British music television may be synonymous with one particular boogie-woogie man, but years before Later With... first broadcast in 1992, the BBC aired an altogether different kind of show. Snub TV was a lo-fi, DIY programme, one that was all fuzzy grit to the studio gleam that would soon become the norm.
Snub TV was created by Pete “Pinko” Fowler and Brenda Kelly, who met working at Rough Trade records. Kelly was a budding music journalist and Fowler was a cameraman filming live gigs and promos for Rough Trade bands such as the Smiths and the Go-Betweens, before moving on to video work at Southern Studios. The pair combined their talents for a new cable show in the US put together by anglophile Fran Duffy, which first aired 30 years ago, in 1987. Snub TV was shot in the UK for about £700 per episode, edited at ITN and Fed-Exed to the US each week, where it ran for 14 episodes. It featured artists such as My Bloody Valentine, the JAMMS (later KLF) and Björk (in her first TV appearance, with the Sugarcubes). Britain took note, and it was soon acquired by Janet Street-Porter, then head of youth television at the BBC, where it ran for three seasons from 1989 until its demise in 1991.Composite from Snub TV: (clockwise) Meriel Barham of Lush, Björk, the Cramps’ Lux Interior and Mark E Smith,
Three decades on, Snub TV remains remarkable for having covered the vast world of alternative music of the era, capturing everything from Madchester and noise rock to indie, shoegaze and rave. It was usually a two-person operation and was very much a DIY set-up, according to Fowler. “We would hand the tape in a day or often hours before transmission,” he says. “We had no idea who was going to appear. We just lied to the Radio Times about what bands we thought might be on it.”
The show succeeded in not only capturing now-iconic alternative groups, but also in creating a fascinating musical archive full of rough-and-ready scenes. Typical was a video with Dinosaur Jr for their hit Freak Scene, shot in the garden of journalist and Membranes singer John Robb, which featured a giant fisherman statue in the background that Robb says he’d “been nicked” from a local chip shop.
Mixing live footage, interviews and music videos in the fuzzy grain of the VHS it was filmed on, it captured the energy of performances, be it the young Stone Roses playing the Hacienda; the sweat-saturated intensity of Fugazi; the basement rave of 808 State; the sludgy, growling mayhem of Napalm Death; the cherubic face of Black Francis in the Pixies’ first UK TV appearance; or the apparent acid-fried ramblings and pulverising sounds of the Butthole Surfers.
Snub’s no-frills approach also led to some brilliant, bizarre and funny interviews – many conducted in grotty, sweaty backstage rooms with warm beer and no makeup artist, lighting person nor PR rep in sight. Such classic interactions include New Order’s Bernard Sumner referring to U2’s singer as “that bongo guy”; the always unpredictable Mark E Smith bestowing praise on the US hip-hop scene of the time – “rap music is the most literate music I’ve heard in years. They’re saying a lot more than Dire Straits ever did”; and the Cramps being driven around in a stretch Cadillac as they rain down disdain on the safety of contemporary music. The Cure’s Robert Smith loved Snub TV so much he requested his band appear on it.
The show also broke with convention by not using a presenter. “Programmes tend to become about who is presenting it, and you get that celebrity culture, like Jools Holland,” Fowler says. “I hated that celebrity-host thing. Plus, it detracts from the music.” Fellow musicians and artists also lent their hand to its aesthetic: Adrian Sherwood produced the theme music and 4AD’s visual artist Vaughan Oliver and Me Company’s Paul White worked on the title graphics.
Despite a healthy chunk of Snub footage being posted on YouTube, the show is not officially available anywhere and huge parts of it – including almost all of the American strand of the series – cannot be viewed at all. Pinko hoped for a release last year, but interest didn’t equate to money. “We were close to putting a DVD out of all the American and English series. I wanted to do it well, to use up outtakes and do fresh interviews with bands that are still pertinent, but nobody was willing to give us the budget to do it properly,” he says. “I want people to see stuff they’ve never seen, it just needs a few thousand quid and we can make something special. I’d love to do an eight-hour box set.”
One such outtake involves a trip to Woody Creek in Aspen, Colorado to meet Hunter S Thompson with famed music producer Steve Albini. “Hunter made Jo, my partner, drink a scooped-out grapefruit full of vodka before he would let us film him. We stayed up all night, with [Hunter] shooting guns and doing other stuff and Steve trying to interview him,” Fowler recalls with a laugh.
When artists today have to do the promotional rounds on programmes such as The One Show and Sunday Brunch it becomes startlingly clear just how lacking British music television is when it comes to providing other platforms, even to chart-topping artists. Thirty years on from Snub TV, there is nothing on television – apart from the brilliant series Four to the Floor – that comes close to exploring and celebrating alternative music the way the show did.
“I’m very proud of Snub,” says Fowler. “I wish I was still making it.” A statement that is no doubt echoed by both musicians and fans of the underground alike.