It seems to be de rigueur to praise Later and Jools Holland, if only for their ability to stay alive for 20 years. Ready Steady Go! (don't forget the exclamation mark) lasted only three years, The Tube five years. TOTP lasted 42 years, but that lacked a consistent house style or (by definition) a particular editorial bias, so it doesn't really count. Later is Holland, in the sense that the programme wouldn't work now with another presenter, much as The Old Grey Whistle Test was never the same without whispering Bob Harris, despite featuring better music after he left.
Holland is an accomplished musician but a bloody awful presenter, a talent he has cultivated over the years. The Tube gig was largely down to his chalk 'n cheese contrast to Paula Yates. He was meant to provide the working class grit to her middle class wild-child stylings. In reality, Holland is the genuine article, being far more difficult to pin down than the self-indulgent Yates. The guy's name is Julian and he plays the piano, which was borderline homosexual for South East London in the 70s, but he has the obsessiveness and magpie interest of the working class autodidact. So, just for fun, I have decided to inflict my views on Friday night's edition upon you ...
First up (indicating their current industry status and thus annual net worth) were Muse. Impressionable boys of 14 seem to be particularly taken with them, which for me is cast-iron evidence that they are Rush des nos jours. It's hard to describe to modern kids what the Canadian prog rockers were like, without being accused of Spinal Tap satire, but reference to Muse is helpful. Utterly unmemorable music that appears complex and banal by turns, and goes on too long. Like the Randian super-heroes of Rush, Muse are a three-piece of multi-instrumentalists, which means the necessary other musicians (you don't really think he's playing two guitar lines at once?) are kept in the shadows. Humourless, pompous, nonsense.
Everyone's favourite musical soap opera, the Beach Boys, were up next. Since recording, Mike Love has apparently disbanded them again, perhaps because he felt the revival of Dallas was becoming a distraction. Their appearance was reminiscent of the film Cocoon: old men with the magic, revived from senility by a strange power (pick any one from money, brand or legacy), reinforced by support staff, hangers-on and sons, who appear both as a backing group and as a proprietorial bunch of heavies. It was a genuinely weird scene, but the music was weak and quavery. You can get away with growling the blues at 70, but sophomore harmonies just don't work at that age.
Pick of the night was Public Image Limited. They started with a wonderful song about London, which had the vibrancy of William Blake. Lydon's declamatory style was in pointed contrast to his "fellow Californians", the Beach Boys. Many in the UK saw his emigration to the States as sell-out, a la Billy Idol, but in truth Lydon simply followed his nose to where the most interesting music was happening, as can be heard in the influence of Pere Ubu on PiL. As someone heavily influenced by Krautrock and Reggae, he was always going to sidestep English post-punk provincialism. His howl of personal resistance remains startling, and will outlast the obvious mannerisms of Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn.
Next up were The XX, graduates of Elliott comprehensive, the South West London music band incubator (just up the road from me and subsequently assimilated by the academy Borg). Unfortunately, they've enjoyed success too early, which has meant their music moving swiftly from slightly better than average dream pop to backing for BBC links and adverts implying understated luxury. They are possibly the dullest band alive, plowing a relentless furrow of monochromaticism. That word is more interesting that what it represents.
And a brief word for Natalie Duncan: sorry. Nice, accomplished, undistinguished.
The abiding success of Later has nothing to do with the mutual love-in of the musos, which has disfigured the media for the last week or so. What matters is the unpredictability. Some weeks are just shit from end to end, other weeks contain multiple gems. You watch in the hope of the latter. In that sense it is not much different to the Whistle Test, but with the addition of an audience that will applaud anything and a compere who is closer to Leonard Sachs than Whispering Bob.