Though hardly an ideal medium for presenting live music, television nonetheless once presented the most expedient means for bands to present a fuller picture of what they could do for a large audience.
The young Nigel Godrich, the son of a BBC sound engineer in England, found himself entranced by the bands performing on “The Old Grey Whistle Test.” The BBC program’s 1971-1988 lifespan coincided with young Nigel’s childhood, a formative experience that inspired him to want to make music in the first place, and later to create a similarly inspiring program for the 21st century.
With his credentials firmly established as Radiohead’s producer, as well as a musician and recording-studio guru enlisted by everyone from Beck to Paul McCartney, Godrich cooked up “From the Basement,” a web-TV program featuring live performances by a collection of his favorite bands and artists in a casual, low-pressure, high-fidelity studio setting. No audience, no host asking boilerplate questions, just the artists at work, unfiltered. Artists such as Radiohead, the White Stripes, Aimee Mann and Iggy Pop and the Stooges signed up for the series that eventually picked up support from television channels in England and the U.S. circa 2006-09.
“Usually music on television is a round peg through a square hole, in that there is an audience or personality involved,” Godrich says in an interview with the Coda Collection. With “From the Basement,” “the idea is to have no barrier like that…a performance not to the audience, but to the camera.”
The veteran artists in the series have ‘all experienced the usual grind of doing TV. It’s not very enjoyable.’
There’s no post-production tinkering with the performances, he adds. “It’s a juxtaposition to my day job when I stretch things to make them sound bigger or more shiny.” Instead, the focus is nailing down an unfiltered, well-recorded document of a performance. The veteran artists in the series have “all experienced the usual grind of doing TV. It’s not very enjoyable. …My pitch was, ‘How about if we do it really well, take our time…make it look great and sound great?”
Though experiencing live music through a TV set, tablet or cellphone isn’t the same as witnessing a performance in person, it can leave an indelible impression if done with utmost respect for the artists and the music, the producer says. He vividly recalls seeing performances by Bill Withers, Bob Marley and Talking Heads on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” and the life-changing impression they left on him.
“The opportunities to do that stuff today are fewer and fewer,” he says. “As a teenager there were quite a few music magazine shows. …Now there’s a black hole. …It’s come down to late-night talk shows in the U.S.”
Godrich also realizes the increasingly crowded media marketplace has made it difficult for music television to capture an audience. But turning “From the Basement” into a hugely profitable enterprise was never the goal, he says. From the start “we were ignoring the expectations of the market and just doing what we want to do.” In that sense, the series is an extension of what he’s been doing with Radiohead all along.