There must be a lot of people out there who had their first encounter with a favourite artist through seeing them on Later…with Jools Holland. On Saturday night the programme celebrated its 30th anniversary by beginning its latest series on BBC2 with a typical bill: a guitar-based popular rhythm combo from Sheffield (the 1975, pictured above), a cutting-edge female performer from Rotherham (Self-Esteem), a rediscovered 82-year-old soul singer and his fine band from Portland, Oregon (Ural Thomas and the Pain), a Spanish-American solo singer-songwriter (Victoria Canal) and a deeply unclassifiable London-based trio playing challenging and highly contemporary instrumental music (The Comet Is Coming). Each of them will have attracted new admirers as a result of this brisk 50-minute programme filmed in the round on the floor of the Alexandra Palace Theatre.
When Later… first appeared, I felt straight away that it was almost exactly the show I’d always wanted The Old Grey Whistle Test to be during my year as its first presenter, and which it only occasionally became (examples: the performance of Curtis Mayfield and his band, John Martyn’s first solo appearance, and the 10 minutes when Dr John sat at an upright piano and ran through the history of New Orleans piano). It was about musicians of varying backgrounds and styles playing live — and even better, in the Later… format, listening to each other’s performances while waiting for their own turn. It was also my strong feeling that such a show needed a more extrovert presenter, and in Jools Holland it found one — and one who, moreover, could sit down at the piano and occasionally accompany a guest, as he did last night when Ural Thomas sang “Stand By Me”.
He isn’t to everyone’s taste — the “Hootenanny!” thing on his New Year’s Eve specials has been known to drive me from the room — but the show wouldn’t have survived through three decades without his ebullient personality to sell it. He was chosen back in 1992 by Mark Cooper, the programme’s founding producer and presiding spirit, whose broad but discriminating taste in music has probably been the single most important factor in the maintenance of the show’s quality. Over the years the production has become more polished, at the expense of a certain spontaneity, but last night’s line-up showed a continuing desire to present the experimental and adventurous alongside the familiar and safe.
Now Cooper — who began his career as a music journalist in the pages of Record Mirror, Q and Mojo and was BBC Studios’ Head of Music from 1999 to 2019 — has written a book about the show chronicling, as its subtitle promises, “30 years of music, magic and mayhem”. It’s a 400-page narrative rich in anecdotes and interspersed with reflections contributed by some of those who made memorable appearances, including Alicia Keyes, Richard Thompson, Ed Sheeran, St Vincent, Nick Cave and Baaba Maal. Thompson is particularly good value on being able to listen to Al Green from a distance of about 10 feet, on being able to tell Little Jimmy Scott how much he loved his music, and on backing Norma Waterson on a band including Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks. Keyes describes her first appearance in 2001, soon after the release of her debut album, as one of the great musical moments of her life: “The circle raises your game. You walk into the studio different, knowing you’re going to be among musicians who are being themselves and not trying to do what somebody else is doing.”
Open the book almost anywhere and you’ll get a good story, or even just a line reminding you that a single episode in 2008 could incorporate Solange, Stereophonics, Eli Paperboy Reed and a chat with Ray Davies. The section on Lou Reed’s appearances in 2000, 2003 and 2011 is beautifully remembered and observed; the author had first attended one of Reed’s concerts in 1972 and interviewed him for a magazine in 1992, which can’t have harmed his ability to provide the artist with a comfortable setting and a sympathetic atmosphere. He was less prepared for the arrival of Solomon Burke in the Later… studio in 2002, never having seen him live. Burke turned up in a wheelchair before settling his enormous bulk into a golden throne and proceeding, with the help of Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, to wreck the house.
Later… is about respecting the elders, giving a platform to the new, and having fun with music. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” Baaba Maal says, and he may be right. Mark Cooper’s book — in which he properly shares credit with the many other people, such as his co-producer Alison Howe and the director Janet Fraser-Crook — is an entertaining and instructive guide to how it happened and to the small miracle of its survival.
* Mark Cooper’s Later… with Jools Holland is published by William Collins.