Sixty years ago, on January 1, 1964, a new show aired on BBC Television that would, in its own way, prove to be as culturally significant as anything broadcast on any channel before or since.
At 6.30pm that night, the opening credits ran on Top of the Pops, and viewers were treated to half an hour of musical performances broadcast live from a converted church in Dickenson Road, Rusholme, Manchester, beginning with Dusty Springfield singing “I Only Want to Be With You” and climaxing with a filmed contribution by the Beatles playing that week’s No.1 single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Along the way another up-and-coming beat combo called The Rolling Stones performed their second single release, “I Wanna Be Your Man”.
It was the beginning of both a revolution, and an institution; a beloved fixture of every British family’s TV schedule, a celebration of the diversity of the pop charts, an industry juggernaut… and, as would later be revealed in horrific detail, the vehicle through which some ruthless monsters could exploit their darkest desires.
No TV show in the world has had such a profound impact on popular culture as Top of the Pops. Ed Sullivan may have introduced Elvis and the Beatles to America, and MTV may have ushered in the age of big-budget promos and global superstar acts, but for four decades, Top of the Pops was the definitive music program, not only reflecting the changing sounds of popular music, but, in its heyday at least, becoming a fundamental part of the industry itself. It ran for 42 years and 2,272 episodes and pretty much anyone who was anyone appeared on it – along with scores of acts long forgotten by history.
Top of the Pops was not the first attempt by the BBC to bring the newfound excitement and energy of the burgeoning pop music scene to the small screen. As early as 1952, the network aired The Hit Parade, described by the Radio Times as “the most ambitious attempt yet made to present popular music on the screen”, in which an in-house band played the songs rather than the original artists. That was followed by 1955’s Off the Record, notable for the only UK TV appearance by Buddy Holly, and 1957’s Six-Five Special – which introduced the revolutionary idea of a non-seated audience that could dance along to the hits – and 1963’s The 625 Show, on which the Beatles made their television debut.
None of these formats had survived much beyond a year, however, with even the most successful of them, the Six-Five Special, folding after the BBC’s bizarre insistence on introducing “educational” segments in between the pop songs.
Top of the Pops was different. Initially commissioned for just six episodes, its USP was beautifully and perfectly simple: DJs would introduce each song, the artists would perform in front of an audience of around 100 young people drawn from the local clubs, there would be a chart rundown, and the show would end with that week’s best-selling single. In sticking strictly to showcasing only the songs performing well in the charts, it became an instant barometer of what was hot, right here, right now.
The format was not only a success, it was a sensation. For four decades, Top of the Pops was broadcast each week, first from Manchester and then from BBC Television Centre in London, and give or take a few ill-advised experiments towards the end of its run, stuck rigidly to the same structure. In doing so, it not only showcased established stars, but also up-and-coming new artists, one-off novelty acts, and names so big that it now seems incredible they could ever be gathered together in the same place at the same time.
“My most amazing memory of going on Top of the Pops in the 60s was when I went along and there was Mandy Rice-Davies, dancing in the audience,” Marianne Faithfull told the Guardian in 2002. “I so wanted to meet her, and she was really nice, so nice. She was not at all hung up about the whole scandal thing [the Profumo affair].
“It was a laugh. You just went along and enjoyed it, especially if The Who were playing, or the Stones. We never got up to anything really naughty, as we didn't want to upset the BBC. I suppose people smoked joints outside before they came in.”
From the beginning, the producers didn’t dare risk the acts actually playing live, instead lip-synching along to the record itself. Occasionally this would throw up some unexpectedly hilarious gaffes. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix was broadcast to millions attempting to mime to “Purple Haze” – as viewers heard an Alan Price record played instead.
Twenty years later in 1988, folk-goth band All About Eve were set to play their No. 10 hit “Martha’s Harbour” when a crew member tripped over a cable in the studio, leaving singer Julianne Regan without her cue: as the song played to those watching at home, viewers watched her sitting on a stool, unable to hear the music she was supposed to be miming along to.
“If there was a mistake, the whole country saw it,” Kate Greer, who worked as Assistant Producer on the show in the ‘60s, remembered. “For one act – I think it was Wilson Pickett – the lights didn't come on, and he was left standing there miming in the dark.
“One of my jobs was to write out lyrics and work out who was singing, so the camera could zoom in on them. When Sonny & Cher did ‘I Got You Babe’, I'd got them the wrong way round. I hadn't realized the higher voice was Sonny's.”
The naffness was part of the charm. With so many acts crammed in to a half-hour show each week, the quintessentially-British muddle-through and make-do attitude and lack of transatlantic slickness was integral to what made the show so beloved. Backstage the dressing rooms were about as basic as they came, and in front of the camera, before the age of the promo video, when an artist couldn’t appear there would be a performance by an in-house dance troupe (all, to modern sensibilities, hilariously/awfully named: first were The Go-Jos, then Pan’s People, and finally Legs & Co). In a long list of toe-curling performances by these dancers over the years, Legs & Co’s jaw-dropping routine to the Clash’s “Bankrobber” stands as both the zenith and nadir of the phenomenon. (Strummer’s band had refused to appear on Top of the Pops due to the show’s lip-synching policy.)
Its very ethos also meant that Top of the Pops was a true pop music democracy; every style and genre was celebrated equally, with the only proviso for appearing being a good showing in the singles chart. If that meant an episode would feature a glam rock act followed by a reggae singer, or a soul trio sharing an adjacent stage to a metal band, so be it. The kids buying the records decided who made the Top 10 – and so by extension, for the first and perhaps only time ever, the kids also decided who was going to appear on the biggest show on British TV each week.
Sometimes this meant the most unlikely juxtapositions. Silver-maned crooner Kenny Rogers appeared alongside Iron Maiden, and AC/DC were given equal billing to the St Winifred’s School Choir singing “There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma”. In 1978, an episode saw The Boomtown Rats sharing airtime with Father Abraham and the Smurfs.
In 1980 The Skids appeared on the same program as saccharine Irish siblings The Nolans. “As we walked out of our dressing room at the BBC to make our way to the Top of the Pops studio, we bumped right into Scottish punk band The Skids,” Bernie Nolan later remembered. “‘Urrgh, the Nolans,’ said the lead singer Richard Jobson, spitting on the floor by our feet. ‘Wow, welcome to Top of the Pops!’ I thought.
“Punk was still around and here we were, making our debut on the show, looking so prim in our sweet dresses. Some of those bands were really nasty to us and we took a lot of crap from them, but I guess we must have seemed really out of place and old-fashioned.”
Bernie and co may have been outraged (and, to be fair, quite rightly) but tales of tensions between the bands, backstage-bad-behavior and general rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans are legion. With so many acts rubbing shoulders every week, it was almost inevitable.
At the 500th show in 1973, Cliff Richard’s performance of “Take Me High” was interrupted by a shower of wigs thrown on to the stage, raided from the BBC props department and tossed by members of The Who’s entourage. Townshend and co were themselves given a lifetime ban after their performance of “5:15” on the same episode ended with the guitarist and drummer Keith Moon smashing up their instruments in protest at having to mime to a specially recorded backing track.
Two years earlier, Rod Stewart made his own statement on miming, seemingly abandoning his performance of “Maggie May” half-way through for a quick game of onstage keepy-uppy with the rest of The Faces. That performance is also notable for featuring DJ John Peel guesting on mandolin – he later admitted: “Over the years many people have asked me where I learnt to play the mandolin. I don't think I touched the strings once.”
In 1995, Oasis mimed “Roll With It” with Liam and Noel swapping places – as Liam copied Noel’s minimalistic guitar style, his brother fared less well aping the singer’s crouched swagger and tambourine technique. According to popular legend, the producers didn’t even notice the switch until after the show had been broadcast.
In January 2003, the Flaming Lips made their Top of the Pops debut with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” featuring a guitarist dressed head to toe in a dolphin costume… once the head was removed, the mystery band member was revealed to be, still inexplicably to this day, Justin Timberlake.
The mischief could occasionally extend to the presenters too. John Peel – whose stints presenting the show were marked either by an air of suffering, indifference, or else sarcasm – not only took the stage with Rod and the Faces, but a decade after that, infamously introduced Bon Jovi’s worldwide smash hit as “We Give Music a Bad Name”, and Big Country as “the band that put the tree back into Country”.
But alongside these japes and high jinks, Top of the Pops also brought us some of the most iconic moments in rock and pop history. David Bowie performing “Starman” with his arm draped around Mick Ronson in 1972; the Sex Pistols’ electric 1977 debut with “Pretty Vacant” – complete with snarling Johnny Rotten and a wasted Sid Vicious; Morrissey flailing gladioli around his head and losing most of his shirt during “This Charming Man” in 1983; Jarvis Cocker announcing his arrival in earnest by strutting around a stage that included a go-go dancer in a shopping trolley for Pulp’s 1995 performance of “Common People”; and Dexy’s Midnight Runners performing their cover of “Jackie Wilson Said” in 1982 in front of a huge backdrop of portly, beer-swilling Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson. (Although most assumed it was a gaffe on the part of the production team, the idea was all Kevin Rowland’s – and the contrast between his typically intense performance and the incongruity of the backdrop still makes for extraordinary viewing over 40 years later.)
Perhaps the most famous mimed-not-mimed moment came in 1991, when Nirvana performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Although the band had wanted to play completely live, producers had refused – and worked a compromise which allowed Kurt Cobain to sing over a backing track. Which he duly did… a full octave lower than usual, in a droning baritone he later said was an attempt to copy Morrissey. Questions remain whether those in charge were even aware of the opening lyric: “Load up on drugs and kill your friends” until it was broadcast to the nation.
It may all have looked like an incredible party, but perhaps inevitably, there was to be a darkness lurking behind the bright lights. By 1979, Top of the Pops had reached a peak audience of 19 million and so huge was the influence of the show that as well as the acts themselves, it had made stars of its presenters – putting faces to names that had previously only been known as radio DJs.
Now, of course, the consequences of that fame are only too well known: with that power had come terrible abuse.
In 2012, a year after the death of long-running (and original) presenter Jimmy Savile, a criminal investigation was opened into allegations that he and others involved in the show had exploited their power and status to horrific effect.
A report by Judge Dame Janet Smith found that at least 72 people were sexually abused by the DJ while he was working on BBC shows, including eight victims of rape. Nineteen of those assaults happened during recordings of Top of the Pops.
“My conclusion is that at least during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (and possibly after that period), young people attending Top of the Pops were at risk of moral danger,” she said.
“I think there was a feeling among some BBC staff that sexual contact between celebrities and young girls on BBC premises was almost inevitable. The most important and obvious reason why what Savile was doing was not recognized was the general environment of the program. In this testosterone-laden atmosphere where everyone was, in theory at least, over the age of 16, child protection was simply not a live issue.”
With the news of Savile’s crimes – and the “testosterone-laden atmosphere” around Top of the Pops – breaking just two years before the show’s 50th anniversary, celebrations for that milestone were effectively put on hold. And it seems the same is true today: BBC TV schedules this year show little or nothing in the way of Top of the Pops Diamond Anniversary celebrations.
If it is a shame that the actions of a few monstrous men should prevent the marking of such an important cultural phenomenon – and it is – then the truth is that by its eventual demise, Top of the Pops had become a shadow of its 19 million viewers-commanding glory days.
It is in the nature of empires to fall, and by the turn of the millennium, the show was struggling. According to Trevor Dann, who was Top of the Pops’ executive producer between 1996 and 2000, Top of the Pops had been made redundant by the very industry it helped create.
“The record companies… gave up on the TOTP format long ago, in despair at BBC TV's commitment to a weekly show based on last week's chart,” he wrote in the Independent. “In the show's heyday, artists clamored to be on TOTP to ensure that their single rose from No. 13 to No. 7. Now that singles are released to radio stations as many as eight weeks before they appear in the shops, the singles chart doesn't sell records. So, the record industry wants TV shows to broadcast ‘exclusives’, ‘future hits’ and album tracks.”
In 1996 Top of the Pops was moved from Thursday to Friday night (at a time when most of its intended audience were presumably out doing something more exciting) and in 2003, was relaunched to include more “editorial content”. The following year, after ratings fell below 3 million, it was moved to a Sunday evening slot on BBC2. Whether that was a last desperate attempt to resuscitate an ailing format, or the equivalent of putting it out to pasture, the result was the same. In 2006, after ratings dropped to just 1 million, Top of the Pops was finally axed.
For 42 years, Top of the Pops had been an essential part of the fabric of British cultural life, a bookmark in the weekly television schedules, and, for a while at least, essential viewing for anyone who cared about music. Its very regularity meant it took on the status of a soap opera; and in following the fortunes of the acts who appeared on it – not just the weekly dramas of ascending or descending chart positions and the battles for No. 1, but also whole career trajectories – it often came close to the tension and narrative pull of a soap opera too.
The abuse revelations around Savile and others have left the show forever tainted. But they should not be how Top of the Pops is remembered. Rather, David Bowie embracing Mick Ronson, Rod Stewart kicking a football at a corpsing Ronnie Wood, Desmond Dekker bringing reggae to 1960s Middle England, Jimi Hendrix miming “Purple Haze” to Alan Price, Johnny Rotten’s “Destroy” shirt, Morrissey and his gladioli, Kurt Cobain’s baritone “Load up on drugs and kill your friends”… these are the cultural milestones that changed lives. And these, not Savile and the others, should be the show’s legacy.
On 30 July 2006, the BBC broadcast the final edition of Top Of The Pops. The last song played live was “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol.
“You're never too busy to do Top of the Pops, even though it's the only TV show that takes all day,” he said. “A good TOTP performance is almost as important as a good record, and they're crafty – they used to stick us on with Oasis. I would never slag off Top of the Pops, mainly because I want to do it again.
“Mind you, there was a time in the mid-90s when everyone was drunk, and last time I went on, it was filled with very young people, with minders, who weren't allowed near the bar. That was a shame.”