Later with Jools Holland: How to Do Music Properly on TV

Andy Williams, with Jools Holland at the piano: BBC Television Centre, 6 October 2009.

Photo credit: Andy Csillag/Relay Photos; courtesy BBC/WPR

The scientific jury is still out on what life forms could survive on our planet following nuclear Armageddon, but I'm willing to bet that the Tuesday after the apocalypse, the cockroaches, irradiated protozoan ooze and internet-based life forms will sit down to watch the 437th series of Later with Jools Holland. While every other music show on terrestrial British TV has shuffled off the cathode ray coil, Later... endures, for several good reasons. Going along to the studio to watch it being made last night, for about the fourth or fifth time, helped remind me of them.

First, there's the mix of music. This ought to be Later...'s Achilles heel, but it's its not-so-secret weapon. Last night's strange brew is typical. There's Andy Williams, a living legend, popping in from superannuated quasi-retirement in Branson, MO, singing Moon River and Can't Get Used to Losing You, melting hearts across the generations. Calvin Harris, who ought to be merely a flavour-of-the-season pop star, has grey-haired middle-aged men whistling his tunes in the cloak room queue at the end. There's Biffy Clyro, precision-drilled riffmongers who rise to the occasion by roping in a brass section; Diana Jones, a singular singer of powerful songs, standing alone in a spotlight with her acoustic guitar, taking her turn among the noisebringers; Echo and the Bunnymen, plugging a revivifying comeback album but rampaging through a thrillingly ragged The Cutter nonetheless; and the bizarre Spaghetti Western Orchestra, a bunch of 1920s-garbed Australian dudes who recreate the scores of Ennio Morricone with unusual instruments and even more unusual vocals. You could say it's "something for everyone," but that's too trite.

There is a unifying thread here, and it's a slap-yourself-in-the-face obvious one: songs. The consistency to the artists who appear, despite the cacophony of genres, is that there's substance to their writing. I've not been overly fussed by Harris's hits, but hearing it through twice last night (every Tuesday, Later... tape the following Friday's show before the shorter, live iteration goes out at 10pm), I realised that the reason I feel an instinctive warmth towards I'm Not Alone is that the line "If I see a light flashing, could this mean that I'm coming home?" recalls that story the late Paul Hemphill told about Hank Williams, riding in the back seat of his mother's car after another gig, knowing he was nearly home when he saw the light from the Montgomery airport, and working that image into a very different musical context years later. I've no idea if Harris had that in mind when he wrote his song, but Later... encourages you to make these sorts of connections, to see music as a whole rather than concentrating on one of its many aspects in isolation. The show doesn't condescend to you, and treats its audience as capable of hearing heart and soul in songs that come from widely disparate ends of the musical spectrum - it's not that it encourages you to be undiscriminating, but it requires you to tune in to the beneath-the-surface-level stuff that brings these musics together, not just the superficial differences that we often allow to dominate our listening. It treats both its subject and its audience with respect.  

The reason Later... can do this is down, largely, to its host. Jools Holland may not personally select every act, but it's not just the fact that his name's on it that makes it his show. Holland's career path gives clues as to what the Later... mix will be and why it works. From his role in Squeeze, the south London band who churned out a string of some of the finest pop songs of all time (and whose drummer, Gilson Lavis - a former tour manager for Chuck Berry, I discover on AMG - is still there driving the Holland Orchestra and the Later... house band), through a stint as a solo artist and into his parallel jobs today as the face of British music TV and leader of the last of the big bands, Holland isn't one of those arrivistes who knows a dangerously little amount about everything and who lays down the law in ignorance: he knows music inside out, has made great records and is comfortable working with people who've made great records, and his impish enthusiasm is infectious. His unforced sense of humour also helps him wear that experience lightly. His interviews with his guests - there was a chat with Gary Numan as well as conversation with Andy Williams - certainly don't feel slick, but there's a connection made instantly, because Holland and his guests are both on home ground. When he speaks to Numan he isn't gossiping or digging for dirt - he's asking about synthesisers and keyboard sounds, and wants to know how and why this unlikely iconoclast turned the history of electronic music upside down. He asks questions about music because he's interested to know the answers, and his guests tell him because they know he actually cares, rather than just being polite to enable the later asking of a question about a long-forgotten scandal or a recent tabloid misadventure. Holland and his show is about music and musicians, about creative people and the decisions made in the moments that shaped their art: it's not about celebrity or gossip or the other trappings of fame that so often obstruct our view of that art. That's why it can continue to attract huge names and excitingly unconventional newcomers alike. Musicians love it for the same reasons musicians love Mojo: it's about the music.

And this, ultimately, is Later...'s greatest strength. It's not been the last music show just since all the others have died out: for years it's been the only music show brave enough to put the music front and centre and not feel obliged to over-complicate things by adding extraneous, irrelevant flam. It's a result of the convergence of Holland's insight, wit and enthusiasm, the policy of booking eclectic bills united only by the primacy of great songwriting (or, at least, the attempt to write great songs - which is often every bit as interesting), and a plain, unadorned format that gives musicians the chance to play their songs live without any complications - and the ability a public service broadcaster has to allow all concerned to get on with the job as they see fit. As our friend Aleksandr would say, "Seemples."

You occasionally read something negative about Later..., but it's only ever a variant of "the format's a bit tired now" or "why does Holland insist on playing piano with every big-name guest?" (Answer? Because he can! Wouldn't you?) But this is definitively an institution that ain't broke and is in no need of fixing. There'll always be a worry, particularly during a recession, that even as relatively inexpensive a slice of TV will have to fight for its life at every budgeting round. But in terms of what it is, what it does and why it works, halfway through its 35th series, the Later... concept is bomb-proof.


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