ossibly the saddest thing about the cancellation of Top Of The Pops is that, despite its beleaguered and misguided latter-day status, it was slowly starting to become watchable again. The conveyor-belt Youth Opportunities Programme presenters remained a serious irritant—and the fact that one of them this week was a Radio One DJ begs supplementary questions about standards in mainstream public radio—but the mixture of music was astute, balanced, and largely compelling watching. Indeed, the programme obliged me to reconsider bands such as Muse and Guillemots in a proper perspective, namely that of artists whose work and appearance only make sense when they are in the charts and on TOTP—a tradition which, in my lifetime, stretches all the way back to Jethro Tull; and the recent slow-motion navy torch performance of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley was a classic moment to rank alongside Billy MacKenzie sashaying backwards, much to Dave Lee Travis’ dismay, while smirking in mime to “Party Fears Two” in 1982.
It is fashionable to accuse TOTP adherents as being irrelevant sentimentalists, though I often wonder whether sentimentality for the past is not a considerably lesser sin than sentimentality for the future—the needless urge always to be ahead of the game which ultimately sunk the programme; whereas its strength was its partial impartiality. The programme was originally set up, against the wishes of virtually all the Reithian remnants of the BBC of 1964, with a simple remit; to reflect that week’s best-selling singles, irrespective of musical genre. A labyrinthine set of rules was drawn up to ensure that every Top 40 entry got its fair chance—the same record could not appear two weeks in a row unless it was at number one, only records entering or climbing the chart could be performed, and when it came to non-movers the rules became even more complex—but for the best part of three decades it worked.
Bearing in mind the perpetual turf wars being waged in the British singles chart during that period—in the ‘60s this mainly took the form of MoR ballads versus the Beat Boom and all who sailed in her—this usually ensured a delectable schizophrenia about the programme; Hendrix and Humperdinck, Roger Whittaker and Roger Chapman. When glam had its glory days in 1972-4, TOTP entered its purple patch; Slade, Wizzard, Bolan and Bowie, all trying to out-dress and outsell each other, turned the show into the most visual it has ever been, and removed for good the spectre of pop to be enjoyed on a solely sonic basis—it is impossible to listen to “Blockbuster” without thinking of Mick Tucker’s Nazi helmet, “Cum On Feel The Noize” without Dave Hill’s “metal nun” outfit. Perhaps the failure of TOTP in the 21st century could be partially ascribed to the fact that no band now would risk climaxing their performance with a custard pie fight on roller skates, as Wizzard did with “See My Baby Jive.”
And the crucial factor was that this was all being done on a mainstream, light entertainment template; mums tuned in to swoon over Tom Jones, dads to moan about Singers These Days (though they became noticeably more enthusiastic when Pan’s People or Suzi Quatro came on), kids to cheer and boo every chart position, to watch their idols make the sounds real and palpable. My God—these groups actually exist!
When punk happened TOTP had it all its way; its sister show The Old Grey Whistle Test refused to have any punk bands on in 1977 as it was an “albums-only” programme, which meant that the likes of the Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Dury, and the Jam started turning up regularly on TOTP, making the show even more compelling watching for viewers like me who were roughly the right age to be enchanted; and they stood out like proud Trojan horses when placed in juxtaposition with Des O’Connor or Boney M or the Brotherhood of Man. With New Pop, too, TOTP was ideally placed to celebrate the victory of Our Music—for much as we profess equality and fairness for love of pop in general, taking sides is an inevitable by-product of human nature, and we wanted ABC and the Associates and Japan to have hits rather than Adrian Gurvitz or the J. Geils Band or BA Robertson featuring Maggie Bell—with the consequence that most of its ‘81/2 shows came across as a weekly victory parade.
After that, the charts slowly began to degenerate, by the mid-‘80s having shifted its nature from reflecting ground-level record sales—these being the days of five or six new entries in an average Top 40, with records entering low and climbing steadily and naturally—to major record company marketing priorities (from about 1989 onwards, considerably more singles debuted at number one, and more records tended to peak in their first week of release and then plummet down the list), and TOTP continued in a bemused business-as-usual fashion. Despite flashes of brief resurgence caused by Madchester and Britpop—since, for all their greatness, the dance-friendly post-1987 singles charts did not lead themselves naturally to visual representation—the niches continued to narrow and TOTP became stuck in a quandary.
While the likes of Blackburn, Edmonds, and Travis were a sorely acquired taste to some, they were at least proper and experienced music radio broadcasters; however, frightened by MTV and other factors in the early ‘90s, TOTP disastrously decided to become “relevant.” This heralded the sad age of “exclusives,” of 15-minute Michael Jackson videos, of fashion victim presenters with no evidence of knowledge of or passion for music, and ultimately the fatal schism of the oldies spin-off TOTP2, which served only to remind long-suffering adherents of what the programme was once like. Eventually no one quite knew exactly what TOTP was meant for. It was never fated to be a “cool” programme—indeed its determined uncoolness was perhaps its greatest asset, a glorious jigsaw puzzle in which Nina Simone, Donald Peers, and the Bonzo Dog Band were all equal pieces. So it was left to wither and die slowly—rescheduled hopelessly against Coronation Street, eventually moved to a Sunday graveyard slot in a hapless compromise manoeuvre to recapture old viewers waiting for Top Gear, it had little opportunity to find its way back home.
Perhaps a Russell T. Davies equivalent can be found to inject the programme with the new life it has always studiously avoided. In the meantime, the prospects for pop on television remain bleak—the only options now being the increasingly stifling Q/Mojo hegemony of Proper Music (see Jools Holland, Glastonbury, Radio 2 in general) or patronising “ironic” toddlers’ shows (Popworld, X Factor), while journalists far too old to know any better continue to crow about Secret Machines causing the downfall of Girls Aloud, and we will eventually all end up with the bemused expression of David Jacobs, following the Specials’ performance of “Ghost Town” on the 900th edition of TOTP in July 1981: “Oh dear, that wasn’t very cheery, was it?”
By: Marcello Carlin
Published on: 2006-06-26