TOP OF THE POPS – Thee Music Show

Friday night of 1st April 2011 and  from 9pm onwards, BBC 4 here in the UK devoted the latter part of its evening schedule to that most famous of popular music shows ‘Top of the Pop’ (or TOTP if you like).  There have been the odd retrospective of this show down the years – one which was included in the evening’s line up.  Well I set my Digital Box to record the evening’s festivities and watched it during the twilight hours.  Most of it I found entertaining and informative.

The evening starts off with a programme that showcases the appearances of numerous artistes during the period 1964 (when the show began,) up to and including 1975.  Fair enough I thought, I was born in 1963, became aware of the show when I was five or six, which would have been about 1968.  I remember a mad man with a flute (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull,) singing something about Living in Past, well I was only five or six at the time so please forgive me.  That aside, my only other earliest memory at that age was watching Neil Diamond singing Cracklin’ Rosie.  And yes, I have to admit to been a lifelong fan of Jethro Tull ever since that 1968 TOTP appearance.

There are many other memories I recall of TOTP, namely Bruce Forsyth and the late Frankie Howard, making separate appearances, telling a few jokes, then singing their song that had sold enough records to make their appearance that on the show that week a reality.  Neither comedian’s appearance was showcased in the ’64 to ’75 showcase programme but with such shows and given the period they were dealing with everyone cannot be included.

Top of the Pops as a music show differed from any other music ever televised because it did not try to be relevant to the times, it just reflected the musical tastes and styles of the times.  What artistes appeared on TOTP were those whose records were selling that week.  As quoted the producer of the show was a rare breed who had nothing to do because control of the show and who appeared on any given week was not in his hands but the those of the record buying public up and down the these fair British Isles – namely those within United Kingdom territory.

Given the dearth of musical shows that appeared and disappeared during the sixties, Seventies and Eighties even, I have often wondered why TOTP has always been singled out for such scathing criticism from certain quarters concerning the time period I am going to discuss next.   I would concur that Michael Hurll’s stewardship as Producer left a lot to be desired in terms of how the show appeared but nevertheless in terms of music and fashion TOTP did what it did best, which was to reflect the music and fashions of the time.  No more, no less.

The next programme after ’64 to ’75 was one devoted solely to TOTP during the year 1976.  Again much has been made of this year, namely as we had the hottest summer on record in the UK that year and how I remember it well and the School Day Trip to Boulogne in Northern France on Wednesday 9th June that year.  A decade later I was following the Beatles’ advice and being a ‘Day tripper’ but I digress.

The ’76 programme painted a somewhat different picture from the TOTP Shows I watched during that year.  I was more into watching Lee Major as ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ but saw enough of TOTP and listened to enough of the music of that year to know that what I remembered of 1976 musically and what was researched and discussed in programme were two completely and separate things.

Firstly, let me say this again.  Top of the Pops, featured those artistes who records were selling well that week.  They had a rule that if a record was going down the charts that week, they didn’t appear on the show.  Fair enough.

For me I (and I suppose because I was now a teenager, I always saw 1976 as been a vintage year of pop hits but one thing the ’76 show did remind me off was there were some definite howlers that made their way right up to the top of the charts.  Fortunately ‘Our Kid’ I never saw on TOTP and thank heavens for ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and small mercies.  I remembered being in love with Melanie and her song ‘Brand New Key’ a few years earlier, which (unfortunately,) was forever destroyed by The Wurzels’ ‘Combine Harvester’ rendered (not sung,) to the same tune as ‘Brand New Key’.  Then there was J.J. Barrie’s ‘No Charge’ which I won’t go into, which made the Number One spot during the summer of that year.  And of course how bad it was that ‘The Brotherhood of Man’ made it to the top spot during the spring of that year with ‘Save All Your Kisses for Me’.  Oddly enough it was touched upon (namely because two members from the group appeared in the Programme,) that the record was the UK’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest of that year, had got to the number one spot well before Brotherhood of Man performed at the Contest and actually won it.  Now Eurovision has never been a benchmark for the European Music scene but for many years whoever won the Contest was guaranteed to have a huge hit right across Europe with that song.  Different times and my problem is that the makers of the ’76 Programme were either looking at that year in particular from a 21st Century point of view rather than a historical one or worse from a very elitist, high-handed point of view.

From their point of view I can see why they made the Programme the way they did but as I mentioned earlier, at the time as a twelve/thirteen year old teenager, we had the hottest summer on record, four or five months of uninterrupted hot sunny days and apart from some of the howlers that made it to the top of the UK pop charts (and that happens every year by the way,) we pretty much had a vintage year of hits.  ‘Abba’ was mentioned, as was ‘Sailor’ with they clearly musical hall inspired catchy number ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ but no mention of ‘A Glass of Champagne’.   How about Elton John getting his first Number One hit with Kiki Dee ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’?  Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’?  Be Bop Deluxe’s ‘Ships in the Night’?  And The Four Seasons’ ‘December ’63 and ‘Silver Star’?  Even though he got a mention let’s not forget Alex Harvey and his Sensational Band reminding us of ‘The Boston Tea Party’ in America’s Bicentennial Year, even if Alex’s invitation to the Tea Party came a couple of hundred years too late, bless him.  Still it was a fantastic record no doubt about that.

While kids of each generation prior to the Digital Age (which I affectionately call the ‘Timex Age’,) buy a great deal of records depending on how much disposal pocket money they have (and that increases with each generation,) they are not the only ones who buy records and there are times when records such ‘Combine Harvester’ and ‘No Charge’ will make it to the Number One Spot simply because more people than Young People will buy that particular record.  And so has been the case right throughout the history of Popular Music.

The reason I believe the ’76 Top of the Pops Programme was so critical of 1976 was due more to the rise of ‘Punk Rock’ and the Beeb’s deliberate omission of it as a credible music form.  This should be of no surprise to anyone with a degree of Popular Music history.  Remember it was only a decade earlier that Pop Music was begrudgedly included on the BBC’s ‘Light Programme’ (that later became BBC Radio Two,) for that very same reason – It wasn’t given any credibility.  And that is why there were ships up and down the North Sea broadcasting Pop Music and Rock and Roll with great success.  Radio Caroline, Radio London and many others were immortalised via the film ‘The Boat That Rocked’ – Please watch it programme researchers, you will get an education.  I should note that the Establishment eventually relented and gave the go ahead for the creation for Radio One.  The rest as they say is History.

I have never been a fan nor lover of Punk Rock personally but did warm to Siouxsie and the Banshees (‘Hong Kong Gardens’ was the icebreaker for me,) and oddly enough the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Specs and The Clash much later.  That aside, when the media types and especially those at the Beeb saw the kind of antics, behaviour, let alone the music itself, they are not going to take a chance of something they cannot control and they couldn’t control the Punk Movement because that was not what the Punk Movement was about.  Personally I felt the powers that be were wrong to totally ignore Punk and if there was any chance of them doing just that – taking a chance – that chance disappeared with the infamous behaviour of the Sex Pistols on ‘The Bill Grundy Programme’.  To jump ahead a couple of years to 1978, The ITV Network produced ‘Revolver’ a music show geared up to that target audience but then killed it off by putting it out at Midnight on a Saturday night which was guaranteed to just that and did!  Having said that ITV since the demise of the 1960s had never really been serious about doing another serious music show anyway.  The Roxy aside in the 1980s, I can’t think another music show ITV produced that came close to TOTP and the reason is because there wasn’t one.  As I had no interest at that time in Punk or New Wave, I didn’t watch ‘Revolver but opted to spent my twilight hours watching old black and white horror films as part of ‘The Masters of Terror’ Season on BBC2 instead.  It would be nearly twenty years later via the VH1 Music Channel that I would realise my folly but again I digress.

To single out a particular year and criticise it so blatantly for everything that was wrong with Popular Music seems to me more than a little half-baked.  Maybe TOTP was starting to parody itself – I didn’t see that myself personally.  Popular Music has its fun side and its serious side and for me, music is about bringing people together.  Top of the Pops managed to do that for many years.  Oddly enough 1976 was the year when for some strange reason EMI decided to do some Beatles re-releases (not sure why,) it may have had something to do with Radio One airing ‘The Beatles Story’ at the same time during the Spring of that Year but whatever the reason that is when I first heard ‘Hey Jude’ and that probably remains my favourite Beatles tune – there are many others but ‘Hey Jude’ was the first Beatles Record I ever heard.  What a sheltered life I must of lead and did lead in a Birmingham suburb.  Having said that, it is worthy to note 1976 was when I was also introduced to the music of The Kinks and The Dave Clark Five as their respective record companies had release compilation albums of their greatest hits.

Even though the TOTP ’76 programme was about what appeared on the Show during that Year, I felt it didn’t reflect the music scene of that year and what was going on.  It neglected to mention that Rock, Pop, Soul, Disco and Country Music all shared top ten chart positions in same given week.  I would point out the top twenty of any week in June of that year, where Dolly Parton, The Bellamy Brothers, The Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, The Real Thing, The Wurzels (oh dear!), Billy Ocean, Tavares, David Dundas, Paul McCartney and Wings even, were all in the Charts at the same time.  That is indicative of the pop charts in the 1970s anyway.  What the above demonstrates conclusively (to me anyway,) was that 1976 like any other year before or after it demonstrated that the  record buying public (young people and mature adults alike,) know a good tune when they hear it and while I might not have liked some of the records that hit the number one spot, what the Pop Charts and Top of the Pops reflected then and many years afterwards was what people i.e. The Record Buying Public was listening to that year, as well any other year until the record companies hijacked the Singles’ Charts for their own ends, thereby distorting the whole business and in doing so killed the golden goose.  When Westlife manage to equal The Beatles’ tally of most number one hit records you know the game is well and truly up.  Just who is going to be playing Westlife records or rather CDs forty years from now?  And yet we are all still listening to the songs of The Fab Four forty years after they broke up.  There is cautionary tale there somewhere and it is this: When you manipulate the musical tastes and freedom of choice of the record buying public, you end up selling rubbish that is neither lasting nor organic and that is the situation we are currently facing.  Simon Cowell does his X-Factor thing and everyone watches. The winner is virtually guaranteed the Christmas Number One slot with their first release.  How boring!  And what is the record industry doing to compete with Simon Cowell?  Nothing!  How strange!  No competition.  Good on you Simon!

Casting a critical eye over Top of the Pops is one thing and has been done before but to take a single year out the annals of Popular Music and single it out as all that began to go wrong with Popular Music is plain stupid in my humble opinion.  Better to look at the later years of TOTP and observe where things began to go wrong because after all what music show better reflects the times? The  rot has nothing to do with TOTP or The Old Grey Whistle Test, the latter being a progressive music show that featured Bob Marley (in his first UK television appearance), Be Bop Deluxe, the recording of a Reggae Showcase and live concerts of Elton John and Queen respectively.  It wasn’t just American ‘West Coast’ Bands that were solely featured that show either.

Retrospectives are well and good but the programme that followed was about the history of Top of the Pops and was far better because it looked at the whole history of the Show and where things started to go wrong and it was not in 1976 I might add.  It should be noted the Show continued for another thirty years until its cancellation in 2006, given the strength of the Brand internationally I have always found the BBC’s decision puzzling, low ratings aside.  Nothing rots for thirty years.  Whatever went wrong with TOTP happened many years after 1976.  I for one have fond musical memories of that year and long may they remain so.

BBC Four in the UK has a lovely habit of repeating these shows again late night.  If you would like to know what an earth I am talking about you can also view them via BBC’s IPlayer facility ( BBC Four in the Music Section.  The programmes are:-

Top of the Pops: The Story of 1976

Top of the Pops (original broadcast on 1st April 1976)

Both Shows are followed by: ‘Top of the Pops: The True Story’ which gives a pretty good overview of the TOTP and its history.

The BBC normally keep these shows on their IPlayer Service seven days.  Not sure if they can be accessed outside of the UK but if not, I hope the above gives you some insight into what for me is a personal view of a particular year musically and a critique in defence of one particular year.