I can date with some certainty the occasion when I first discovered what The Who looked like when they were performing. It was July 2, 1965, a Friday, just after the pubs had shut, and they were appearing on Ready Steady Go!, on Granada TV, playing their new single ‘Anyway Anywhere Anyhow’, live too, and I’d never seen anything like it in my life before.
The singer looked like he didn’t want to be there, as if the other three were people he wanted to avoid, and he didn’t so much sing as spit out the words to what sounded to me like a song of thuggish defiance; the bass player stood stock still and looked bored, plucking his strings with his fingers in an upward motion, not something I’d seen until now; the drummer was completely crazy, bouncing up and down on his stool and randomly hitting everything in sight, grinning into the camera like an idiot; and the guitarist, the most remarkable of them all, looked surly, ugly even, raising his arm above his head to slash down across the strings of his instrument, then using the volume control to create a stuttering effect, like Morse code, and deliberately inducing feedback from his amplifier, something I always thought guitarists tried hard to avoid at all costs. When the song reached its climax the camera zoomed in and out of the group as if the guy behind it was drunk or had fallen over, taking his camera with him. As the singer pointed out, they certainly didn’t follow the lines that had been laid before.
I was reminded of this last week when my son and I watched two hour-long programmes devoted to RSG! on BBC4. The first was a ‘story of’ documentary, the second a ‘best of’, and both featured that performance by The Who as the climax to each. Were it not for CV-19 these shows would have coincided with the release of Andy Neill’s 272-page, large format book about RSG!, the text of which I read last year when Andy asked me give it an editorial once over. That slight conflict of interest aside, I can state, hand on heart, that it’s the best book about the best ever pop TV show you’re ever likely to read.
It’s difficult to emphasise how influential RSG! was in terms of pop TV. Like pirate radio, mini-skirts and everything else that seemed to have been conjured up by The Beatles and Rolling Stones, the show epitomised the wholesale upheaval that turned our staid United Kingdom into a wonderful place to live during the first half of the sixties. “Ready, Steady, Go! was a pivotal part of the cultural development in the UK in the post-war years,” writes Pete Townshend in the book. “If that is rather a sociological beginning I should quickly add that it reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.”
The Who were clear favourites of RSG!’s production team and for a while ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ was used as the show’s theme tune. “I tried to make the camera more of a participant, like another member of the band,” RSG! director Michael Lindsay-Hogg tells Andy of the appearance I watched. “When we did ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’, the bit where it takes off with feedback and things in the middle, the camera is shaking, and I didn’t care if it was out of focus or just coming into focus because in a funny way the music itself was so alive you wanted the camera to be alive, to be part of the music, you didn’t want it to be static.”
While RSG! certainly offered the best possible showcase for The Who, just about every other act of note, British and international, was featured on a show that, at times, became magically chaotic as group, audience and technicians all mingled together on a dance floor at the studios in London’s Kingsway and, later, at Wembley. “Studio 9 at Kingsway was a marvellous place to do the show because it was like a rather sleazy nightclub in a basement studio,” says presenter Keith Fordyce. “It was very tight and cramped for the amount we got in there. The cameramen had a fairly difficult time because they were more or less busking it really. They’d line up what their shots might be but they couldn’t be quite sure they were going to get them, it was so cramped.”
A list of those who appeared on the show, always within touching distance of the fans, is headed by The Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a regular was Dusty Springfield who briefly filled in the presenter’s role before mod heroine and fashion leader Cathy McGowan was hired. Dusty, along with her friend Vicki Wickham, the show’s then assistant editor, was instrumental in getting several black acts on the show, thus giving them their first TV exposure in the UK.
All of this and more is detailed in Andy’s book which traces RSG!’s inception from its launch in August of 1963 to its final show almost three years later. Fully illustrated with special features on various performers, it includes contributions from Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Chris Stamp, Eric Burdon and, naturally, Pete Townshend. Vicki Wickham and Michael Lindsay-Hogg have contributed forewords and are interviewed throughout.
Adds Pete: “… Vicki, bounding from the control room to the studio, beaming, laughing and enthusiastic, tall and beautiful, but a little scruffy with it, like a highland pony, and Michael, who always seemed as though he was attached to an electric generator, his hair falling over his face, handsome, with the pout of a mischievous teenager but with a cigar clenched in his teeth – they both conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well, and of course that is now a given.”
The book is now likely to be published in the late summer.