Rock Video Shows On TV

published in Freeze-Frame Vol.1 No.4, Melbourne, 1987
Countdown Pirate TV (1987); Nightmoves (1983)

"Infernally loud and agressive ... frenzied outpourings ... a writhing assortment of rock stars ... all this rock nonsense ..." John Laws (in TV Week August 1st 1987) won't be the last imperceptive 'media wit' to mix metaphors on rock videos. Everyone loves to deride the rock video onslaught - but few people look at either the cultural context that is still spawning them or the social neuroses that pushed them into their weird industrial sprawl. Rock culture (all the social energy that circulates around the production and consumption of any rock forms and items) is a force that has to continually be recognized - not dismissed or underestimated. Or to put it in the vernacular : "Rock'N'Roll is here to stay!"

The point for consideration here is how it stays with us (whether we like it or not). Yes - we're talking late night rock videos. Like John Laws, many of you have probably stopped to wonder who watches David Lee Roth and Whitney Houston on TV at 4.30 am. But I'm sure just as many of you have seen them at such a time. Let's face it : who does go to bed at normal hours? who can sleep well? who doesn't have a slight TV habit? Late night rock shows awake the zombie in us, plugging us into a voidoid state we are so quick to deny in full consciousness. But it isn't neccessarily the videos per se. Hands up those who watched Hal Todd and Issy Dye? THE RESEARCHERS and THRILLSEEKERS? The electronic fireside, eyeball massage, luminous drone - call it what you want, but for many people it does the job. More interestingly, fixations and pleasures can develop out of this. Themes from THE DANGER MAN and THE THUNDERBIRDS owe a fair share of their cult status to their zombie time slot. Willard Scott can have the effect of tucking us into bed. Peter Burke's American Auto Sales ads can nostalgically remind us of the American Dream. And when technicians muck up at around 3 am, why that's a bonus! We're talking about the kind of things prime time shows break their butts to give us but never do - entertainment.

Late night rock shows like RAGE, MTV and NIGHTSHIFT can only be seriously discussed if we take into account all the unknown, unexpected and unqualified fermentations that take place after midnight. We should also remember that 'culture' is technically defined as "the artificial development of bacteria in prepared media". Niche marketing, specialist slots, segregated interests - it all means there are many things about each others' pleasures we will never understand. The mystery of such shows' current viability or success is on par with little kids' version of the zombie zone - 6 am cartoons. The day has 24 hours and it has been re-territorialized as three phases of consumption - and neither the kids, teens or fogies care to make much sense of each others' habits. That's how it should be. The generation gap didn't just disappear once all the counter culture had their own little brats. The counter culture is the last place to seek knowledge about the fascination with rock videos. Granted they got their communal buzz from rock festivals where everyone became one. A similar (though electronically mediated) communal buzz is now generated for a different audience by a MTV premiere. Forget notions of 'importance' here and remember the notion of relevance - who's to say a rock video couldn't be as powerful a reminder of an era as a rock festival?

Music Video (1985); Rock Arena (1986)

Accepting that there are some viewers who invest more in rock videos than others, let's look at the existing shows in that light. MTV probably has to come first, even though it came last on our screens. It was the first niche-marketed mega-success (via US cable) that became the model for all neurotic TV executives to ape. We have our own Oz version on Channel 9, against which many have pulled the old US imperialist schtick - but they're probably the same people who subscribe to Oz Rolling Stone without batting an eyelid. MTV is the perfect zombie show. Its presenter Richard Wilkinson(and his original co-host Jo) generated an even level of energy so as to become a barely human presence, vibrating with a dulled candescence matched by the screen's flickering. It might be impersonal, but it's perfect for late night TV. That was the secret of success for American MTV, where the surface of presentation was so even you couldn't tell what time it was or whether you had actually seen that slot earlier.

I prefer that kind of zombie presentation much more than David White on 10's NIGHTSHIFT, who comes on all smooth and adult-like. The kind of diploma-carrying DJ who calls women "ladies". He's part of a long line of smoothies, the more zonked-out version being Lee Simons from 7/10's NIGHTMOVES (who can forget those eyelids!). Note the similar FM feel in their name and style. NIGHTMOVES took its name from a Bob Seeger song (man) while the first NIGHSHIFT theme pastiched a Jeff Beck sound (man). NIGHTSHIFT now has (since about 6 months ago) a white-dance-rock theme pounding out to a snappy graphic collage. The show's new presenter is ultimately a token "lady" : . She is calm, relaxed and fairly knowledgable, although one suspects she is restricted to asking the same boring three questions that rock "journos" seem compelled to ask : what's the new album like? when's it coming out? when will you be touring here? The guest VJ/interview concept (pilfered from MTV) is grating, recalling an icky boys'-club feel of Donnie Sutherland's AFTER DARK rock chat show on 7 in Sydney. Still, NIGHTSHIFT is one of the few shows that plays blocks of clips of the one artist.

While I don't miss NIGHTMOVES' South Melbourne muso flavour a bit, I do lament the absence of Basia Bronkowski on 10's MUSIC VIDEO. She was often arrogant and irritating, but the show had a looseness about it that did make it slightly different week to week. Plus her changing hair styles were a running gag. When John Torv (a blonde Donnie) replaced her, it was back to school - DJ school, that is, where they all speak that strange LA dialect. Not suprisingly, its replacement on Channel 10 - NIGHTSHIFT - maintained that Sydney Oz Rock charm and dialect.

Basia had previously hosted ROCK AROUND THE WORLD on 0-28, which was perhaps one of the best shows because you got to see videos you wouldn't see anywhere else, except for that same station's shortlived EDGE OF THE WEDGE. Up until recently O-28's THE NOISE performed a similar function. It was in temporary limbo to protest A.R.I.A.'s introduction of airplay levys for videos until late last year when it returned in the format of a documentary-interview show peppered with relevant clips. The original THE NOISE was more eclectic and multi-faceted. Not only did it air a vast range of independent Australian and overseas videos, it also gave us an idea of what other 'third world' countries like us did in the name of rock. While most of its material came from Channel 4's TUBE show (itself recently axed), its range of alternative music was refreshing. The new THE NOISE - being pretty much devoted to one subject each week - is now more of a hit-or-miss affair.

Rage (1987); After Dark (1985)

ABC's ROCK ARENA is thus left valiantly upholding the support for non-mainstream music. Susan Dowling is also one of the best presenters who projects a vunerability that makes you comfortable watching the show. The show itself is also one of the most informative with its research. There was talk one stage of expanding the show into the broader cultural aspects of rock, which I'm sure would be more interesting than MTV's News-Breaks, film giveaways, and its pathetic "Addicted To Style" culture segments. However, it would be disappointing if ROCK ARENA took itself too seriously, what with its growing mish-mash of jazz-flavoured programming, profiles on singer-songwriters, and live-in-the-studio performer spots. One doesn't get to the core of Rock and Pop culture by simply being either more sophisticated, more professional, more analytical or (ugh) more socially aware. Hopefully ROCK ARENA won't become overtly adult purely as a reaction against MTV's teen-oriented hyper-consumption.

In the meantime, repeats (or better still - a reintroduction) of ABC's BEATBOX do the best job of illustrating how rich, diverse and complex youth and rock culture is. While oral history is fraught with problems of manipulation, BEATBOX does a hell of a good job in allowing us to listen. It was fun watching ABC's upper-middle class sensibilties get bruised in a ratings battle (how uncultured!) and it was great to see RAGE finally escape Aunty's indiscriminate chop. RAGE is refreshingly absent from all human presence and just gets down to the real business of playing the videos, covering the alternative and the mainstream in its two weekly mega-blocks largely devoid of rotation. If they had to decide between RAGE and BETWEEN THE TEETH with its hyped-up chart data and computer effects, lucky they just give us the videos on RAGE.

I won't even mention COUNTDOWN - in rememberance of the years many of us had to suffer it as an ominous reminder of how out-of-synch a rock show could be. Proof? John Paul Young. It's attempt to go modern (post-modern, even) as C.D.P.T.V. (COUNTDOWN PIRATE TV) prissily fused Sigue Sigue Sputnik's imagery with some of Malcom McClaren's situationist-styled media concepts. An interesting gamble but the signs of the times indicated more and more that the Charts dictated the flows of rock & pop culture less and less. And that brings us to 7's SOUNDS. I've left it till last - because that's exactly what it is : the last living specimen of a rock format bogged in the seventies, still playing Barry White's LOVE THEME over its intro. And Donnie knows as much about Rock as I know about horse racing - zilch! COUNTDOWN went quietly (I sure don't miss it) and I hope SOUNDS doesn't have to dragged screaming to the glue factory (that's a horse joke for Donnie).

All the above is of course highly opinionated, but the point is that there are many people who make precise definitions between "all this rock nonsense". Differences of which media wits and TV executives are equally ignorant. Rock videos - for the time being - are here to stay. Get hip.

Text © Philip Brophy 1987. Images © respective copyright holders