Recollections / September 25, 2019
Occasionally an artifact pops up that is such a perfect exemplar of the tropes we associate with a given historical period that it’s hard to believe it is real and not a bit of uncanny simulation designed to fuck with your brain. We’ve spoken about the phenomenon before, and Sounds Good is yet another such curio, its very existence demonstrating conclusively—through its awkward merging of the vivid colors of modernity and the beige drabness of real life—the absolute pointlessness of attempting to parody the received aesthetic of 1980s UK TV. Pointless because nothing parodies the received aesthetic of the 1980s as accurately as footage of the 1980s themselves.
Each of the local franchises that made up ITV—Britain’s commercial Independent Television network, founded in 1955 as privately bankrolled antagonist to the alleged institutional monopoly of the license-fee-funded BBC—had their own profoundly regional personality. Timetables were similar across the country, but would diverge at various times of the day to allow for local programming. It was at these junctures that the franchises’ true natures would reveal themselves. Produced by Yorkshire television, the regional franchise broadcasting to the country’s largest county and responsible for such adored absurdities of children’s programming as Animal Kwackers and The Book Tower, Sounds Good focuses on young people involved in music and dance and throws up an eclectic cocktail of high culture juxtaposed with provincial modernism.
After being welcomed with the queasy parps of the title music and some rudimentary video-synthery, we meet the presenters. Carol Vorderman was already a UK celebrity thanks to her role as co-host, with Richard Whitely, of vocabulary quiz show Countdown, the first program to be shown on Britain’s nascent Channel 4 in 1982; she is partnered here with Roger Greenwood, a well-known Yorkshire TV figure (seen here on Yorkshire TV’s 1976 “Lifestyle” program as he runs the county’s iconic 22-mile Three Peaks Race) and walking epitome of a certain type of bluff Northern charm, whose love of double-entendre comes to the fore with questions like, “What age were you when you started fiddling?” Behind them, the show’s cheerfully low-rent set design takes up popular modes of the day like the Memphis group’s geometries and Julio Le Parc’s bands of color to create an environment so potently “’80s regional TV” that it threatens to physically transport the viewer of today inside itself, like some pre-teatime Lament Configuration.
The first act we see is Hutton Youth Dance Theatre’s Grand Prix, with its “choreography of a crash” and futurist vignette of the “worries and fears of the mechanics.” Both eerie and absurd, Grand Prix inspires an incongruously Ballardian frisson as the mesmerized-looking dancers clad in their green overalls perform their incomprehensible DIY rite. Violinists David Greed and Alison Fletcher follow, but the obvious high point of the show is the breakdancing competition broadcast from the students union building of the Polytechnic in Sheffield, which Greenwood controversially claims is “the center of breaking.” Many British Cities have their own distinctive musical personalities—Liverpool with its Druidic psychedelia and Birmingham with its electrified folk shriek and grind, and, thanks in part to its immigrant communities, Sheffield has always enjoyed a reputation as a hotbed of forward-looking electronic music like The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, and British Electric Foundation/Heaven 17. While calling it the “center” of anything might be a bit of a stretch, it’s not quite as improbable as it sounds.
The competition is judged by local hero Herol Bomber Graham, an unfairly neglected genius of British boxing and a man who brought grace and humanity to a sport that personally speaking, and perhaps unfairly, I always struggle not to think of as thuggish. The other judges include members of Sheffield’s SMAC 19, one of the UK’s 1st generation breaking crews which had formed in 1982. Four years after this episode was broadcast, SMAC 19 member Winston Hazel would be one of the minds behind Forgemasters, the group whose seminal 1989 “Track With No Name“ was the first release on the nascent Warp Records, the electronic music label that would later be home to influential groups like Boards of Canada, Sheffield’s own Autechre, and Yorkshire duo LFO. More footage of the competition can be seen here. The program plays out with an instrumental number from the pupils of Birkby School Steel Band, who interact with Greenwood with equal amounts of amusement and bemusement.
As gauche and perhaps even ridiculous as Sounds Good might look to modern eyes, there is something lovely about this cheaply made gap-filler with its relatively inclusive, progressive, inspiring mix of music and movement that offers up provincial teenagers performing interpretative dance about car crashes as though it were something perfectly normal. Sounds Good elicits the same queasy mix of aversion and curiosity in me now that it would have done back then, yet for some weird reason, even as it teeters on the brink of plunging down to the center of the earth in a China Syndrome of naffness—or perhaps because of that—it still somehow communicates a sense of aliveness and possibility. The dreamy and seemingly unaffected manner of the participants makes for an especially striking contrast with the self-assured TV-ready schtick demanded of the public any time they should happen to encounter a camera nowadays. I don’t believe this necessarily means we’ve become less authentic as humans, but it does make you wonder if the grip of the spectacle on the collective psychic throat was slightly less tight back then. Or perhaps that’s just nostalgia too.