Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Here's that BBC Music thing "in full"

Lorde, One Direction and Alison Balsom - together at last!

That's the pitch for the BBC's spectacularly lavish, star-studded music video / charity single / promotional campaign, which was unveiled a couple of hours ago on every BBC channel except Radio Three and BBC Parliament, which are much too posh to entertain this sort of hoi polloi.

Ostensibly, it's this year's Children In Need single - a cover of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows, performed en masse by an ensemble of en vogue superstars, from Pharrell to Dave Grohl and, somewhat inevitably, Emeli Sande. But it's also a huge flag in the sand for the new "BBC Music" brand, which aims to give the corporation's musical output equal footing to BBC News and BBC Sport. And that is the reason you get pianist (and BBC Young Musician of the Year) Martin James Bartlett rubbing shoulders with the A-list pop stars.

You might be asking why the BBC needs a brand to promote its musical endeavours? Surely everyone knows the Beeb does music exceptionally well from The Proms, to BBC Introducing to Glastonbury and even creaky old Jools Holland and his boogie woogie pianola. But no, politicians don't.

Even in an era when David Cameron loves The Smiths and Gordon Brown plays air guitar to Arctic Monkeys, MPs are endearingly clueless about "how music works" - and why Britain's pivotal role in the worlds of classical, jazz and pop can often be traced back to BBC music champions like (deep breath) Zane Lowe, Huw Stephens, Lauren Laverne, Alison Howe, Max Reinhardt and Roger Wright.

Now, it just so happens that "BBC Music" in general, and this advert in particular, are being launched as the broadcaster heads into what's rather grandly called Charter Renewal - which is basically the government telling the corporation what it can and can't do for the next decade. In previous negotiations, BBC music has often been seen as an easy target compared to news and sport. There's always someone, from any of the major parties, willing to declare, "you don't need Radio 1 when we have Magic FM," despite never listening to either.

So this sort of branding exercise is a way of neutering that message before the starting pistol is fired. And funnily enough the BBC have done it once before, with this song:

God Only Knows has a much higher budget than Perfect Day. In fact, the three-minute promo was shot over two years at Alexandra Palace (there's a great behind-the-scenes report in Creative Review, which reveals the original song choice was Iron Maiden's Phantom Of The Opera).

But where Perfect Day succeeds, and God Only Knows falters, is that it gave the singers space to put their stamp on the song.

Bono's "you just keep me hanging on" was full of Catholic remorse; Heather Small brought the gospel; and Ronan Keating's reading of "It's just a perfect day" was so deadened and bleak it completely nailed the song's underlying sarcasm (by accident, presumably). Even more satisfying were the jarring juxtapositions - in particular Tammy Wynette handing over to wizened old Shane McGowan.

The 2014 version doesn't take pleasure in those moments. Chrissie Hynde and Paloma Faith trade lines, but they're over so briefly you'd be hard pressed to tell which was which without the video. Lorde and Chris Martin both shine, but their voices are surprisingly similar side-by-side. Jake Bugg, meanwhile, gets handed a couple of desultory "la las", stretching his charisma beyond breaking point.

It's still brilliant and audacious (and the BBC employee in me wants the lobbying to work) but imagine what it could have been.

Especially if they'd done the Iron Maiden track.

PS: Some of the observations on Perfect Day are indebted to Tom Ewing's excellent review on his Popular blog - possibly the best music site on the internet.

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