A royal pain in the arse at times I think we can all agree, but also somewhere to discover a lost film clip, or a piece of music that completely makes your day. Thankfully most of the people who I keep in touch with on there are a sorted bunch and as a case in point, a couple of weeks ago, former Walworth resident and 60s culture overlord Martin Gainsford, posted that he had just received the book ‘Ready Steady Go’ by Andy Neil in the post and it was a thing of wonder.
I had no idea it was even coming out, and a small part of me thought ‘oh it will be another rehash job, same old photos and interviews etc.…’ only Martin mentioned it again in glowing terms a couple of days later and it slowly dawned on me, this was might just be something special. I ordered it and when it arrived, I was amazed, I won’t lie. First off, it is a mighty old thing. Its size is startling to begin with and then, even on first glance, you can tell the photo research alone is something else with many new images to my tired old eyes. Just when I thought I’d have seen if not all, then most before, I now realise how wrong was I.
The writer on the project Andy Neil fessed up that it had taken him something like 18 years to complete the task of finishing the book and once you read the extensive interviews, with the likes of Mick Jagger, Andrew Loog Oldham, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Chris Stamp, Donovan, Lulu, Barbara Hulanicki and many others, in among the extensive general research, you begin to understand why. This must have been a mammoth task to put together and it results in the whole story being covered in minute and fascinating detail.
So for today’s blog, inspired by the book, I’m examining the RSG! TV show. The concept thought up for it was that of Elkan Allan head of production at Rediffusion TV. He visioned a music show looking more like a documentary in style, thus getting away from the tried and tested formula for the ‘youth’ market of the day. Then, they were still being made as ‘light entertainment’ but Allan felt the time was right to move away from that. He set about building an editorial team which would include in time, Francis Hitching as producer, director Michael Lindsay Hogg and Vicki Wickham who became editor though at first she was ‘Jill of all Trades’ doing whatever office tasks was given to her, including making the tea. Eventually through her natural musical nous, she also became the lead booker on the show, and as a result became well known to all the bands and performers.
The very first episode went out on August 9th 1963 filmed at the Rediffusion HQ, in studio 9 in Kingsway, near to High Holborn. This central location was essential at first in attracting the bigger ‘pop’ names to perform. From the outside looking in, it could appear all a bit chaotic. Straight away, the TV cameras, normally hidden, were noticeably in full view, and more often than not, running over a member of the audience, who had danced into its path.
The show went out live at the 6.30pm in a half hour slot on a Friday evening, at first, with its ‘the weekend starts here’ rallying cry and for most, it certainly did. Originally shown only in the London area, before too long, it was branching out nationally from 1964. This had the effect of showcasing around the country, the latest London fashions and trends that then were picked up and developed quicker than ever before.
Watching it at times since, I have to say the crowd were as interesting and entertaining as some of the acts. Era defining haircuts, clothes and general attitude are all on show. Many of those that could be seen, were hand picked to be on the show by production assistants who toured the central London club scene inviting the best-dressed/best dancers to be part of the show. Intermingled with them would be professional dancers like Patrick and Theresa Kerr who then demonstrated the latest dance trends.
As the shows popularity grew, so did its transmission times, growing from half hour to 50 minutes
‘What’s this then, some new fashion? Sopping wet trousers?’
Its best known theme tune was 5,4,3,2,1 by Manfred Mann and soon, the shows main presenters were becoming household names. Foremost among them was newcomer Cathy McGowan. She was pretty and sussed in her hairstyles and clothing. She picked up the nickname ‘The Queen of the Mods’ with that being, of course the pervading look of the time. Her presenting style at first was pretty raw and she was prone to the odd ‘fluff ‘ but in a way that endeared her more to those watching in. The line in the film ‘Hard Days Night’ from George Harrison of ‘the posh bird who gets everything wrong’ has been said to me to be about Cathy. The ‘grown up’ in the room and therefore steering hand of it all was TV and radio veteran Keith Fordyce, then all of 37, once of Radio Luxembourg, who usually got her through it all in her early days,
The ‘talent’ mimed their songs at first, but gradually live performances took over after a move to bigger studios in Wembley in April 1965. The energy of the show was ratcheted up as a result, often with Michael Lindsay Hogg in the directors’ chair.
The acts that appeared on the show are like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the mid 60s pop world with all the big hitters doing a turn. The Beatles, The Who, The Zombies, Dusty Springfield, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding. The Small Faces, The Kinks, The Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Hollies, The Walker Brothers, Georgie Fame, The Beach Boys, The Animals and James Brown to name but a few off the top of my head among them.
The sad fact is that loads of legendary performances by those above were wiped clean, to simply save money on the tapes that they were recorded on.
Literally a crying shame. Those that survived provide a fascinating but ultimately frustrating glimpse at what we are missing.
From reading the book, the shows legendary Green Room gets a lot of mentions and it was a destination of many, even if they were not performing on that weeks show. Andrew Loog Oldham – ‘RSG! represented the time when we were in the business we wanted to be in and RSG! on a Friday night that Green Room was the meeting place of all those similarly blessed.’
To its eternal credit RSG! took chances, lots of them and got away with them as it broke new ground.
Michael Lindsay Hogg ‘ When The Who did ‘My Generation’ I switched the camera mode to negative for the line, ‘I hope I die before I get old’, so their faces looked like skulls. When the Stones did ‘Paint It Black’ we made it darker and darker so Mick was like a sort of Lucifer – and this was well before Sympathy for the Devil. We put these camera effects on Mick’s face at the end so it looked like it was shuddering. It was riveting. Rather than control the chaos of the period, we really embraced it.’
Most of the shows were wiped because tape was so expensive, so stuff like the James Brown special and the Who special are gone forever. I took home £37 a week but every so often I’d buy a videotape and preserve it. It cost me £1 a minute, but the only reason any shows survive is because I did that.’
And then on December 23rd 1966, the show ended. Vicki Wickham ‘It was expensive to make and Top of the Pops was getting better ratings.’ Sadly, job done.
In the 80s, Dave of the Dave Clark Five picked up the rights to what remained of that elusive footage and released video cassettes of the shows. Many reading this will have copies and fascinating they are too. He also owned the surviving recordings, though only 5% of what was made from the 173 episodes is known to exist. The record company BMG acquired the lot in January 2018.
For me the ultimate half hour of what remains, is the Otis Redding Special. It is just stunning to watch. In fact, I love it so much; I have the VHS of it on permanent display in my flat on a shelf, in the same as other people might have a favourite vase or a family heirloom clock.
So gone forever in more ways than one, but certainly not forgotten, as the reaction to Andy Neil’s book attests. The programme overall was ground-breaking and influential beyond what anyone could have imagined.
‘On Friday nights in England in the mid-sixties, you didn’t do anything until you’d checked out the music, the dances and the fashions on Ready, Steady, Go! beamed live from a London studio’ – Richard Williams, respected author and music journalist.
I’ll leave the last word to Vicki Wickham.
‘When I look back at what we made, I think Oh my God, that was extraordinary.’
Amen to that.
The Mumper of SE5
Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV by Andy Neil available to order here
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