Ready Steady Go!

Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here
By Andy Neill
[BMG Books]

The household name typically attached to British music television is Top of the Pops. While that long-running BBC program certainly cast a long shadow, it was actually predated by a scrappy upstart that set the tone and remains a pop culture touchstone for UK denizens, extending beyond Swinging London nostalgists.

I first heard of Ready Steady Go! via Billy Idol’s original band Generation X, whose debut album included a caffeinated paean to the show’s host Cathy McGowan, including the catchy refrain “I’m in love with Cathy McGow-ow-ow-ow-ow.” That a 1977 punk band would sing the praises of a show that left the airwaves in 1966 is a sign of its cultural significance.

A stateside analogy might be a freewheeling mash-up of American Bandstand with the mythical Corny Collins Show from John Waters’ Hairspray. While Bandstand predated Ready Steady Go! by several years the latter was more revolutionary, particularly for the staid UK. Andy Neill’s meticulously crafted document – reportedly 16 years in the making – spins an impressive yarn via oral histories, solid storytelling, and a surfeit of period photos.

Typically the phrase “coffee table book” is considered a pejorative for journalistic works but is appropriate here in a literal sense. At 12” square and 270 glossy pages you’d better have a damn sturdy coffee table, though – the beast weighs well over five pounds. I suppose you could file it vertically alongside the vinyl collection, but guests will be captivated by the (mostly) black & white period photos and cheeky tabloid press clippings. There’s also plenty of prose for dedicated culture hounds to chew on, in bite-size packets – the narrative isn’t really designed for a start-to-finish read-through.

Ready Steady Go!’s story arc probably has more in common with the early days of MTV. Television network ITV had recently horned in on the BBC’s state-run monopoly and was hunting for unique programming (think early 1980s US cable TV). With minimal adult supervision, it delegated to a crew of younger idealists with limited television experience the task of creating a weekly dance program featuring an array of pop artists on the rise. While American Bandstand may have served as something of a model (ironically Dick Clark nicked the formula in 1964 with a Ready Steady Go USA! knockoff but was quickly halted by copyright lawsuits), RSG! improved on the template by placing the performers on compact low-rise stages that virtually eliminated separation between artist and the audience dancers that were in many ways the show’s true stars. Perhaps that’s what appealed to punks like Billy Idol.

By most accounts the program took a few weeks to find its sea legs (tapes of the first few episodes are lost to history). But within three weeks an up-and-coming band called The Rolling Stones was booked in August of 1963. Six weeks later The Beatles made the first of several appearances, and The Who and Kinks soon followed suit. As ITV extended its broadcast reach throughout the UK, it offered many kids from the hinterlands their first exposure to urban music culture (again, think MTV).

RSG! also created something of a feedback loop; prior to the British Invasion several of its regulars professed to looking to American music for inspiration, and the show offered Brits rare exposure to stateside acts, particularly black ones. Bo Diddley made multiple appearances, and James Brown and the Ronettes were later featured.

In a subtler nod to inclusion, the program injected still-rare doses of Northern England accents into broadcast TV (shocking, I know) and talent scouts recruited dancers from the hipsters queued outside London clubs rather than resorting to professional casting calls. Later in its run the series upped the ante by transitioning from lip-syncing to live performance and even live broadcast. Surprisingly, these innovations are not recalled entirely favorably, even by the insider accounts included here.

Ready Steady Go! caused enough of a sensation that by 1964 the BBC launched Top of the Pops – not as a mere me-too, by Neill’s telling, but rather an express attempt to kill its upstart rival. And the big money apparently won. Once the commercial appeal of these rockers was established, managers began steering their acts to the greater exposure offered by the BBC. There are also murmurs of the show having lost its edge by 1965. Whatever the reason, Ready Steady Go! ended its run in December 1966 after three and a half years and 173 episodes, each meticulously cataloged here. But not before Jimi Hendrix made his British debut on the penultimate episode – months before the release of Are You Experienced?

Along with fond remembrances penned specifically for this book by the likes of Ray Davies, Lulu and Mick Jagger, Neill has incorporated thorough first-hand accounts from most of the series’ players, with one notable exception. The iconic and photogenic host Cathy McGowan is ubiquitously represented in visual form, but has declined all interview requests for decades. Her second-hand presence feels sufficient, however.

I have to assume this book is aimed primarily at the UK market, where my informal polling indicates memories of Ready Steady Go! continue to resonate, including those of teens rushing home to catch the Friday evening program to start their weekend. Its $50 US price tag is lofty yet reasonable given its heft and production quality, but will likely preclude impulse purchases given limited stateside name recognition. Its arrival alongside holiday gift giving season probably isn’t a coincidence. Readers of Kicks, Goldmine, Mojo and the like will certainly appreciate, as will anyone with a serious ken for Sixties pop culture – whether thumbing through it coffee table-style or settling in for a thorough read.