History Through Television: The Rock & Roll Years

There is a generation of people for whom the chiming opening chords of Jailhouse Rock have a double-meaning. It’s a generation from forty up, who learned a considerable amount of their history of the twentieth century from a programme which probably didn’t quite intend to become such a widespread educational resource. Yet the BBC’s The Rock & Roll Years remains half-forgotten, only seldom repeated by the BBC and barely ever mentioned in public, even online. Go look for it now, if you don’t believe me. All the internet brings up is a handful of forum posts asking whether anybody remembers it, some episodes on YouTube – many of which have been hacked to pieces by copyright claims already – and a bunch of people selling home-recorded versions privately on DVD.

There’s a reason why The Rock & Roll Years is so seldom seen on our screens. It’s the same reason behind why the programme has never been released as a DVD boxset, and it can be seen in the closing credits of each episode, which begin with “Acknowledgements” – the companies who the BBC has leased the footage for the previous thirty minutes. The first episode features seven different rights-holders. Repeat viewings almost certainly cost the BBC more than makes it worthwhile showing regularly, though in the catch-up age it would be a perfect series to binge upon. These rights also make a legitimate DVD release nigh-on impossible. And these rights apply both to film footage and music. Those mentioned above are largely selling VHS recordings of original TV broadcasts, many of which are in a terrible condition.

The opening chords of Jailhouse Rock are the beginning of a lightning thirty-second opening title sequence, featuring a couple of seconds from each of Rock Around The Clock, Johnny B Goode, You Really Got Me, Satisfaction, Shakin’ All Over, Layla, Good Vibrations, The Last Time and Jean Genie. What follows is thirty minutes of a mixture of old footage from a certain year – the series ended up covering from 1956 to 1989 – covering music, news, sport and culture from it. There’s no voiceover, just a constant soundtrack which only drops out for contemporary news reports, just small clippings. Enough to allow a little context for every story mentioned. Occasionally, at the reporting of a particularly sombre story – the assassination of John F Kennedy, for example, or the arrest of the Moors Murderers – it falls silent. Each episode runs more or less chronologically through the course of its chosen year.

It would, of course, be easy to just throw something like this out, but it is the care and attention that has so clearly been put into The Rock & Roll Years which means that it remains so much as half-remembered, more than three decades after it was first broadcast. Songs are perfectly chosen to complement the news stories being told on top of them, and mental alliances are formed off the back of this. I will never again be able to think of the 1975 New York City bankruptcy without sound-tracking it with I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love by The Stylistics, or the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969 without Whole Lotta Love starting to rumble ominously in the back of my mind at the same time.

Furthermore, so far as the music is concerned, The Rock & Roll Years is bold as well as thoughtful. Walk On Gilded Splinters by Marsha Hunt, for example, wasn’t a hit single in this country, but there couldn’t be a more appropriately unsettling soundtrack for the Tate murders at the hands of Charles Manson’s “Family” in 1969. The BBC also has access to (what remains of) the Top Of The Pop archives from which to pull a decent selection of high-quality material, and there’s a reasonable amount of live music footage as well, particularly from the bigger music festivals of the late 1960s. Little we haven’t seen a million times before, but still nice to see.

Thirty minutes isn’t a long time to tell the story of a year, so The Rock & Roll Years keeps it brief. To take a random example (okay, the year I was born), here’s what it packs into the 1972 episode: Don McLean singing American Pie live, the funeral of Maurice Chevalier, the coal strike and beginnings of the fuel crisis, the QEI boat catching fire in Hong Kong, a chemical spillage in the West Country, unemployment reaching one million and Edward Heath getting egged in Brussels as he signs the treaty admitting the UK into the EEC. And we’re only three minutes into the episode. There’s enough information to make Googling an option, should something particularly pique your interest. There’s a sly sense of humour on show at times, as well. A dockers march in support of the recently-sacked Enoch Powell, for example, is accompanied with The Mothers of Invention’s “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?”

The Rock & Roll Years was an adaptation of a radio show. 25 Years of Rock was a twenty-five part series of hour long shows broadcast by Radio 1 between June and December 1980, mixing music and news from each year between 1955 and 1979. It was devised by Trevor “The Hatchetman” Dann, who was then a producer for Radio 1, and such was its popularity on the radio that it was repeated in an extended form in 1985, with five extra episodes added to cover the years from 1980 to 1984. It was also repeated on BBC 6 Music between November and December 2015, and there were even albums released under the name featuring songs from the episodes. Such a successful radio series adapting to television was a natural step.

The television adaptation had a pilot – featuring the episode for 1966 – broadcast in May 1984, and the first series, featuring the period between 1956 and 1963, went on air the following summer. Two more series, from 1964-1971 and from 1972-1979, following in 1986 and 1987, before a hiatus which ended in 1994 with a final series chronicling the 1980s and which came with new title music, this time featuring brief snippets from: In The Air Tonight, 1999, Billie Jean, Like A Virgin, Radio Ga-Ga, Born In The USA, Every Breath You Take, Do They Know It’s Christmas, and The Look Of Love. The only other thing that changed was the typeface for the captions. It would be churlish to complain.

We appreciate attention to detail and a job well-done. When a television programme, a piece of music or a film has been made with care and attention, it shows. And in an era during which everybody has an opinion and wants you to hear it (mea culpa), to have the opportunity to bathe in some good music, endure some terrible music, and learn about the news without a voice barking away at you for half an hour a night is a refreshing antidote to the constant state of tinnitus with which we all seem to live these days.