The Word eh? Top telly!
Back when bands were bands – Northern lads with wide jeans, mad Adidas, and bowl cuts that straddled their shoulders! Indie meets dance, dance meets indie, indie meets indie! Controversy that you could weigh out by the gram, and at least one live performance on every episode.
Remarkably, it’s 30 years this week since The Word’s first ever episode aired (August 10th, 1990 to be exact). Britain had emerged from the Second Summer Of Love, the Tories had knifed Thatcher, authoritarian regimes were collapsing across Europe, while the Cold War – and imminent threat of nuclear catastrophe – looked to be coming to a close.
Into that cultural moment strode one man, with a smirk on his lips and a dubious grasp of the script. Terry Christian steered The Word from the off, and – if we’re honest – a lot of it doesn’t stand up. The Hopefuls? “I’d do anything to be on telly?” Please, the latest TikTok challenge would have that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
One area that The Word still reins supreme, however, is it’s array of live performances. Remember, this was an era where most households in the UK had one telly and four channels, meaning that space on the airwaves was at a premium.
The Word quickly evolved into a dynamic, anarchic slot for live performances, somehow placing its finger on the cultural pulse. Looking back, there’s a palpable sense of culture shock in some of these live performances.
Sadly, Channel 4 have ripped more than a few down from YouTube – so we can’t re-visit Pulp’s astonishing ‘Lipgloss’, for example, a moment that sealed their long-awaited rise. We can’t show you Richey Edwards dry-humping his guitar to death during a controversial Manic Street Preachers performance. We can't even show you a pissed-out-of-his-mind Oliver Reed jamming on ‘Wild Thing’ alongside Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.
However we can re-visit five seminal moments from The Word as Terry Christian, Dani Behr & Co. toast the show’s 30th birthday.
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Oasis - ‘Supersonic’
The Word was tailor-made for Oasis. The show’s deep Mancunian roots – and let’s face it, it’s laddish aura - were practically the perfect platform for the band, whose immaculate debut single ‘Supersonic’ was unleashed in the summer of ‘94.
Watching the performance back, it retains a searing sense of a band embracing its time. Oasis weren’t about to let their chance slip away: Liam is peerless, arrogance personified, while Noel’s nonchalance offers zen-like calm amid a rapidly encroaching hurricane.
It’s a performance that captures everything that made Oasis so irresistible during those first weeks and months. There’s a sense that the performance could collapse at any minute – an always mercurial live act, they somehow switch to God-like for three glorious minutes, eclipsing even Tony McCarroll’s sludge-thumping drum style.
Tearing down the walls around them, you can visibly see expectations rising, the lightning bolt communication between crowd and band ricocheting from the screen.
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Nirvana - ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The Word managed to gain a string of exceptional bookings during those opening few seasons, none more so than then-booker Jo Wiley persuading Nirvana to make their UK TV debut on the late night Channel 4 endeavour.
The late hour certainly helped Kurt Cobain get away with his intro, welcoming UK audiences by praising “Courtney Love, the lead singer of the sensational pop group Hole” who is “the greatest fuck in the world...”
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has been smashed to pieces through over-play, but returning to this clip you can visibly watch a break in culture. Nirvana feel alien, rudely out of sync with the wonky early 90s glamour that The Word strived for, the performance recovering the thrashing, bloodied heart of the song itself.
The crowd’s rush to the stage isn’t faked – there’s no barriers, and there’s a sense that you’re watching first-hand a group of people fall madly in love with a seminal, seminal band.
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Huggy Bear - ‘Her Jazz’
The Word was working in real-time – sure, they probably had an inkling that Oasis and Nirvana were going to be big, but the show’s anarchic ethos meant that they were continually reaching out to the fringes, resulting in some remarkable moments.
L7’s infamous semi-nude performance of ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ introduced Riot Grrrl to the masses, but we’ve plumbed for Huggy Bear’s stunning, outrageous, bolt-from-the-blue rendition of ‘Her Jazz’ as a key highlight of the show’s history.
It’s a phenomenal performance from a group who largely shunned mainstream media: turning down major label deals for none-more-independent Wiiija Records, Huggy Bear’s boy-girl revolution was spread across fanzines, live shows, and happenings across the land. For one night only, however, this message was beamed into rooms across the country.
A convulsion of feedback driven gender-fuckery, ‘Her Jazz’ exploded the invisible barriers between band and audience – completely out of sync with their surroundings, it remains a thrilling, visceral piece of avant punk.
Yet more controversy would follow. Objecting to the appearance of American model duo The Barbi Twins – and particularly host Terry Christian’s line of questioning – Huggy Bear and a few friends launched an ad hoc protest, before being ejected from the show. A band whose short-lived time together was spent in utter, glorious rebellion.
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Cypress Hill - ‘Insane In The Brain’
As from Top Of The Pops early 90s TV wasn’t exactly a hot-bed for alternative music. A few late night shows – normally given short, one season runs – peppered the schedules, but this simply underlined the importance that The Word had.
Largely slanted towards guitar music – from baggy to grunge through to Britpop – The Word also hosted some of the greats from hip-hop’s much-vaunted Golden Era. Cypress Hill’s ‘Insane In The Brain’ is an absolute, no-arguments, solid gold classic, and the Californian group’s performance lives up to its historical importance.
In short, it’s just sheer fun: cutting edge sonic thrills re-packaged to rock a party, ‘Insane In The Brain’ carries a subversive swagger, the knowledge of a group who know they’re capable of re-writing the rules.
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Rage Against The Machine - ‘Killing In The Name’
The Word had a curious relationship with its audience. A largely unfettered glimpse of youth tribes from the early 90s, some episodes can be curiously staged – check out those stilted, posed dancers on podiums working alongside alternative groups a world removed from such influences. When the band-crowd relationship clicked, however, sheer anarchy ensued.
Rage Against The Machine’s song ‘Killing In The Name’ was fuelled by a revulsion at the American Right, energised by the post-Rodney King anger that (quite literally) lit up the West Coast. Watching a crowd of people experience this unrelenting anger for the first time is thrillingly cathartic – the front row surge towards the crowd, Zack de la Rocha can scarcely grab hold of his mic, while Tom Morello disappears under a sea of arms and legs.
A song – and a band – claiming their moment, it’s a lingering sign of just how potent, how impactful, Rage Against The Machine can be.
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