In August last year, I got a call from Wall to Wall Executive Producer, 'The Legendary' (his words), Mark Saben about a project I might be interested in. He told me the company had been commissioned to make a series about amateur bands for BBC Four and would I like to come in and talk about it. I was wary... 'another talent show,' I thought, just what TV needs. I'm not a big fan of those shows: clichéd stories that seem to be cast by people ticking boxes, producing a stream of singers who are shoehorned into a mould of what some music exec thinks the public wants. Massage those egos this year, milk them for the cash, and then forget about them next year, destined for the scrapheap.
But when Mark explained that the concept was to produce "an anti-talent show ... a celebration of normal people living normal lives, yet hiding incredible musical talents", I was immediately excited. In my teenage years I'd played guitar in a band called Fred Shed, we were pretty awful, but it was a lot of fun. We knew we would never get a record deal, but it wasn't about that, it was about hanging out with your mates, being creative, partying and having plenty of fun.
When I started, the casting process was already underway, a small team of researchers and producers had set out across the country looking for bands from all walks of life playing music of any genre - rock, ska, reggae, skiffle, bhangra, bluegrass, folk or punk. Whatever their music style, the key rule for entry was the bands couldn't be signed to a label and the band should not be their main source of income. So my first week at work was spent listening to music, lots and lots of music... I had to pinch myself that this was actually a job and I was getting paid to do this. Happy Days!
The catchily titled, UK's Best Part-time Band is more of a rock n roll documentary series about a music competition. It shines a spotlight on real bands playing real music, and with Welsh funny guy Rhod Gilbert behind the wheel, the hunt for the UK's Best Part-time Band was a great chance to playfully send up other 'karaoke' TV talent shows.
The idea is pretty simple. Each week, Rhod embarks on a road trip in a different part of the country, on the hunt for the best amateur band in the UK. To assist him, he recruited expert help: Ultravox front-man Midge Ure headed home to Glasgow before taking in a tour of Northern Ireland and Wales; championing the north of England is former New Order and Joy Division bassist, Peter Hook; and in the south of the country, Rhod is accompanied by legendary Soul II Soul producer Jazzie B.
From across the UK we had more than 1,200 bands apply for the show, the casting team trawled the country watching more than 100 bands play in six weeks. We had a few Spinal Tap submissions, plenty of 'dad' bands belting out cover versions of Whole Lotta Love, but the overall standard was extremely high. At the end of it we had a shortlist for Rhod and the music legends were ready to visit.
Rhod and the music legends visited bands playing in pubs, clubs, rehearsal spaces, lounges, a kitchen, and even the singer from one bands mum's bedroom. At the end of each road trip, five acts are selected for a regional battle of the bands, where they compete for a place in the Grand Final, with one act finally being crowned 'The UK's Best Part-time Band'. On the surface the series is a competition, but as Rhod is at pains to point out there is no prize, no recording contract, and no Christmas Number One. It's really is just a celebration of these people's incredible passion for making music.
Hardly any of the bands got competitive, what they found on their 'TV journey' (to use a well worn cliché), was kindred spirits. Since filming, many of the bands have stayed in touch, collaborating on tracks they have been writing, self-recording and self-releasing, several have arranged support slots for each other.
I think the series says something about the current state of the music business. Part-time bands must be DIY, they record their own tracks, manage themselves, organize their own gigs and do their own promotion. In bygone days record companies would sign numerous bands, hedging their bets on success. But in today's climate making money out of music is hard, and opportunities to get signed are slim. Even Midge Ure's current band he tours with are part-time musicians, all former professionals who couldn't make ends meet from music, now they have to use up holiday entitlements to tour with the Ultravox front man.
In choosing the three music legends, we were keen that they should have music credibility, and not simply be 'pop' stars. They needed to be able to appreciate a wide variety of music and it was important that the bands themselves would see these people as heroes. It was all a bit of a leap into the unknown, a big undertaking to get music legends and Rhod to give so much of their time but we were persistent: "Go on you know you want to spend a week in a crappy tour van with a total stranger. P.S. Are you okay with staying at a Travelodge?" We believed in making the road trip genuine, and thankfully they all bought into it. Time on the road forged a real chemistry between Rhod and the music legends, which really comes across on screen.
As Midge Ure has been in his fair share of bands from playing punk with The Rich Kids to synth-pop with Visage, and rock with Thin Lizzy, he brought an incredible knowledge of the British music scene. He was a really great sport, giving as good as he got, when Rhod constantly ribbed him about his 1980s era pencil moustache, dubbing him the "fresh prince of lip hair".
Peter Hook is a Mancunian legend who has seen and done it all in the music business. Aside from co-writing some of the most seminal tracks of his generation as part of New Order, he has produced tracks for The Stone Roses, written several books and was co-owner of infamous nightspot, the Hacienda. When I first met him to discuss getting involved in the project, he told me the last time he'd judged a battle of the bands, he'd got into a fight in car park with one of the losers. Luckily we managed to avoid any brawling, though I did have to escort him from one venue, when some drunk punters decided he'd put through the wrong band.
Jazzie B is more diverse than just dance music. He grew up listening to country and western and building reggae sound systems and his producer work on Sinead O'Connor's version of Nothing Compares 2 You won him a Grammy. Jazzie is all about sonics - every time he would visit a band he'd have to find the 'sweet spot' in the room where the sound was best and ever the producer spent much of the time ferreting around all the studio tech that the bands had.
Rhod was the perfect host and had an absolute ball out on the road with the legends. He has a genuine love of music and was always interested in learning more about different musical styles, and with the endless hours spent cooped up in the tour van together Rhod became really good at eye spy and had an uncanny knack of teasing out great stories from the legends.
I think one of the wonderful things about this series is that playing music is universal to all ethnicities and all cultural backgrounds. We filmed with doctors, joiners, welders, booksellers, nurses, teachers, lawyers, bankers, IT workers, forklift truck drivers and even a vicar. Of course many dream of stardom, but that is tempered with the reality of working to provide for their families and for these people music is a release, an important an escape from the 9 to 5 grind.
We had a great age range of bands apply, from people in their late teens and early 20s, through to their 70s, among them great camaraderie, great banter and great stories. Like many chart-topping bands, there were tales of bad management, break ups and make-ups. One band from Surrey had recently got back together after 30 years, when they discovered a single they had made as teenagers in the 70s was changing hands on eBay for £300 a pop - a kind of home counties version of Searching for Sugar Man.
We had a few bands who entered that had flirted with success, at one time they had recording contracts but never really hit the big time: From a band of pensioners from south Wales who had supported The Who back in 1966 to an indie band in Liverpool whose front man, was the subject of an Oasis song, Digsy's Dinner. We also had a drummer from one band who'd toured the world with Noah and The Whale, only to give up fame to become a doctor.
This may well have been my dream job. Making this series has inspired me, I'm not sure I'll be doing a Blues Brothers and getting the old band back together, but I have dusted off the old guitar and begun to play again. I have developed a massive respect for all those people who gig in pubs and clubs every week up and down the country, playing to 10 people and a dog, lucky if they make enough money to cover their petrol and a cup of tea, their undying passion and enthusiasm for music is infectious.
Tom Willis is the Series Producer of UK's Part Time Band - a Wall To Wall production for the BBC.
UK's Best Part Time Band is on Fridays at 9pm on BBC Four.
The show is part of the BBC's Get Playing campaign, encouraging music lovers, amateur musicians and lapsed players to have a go and celebrate the joy of making music together.Suggest a correction