going to do next?”

Sixteen other non-official performances in Sounds of the Sixties came from VT. A few video tapes were available for “editing training purposes” — luckily for future music fans. Because VT engineers and editors in the 1960s and early 70s often transferred onto these “ private ” video tapes any broadcast items that fell into their hands which had interested them. These could range from shots of a historic steam engine to a particularly naff performance by Pan’s People. And comedy. Pete ‘ n Dud ’s wonderful Superthunderstingcar send-up of Gerry Anderson’ s “supermarionation” shows was kept by VT, not the BBC Library.

One VT employee in particular, Nick Maingay, formed a one-man rescue squad. In the early 19 70s , one of his responsibilities was to supervise the wiping of video tapes so they could be re-used. Not for broadcast, which was by now in colour, but by the Open University, then still in black and white. The tape was prepared for re-use by recording “black and burst” over the original material. This was a completely black picture. (In a job reminiscent of the sort of “sensory deprivation” inflicted on the imprisoned terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, it was some poor devil’s job to watch the whole of a blank sixty tape to make sure there were no glitches – which would have meant a future recording “dropping out” and failing to take.)

But if Maingay saw that he was supposed to erase a music performance by an important late 60s or early 70s band — The Who, The Small Faces, Fleetwood Mac, or Joe Cocker, say — he would hide away that tape. Or make a copy (“ dub over ”) the segment he liked.  

He also “curated” material gathered by fellow enthusiasts. One was the famous live performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on Happening For Lulu (yes, really), in 1969, when the band cut short a performance of Hey Joe to launch into Sunshine of Your Love , so as to forestall the original plan to have Lulu join Hendrix for a duet. The taped recording is black and white, because although BBC TV changed to colour in January 1968, it didn’t do so overnight. Some BBC studios could still only record in black and white for a year or so after, while waiting their turn to be upgraded. That’s why the famous Hendrix clip is in monotone; that’s how it was broadcast. Nick Maingay also kept a copy of Cream’s last ever concert, at the Albert Hall. Sixteen of the performances in Sounds of the Sixties were sourced from material kept by him, and other VT editors and engineers.

There ’s been a lot of nonsense written about why the BBC junked so much material in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. In particular, the Corporation are regularly blamed because they re-used videotapes, and thus lost forever some of these great pop and rock performances. But before 1968, the BBC had little choice in this regard. Their tapes, supplied by Ampex (one of whose investors was the ever-canny Bing Crosby) were designed not to be archived, but to be re-used. And Ampex had a patent on these “ Quad or 2 inch ” tapes that lasted until 1968. Unsurprisingly, they were extremely expensive, and the BBC only had around 60 of them. They had , therefore, to be used again. Indeed, like “ hoovering ”,  to “ ampex ” became an in-house verb, synonymous with “record”.

This fact, however, by no means lets the BBC off the hook. For one thing, after 1968, when the Ampex patent lapsed, much cheaper tapes were available. But even after that, the cache of popular music programmes in the BBC library is extremely patchy – and remained so up until around 1973. From then on,   TOTP was, for the most part, preserved. Ditto The Old Grey Whistle Test — but only, in the early days, because its producer, the late Michael Appleton, having been tipped off as to what fate lay in store for them, had taken to marching down to the VT suite after the broadcast, collaring the tapes of all the “ inserts ” recorded — and hiding them in his office. One of which was a live performance by David Bowie, which I used in Sounds of the Seventies . As well as a buckshee copy of T.Rex miming to Hot Love on Top Of The Pops .

The reasons the popular music/rock shows tended not to be kept, at least kept officially, is down to a combination of four factors. In the first place, the great majority of programmes in the 1960s were transmitted live, including most comedy and drama programmes. Not only did this have practical implications; it was part of the mindset. Television, which began in earnest in Britain in 1946, was ephemeral. Transmitted into the ether, whoosh , it was gone. Radio, of course, shared the same attitude. There seemed therefore no good reason to keep a record.

Except one. Every programme broadcast had to be kept for a year, in case legal proceedings were taken against the BBC or complaints were made. Live programmes were recorded on film. Later in the 60s, programmes that had been recorded on video tape were also copied onto film – leading to a considerable drop in quality, despite the expense involved. The video tapes were then wiped ready for re-use. The “ insert tapes ” of a programme, by official decree, were wiped — with no copies made. 

The 2 ” tapes, it’s fair to say, were extremely bulky. They were 2 inches deep, but of course that didn’t count the thick plastic container. The 16mm film copies, on the other hand, were just that measurement across, plus a thin layer of tin. A 40-minute programme could be kept in a can the size of a small pizza. I mention this only to show that had there been a will to do so, it would most certainly not have been beyond the wit of the BBC to have kept all of these film recordings. Not as good quality as the original videotape recording (even in 405 lines black and white), but a whole lot better than zip.

BBC Wood Lane (Alamy)

The main reason why so little pop and rock footage up to 1973 survives was down to the cost of storage. That’s because, after the legal period of conservation was up, the managers of each BBC programme department would be asked each year which of their past productions they wanted to be kept, and which could be junked. Storing their programmes in the BBC Library cost the department money. And despite what you may read about the congenital profligacy of the BBC, even then it was under financial pressure to save money at every turn. What’s more, the people working there, never mind those running the Corporation at the time, believed it was their duty to spend the licence fee on making new programmes, not on keeping old ones.

Or , for that matter, repeating them. Wrangles with record companies, artists’ management and other interested parties, all of whom — understandably — wanted more than the BBC was prepared to pay for a repeat meant that it was usually not worthwhile doing so. And besides, with just two channels to run, and no “daytime TV”, the BBC in the 1960s didn’t need to fill up air-space by broadcasting its back catalogue.

The only way more of this popular material could have been saved for posterity would have been for a tranche of money to have been advanced to the BBC, as it was to museums, art galleries and libraries, to fund the storage of its past productions. (Where was the Lottery when we needed it?) Fat chance of that, even in the days when the BBC was a little more popular as an institution than it is now.

And so, while programmes in the music field that the Light Entertainment management thought were of cultural value might be saved for posterity, items they decided were unimportant were trashed. The only evidence of any recognition of a duty to preserve some of this supposedly less worthy material was that a very small number of film recordings of a live series (sometimes only one!) was kept in the television archives, as a representative example. (The same was true for Children’s programmes, like Crackerjack , on which the less frightening 1960s pop acts often appeared.)

This snooty   approach to sorting the cultural wheat from the chaff meant that the kind of teenage-oriented popular music that got into the singles charts after Bill Haley’ s Rock Around The Clock was especially vulnerable to assault. All “ pop music ” tended to be tarred with the same brush; it was a trivial passing fad. And who in their right mind would want to see again a half-hour acoustic concert — one of his last — recorded in Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1965 by a scruffy young folkie called Bob Dylan (lost) when you could see endless performances by an even scruffier old folkie like Pete Seeger (saved)? The middle-aged Light Entertainment managers “ got ” jazz, and 1940s and 50s folk. And, of course, over in Music & Arts, a much, much greater proportion of high-end classical and opera material was kept intact. (For which I personally am very thankful, having regularly raided it over the years.)

But television and pop music were the bastard children of the 1950s, despised and derided as cultural flotsam and jetsam, even actively pernicious, unloved by the great and the good. Television programmes were expendable; pop music programmes the lowest items on the totem pole.

But, sad to say, the real vandalism took place in the 1980s, by which time the official BBC policy was to keep much more of its material – which could now be stored on the smaller 1” tapes. This crazed orgy of destruction took place because of the introduction, in 1982, of that bane of old age pensioners everywhere, the domestic VHS. As well as music and comedy, it had long been the habit of VT editors to save any “ Alright On The Night” style bloopers and cock-ups. The best, or worst, would be edited into the annual “ Christmas Tape ” and shown, by invitation only, in a suitably festive spirit, to all those production staff who had behaved themselves and been good boys and girls during the preceding months. Regular presenters were also in on the joke. Any real disaster during a recording session would be followed a doleful look to camera and the words, “ Merry Christmas , VT.” (The funniest piece of television footage I know, the Blue Peter baby elephant rampage, comes from this source. The programme’s formidable producer, Biddy Baxter, would have killed to make sure this footage disappeared forever.)

Come the widespread use of the VHS, however, these unconsciously comic gems — along with non-BBC copyright footage that had been compiled on the VT “private tapes” — started escaping the confines of Television Centre. Actors soon started to get fed up that their less than finest moments were straying into the public domain; and the BBC could hardly sanction material supplied in good faith by third parties — foreign TV stations, for example, or film companies — blundering out into the wild. Fair enough. But what happened next was bovine. The VT management, no doubt only following orders, staged a dramatic midnight raid on the “private tapes”. Any tapes captured were liquidated with extreme prejudice, with no quarter given.

This was absurd. It was perfectly possible to go through this material and work out what was BBC copyright, and what wasn’t. I managed it, simply by ploughing — admittedly laboriously — through all the paperwork. Instead, anything not officially “ recognised ” by the official BBC libraries was declared an outlaw — despite the obvious fact that this material was indeed BBC copyright. (The logo plastered all over every episode of TOTP offered a clue.) And so, thanks to this bone-headed and short-sighted policy, some really important material — legend has always had it this included the Beatles live on TOTP in 1966 and some early, pristine, now lost forever episodes of Hancock ’s Half Hour — was wantonly destroyed. In the 1980s!

The Beatles pose for first ever live performance (Alamy)

If tragedy is too strong a word, it was certainly a damn shame. Fortunately, this scorched archive policy didn’t quite succeed. Bob Pratt got wind of what was afoot and managed to hide his pop and rock collection from the prying eyes of the “ Programme Prevention Officers ”, as they were known to production folk at the time I joined the Corporation in the early 1980s. Then the redoubtable Ann Freer, the producer of The Rock & Roll Years , insisted on including extracts from this material in her show, whatever misgivings the BBC M anagement might have had. Clearing the way for me to follow suit.

But even as late as 1991, nothing was safe. I had been alerted to the (official) existence of a half-hour recording of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention doing a live jazz fusion set in 1969, on Late Night Line Up. At the end of it, Zappa says he would like to thank the BBC for allowing the Mothers to record the most avant garde 30 minutes of rock music in TV history. I copied the bit I needed for Sounds of the Sixties and the original 2” tape was sent back to the BBC library – whose property it was. Within five years, a producer friend making a film about Zappa discovered that it had been misfiled, lost, or maybe thrown away. It has never resurfaced, and like the toboggan at the close of Citizen Kane, may still be lying forgotten amongst some dusty library of television loot. Presumably, this ridiculous outcome occurred because its tape identification number, I had noticed at the time, was a non -standard one. I remember it began with Z, which was highly unusual, if appropriate.  I suppose we should be grateful that a couple of minutes survived.

So it was that large swathes of this precious sub rosa archive went into Sounds of The Sixties. If only, I kept thinking, as I struggled to find enough half-way decent material to fill ten half hours, if only Alan, Bob and Nick had really put their backs into it when they compiled the basement tapes, they could have saved even more of this impressive (and commercially valuable) olden gold.

Under the circumstances, though, it’s a miracle they managed to keep any. Merry Christmas VT!

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