Sunday, 8 March 2015

109 Top of the Pops

First  watched  : 25  or  28  December  1972

We  reach  a  bit  of  a  turning  point  here  as  more  solid  memories  start  emerging  from  the  murk  of  early  childhood.  As  I've  written  elsewhere  I  was  first  turned  on  to  pop  music  by  hearing  the  Osmonds'  Crazy  Horses  at  a  school  Christmas  party  and  was  desperate  to  hear  more.  The  earliest  incident  I  can  clearly  recall  is  the  unveiling  of  Cherry  Gillespie  as  the  new  Pan's  Person  ( above ) on  the  second  of  the  Christmas  editions  in  1972  but  I  can't  think  of  any  good  reason  why  I  wouldn't  have  seen  the  first  one  on  Christmas  Day ; I  certainly  wouldn't  have  been  anywhere  else  than  home  at  that  time.

Obviously  a  great  deal  has  already  been  written  about  Top  of  the  Pops  , most  of  it  bad  in  recent  years  thanks  to  the  activities  of  Mr  Savile  so  I'll  be  concentrating  more  on  my  personal  journey  here.

The  end  of  1972  was  a  great  time  to  start  watching  the  programme  as  it  was   bang  in  the  middle  of  the  glam  rock  period  and  each  edition  brought  new  thrills   as  Slade, Sweet , Wizzard , Gary  Glitter etc  vied  with  each  other  to  be  more  outrageous  and  provide  a  visual  spectacle  to  brighten  up  a  rather  difficult  period  in  our  postwar  history. The  Osmonds  were  soon  replaced  by  The  Sweet  as  my  favourites   with  the  fabulous  Blockbuster  which  spent  five  weeks  at  number  one. Although  Cum  On  Feel  The  Noize  is  a  pretty  good  record  itself  I  never  quite  forgave  Slade  for  displacing  it.

I  soon  worked  out  the  rules  laid  down  by  the  producers : that  only  records  going  up  or  holding  their  position  in   the  chart  would  be  featured, that  no  record  would  be  featured  in  consecutive  weeks  except  the  number  one  if  applicable  and  if  a  new  release  was  featured  it  wouldn't  feature  again  unless  the  record  got  in  the  charts. On  that  latter  point  I  also  quickly  twigged  that  Top  of  the  Pops  was  a  good  guide  to  what  would  appear,  or  take  a  big  jump  in,  the  following  week's  charts.  I  was  confused  when  Chaos's  Down  At  The  Club  a  Slade/Wizzard  glam  stomper  written  by  a young  Martin  Rushent  was  featured  in  August  1973  but  didn't  subsequently  chart  and  I  never  heard  it  again  until  four  minutes  ago.

An  early  crisis  occurred  at  the  end  of   April  1973  when  the  show  was  moved  to  a  Friday  evening. I  had  just  enrolled  - no  more  than  3  weeks  before  - at  the  local  branch  of  the  Cub  Scouts  which  met  on  a  Friday . I  wasn't  enjoying  it  and  didn't  need  much  excuse  to  drop  it  but  my  mum  and  gran  were  furiously  opposed  to  my  giving  them  up  to  watch  a  television  programme. Eventually  they  conceded  it  was  no  use  forcing  me  there   and  I  prevailed. The  programme  moved  back  to  Thursdays  by  the  summer  and  I  gave  the  Cubs  another  go  the  following  April  ( on  a  Monday )  this  time  lasting  for  over  a  year.

The  seventies  were  the  peak  year  for  the  programme  under  producer  Robin  Nash  who  put  out  a  good  show  despite  being  hampered  by  the  restrictive  practices  of  the  Musicians' Union.
Towards  the  end  of  the  decade  I  became  more  aware  of  the  criticism  of  the  programme   as  I  started  reading  the  music  press, spearheaded  of  course  by  the  stupid,  self-defeating  stance  of  The  Clash  in  refusing  to  appear  on  it . A  lot  of  the  criticism  honed  in  on  the  issue  of  "miming",  or  lip-synching  as  it's  now  termed,  instead  of  playing  live  which  for  practical  purposes  would  have  been  impossible  given  the  programme  was  reacting  to  a  chart  announced  just  two  days  before  broadcast. The  complaint  was  that  lip-synching  allowed  bands  to  give  un-natural  camera-hogging  performances , sharpened  by  the  fact  that  it  was    supposedly  punk  acts  Sham  69  and  The  Boomtown  Rats   who  were  most  obviously  taking  advantage  of  this. The  obvious  counter-argument  is  that  these  bands  were  using  the  medium  to  connect  with  a  much  wider  audience  including  those  too  young  to  actually  attend  gigs.  In  1978  the  chart  expanded  to  a  top  75  and  from  that  point  songs  outside  the  Top  30 were  invited   to  fill  spare  slots   in  the  order  they  appeared  in  the  charts  so  once  I  started  buying  Record  Mirror  which  had  a  full  chart  I  was  anxiously  checking  the  lower  positions  to  check  if  any  of  the  songs  I  championed  were likely  to  make  it. Apparently  one  of  my  all  time  favourites  B-Movie's  Remembrance  Day  nearly  got  on  and  I  often  wonder  how  big  a  hit  it  would  have  been  if  featured. I  remember  another  story  from  the  beginning  of  1982  when  The  Techno  Twins  a  forgotten  electronic  duo,  were  about  to  go  on  but  were  thwarted  by  the   last  minute   arrival  of  a  helicopter  dropping  off  Elkie  Brooks  who  was  just  a  few  places  above  them.

In  1980  the  long-running  niggles  with  the  MU  climaxed  in  a  strike  and   the  programme  going  off  air  for  two  months  in  the  summer. As  a  result  the  charts  filled  up  with  dance  singles  which  were  less  reliant  on  TV  exposure ; the  main  victims  were  The  Korgis'  Everybody's  Got  To  Learn  Sometimes  and  Kate  Bush's  Babooshka   which  would  have  stood  a  good  chance  of  getting  to  number  one  ahead  of  Odyssey  and  ELO/Olivia  if  the  programme  had  gone  out.

When  it  returned  it  had  a  new  producer  Michael  Hurll  who  unlike  Nash  started  to  bend  the  rules  and  I  too  started  to  become  critical  of  the  programme  although  not  every  change   for  the  worse  could  be  laid  at  his  door. First  was  stopping  the  initial  countdown  at  11  and  then  having  little  snatches  of  the  Top  10  including  records  which  were  going  down  and  ones  which  had  already  featured  on  the  programme. This  of  course  took  up  time  which  could  have  been  given  to  another  performance. Then  in  December  1981 Ken  Dodd  appeared  to  do  his  single  Hold  My  Hand  which  was  nowhere  near  the  chart  at  the  time  though  Hurll  may have  been  compromised  there  by  his  involvement  in  other  light  entertainment  shows.

It's  less  easy  to  forgive  him  for  the  US  charts  feature which  started  in  1982   and  gave  the  anti-patriotic  Jonathan  King  the  opportunity  to  prise  open  the  door  for  crap  acts  like  Joan  Jett   and  the  Blackhearts ( probably  the  only  time  Dave  Lee  Travis  was  ever  on  the  right  side  of  a  musical  fence ).  It  shut  out  an  extra  performance  by  a  British  act  and  gave  an  unfair  advantage  to  US  acts  ; King  used  one  slot  to  try  and  re-activate  dismal  singles  by  Lionel  Ritchie  and  Christopher  Cross  which  had  already  peaked  outside  the  Top  40.  What  I  could  never  understand  is  why  a 30 -second  snatch  of  a  song  on  King's  feature  often  seemed  to  outperform acts  who  were  featured  in  the  studio  that  week - the  advance  of  US  cultural  imperialism  I  guess.

Hurll's  other  big  idea  was  to  try  and  create  a  party  atmosphere  in  the  studio. Legs  and  Co  were  retired  at  the  end  of  1981 in  favour  of  an  anonymous  larger  ensemble  Zoo  that  eventually  became  indistinguishable  from  the  audience. The  stages  were  altered  to  deliberately blur  the  lines  between  performer  and  audience  ; sometimes  ( eg. Matthew  Wilder ) the  former  was  almost  lost  in  the  crowd. Most  reprehensibly  the  sound  of  records  which  didn't  quite  fit  , usually  guitar  rock  like  The  Rainmakers'  Let  My  People  Go  Go , was obscured  by  whoops  and  over-dubbed  handclaps.

Hurll  departed  not  long  after  that,  perhaps  anticipating  the  difficulties  ahead  with  the  rise  of  computer  games  and  satellite  TV. Top  of  the  Pops  had  also  been  cramped  into  a  half  hour  slot  by  Michael  Grade  who  wanted  to  ape  US  TV  conventions. The  next  producer  Paul  Ciani  had  to  cope  with  all  sorts  of  difficulties  caused  by  the  changing  nature  of  the  chart  post- Live  Aid. Exciting  or  eccentric  performers  were  replaced  by  the  solid  and  sober  likes  of  Wet  Wet  Wet  and  Deacon  Blue,  boy/girl  next  door  acts  like  Rick  Astley  and  Kylie   and  most  tellingly,  the  anonymous  dance  acts  usually  involving,  as  The  Guardian  memorably  put  it , "Men  in  baseball  caps  jigging  about".

As  ratings  steadily  declined  the  next  guy  Stanley  Appel, perhaps  influenced  by  the  Milli  Vanilli  scandal ,  tried  to  turn  the  clock  back  by  insisting  on  live  singing  presumably  in  the hope  that  exposing  the  models  who  fronted  the  likes  of  Black  Box  and  Technotronic  as  "inauthentic"  would  prompt  people  to  buy  something  else  instead. Neil  Tennant  threatened  to  boycott  the  programme  and  the  policy  only  succeeded  in  exposing  how  little  influence  in  shaping  tastes  the  show  now  had. Nirvana's  rendition   of  Smells  Like  Teen  Spirit  was  excruciating  but  who  cared ?

My  own  interest  in  the  programme  was  starting  to  slide  after  1991  when  Record  Mirror  ceased  publication  and  later  in  the  year  I  was  disgusted  by  them  giving  over  half  the  programme  to  Michael  Jackson's  self-indulgent  masturbatory  15  minute  video  for  Black  And  White.  If  you  didn't  like  MJ  what  was  the  point  of  watching  on ?

The  next  guy  Ric  Blaxill  had  the  advantage  of being  in  charge  during   the  Britpop  era  which  probably  extended  the  programme's  life  by  a  decade. The  celebrity  presenters  were  a  good  idea  for  a  while. Jarvis  Cocker  certainly  made  an  impact  with  his  barbed  comments  which  raised  his  profile  and  Chris  Eubanks  struggle  with  "At  number  six  it's  Cecilia  by  Suggs"  with  audience  laughter  clearly  audible  was  priceless.

When  it  moved  to  Fridays  in   1996  in  direct  competition  with  Coronation  Street  its  days  were  clearly  numbered  and  now, rather  than  knock  it, music  writers  seemed  more  concerned  to  shore  it  up, hence  the  blaze  of  publicity  surrounding  the  appearance  of  the  unsigned  Bis  in  1995. The  programme  was  now  in  direct  competition  with  my  improved  social  life  and  I  rarely  bothered  to  tape  it.

The  last  decade  of  the  show  saw  ever  more  frequent  re-vamps  in  the  face  of  the  spread  of  the  internet  making  it  look  completely  redundant, as  fossilised  as  Last  of  the  Summer  Wine .
It  moved  to  BBC  Two  on  Sundays  in   summer  2005 ; I  caught  the  edition  which  had  Jeremy  Clarkson  denigrating  the  hip  hop  acts  because  I  was  staying  in  a  holiday  lodge  at  the  time.

It  was  finally  put  out  of  its  misery  a  year  later. I  did  make  a  point  of  watching  the  final  edition  like  a  deathbed  visit  to  an  old  friend. It  was  a  very  dispiriting  affair  of  over-familiar  clips  and  brief  comments  from  the  ageing  stalwarts  of  yesteryear , culminating  in  the  video  for  the  current  number  one  Shakira's  Hips  Don't  Lie   followed , unfortunately,  by   a  sequence  of  the  spectral  and  embarrassing  Savile  turning  off  the  lights. I  didn't  shed  a  tear  but  you  always  feel  that  bit  older  when   something  that  lit  up  your  youth  is  finally  extinguished.

It  does  still  get  an  annual  resurrection  on  Christmas  Day  which  I  watch  but  rarely  recognise  anything.

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