The gentle tones of Bob Harris were on the radio this evening. Undoubtedly, a Google search would tell me what age he is, but I prefer him to remain forever the indeterminate age he was when he presented The Old Grey Whistle Test almost half a century ago. The advantage of radio is that in the imagination he can remain the figure he was on those BBC 2 television programmes on those late nights in the early 1970s.
Some years ago, I bought a triple CD collection of music issued to mark the fortieth anniversary of the programme (it was also available on vinyl, for the purists who really wanted to recapture the feeling of the times). What seemed significant was that much of the music featured no longer received airtime, and some of the artists would be entirely unknown to Twenty-First Century listeners. Does that mean it was not good music? Does that mean they were not good bands?
In the times before downloads and streaming, when one artist can release an album and occupy most places in the top twenty of the charts because every track counted separately, the charts were compiled from shops recording the number of sales of physical discs. The top selling singles would appear on the playlists of BBC Radio 1 and the groups might be invited to appear on Top of the Pops. To have your record played by the likes of Tony Blackburn and to be on television at seven o’clock on a Thursday was to be a success. By those measures, the people who played on Bob Harris’ programme were not successful. They did not make singles that sold in hundreds of thousands, nor was it likely they would ever have appeared among the sort of acts that attracted viewers each Thursday.
So does a lack of sales, a lack of television appearances, a lack of commercial success, mean that they were not good bands? Does it mean that they will not be remembered when programmes from the archives are broadcast?
Perhaps what makes a band “good” is not a democratic matter, not a matter of sales being like votes that determine who is best. Instead it is a matter of discernment, a matter of the quality of the music and the lyrics, a matter of the cultural significance of the band, as well as its place in the charts. If you didn’t know what was “good”, you could always count on Bob Harris to give you some ideas.