“If music be the food of love, then the Albert Hall’s a restaurant”.
My dad used to love that quip.
But he also loved folk and classical music and took great pride in my sister’s versatility as a piano player, guitarist and clarinetist.
Music was rarely out of earshot in our house and it remains the case today.
But what musical shows did we feast our eyes and ears on during the age of analogue TV?
Last Night at The Proms:
It may be jingoistic but ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ has always been tremendous fun – taking the stuffiness out of classical music.
As a young boy, I was always mesmerised by the sheer exuberance of this most English of occasions in the Albert Hall as it unfolded on BBC2 and BBC1 – the flags, the stirring music, the conductor’s speech and, of course, the rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’.
In recent years, the celebrations have extended beyond the Albert Hall to include Hyde Park, Belfast or Hillsborough, Glasgow, Swansea, Manchester or Middlesborough.
However two Proms moments stand out for me. The first is Sir Andrew Davis’ speech in 1997 which took a different tone from the light hearted speeches most Last Nights enjoy. His references to the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Sir Georg Solti were appropriate reminders of a harsh world.
The other is the American conductor, Leonard Slatkin foregoing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Fantasia On British Sea Songs’ for another sombre moment four years later, just days after the 9/11 attacks. The performance of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ was extremely moving.
Top of the Pops:
Every Thursday after ‘Tomorrow’s World’ on BBC1, young people (and the not so young) used to tune in to see their favourite chart acts and scoff at those artists they did not like.
I remember vividly ABBA, Kool and the Gang, Leo Sayer, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, David Bowie, The Undertones and The Specials on the programme in my Primary School years.
In later years, we had the dubious pleasure of watching Duran Duran, Bros, Jason and Kylie, The Shamen and the Britpop pantomime of Blur taking on Oasis.
I recall the now legendary moment when Dexy’s Midnight Runners performed their cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ to a blown up photo of Jocky Wilson. Not acquainted at that stage with the work of Van the Man, I naively assumed that Dexy’s were paying tribute to the Scottish darts champion.
Every Friday, ‘Top of the Pops’ was a talking point in schoolyards across these islands and you dared not miss it. Thursday nights have never quite been the same since they axed the show in 2006 – even if I don’t miss all those cheesy studio links from Radio One presenters.
If Thursdays belonged to ‘Top of the Pops’, then Friday evenings belonged to Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ during the 1980s.
Produced by Tyne Tees for Channel 4 and hosted by Jools Holland, Paula Yates, Leslie Ash and Muriel Gray, it launched the careers of Frankie Goes to Hollywood (with a rather dodgy video for their controversial breakthrough, ‘Relax’) and also The Proclaimers.
But it also tested the live music prowess of some of the biggest names in rock and pop as they rubbed shoulders with indie artists.
Acts as varied as Big Country, The Smiths, Madonna, Tom Waits, Whitney Houston, REM, Cliff Richard, The Fall and Motörhead all performed on the show which featured comedy and interviews as well.
Serious musos might harp on about ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ as a classier show but, as good as that programme was, it wasn’t as much fun.
If one event in the 1980s was truly groundbreaking, then it was Live Aid.
Inspired by Michael Buerk’s harrowing 1984 news report of the Ethiopian Famine, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure brought together some of the biggest names in British and Irish pop music to record ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ under the Band Aid banner. In the process, they fundamentally changed the music industry and the public’s attitude to the Third World and to charitable causes.
The subsequent pulling together of the most star studded line-up in the history of live rock music by Geldof and Harvey Weinstein for gigs at Wembley Stadium and in Philadelphia was a phenomenal feat – even if the London concert eclipsed its American cousin.
Live Aid Wembley featured many memorable moments from Status Quo’s raucous opener, ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ to Elvis Costello’s sparse cover of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. Bono propelled U2 to superstardom by leaping off the stage to dance with a girl during ‘Bad’ but it was Freddie Mercury who reigned supreme with a stunning display of showmanship during Queen’s set.
The two most stirring moments, however, were Bob Geldof’s passionate haranguing of the BBC1 audience to donate money (including his use of the f word) and the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s shocking video of dying Ethiopian children to the soundtrack of The Cars’ chart hit ‘Drive’.
No fundraising concert has subsequently matched the emotional pull and power of Live Aid which really made a generation believe they could change the world.
The Three Tenors
It may not have been the best World Cup as far as the quality of its football was concerned but Italia ’90 more than made up for it with spectacle.
But it has had another lasting legacy. It brought opera to the masses.
It is impossible now to listen to Luciano Pavarotti’s version of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ from ‘Turnadot’ without thinking of the opening credits of BBC1’s coverage of the tournament.
The World Cup also gave us a magical night of music in Rome, on the eve of the final, when the world’s greatest tenors – Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Careras, performed at the Baths of Caracalla, with Zuban Mehta conducting the orchestras of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.
Purists may have turned their noses up at the three tenors performing opera and Neopolitan classics at a charity concert before the World Cup final but their appearance helped popularise classical music and bring opera out of the opera houses.
As they sang ‘O Sole Mio’, it was an absolute joy to watch three tenors at the top of their game, revelling in each other’s talent.
Red, Hot and Blue
In the wake of Live Aid, rock and pop stars rushed to promote an array of good causes and so we had Kurd Aid, Mandela Day, Sting’s Rainforest Foundation and Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour.
However in 1990, as the world wrestled with the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS, ABC Television in the United States came up with a more novel approach to raising funds for a very important cause.
They took the music of Cole Porter and asked contemporary artists including Annie Lennox, the Jungle Brothers and Sinead O’Connor, to reinterpret his work with videos shot by movie directors.
And so audiences were treated to Talking Heads frontman, David Byrne tackling the video and song for ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, filmmaker Alex Cox, Iggy Pop and Deborah Harry coming up with ‘Well, Did You Evah?’ Wim Wenders and U2’s powerful version of ‘Night and Day’ and Neil Jordan, The Pogues and Kirsty McColl’s delightful take on ‘Miss Otis Regrets/Just One of Those Things’.
The programme, broadcast on World Aids Day on Channel 4, served as a brilliant reminder of the lyrical and musical genius of one of America’s greatest songwriters by making his songs relevant to contemporary society. At the same time, the programme challenged head on the ignorance around HIV, with Adelle Lutz and Sandy McLeod’s video for Erasure’s version of ‘Too Darn Hot’ standing out as a particular gem.
Late, Late Show – Dubliners, The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Omagh Bomb Tributes
Britain may have had ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ but the tributes om Gay Byrne’s ‘Late, Late Show’ to some of the biggest names in Irish music were typically Irish affairs – bringing likely and unlikely collaborators together for evenings of anecdotes, maudlin reflections and raucous musical sessions.
Many highlights stand out including Christy Moore’s spirited version of ‘The Black Velvet Band’ with the Dubliners, Derek Bell’s ragtime piano playing during a chaotic, climactic hooley on the show for The Chieftains, Christy Moore teaming up with his brother Luka Bloom for ‘The City of Chicago’ and saxophonist Richie Buckley’s magnificent solo on Donal Lunny’s soulful track, ‘Cavan Potholes’.
The only exception was a deftly handled 1998 tribute programme for the victims of the Omagh bomb which sensitively mixed Gay Byrne’s interviews with grieving family members and survivors of the attack with heartfelt musical tributes from U2, The Corrs, Bob Geldof, Paul Brady and Brian Kennedy.
Perhaps the most stunning and unlikely collaboration of any ‘Late, Late Show’ tribute show was Donegal crooner, Daniel O’Donnell teaming up with Kildare’s Christy Moore for a version of ‘Mary of Dungloe’. Their voices blended perfectly but despite a clamour for the song to be released commercially, it never was.
BBC2’s coverage of the UK’s best known music festival has been an absolute joy to watch over the years – bringing some of the biggest names in music into people’s homes and introducing more obscure acts to mainstream audiences.
Radiohead’s 1997 appearance leaps out as a standout Glastonbury performance, with the band riding the crest of a critical and commercial wave with the ‘OK Computer’ album.
The 2009 Festival also sticks out as a memorable year, with Neil Young on the opening night and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band the following night turning in blistering headline performances on the Pyramid Stage.
But one of the joys of Glastonbury is the coverage of acts like Glasvegas or Imelda May on the outer stages or, indeed, the Sunday afternoon legends slot which has seen Johnny Cash, Shirley Bassey and Neil Diamond whip up a storm.
America – A Tribute to Heroes
As the United States and the world struggled to come to terms with the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight ’93, America’s four major networks came together to broadcast a telethon featuring tales of heroism and lives lost.
Broadcast on BBC1, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Will Smith and Muhammad Ali were among the stars who took part but music was a key component of the show which raised $200 million for the 9/11 victims and their families.
The telethon opened poignantly with Bruce Springsteen and his harmonica on ‘My City of Ruins’ but featured many other memorable performances including a defiant version of ‘I Won’t Back Down’ from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a Neil Young cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, a haunting ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ from Paul Simon, Wyclef Jean’s lively interpretation of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’, and U2, Dave Stewart and Natalie Imbruglia live in London performing ‘Walk On’.
One of the most touching moments was Long Island’s Billy Joel performing ‘New York State of Mind’ – a quintessential New York song from his 1976 album ‘Turnstiles’ which seemed to take on a whole new meaning after 9/11.
Other Voices – Amy Winehouse
Anyone who saw BBC4’s recent documentary ‘Amy Winehouse – The Day She Went to Dingle’ will be aware of the Other Voices Festival in Co Kerry.
Anyone who has seen RTE 2’s shows from the ‘Other Voices’ Festival cannot be anything other than stunned by the quality of the performances.
Like Glastonbury, one of the joys of ‘Other Voices’ is seeing established big name artists rising to the occasion in intimate concert settings alongside relatively unknown acts.
And while Amy Winehouse’s performance was without a doubt a high watermark, there have been some incredible performances too from artists covering a whole spectrum of music including Seasick Steve, Emiliana Torrini, Billy Bragg, Elbow, Noah and the Whale, Duke Special and The 4 of Us.