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.

Simon Cowell and the 1984 factor

Does anyone believe any more that X Factor isn’t scripted, contrived and edited to produce all those moments of ‘high drama’ and ’emotion’?

I stopped watching the show somewhere during series three, after a truly wonderful girl singer didn’t make it through to bootcamp. She had no backstory, wasn’t living in poverty and wasn’t doing it ‘for my nan’. She was just a beautiful girl with a thrilling voice, and that was clearly no longer enough. So I stepped away and never went back.

This week someone posted a link on my Facebook to one of those X Factor moments – let’s call it The Subo Effect – where we are supposed to feel we’re looking at a no hoper, and Simon Cowell gets tetchy.

The clip shows three nice looking boys, well presented, articulate, all with proper jobs. Which is astonishing since they’ve apparently grown up in the South Central area of LA, drug- and gang-ridden as it is.

It’s clear from the time they run on stage that the judges have been told they are perfect X Factor fodder. So as these three good-looking, sharply dressed and dignified brothers bounce on, Cowell scowls, and the other judges look distinctly uncomfortable – you know they want to smile, but they’ve been told to look sceptical.

During the ‘interview’, Cowell tells them to ‘stop weaving around; it’s like being on a boat; you’re making me feel sick”.

To add insult to injury, after they announce they’re going to sing Valerie, Cowell says: “I hate this song”, and then sits there looking flat-lipped as only he can. The camera lingers on the boys’ faces as they look like rabbits in headlights, because now they’re not so sure.

And then, off they go. Of course, the audience goes wild. Of course the judges faces light up. Of course, Simon Cowell begins to look impressed. It’s absolutely going according to script.

Except, that’s the problem. It’s so obviously, cynically, scripted.

When Paul Potts emerged on the first Britain’s Got Talent, it was a genuinely thrilling moment, that this podgy, shy and self-effacing man had such a surprising voice, and some actual talent to go with it.

Ditto Susan Boyle (although in her case, I wasn’t personally moved; I hate modern musicals, and most of the songs they contain, and she’s no musician’s idea of a great singer).

But of course, once you’ve had a couple of moments like that, you want more of them. So the research assistants have to go looking for unlikely chill-makers, and then the judges are tipped off, and now we’re on a production line of predictable and no longer so thrilling moments.

And the problem with AKNU, these three brothers, is they’re ok, but the singing’s not great, the dancing is sharp but limited and they just don’t have the, erm, X factor.

So the judges getting all misty-eyed and the audience going crazy all seems staged. Apparently, AKNU didn’t make it to boot camp (this was X Factor USA, last winter) and maybe we’ll never hear from them again, which wouldn’t be a tragedy.

But it set me wondering, and not for the first time, how pop music would have panned out if Simon Cowell had turned up in 1961 instead of 2001.

In 1961, pop was dominated by the likes of Cliff Richard, post-army Elvis, and blue-eyed white boys with names like Bobby (Darin, Vinton, Rydell, Vee) and girls who had the word ‘Little’ before their name (Eva, Peggy). In other words, totally unthreatening.

When John Lennon was told Elvis Presley had died, he said, “Elvis died when he joined the army” (in 1958).

Until then, Elvis had cut a genuinely threatening figure, “a national symbol of rebellion and untamed sexuality; a symbol of a new and dangerous way of being young”, in the words of American journalist David Seaton.

And his music seemed other-worldly in an age of Bing and Frank and Tony, David Whitfield, Donald Peers and Guy Mitchell.

But as the 50s turned into the 60s, and Elvis came out of the army and went off the boil, these older crooners were somewhat displaced by younger, prettier versions of themselves: Fabian, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon – still crooners, but crooners your sister would swoon over, as opposed to your mom and your nan.

So imagine Simon Cowell stepping into that arena and playing to the gallery as he does now. How he would have loved Craig Douglas and Susan Maughan. He would have absolutely swooned over Kathy Kirby. Frank Ifield would have been told to “cut out the yodelling; it’s so 1949. Otherwise, good voice, good-looking guy. You’ll go far”.

But The Beatles? No chance – can’t sing, can’t play, hair’s too long. The Rolling Stones? Get the fuck out of here, and take a bath on your way out. Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream? You’re joking, right?

Bob Dylan. Well. Imagine the scene.

“What’s that song you’re playing?”

“It’s a Woody Guthrie song.”

“Woody Guthrie – who’s he? Is he a songwriter? If he is, he should stop now and spend the rest of his life listening to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. That’s what I call song-writing.”

It really doesn’t bear thinking about, and it makes you wonder how much energy, attention and money Cowell’s empire has sucked out of the marketplace at the expense of genuine creative talent. I’ve no animus against Cowell personally, and I genuinely admire people who build businesses and make a fortune – as long as they’re not Russian oligarchs who’ve stolen all the money in the first place.

But there’s no doubt that X Factor and Got Talent have proved George Orwell’s contention in 1984 that music can be manufactured as a soporific, to keep people amused and occupied in a way that requires no real thought, and doesn’t inspire them to rebellion.

When was the last time you heard a song that made you feel like you did the first time you heard Blowing In The Wind, or Give Peace A Chance, or War (What Is It Good For?). Or, for that matter, Paralyzed by Elvis Presley?

So, you’ll find the AKNU clip here:

But for me, the most authentic clip of the week was this – 30 seconds long, partially scripted, but rounded off in the most surprising way that had me crying with laughter. It would never have got past Simon Cowell.