Thursday, 20 November 2014

Countdown: Do Yourself a Favour

Countdown: Do Yourself a Favour
ABC1, concludes Sunday 23/11/2014 at 7:40pm.

For those not in the know, Countdown was THE pop culture show to be part of in the 1970s and 1980s in Australia. If you were in a band, you wanted to be on it. If you were of an age where you could work the controls of the television and you were into music, you absolutely had to watch it, and then you debated endlessly the merits (or lack thereof) of the bands on that week. They gave the first television exposure to AC/DC, ABBA, Rose Tattoo, Skyhooks, Iggy Pop, Cold Chisel and thousands of other bands and artists.

The lynchpin of this program was a bloke forever known with a girl's name, Ian "Molly" Meldrum". He started with the program as a talent co-ordinator, selecting the acts to appear every week. But after a while, he was thrust into the spotlight as the presenter. On screen he was bumbling, incoherent and random, with his hilariously incompetent interview style that really has to be seen to believed.

It is the kind of spontaneous, semi-live television that is rarely attempted anymore. Its style has been attempted many times in the intervening years but rarely has anything matched up to it (although the Dylan Lewis-hosted "Recovery" in the late 1990s came close).

It was a program that was not only a reflection of the culture of the day, but it had a great effect in altering it. It led Australians to take their own talent seriously, by having it beamed into homes around the nation every Sunday night at 6pm. It gave exposure to a lot of great bands that really deserved to get noticed, and a lot of acts who probably didn't. Dictating the taste wasn't the objective, but rather reflect it back to Australia, and occasionally shape it. It shone a spotlight on the world of music that Commercial television and radio were missing out on. If a band was on Countdown, invariably their sales went up the following week, and commercial radio were basically forced as a result to play the record soon after.

Putting aside the nostalgia for a moment, the one thing that sticks out about this program is how much the world and music in general has changed. Even for pop stars in the 1970s, live performance was an important part of what they did. And not the large stadium sized events either. They needed to be able to present themselves to a small, localised audience and come across successfully. So a lot of Countdown stuff was mimed is irrelevant - stage presence was the key.

Not only that, music has so many things going on that it would be extremely difficult to nail it all in a single one hour slot every week. Countdown had a focus on the mainstream and top 40, but it allowed space for those on the margins and the fringes, such as La Femme, Painters and Dockers, Iggy Pop and (at the time) AC/DC. There's so much going on in music right now that i imagine it would be extremely difficult to capture the feel and excitement of what is going on.

Teenagers are also discovering music under their own steam these days anyway. There is also so many other things demanding their attention that there is every chance that a one hour program of this type would appeal to them in the way that Countdown did for teenagers in the 70s and 80s. A countdown styled program may not be the best way for young people to hear new music. Conversely, there are a hell of a lot of new bands out there who would benefit from the kind of national TV exposure that a show like Countdown would bring.

For all the sentimentality for a long finished show, the celebration of Countdown, in my view, is wholly necessary because it shows a portrait of a period when innovative TV programming was encouraged and that local music and culture was highly valued. Many bands have Countdown to thank for their success, although many like Radio Birdman, Midnight Oil, Nick Cave and Richard Clapton all avoided it like the plague and it did nothing to hurt their careers.

I look forward to seeing the next installment next Sunday.

Do yourself a favour and tune in.

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