Top Of The Pops: Power Mad and Irrelevant

One of my Facebook groups recently put up a post of what looked like an old newspaper – yellowed, crumpled and a headline about miming on Top Of The Pops.

Turns out it was dated January 4, 2015. Yes, this January we’re living in now.

Forgive me for being churlish, but the headline TOTP: THE MIME HAS COME didn’t fill me with joy.

Top Of The Pops is a spent force whose audiences slumped from a peak of 19 million to a low of barely one million by 2005. It was cancelled a  year later.

It was also a horrible programme to be on.

But first, the audience. And also, why the programme’s not worth resuscitating.

Audience problems started when Matthew Bannister took over as Controller at Radio One. The station was peopled with the big beasts of pop radio – Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates, Johnnie Walker, Alan Freeman, Steve Wright.

They were not, as Bannister noted, in the first flush of youth. But they were attracting audiences of 16m+.

From the 60s on, mainstream pop was exactly what it said on the tin: mainstream. Records sold in their millions. You frequently had to sell half a million in a week to hit the top spot.

So you, your mum and dad, and quite likely your Gran and Granddad were watching Top Of The Pops. And many of them were also listening to Radio One.

And that presented a problem in Matthew Bannister’s world. The BBC has an almost pyschotic attachment to the notion that R1 is for 13-24 year olds. Thirty is pushing it. R2 is aimed at 35 upwards. As you move through the age range, their belief is some of you will start also listening to R4 in your 40s and 50s.

But people don’t behave so predictably, particularly generations X and Y.

Anyway, Bannister programmed to get rid of the oldies. Mainstream – out. Genre – in.

He was right about one thing. Not many of us wanted to listen to rap. Or hip hop. Or grime. Or house. Or drum’n’bass.

The unintended consequence of his policy was that as fewer people listened, so he narrowed the audience, and thus he narrowed the market for record buyers. Pretty soon, there was no mainstream.

And there was a further unintended consequence of his unintended consequence. As the pop market split into sub genres of specialist tastes and the mainstream drained away, Top Of The Pops – which wasn’t even his remit – found itself booking artists who had sold 10,000 records in the week.

Now, it’s not rocket science, is it, that many records selling hundreds of thousands of copies in a week = a programme that many millions will watch.

Whereas, a bunch of one hit wonders selling a few thousand copies in niche markets = not much of an audience.

Coincidentally, at the same time in America, FM Radio – another genre medium – was knocking AM Radio out of the ballpark. AM was mainstream radio, and stations throughout the country played much of the same music, creating enormous selling megahits.

In the following period, the music market became even more fractured by genres and sub-genres. Music sales have slumped from $30bn in 1998 to less than half of that today.

Does that sound like a recipe for an exciting return of a programme that had already outlived its usefulness?

Plus the miming. What a joke. This was the Top Of The Pops scam. They pretended everyone was playing live. You had to go back into the studio (at your own cost) the night before filming, and re-record especially for the show, and put on a new vocal.

To make sure you did this, they’d send a Musicians’ Union rep down to the studio to watch you do it. Except they didn’t. They were easily distracted by pluggers and record company types. So you’d go through the motions, do a quick desk mix from the master, and off they’d go with their ‘live’ track for next day’s recording.

The next shock was getting to the studio the next day. I turned up with my full band – all of us fully paid-up MU members, and certainly (me excepted) exceptional players, ready to do their stuff.

Time for run through. I strap on my guitar and get ready to sing to the track. A very cross man in a very cross shirt strode across the studio in his horribly cross trousers saying, “No, no, no, that’s not what we’re doing”.

He didn’t even introduce himself. He just told me they were setting up a ‘controller’s desk’ with phone and other props and I would do the talking bit live in the studio.

I say live. They wanted me to mime.

I’m sorry – you want me to mime to a spoken part while a bunch of pubescent girls pretend to dance around in front of me?

Yes. He did.

And what about the singing bits? “When the show’s over, you’ll stay behind” (what is this? Fucking school?) “and we’ll bring in a car and shoot you through the screen”. Isn’t that going to look a bit odd – where will the microphone be? “We don’t want you to sing it. We want you to mime”. Oh dear God.

I watched all day as they treated everyone like cattle. It was appalling. Old hands like The Shadows were used to it. But there were several of us newcomers for whom this day was supposed to be a dream come true. The BBC staff were officious, apparently power mad, no interest in music, and certainly no interest in what a prat I was going to look.

Furious, I phoned my record company boss and said I didn’t want to do it. “Well Paul,” he said, in a very reasonable voice, “that’s entirely your choice. And I sympathise. I really do.

“But let me just put this thought in your head: at the moment, you’re selling 5,000 copies a day. Once this show goes out, you’ll be selling 20,000 a day.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out that 20,000 copies a day over a six-day week meant I would be Number One next week. So I went ahead, made a prat of myself.

Most of you know how this story ends. Yes, we got orders for 20,000 a day. 120,000 in the week. Only the record company got stuck in the queue at the pressing plant. So instead of going to Number One, I dropped down to Number 11.

And don’t get smart and tell me there’s two number ones in 11.

I couldn’t give a toss for Top Of The Pops coming back. It looked good when you watched it, when everyone on it was selling bucketloads of singles.

But when you were on it, it was disgusting.

And it didn’t look so good when no-one on it was selling worth a bean. And then everybody stopped watching.

Leave it where it is. Don’t embarrass yourself.

I did want to show you my most memorable clip from the show, but I can’t find it. When Cyndi Lauper went on to do Girls Just Want To Have Fun my memory is of her running around the whole studio, then climbing up scaffolding. The cameramen seemed to have no clue and were just trying to keep up with her. Still, here’s another clip of her giving Tom Jones a bit of a seeing to. Video’s crap, but you can feel her extraordinary energy. When I saw this on its first broadcast, you could see the surprise on Tom’s face as she matched him phrase for phrase. The performance starts about 1m 30s in.

11 Comments

  1. Top of The Pops was such a curate’s egg. Highlights through the years were The Stones doing The Last Time, when Brian Jones was so out of it he simply stared fixedly at something on the wall throughout the song, causing Keith Richard to fall about laughing (I wonder why??); Sonny & Cher’s first TV performance, when we excitedly realised the image of pop stars had changed forever; The Beatles’ (one and only?) TOTP studio performance, Paperback Writer June ’66 (though they did look extremely bored); Lennon doing Instant Karma; Marc Bolan being always gorgeously preening; Bowie outraging all parents and thrilling every teenager when he hugged Mick Ronson during Starman; Roxy Music looking incredible for Virginia Plain; Adam & The Ants looking like proper pop stars doing Ant Music; Boy George having a simply fabulous time in his debut TV appearance bopping and skipping round the studio in a kind of dress smock thing for his future fans, and a nation fell in love; Frankie being wonderfully athletic doing Two Tribes. Others will come to mind, no doubt, but by the ’90s I’d kind of lost interest in pop and the charts (Oasis? Yawn), so any fab performances from then on went by me. But amidst all this poptastic fabbery there were also the always dreadful toe-curling DJ introductions, all of them truly appalling, not one of them ever looking comfortable in front of the cameras – except Savile of course who treated it as his personal pick-up joint, and often on camera for millions to witness but not take in. What the programme did give us was a landmark by which we measured how successful a record was, it kept us in the loop of chart activity, so when a record reached No.1 it was almost a national event. When the programme ceased, that landmark disappeared along with it. Who knows, or cares, what the Christmas 2014 No.1 was? No? Thought so. And there’s the rub re ‘who cares?’. People actually stopped caring about the charts before TOTP left our small screens. By the ’90s, records were crashing in at No.1 and by their fourth week in the chart had exited just as quickly. It became a joke, so along with it did TOTP (well, more of a joke than at times it had been previously). TOTP was sometimes great, often appalling to the point of excruciating – ‘Pans Legs & Co’ anyone?? – it had had its day and its day, along with the charts mattering anymore, has well and truly gone. RIP the time when ‘Yes, it’s No.1, it’s Top Of The Pops!’ actually sounded like a rally call for all kids who loved pop music.

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  2. I can’t imagine Car 67 being ‘performed’ straight. They may have been rude about it, but in the end what they produced was almost the equivalent of a promo video &, as a viewer, it came across well. It stuck in my mind anyway, and I was only 5 at the turn of 1979

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    • I completely agree with this. In fact, I had always assumed that it was an idea which was presented to the BBC by either the Driver or his record company – it seems like a very canny marketing trick, a way of using the different elements of the record to their fullest visual potential.

      And Paul acting as the switchboard operator is actually a great little comic turn. I’m sure it probably felt odd having to do it in front of a bemused studio audience, but it came across brilliantly on television.

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  3. Well said, Paul, about TOTP. Matthew Bannister personifies your average Beeb type – arrogant, self-opinionated, utterly clueless about what the listening/viewing public actually want, especially if it doesn’t tally with his own personal view and taste. He richly deserves to be operating at his present lowly level these days but of course the Beeb didn’t get rid of him. It’s long overdue that the BBC recognised that the dominant majority demographic today is the wrinklies (including me) and catered for it accordingly. (C)rap, house, grunge, grime etc should all be lumped together and placed in a new genre category. I suggest Toilet.

    Finally, I was knocked out once again by the spectacular firework display at the start of the New Year. But I was appalled in equal measure by Queen’s preceding contribution – deafening, over-amplified and devoid of anything resembling music. The same applies to the din selected and broadcast while the fireworks were exploding. If there has to be “music” accompanying such occasions,surely it’s time to give Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks another go?

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  4. I agree with Chris, the TOTP performance comes across very well. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to mime on TOTP but then I suppose I have always been a fan of the programme (if not all the music featured). I would be happy to see it return though I think they would need to base it on more than just the singles chart as it would be too one-dimensional. Maybe the album charts and perhaps the ‘indie’ chart (if such a thing still exists) should be included too.

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  5. My memory of your D67 performance, Paul, was actually just the bit with you sitting in the car, the live in the studio ‘controller’ section had completely gone out of my memory until I watched the repeat on BBC4 a few months ago. I remember when I first saw it in ’78 jumping up and shouting ‘It’s Paul!’, mystifying my then partner who I’d only met a few months earlier and who had no idea of my history of working with you in ’74/5.

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  6. Actually, did you see that BBC4 documentary about Top of the Pops in 1980? Suggs was particularly withering as well, pointing out that Madness had been banned from “Top of the Pops” on multiple occasions by heavy-handed BBC dictators, only to be allowed back on again when it became clear that they were producing too many hit singles, and the show would suffer more from their exclusion than the band would.

    The reasons for them being banned? Mucking about, essentially. Doing what they always did. Playing toy saxophones so it was “obvious they were miming” (as if this were any big secret). Falling offstage. Being unpredictable. Generally the behaviour that got my entire family to look up every time they appeared on the programme. My Dad used to actually exclaim “Oh, Madness are on!”

    So strange many of my favourite childhood TOTP memories involve Madness, and almost every single one of them must have involved an Executive Producer screaming into everyone’s headphones to “MAKE THEM STOP!”

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    • I didn’t see the doc, but will look it out. When I saw Cyndi Lauper running around the studio and climbing up the scaffolding, singing down into the camera which clearly couldn’t keep up with her, for me it was a perfect pop moment. In retrospect, of course, it probably wasn’t as spontaneous as it looked – but she really blasted out of that screen. I went straight out and bought the album, and never regretted it.

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