And the beat goes on... and on

It has survived celebrity knitwear, the whims of musical fashion and a move from its sacred Thursday slot. It gave the world Legs & Co dancing to the Sex Pistols. Fiona Sturges examines the timeless appeal of Top of the Pops
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The Independent Culture

Pop programmes come and go with almost the same regularity as their protagonists. The Tube, Ready Steady Go, The Chart Show all had their moment but then fell from favour. But there is one show that has maintained its place in the TV schedules. Love it or loathe it, Top of the Pops mustn't be underestimated, as a documentary on New Year's Day reveals. For nearly four decades the programme has communicated the hopes and dreams of the nation's youth. It has turned mere mortals into superstars and has provided a platform for some of the worst acts in pop history.

Pop programmes come and go with almost the same regularity as their protagonists. The Tube, Ready Steady Go, The Chart Show all had their moment but then fell from favour. But there is one show that has maintained its place in the TV schedules. Love it or loathe it, Top of the Pops mustn't be underestimated, as a documentary on New Year's Day reveals. For nearly four decades the programme has communicated the hopes and dreams of the nation's youth. It has turned mere mortals into superstars and has provided a platform for some of the worst acts in pop history.

Simplicity is the key. Top of the Pops is one of music's most democratic institutions, driven neither by musical preference or a quest for innovation. It has none of the pretensions of Later... or the flagrant hard sell of CD:UK. It simply showcases the acts that are popular at the time. Bored with Bryan Adams? You've only got yourselves to blame. You bought the record; now he's on the telly.

To serious musicians, Top of the Pops may be tacky beyond belief but it hasn't stopped them from queuing up to appear on it. The fact is that the programme sells records. In industry circles, the received wisdom is that if you haven't appeared on the programme then you don't have a hit.

It was in 1963 that BBC bosses, desperate to compete with ITV's successful Ready Steady Go, gave the go-ahead for a new pop show. For reasons best known to themselves, they chose a disused church in Manchester to become the Top of the Pops studios. The first show saw performances from Dusty Springfield, The Hollies and the Rolling Stones. Within months 25 million people were tuning in to see their favourite pop groups miming along to their own songs.

And if you weren't interested in the music, there were of course the dancers. Before the age of video, the Go-Jos, Pans People and Legs & Co were there to fill space when the bands couldn't get to the studio. So what if their routines were camper than a Saturday night at Butlins? That never stopped Dad from shifting closer to the telly in order to get a better view of Pans People cleavage. The programme was also a perfect vehicle for critical commentary of the armchair variety: "Is that man wearing make-up?", "It wasn't like that in my day", "Who's that murdering 'American Pie'?" etc

Back in the days of three channels and the test card, Top of the Pops was practically the only available glimpse into the lives of the fabulously weird. I can't have been the only one who sat as a child on a Thursday night with my tape recorder pressed up against the TV. When someone told me I could hear the charts on a Sunday night on the radio a whole four days earlier I wasn't bothered. I had to see the bands. How could I learn Bananarama's dance routines by listening to the radio?

For aspiring stars, an appearance on Top of the Tops meant that their lives would never be the same again - just ask Adam Ant. After he went on Top of the Pops with a white stripe across his face, a greasy chest and a song called "Dog Eat Dog" he became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. There was a time too when, on a Wednesday afternoon (the show was recorded 24 hours before broadcast), you couldn't move for fans outside the studios. Such was the excitement at the front door before a Rolling Stones performance that the band were bundled into dustbins and taken in the side door on the back of a refuse truck.

Top of the Pops also boosted the careers of myriad Radio 1 DJs. Well, it was the only way they'd ever get recognised on the street and they lived in hope that they might even get their own chat show. But their array of knitwear became unbearable in the late Eighties and a new set of presenters were drafted in to give the show a touch of glamour. Unfortunately glamour rarely went hand in hand with talent, a fact demonstrated by Anthea Turner when she introduced The KLF as KLM.

There were those who regarded the promotion of records on Top of the Pops as selling out. The Clash and The Sex Pistols refused to appear on the show though they weren't much missed. The sight of Legs & Co getting funky to "Pretty Vacant" proved just as entertaining. Bands such as The Rezillos and The Buzzcocks had no such qualms, though their anarchic edge was blunted by the corporation surroundings.

That said, Top of the Pops wasn't without its anarchic moments. They were the first to screen the video for George Michael's comeback single "Let's Go Outside", sections of which have been banned in America for being obscene. During "Instant Karma", Yoko Ono appeared alongside John Lennon wearing a sanitary towel as a blindfold. It was art, apparently. Then, of course, there was the miming. Sometimes the bands just wouldn't play ball. Complaining that his throat was too sore to mime, Marillion's Fish held up pieces of paper with the lyrics to their hit "Kayleigh".

Les Gray of Mud brought a puppet on stage to do the singing for him. And who can forget the miming debacle of 1988 when All About Eve's singer Julianne Regan sat for the whole of "Martha's Harbour" with her mouth shut. It wasn't a statement; she just couldn't hear the music.

The rare occasions that bands play live have also been known to go wrong and there were times when you longed for the predictable polish of a mimed performance. Take the unforgettable appearance by Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was so bored with performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that he sang it an octave lower than usual, rendering it more gothic than grunge. Then there was the time when New Order played a live version of their hit "Blue Monday"; that its chart position plummeted the following week was attributed to their terrible performance.

Top of the Pops has also had its fair share of scandals. In 1984 Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" was banned (and later unbanned) by the presenter Mike Reid, though that was nothing compared to the public outcry following John Peel's remark: "if that record doesn't get to number one I'll come and break wind in your kitchen." But perhaps the greatest scandal of all was when the programme was moved to a Friday. Having first convinced themselves that we were always busy on a Friday night, the nation was gripped by fear as they imagined missing the cultural event of the week.

Whatever would they talk about at work on Friday mornings? Everybody adjusted to the change in the end. But the fact remained that Thursday nights had somehow lost their magic.

'Top of the Pops: The True Story', BBC1, 1 January, 3.45pm

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