NOT FORGOTTEN: Snub TV: when British telly had a decent indie strand

JANUARY 9, 1989. Perhaps not the most auspicious date in world history, though there would be more epochal happenings later in the year, of course.

The day dawned with the sad news of the plane crash at Kegworth, Leicestershire, the day before, when British Midland Flight 92 attempted an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport; 47 died, 79 survived. It being January, as would be expected, as the 9th dawned, much of the UK sat under a band of typically British rain.

The world of music was a much, much more tribal sphere than today, with different subcultural aesthetics to be seen on the British streets: the indie kid, the goth, the punk, the nascent acid houser, the metaller, &c, &c, not all of whom exactly saw eye to eye (round our way, there were some psychobillies who would take The Wedding Present’s “Felicity” as a particular wrecking challenge that would see elbows escalate to fists fairly quickly). The multivalent music world that we pretty much take for granted now was only just beginning to happen, with Melody Maker much further ahead than the NME in admitting hiphop, even pop, to its pages and its prestigious front cover.

Me? Monday meant new releases day (remember that being a very definite thing too?) so I’d probably been to the Chain With No Name’s most far-flung outpost, Soundcheck, in a tiny two-room cottage at the top of a street in Penzance; I have no idea what I bought that day, if anything. Maybe a Sarah single from the shoebox on the counter.

Early evening it was round to a friend’s who’d made the break into bedsit land for a cuppa and a fag and Def II, Janet Street-Porter’s channel-within-a-channel early-evening segment on BBC2, which took in such joys as the space soaps, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century; the edgy animation of The Ren And Stimpy Show; yoof issues strand Reportage; and from tonight a new music show, Snub TV.

And right there, and just for a short time – three seasons, 24 episodes – British music TV became a wholly different prospect.

Snub TV has its origins in the cloud of creativity surrounding Rough Trade; and more specifically, Pete Fowler and Brenda Kelly. The former undertook filming for Rough Trade; the latter was a budding music journalist. They cooked up a new indie TV show format and were successful in selling a 14-episode run to American cable (this US Snub TV has never aired over here).

Janet Street-Porter, ever on the lookout for new Def II shows, liked what she saw. She brought it back across the Pond for six shows in 1989; tentatively, the second series was extended to eight episodes; a third series of ten finished the run.

In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Pete revealed just how on the fly the making of Snub TV was. “We would hand the tape in a day or often hours before transmission,” he said.

“We had no idea who was going to appear. We just lied to the Radio Times about what bands we thought might be on it.”

So what was great about it?

Well, first and foremost, it did away with the cult of presenter personality. The Smashie ‘n’ Nicey era of Radio 1 DJs was starting to fade in the rear-view mirror now, although it would receive a bitter reprise when the Jimmy Savile scandal broke; a newer generation of hosts was to be seen on Top Of The Tops, but this newer cohort included the mulleted glory of Pat Sharp and “Young, free and single” Gary Davies. Peel and Janice Long offered occasional and authentic music fan relief.

No, there was no presenter at all, that we could see; the briefest and crisp female narration would introduce the live clip, the video, the interview. During any interviews, there was no talking or nodding head to be seen; just the band.

And … well, the artists featured. The succinct interviews. The budget videos. Some of these are of course, now legendary, from the shoestring-budget video (with roughly overdubbed, pre-watershed verbs) for Dinosaur Jr’s “Freak Scene”, filmed in Membranes and Gold Blade leader and all-round good chap John Robb’s back garden; to The Fatima Mansions’ “Only Losers Take The Bus”, of which, at a distance of three decades, former Field Mice man Harvey Williams recalled Cathal Coughlan’s “weird, staring eyes …”.

In a nation where MTV was still a fancy satellite TV option, which you might catch in a local pub, it also brought some of the hottest new names into our living rooms for the very first time.

On January 23rd, 1989, the British viewing public saw Black Francis do that scream for the very first time, when episode 3 transmitted and contained a live take of “Dead”. Ride took their bow with a live version of “Drive Blind” in series 2 later in the year; there was even that early and erm … vocally raw take on “I Wanna Be Adored” from the Roses live at the northern nightlife mecca the Haç, which didn’t prepare me at all for how much their debut album was gonna change the British guitar landscape the following year – or my head.

Appearing on it became something of an obvious must-have on the CV for a British band of a certain stature. When we interviewed him earlier this year, Ashley Hutchings of Leeds noiseniks Edsel Auctioneers recalled finding out his friends had got on.

“The Pale Saints did Snub TV and I said: howay lads, my band’s better! And I persuaded them [the production company] to come and record us at some pub in London. Silverfish played with us,” He recalled.

“It was absolute mayhem, but it was brilliant. And it was total punk rock really.”

Some of the interviews were excellent; witness MES at the height of his powers below, giving the plaudits to rap over Dire Straits. Then that one-two punch with the video for “Bill Is Dead” … a straight love song – from The Fall?

World of Twist, Galliano, Massive Attack, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine … even Hypnotone and Duncan Dhu got interview time.

And that’s also part of what Snub TV great. There, was plenty, plenty of room for the biggest indie names of the time, but they nudged the genre defences open a little bit further, let new light and different musics in. For every shoegazer, there was a Ruthless Rap Assassins or a Boogie Down Productions. There was a spot for Welsh-language punks Anhrefn. They rolled the dice and took a chance on upcoming acts; it’s only with the benefit of hindsight really that we can look back and go, ooh, Ride’s first TV appearance; don’t forget Creation’s muscle was also behind Duncan Dhu.

Thus alongside all the gems stored up for the future, we got acts that never quite got there, such as Spirea-X, the post-Primal Scream project of Sonic Flower Groove-era guitarist Jim Beattie, who never capitalised on the The Byrds-meets-ecstasy excellence of the song aired, “Chlorine Dream”; and live footage of The Mute Drivers, who were, erm drivers for Mute. Bravo Snub for taking the chance, though.

Let’s take a look at that first half-dozen episodes and see how eclectic it really was:

Series 1, episode 1, The House of Love, Cookie Crew, Yello, Fugazi;

Episode 2, Ultra Vivid Scene, The Beatnigs, World Domination Enterprises, AC Marias, Sonic Youth, Ciccone Youth;

Episode 3, Pixies, The Trojens, The Shamen, Turntable Orchestra, We Are Going to Eat You, Butthole Surfers;

Episode 4, The Sundays, JAMMs and The KLF, Boogie Down Productions, King Blank, Wolfgang Press, Slab, Thrill Kill Cult;

Episode 5, Nitzer Ebb, Duncan Dhu, Fini Tribe, Mute Drivers, Dissidenten, Spacemen 3;

Episode 6, Dinosaur Jr, The Wedding Present, Jesus Jones, Anhrefn, 808 State vs MC Tunes, Mekons, The Three Johns.

But at the end of the day it’d all about the personal. A handful of my favourite other moments that have somehow escaped my attention above. AC Maria’s eerie and beautiful video for “Just Talk”, pirouetting in washed-out colour around a corner boozer; that slap Kim Deal gives Kurt Ralske in the video for “Special One”; being completely blown away by Kitchens of Distinction’s “3rd Time We Opened The Capsule”. Yeah, let’s finish with that. No doubt you’ll have your favourite moments. What were they?

Twenty-four episodes. Just under 12 hours of weird ‘n’ wunnerful music. Snub TV – we salute you.

Oh – at the moment, every series is up over on YouTube. That’ll lighten a few bone-cold December afternoons and trigger a few memories.

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