Sights Unheard: SNUB TV

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Sights Unheard: <i>SNUB TV</i>

Although I delved into this a bit in a previous column, before I tackled the subject ahead, I did an informal poll of my Facebook friends—a group comprised mostly of music obsessives like myself—to find out what venues other than MTV they sought out to find new videos or clips of live performances.

Some of the usual suspects came up in their responses (Night Tracks, the VHS subscription service Rock Video Monthly) as well as some outlets I’d never heard of like the American Bandstand-like MV3, the Seattle-based Bombshelter Videos, and an ‘80s-era Saturday morning NBC show 2 Hip 4 TV.

But the vast majority of my similarly aged and likeminded friends pointed to the long lamented weekend show Night Flight as their source for all things musically and visually left of center. Or as my colleague Andy Zax put it, “Where else were you going to see a 45-minute block of Zbigniew Rybczy?ski videos?”

Of course, Night Flight didn’t set their sights primarily on music, mixing in as they did cult films like Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Fantastic Planet, vintage animation clips, standup comedy, interviews with artists and other visual ephemera geared toward folks abroad in the black hours. But tucked amid all of this glorious weirdness were plenty of artful music videos, documentaries about bands, and, in 1987, a newsmagazine-style program called SNUB TV.

From the get-go, SNUB felt like the cooler cousin of 120 Minutes. The half-hour program—produced in the UK by former journalist Brenda Kelly and video director Peter Fowler—attempted to bring the same curatorial sensibility that famed DJ John Peel had fomented during his peerless run on BBC Radio One. They championed artists that their MTV counterpart either wouldn’t touch or wouldn’t catch up to until they snagged some major label support, like Björk’s breakthrough band The Sugarcubes, clanging sleaze rockers Pussy Galore and The Cramps.

Being produced where it was, SNUB brought a distinctly European sensibility to late-night TV, a counter to the fast paced sprawl of most music programs created Stateside. Kelly and Fowler didn’t put a pretty young thing in front of the camera to act as host. Any introductions or background information were provided in voiceover. They also kept each episode tightly focused on just a handful of artists, allowing their voices, music and viewpoints to dominate. And they were savvy enough to ask the folks they were interviewing to point them in the direction of new sounds, as they did with The Sugarcubes support of fellow Icelanders, Ornamental.

While the U.S. press sat up and took notice of what SNUB brought to the table, USA Network’s support waned after Night Flight went through the initial run of 14 episodes, cutting the show loose. It was a blow to music fans on this side of the Atlantic, but folks on the opposite end of the pond were about to get very lucky. In 1988, the show was optioned by BBC 2 and was back on the air a year later.

The three seasons of SNUB that Fowler and Kelly produced came at a particularly fruitful time for U.K. indie music. The influence of hip hop and techno was starting to be felt in a big way in English pop music, with groups like The KLF (and their many offshoots), Massive Attack and many members of the Madchester scene gaining prominence on the charts. SNUB was there to cover it all, as well-known groups like The Fall, New Order, Wire and The Cure were starting to produce some innovative and brilliant work that rivaled the young guns.

As great as it is to have clips of Inspiral Carpets, Ride and The Breeders playing live, the legacy of SNUB should, like Peel, focus on the breadth of music that they featured every week. The folks behind the show were obviously quite catholic in their interests. So even though the show was dominated by pop-leaning material, viewers also got a look at some early electro groups, a healthy dose of American hip-hop and bits of industrial, grindcore and reggae.

What I’ve never been able to figure out is why the show ended when it did, in 1991. I did my best to contact the folks behind the show via the email address on their website, which appears to be run by Kelly and Fowler, but got no response. My only speculation is that British indie music was starting to leach out of the underground and take over the charts in a big way around ‘91 and ‘92. And soon thereafter Britpop, trip hop, electronica and grunge was all anyone around the world would be talking about for the rest of the decade.

The ironic thing is that a show like SNUB TV would have been so important to counter the headline-grabbing, stadium-filling likes of Blur, Oasis and Chemical Brothers. There was so much equally important and groundbreaking music happening in the country and throughout Europe at the same time. They could have provided a similar platform to what Peel and other radio DJs (both legit and pirate) were offering to jungle/’ardkore/drum ‘n’ bass producers, homegrown hip-hop artists, and leftfield rock acts. Instead, SNUB TV will remain a small, vital, and hopefully warmly remembered link connecting the two great waves of U.S. and U.K. independent music.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.