A new book on the groundbreaking British television program, Ready, Steady, Go! documents pop’s primetime emergence
Long before there was MTV, VH1, streaming, podcasts and virtual performances, there was a groundbreaking musical program that aired on British television called Ready, Steady, Go!
Mirroring the shift in cultural consciousness that overtook Great Britain and the rest of the world in the mid ‘60s, it brought a technicolor reality to the drab black and white world cast over the U.K. in the years immediately following World War II. It gave voice to a dynamic new crop of artists and performers that were putting an individual spin on the staid sounds of “proper” society, infusing their music with individuality, innovation and, yes, a certain insurgence that would come to reflect the youthful exhilaration of the ‘60s and all that would follow in its wake. It served as a showcase for any number of exceptional musicians that would go on to conquer the charts, and, in the process, the world as well.
Here in the U.S., we weren’t all that aware of the program, given the fact that Americans were still being bred on such sanitary fare as American Bandstand, Ozzie and Harriet and other reflections of our own white bread society. In time, shows such as Hullabaloo, Shindig! and Where the Action Is would give us our own showcase for the variety and versatility that was emerging from London, L.A., New York, and San Francisco, but it was Ready, Steady, Go! that led it all, and brought the idea of music television, —a description later coined by MTV — to the youthful masses.
A new book, Ready, Steady, Go! The Weekend Begins Here, tells the story of the program that single-handedly changed the face of TV forever. It documents in detail the transition that took place when the show made its national debut in August 1963 and soon became the single most important venue for emerging British and American artists in search of a nationwide audience. Its oversized, coffee table format proves the perfect means of extensive examination of how the program came into being, the attitudes it inspired and the artists that came to call the show home. Indeed, there was no shortage of musicians that it eventually embraced and who, in turn, embraced the show — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, The Supremes, the Kinks, the Animals, Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart, and Otis Redding, among the many.
That’s evidenced by the essays contributed by many of the iconic artists that can trace their initial fame to their program appearances — Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Donovan, and power-brokers Andrew Loog Oldham and Chris Stamp included. Their telling insights provide not only a personal perspective, but also an inside glimpse at the show’s power and importance as far as the forward trajectory of their individual careers.
Meanwhile, the book itself is a visual treat, packed with pictures taken from numerous appearances and perfor-mances, most of them never seen for the past half century, if even then. Yet author Andy Neill doesn’t stop there; he exhaustively details each of the show’s 173 episodes, offers illuminating insights from those that made the production possible and those who whose lives were touched by the broadcasts. It’s packed with reproductions of its vintage memorabilia as well, making this not only an exhaustive narrative but a fascinating and freewheeling escape from todays’s somewhat turgid reality via a journey to a more fanciful and hopeful era, a time when change was in the air and the possibilities for a more illuminating future still loomed large.
Rock & Roll Globe had the opportunity to talk to Andy Neill and ask him about the effort that went into recapping this remarkable program and the insights and enjoyment that he gleaned in the process.
For starters, congratulations on an amazing book! It says in the in the introduction that it took you 16 years to write it. Can you go into detail on what that effort involved over the course of that time?
Thank you. It was actually 17 years! That was not 17 years of full-time research and writing however. I had the idea to do the book in 2003, and that’s when the interviews and research commenced. The initial idea was to get a book deal and complete the project in a much shorter space of time, but this was hampered by various things, mainly by the show being out of circulation. Rather than let the idea sit of the back burner for all that time, I conducted interviews and undertook research whenever the opportunity presented itself. I’m so glad I did, as several of the story’s key players left us before the book was completed, Once all the research and interviews were in place, the writing only took about a year… but it was an intense year.
Please share with us some of your own background, and tell us how your own experience and expertise prepared you to write this book?
I’m the youngest of four children and was unfortunately too young to experience RSG! firsthand, but I absorbed the ‘60s through my siblings by osmosis! I’ve been writing freelance about popular music, particularly of this era, since the mid 1990s. “RSG!” was always a subject I wanted to write about in greater detail, and because of my specialist knowledge of the time and the people, I felt I could do it justice.
What was it about the show that motivated you to write this book in the first place?
Because it was the first pop show to be make by young people for young people, RSG! was such an important vehicle for not just pop on television, but also the art of the the time. Set designer Nicholas Ferguson modeled his background collages on what was happening in contemporary art. Also, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg took chances with how the performers were filmed, with extreme close-up, cameras shaking, etcetera. You didn’t see this on British, or American, television for that matter. Vicki Wickham, the show’s editor, had her ear to the ground as far as new sounds went, and that’s where so much new music and artists were broken. And to wrap it up, you had Cathy, who was such a fashion figurehead for the show with her fringe and Biba clothes. It was an important show for its time, and in my opinion, for presenting pop culture on the small screen, it rains unsurpassed.
How easy or how difficult was it to get the editorial contributions from the people that contributed their comments? Did you have already have some of those comments or did you have to start from scratch and look those people up and then ask them to participate?
It wasn’t that difficult, as most of the contributors thought, like me, that the book was a good idea and it needed to be done. Some had busy schedules, but we for there in the end. Several people who were involved in the show’s production had slipped off the radar and were hard to track down, but again, once found, they were happy, often eager, to participate. The notable exception was the show’s co-host and figurehead, Cathy McGowan, who has always turned down all media requests that had to do with her past. It was a shame, but I respected this. Her voice is still in the book via third party press quotes made at the time.
You mention — and rightfully so – how Ready, Steady, Go! influenced so much of television’s musical content in the decades to come. Can you cite some specific examples?
I think the most notable example was The Tube, which started on U.K. TV in late 1982. The producers had watched RSG! in their youth and followed the same pattern — transmitting live in a similar time slot, having the same acts appear live in a basic studio with interview and items on fashion, film, etcetera like a magazine-style program, and with untried presenters in the person of Jools Holland and Paula Yates hosting. Another example was T.F.I. Friday— also on Channel 4 — from the mid 1990s. It ran in a teatime slot, was live in a crowded studio with bands and interview with the stars u close to the audience with an “anything goes” kind of feel.
VIDEO: The Best Of The Tube 1982-1987
Ready, Steady, Go! was revolutionary not only in its presentation, but also in the fact that it eschewed the popular practice of lip-synching in favor of live performances. That must have been revolutionary at the time, and for that matter, it still is even now.
It was gradual process at first. RSG! was still predominantly mimed, but the producers decided to introduce live segments in 1964. The show’s creator, Elkan Allan, was very music against miming. Coming from a journalistic, rather that a show business background, he wanted the show to be more gritty and realistic. The Musician’s Union were also very much against pop stars miming to their records which featured orchestras, backing singers, etcetera, so there was a move to banish miming anyway, Allan took the radical move to make RSG! entirely live in 1965 — no miming whatsoever — which was, as you say, revolutionary. But it also had a polarizing effect. A lot of TV viewers welcomed the brave new approach to performing, but others didn’t care about miming either way and preferred to hear the record. This would create a problem with the ratings.
The show only lasted a relatively brief three and a half years. What caused that quick demise?
It was due to various reasons. The live format was brave and exciting, but Top of the Pops, its rival on the BBC, was set up as a spoiler for RSG! and it stuck to a safe format of programing the acts that were going up the charts, so that gave it more mainstream appeal which helped increase its ratings. Also, Elkan Allan had seen how RSG! was losing its luster. The pop scene was changing, and he felt it should go out with a bang rather than a whimper. It changed formats, but the writing was in the wall in 1966.
Although there are very few surviving episodes, do you think that those that remain will ever see the light of day via blu-Ray, DVD or a television documentary?
I sincerely hope so. The problem is accessing the surviving shows in their entirety, not as cut-up “best of” compilations which is how they’ve been presented in the past. Those don’t give a true picture of how the show was paced. Also a mountain would need to be climbed in terms of rights clearances. But we all must remain hopeful that it will happen while the people that care are still here!
VIDEO: The Story of Ready. Steady, Go!