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.