Much early footage of our favourite prog and rock bands comes from shows made by European TV stations in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Thank goodness that, while we had to make do with Top Of The Pops, they were paying attention to what was happening in the British underground music scene…
French show Forum Musiques was a chin-scratching Gallic precursor to The Old Grey Whistle Test, but instead of being hidden away in the late night schedule, it had a prime time slot. It only ran to eight programmes, but featured great performances from bands including The Nice, Pink Floyd, and most outrageously, The Mothers Of Invention.
Before it got pulled, the programme makers came over to England in April 1969 to film a ‘London Special’, and capture what was happening as psychedelia mutated into a new, more serious type of music. 1969 was a pivotal point in prog’s development, with King Crimson, Yes, and Van Der Graaf Generator all beginning to make waves on the live circuit. The Forum Musiques special – broadcast on 24 May 1969 – didn’t feature any of these bands, but it provides a brilliant insight into how other groups were responding to the changing musical climate.
(The individual performances contained within the programme have been variously available before on YouTube, but it’s only a few months ago that the show was uploaded in its entirety.)
It begins with interviewer/narrator André Maurice wandering through Portobello Road market, the epitome of a French intellectual in his immaculate tie and rain mac. It feels like we might be watching a Jean-Luc Godard film, an impression reinforced by a sudden jump-cut to a pirate ship floating down the Thames towards Tower Bridge.
But then the camera pulls back onto another boat which contains tabla player Sam Gopal and his band miming to the wistful Sky Is Burning (from 2:25) – and yes, that’s a pre-Hawkwind Lemmy (or Ian Willis as he was known then) singing and playing guitar, and already looking every inch the rock god he would become. His lilting voice is rather lovely here, and clearly pastoral psych’s loss.
Cut then to a quartet of British youth in Hyde Park, earnestly conversing in amazingly good French. No subtitles unfortunately for those of us who are stubbornly monolingual, but it’s fair to say that the topics covered include sex, drugs and rock & roll, and particularly why “commercial music” is a bore and the sounds of the underground – including The Floyd and The Nice – are where it’s at.
Next up is Spooky Tooth (from 7:40) getting it together in the country a la Traffic, before assembling in a barn and performing a ragged but powerful version of Better By You, Better Than Me. Then it’s the turn of Jethro Tull (from 15:00) to run through their brand new hit Living In The Past at Morgan Studios, where they were currently recording second album Stand Up. Martin Barre looks particularly relaxed, and Ian Anderson gives a masterclass in playing the flute while smoking a cigarette.
It wasn’t just the music clubs of London that were reverberating with new music – one of the biggest tickets in town at the time was the Shaftesbury Theatre’s production of controversial countercultural musical Hair. Tim Curry – later to find fame in The Rocky Horror Show – gamely falters through an interview about it in schoolboy French, but it’s star of the show Peter Straker who delivers a bravura performance (from 27:55) of key songs Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In, the ending of which is just perfect…
Yet absolutely the best is left until last. We’re transported to the dark heart of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club (from 38:40), where the young people are sitting in a state of rapt expectation. They’re waiting for Soft Machine, the underground’s hippest and most audacious band, to begin playing. And when they do, it’s an explosion of distorted organ, rattling snares and fuzz bass – aka Esther’s Nose Job – that stretches out for an astonishing 10 minutes, Messrs Wyatt, Ratledge and Hopper utterly lost in the moment.
Goodness knows what the TV viewing bourgeoisie of Paris made of this performance at the time, but looking back now, it’s an amazing record of the energy and invention of early progressive music at its very best.
Check it out below.