Interview: Producer Chris Phipps on The Tube

The Tube, the North East’s groundbreaking music platform which snatched the focus from London and turned unknowns into stars, made its debut 30 years ago next week.

From left: Bryan Ferry, Malcolm Maclaren and Chris Phipps in Hollywood

The Tube, the North East’s groundbreaking music platform which snatched the focus from London and turned unknowns into stars, made its debut 30 years ago next week. Producer Chris Phipps remembers it like yesterday and, ahead of his special anniversary celebration, he tells Barbara Hodgson some extraordinary inside stories.

PICTURE Ozzy Osbourne propped up in a coffin in a Newcastle bar, Iggy Pop wandering around the street bandaged like a mummy and Madonna collecting her rail fare.

OK, it might sound the stuff of (surreal) dreams but in reality such scenes were all part and parcel of a normal day’s work during the making of The Tube, Newcastle’s flagship music programme whose flame burned for five mad and glorious years from 1982.

It was Guy Fawkes when Channel Four launched with a little-trumpeted episode of Countdown then a whole load of fanfare as Jools Holland burst on to the screen waving a sparkler in front of that famous tunnel entrance to Tyne Tees Television’s Studio 5.

For once it wasn’t London grabbing the limelight and the newest music acts: it was the seemingly mis- matched mild-mannered Holland and fiery co-presenter Paula Yates who got up-and-coming musicians and comics talking and swearing and generally making their name.

If you weren’t tuning in on your TV then The Tube was Friday night out on the town for music fans in the region and those of a certain age will have their own memories of joining the weekly queues outside that long-gone tunnel entrance on City Road where the performers, eager for their moment in the spotlight, piled off trains and planes from London. The presenters too would fly up every week and BA even rescheduled flights from Newcastle so everyone could get back to the capital afterwards.

But it’s the movers and shakers involved with the live programme who have the most colourful memories, thanks to those behind-the-scenes antics of the likes of Ozzy and Madonna which feature in Chris Phipps’s inside stories.

Chris Phipps
Chris Phipps

Media historian Phipps, who worked as assistant producer on the show and selected many of the bands to appear, such as Fine Young Cannibals and Twisted Sister, recalls: “Ozzy was in the Egypt Cottage pub, which was incorporated into the studio building and nicknamed studio six.

“Some visitors dropped in for a drink and suddenly realised that propped against the bar was Ozzy standing in an upright coffin, accompanied by Sharon, as they waited for an interview.

“The visitors drank very quickly and left!”

As for Iggy Pop, the rocker had disappeared prior to his live slot then Phipps received an email from The Tube reception to report “a mummy” wandering in the entrance. And there he was found, for some reason swathed in bandages.

Madonna, meanwhile, made her TV debut on The Tube via a live outside broadcast from The Hacienda in Manchester. With nobody covering her rail costs, they stumped up £37 in cash which was given to her in a buff expenses envelope.

There was enough drama on screen for viewers too as the show walked a fine line, variously described as anarchic, controversial and risqué – all helping to seal The Tube’s reputation as a true one-off.

Its fans can expect to hear more colourful stories as Phipps presents a tribute night at The Sage Gateshead next Thursday – one of two music shows he has in the same week there – to mark its anniversary.

As well as involving other insiders, including Geoff Wonfor, director of the on-location films, he’ll be talking about his experiences, showing candid and previously unseen photographs and screening footage from the show.

Among Phipps’s personal photographs are images of Paula Yates and a laid-back Dave Stewart enjoying a bit of downtime, accompanied by saxophonist Jim Zavala, in 1984 while on location in the Mexican quarter of LA, where Wonfor was filming and Eurythmics were launching their Revenge album.

Another shows Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits on a donkey in Jerusalem in 1985 during filming for the Brothers in Arms world tour. At a time when groomed and glamorous was the signature video style of the self-conscious 80s, The Tube’s footage of bands on location made memorable highlights: think U2 live at Red Rocks.

They inter-cut Yates’s near-the- knuckle interviews and disorderly studio shenanigans, or studied carelessness, as Andy Kershaw apparently described it in his recent autobiography. “Very accurate,” says Phipps.

The general feel was rough around the edges and nobody gave a stuff.

They were breaking ground here and it made Newcastle the capital of TV cool, says Phipps.

No wonder up-and-coming acts were gagging to be on, knowing the music world was watching.

First up on the first show were The Toy Dolls, with a song paying homage to Sunderland wine bar Fino’s.

And The Jam did what turned out to be their last live TV appearance together before they split up at the end of the year.

Looking back now The Tube’s line-up over its run – including Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Elton John and The Police – reads like a Who’s Who of the pop world.

At the time she appeared on The Tube, Tina Turner’s career appeared on the edge of free-fall but the show signalled her renaissance.

Phipps remembers first seeing her perform at the Ritz in New York in 1981. He was hugely impressed but at the time EMI was considering not re-signing her.

He made contact with the singer’s UK promoter and says: “He had seen the potential of The Tube and re-routed her from New Orleans, Miami, London, to Newcastle.

“On an autumn night she stepped off the plane in Newcastle with her band, the Eurythmics, Public Image Ltd (PIL), the post-punk band formed by John Lydon, and Billy Bragg – what a lineup!”

While her performance didn’t initially didn’t do much to lift her own spirits – she was nonplussed to hear crowds (clearly PIL fans) continuously shouting out “Rotten! Rotten!” – it wasn’t long before EMI did re -sign her and Turner was back on track.

Comedy too ranked high, with French and Saunders and Harry Enfield putting a first toe into comedy waters. And Vic Reeves made his debut on The Tube, his first TV being in a spoof Celebrity Squares.

Phipps’s coming show promises a lot more than a chance to wallow in nostalgia for Tube fans, though he is hoping that original audience members will come along. It’s also an opportunity for young ’uns to learn about a defining moment in TV pop history.

As its co-creator, the late Andrea Wonfor, said, The Tube was not so much a TV programme, more of an attitude. Phipps says: “The Tube, the City Road studio, Paula Yates are all sadly gone but the attitude remains!”

And such is the hold it retains in the pop public’s consciousness that Phipps already has another venue lined up for his anniversary show. He’ll be repeating it on November 14 in Electric Cinema in his home city of Birmingham.

The Tube – It Was 30 Years Ago takes place from 7.45pm on Thursday, November 9, in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall of The Sage Gateshead. Visit www.thesage gateshead.org or call 0191 443 4661.

 

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