Ten, Nine, Eight… A Countdown of Rock Gold


Blondie, one artist in the Countdown archive

More than 90 minutes of raw film of Pearl Jam rehearsing for a club performance in the Netherlands in 1992.

Footage of U2 never aired, anywhere, and other film of Prince, in concert, that has similarly long been shut away from view.

A 25-minute George Harrison interview from 1992 from which only a minute or two has ever been available for use by filmmakers and television producers.

Those are some of the treasures that David Peck and his colleagues at Reelin’ In The Years Productions are finding in the rich archives of Countdown, the Dutch television program that from 1977 to 1993 was Europe’s leading showcase of popular rock music. Peck’s San Diego-based company, long a licensor of music and interview footage, has joined with Dutch production company Double 2 BV to buy and preserve the show’s archive, and to license it for use by filmmakers, media companies, and other entertainment-industry clients.

Countdown aired in 18 countries with a format of on-stage performances and interviews. American and British stars made a beeline for it, to firm up their popularity throughout the continent. So its archive is a rich trove of various phases of rock and pop, with more than 3,000 hours of performances, interviews, and concert footage featuring household names in rock, R&B, pop, new wave, and rap and hip-hop.

“It’s a pretty staggering archive, but it’s going to be a monumental task to go through it,” says Dave Peck, the president of Reelin’ In The Years. But the company has long handled such collections. In operation since 1992, it licenses 20,000 hours of music footage spanning 90 years, along with thousands of hours of interviews with the key figures in popular culture, politics, literature, and public life. Among its holdings are the archives of David Frost, Rona Barrett, and The Merv Griffin Show. In addition, Reelin’ In The Years has produced or directed more than 70 titles. Among its many other awards and honors, it won a Grammy nomination for its The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966.

Double 2 BV is a media production company in Amsterdam that since the 1980s has produced 2 Meter Sessions, a program featuring big-name acts in a recording-studio setting. Its collection includes more than 1,600 radio and television tapes, totaling more than 4,000 hours. Double 2 has also produced large European rock festivals.

countdown-logo-copyReelin’ In The Years has posted this 12-minute sampling of the Countdown archive, and it recalls the musical drama of the era, in all its magnificence and some of its cringeworthiness.

A plus, for Reelin’ In The Years and Double 2 BV, is that the recordings have been properly stored, so are in good condition. Only a small percentage of the tapes will need to be freshened up by “baking” (briefly heating film tape to remove built-up stickiness) before transferring it to digital form.

The bad news is that the material was never logged, so Peck and colleagues have a large task ahead of figuring out what is on the tapes, particularly as not all the musicians and bands appearing on the program, and in associated recordings, were American or British. Many were Dutch or from other European countries. Peck obviously knows his way around music, from many years of representing moving-image collections, but in the case of some of the Countdown material, he says, “there are cases where I literally don’t know the name of the band and so I have to go online and type in lyrics and hope that I find a match.”

Countdown taped thousands of in-studio performances, and also went on location to capture concert performances by many big names of popular music. One measure of how much musicians valued the platform was that in 1979 AC/DC debuted their classic “Highway To Hell” on the program. Many musicians embraced the show for maintaining a format that American TV was largely neglecting. There, the MTV music-showcase channel took to the air in 1981 and quickly began to specialize in music videos produced by musicians and their management, who sent tapes into the network for possible broadcast. With that, the until-then-rare music video became a dominant promotional form, and live television appearances by musicians became rare in North America.

But MTV did not premiere in Europe until August 1987, and that preserved a niche for programs like Countdown, which had millions of viewers. It capitalized on its large market opportunity by filming candid interviews in its studio as well as at concert locations. The Countdown film crew captured, for example, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry performing “Walk This Way” in a music store, and U2’s Bono improvising a country ballad on guitar backstage.

Among the performers on the Countdown films are, from left to right: Prince, Sting (The Police), Annie Lennox (Eurythmics), Robert Smith (The Cure). Other performers in the Countdown archive include The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Rick Astley, Blondie, Paul McCartney, Beastie Boys, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, Run-DMC, Depeche Mode, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Blondie, The Cure, and R.E.M.

Peck has been representing the Countdown collection for 13 years, but in that role did not see the vast archive’s many vaulted gems; even the television station that aired Countdown and owned its archive had little idea what was there. “I’ve had access to maybe a few hundreds hours, as opposed to a few thousands hours,” Peck says. “Late last year, my now former client said ‘Do you want to buy the library?’ I thought about it, and it’s not something I would normally do because it’s normally pretty expensive. I can’t discuss what I paid for it, for obvious reasons, but it was reasonable enough. They just wanted to get rid of it; they didn’t want to deal with it. They’re a television station; it was just not in their world, and they got tired of paying storage for all those tapes. And they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

For Reelin’ in the Years and Double 2 BV, making the full archive available for licensing for the first time involves a huge task of transferring and cataloging the material of almost 3,000 master tapes from various formats to digital form, and readying it for licensing and distribution. Says Peck: “We’ve also discovered many, many other tapes located in various archives in Holland that will be dealt with as well. There’s even a number of the shows where the multi-tracks exist when there was a live recording involved.”

With all that, processing the material and integrating it into the Reelin’ In The Years data base will be “a daunting task,” he says. He estimates it’ll take him a year to fully log all the material, but he says that taking stock of what is in his spectacular hoard of popular music will be “the fun part.”

— Peter Monaghan

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