Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Rock'n'Roll Years

The Rock'n'Roll Years was one of the most curious television programmes of the mid-1980's. Each half-hour episode was a mix of news footage and pop music from each individual year of the post-war era. The only "commentary" was the occasional subtitle to give context to a particular event, these being as mordantly non-committal as possible. The episodes were all shown at prime time on BBC 1, and no doubt constituted pretty cheap television as the BBC could compile the greater portion of them from their own archives. Despite this apparently unpromising formula, it was surprisingly compelling viewing, and still is so even on the scraped-from-videotape remains that have been loaded onto Youtube. The first series was aired in 1985 and started, naturally enough, in 1956:

The unspoken premise of the programme was that the Rock'n'Roll years were effectively over, and this is certainly how I interpreted it at the time - the era of tumultuous social change was over, and hey, this is what it was like. The comparatively pedestrian first series wound up at 1963, and it was in the second series, aired in 1986, where the meaty period of 1964 to 1971 was covered. The episode for 1968 is particularly exciting, as I'm sure you can imagine:

The funny thing is, this footage looked as ancient in 1985 as it does now. Perhaps more so. For me at the time, the clip of the Rolling Stones performing "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was akin to watching footage of the D-Day landings. The sense of the past being irretrievable was much stronger in those days, before the pick'n'mix technologies of the digital era permitted it to haunt us. The years 1972 to 1980 were covered in the third series, which was aired in 1987, and 1977 starts off on exactly the right note:

This still felt old, old, old at the time though. It's impossible to express in hindsight how different 1987 felt to 1977, and watching this episode was like looking at the polaroid photographs of a party in the cold light of morning. This sense of disconnect was no doubt accentuated by the callowness of youth, as a decade feels like an eternity when you are still in your teens. One thing that comes across is how much more intense this period was than nowadays. For all the contemporary hysteria about populism and wokeism, I still think we live in a much calmer world. Perhaps it's the ghettoising effect of social media, where the different tribes of political obsessives can engage in endless symbolic battle outside the purview of the average person. At the Twitter coalface a person can feel that they are in a war for the future of civilisation, while offline the world plods on regardless. A fourth and final series of The Rock'n'Roll Years was aired much later in 1994, this covering 1981 to 1989:

This didn't make much sense at the time as almost nothing musically world-shaking happened during the mid to late eighties, and I don't think I even bothered to watch this series. That said, the big events had continued to occur, such as the miners' strike, Chernobyl, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and there was the final tying of the post-war knot with the end of the Cold war. Also at this time Live Aid was very much a part of the official narrative of popular music; of Rock'n'Roll finally growing up and accepting its responsibilities. In hindsight, Live Aid was the release that signalled that the pressure was off, that history was already coming to an end, despite the tragic events that had prompted it.

That there was no fifth series of The Rock'n'Roll Years merely confirmed this.


  1. Ireland's state broadcaster RTÉ are currently showing the sixth series of Reeling in the Years (2010s this time) which follow the template more or less exactly. The first series (80s) has been repeated so often it can only compare to that German New Year's Eve one with the butler and aristo lady. Other channels here even have their own versions. No surprise that the % of non licence paying TV viewers is 11% at the last count here, over twice as much as UK. Won't be watching this latest one, no happy memories of austerity politics soundtracked by Ed Sheeran (though the concept of pop hits recognisable year by year seems nebulous these days)

  2. I always got the sense that Ireland's pop culture was very different from the UK's, with the likes of Van Morrison, Clannad, the Dubliners basically going on forever. Timeless, in contrast to the UK's mindless dynamism. At least back in the day.

    Since the mid-90's it's kind of been stasis everywhere, this being partially facilitated by the emergence of genres like rap and metal that seem to be almost eternally durable. British nostalgia shows still appear on cable channels, but they now have to be interspersed with comedians making "What was that all about?"-type comments, in order to add artificial distance to a past that really isn't much different to the present.