UNDERRATED / We've never had it so good: The case for 'Top of the Pops'

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Tony Blackburn has no doubt about it: Top of the Pops isn't what it used to be. Nothing, he noted during the celebrations for the programme's 30th anniversary over the New Year, is any good about it anymore. The music is crap, the presenters don't know their microphones from their elbows, the audience can't even dance like it used to.

Even though it emanates from Tony Blackburn, it is an argument that many find little difficulty in endorsing. Switch on at 7 o'clock on a Thursday night, the nostalgic say, and the show is nothing like they remember it. When the Beatles, Bowie and Bolan were on every week, when girls in short skirts exposed their lack of underwear, when Pete Townshend smashed up his guitar in protest, what a programme The Pops was. Compare that to these days when indistinguishable rappers and ravers mime along to dreary dirges, when one-hit- wonders rule the chart, when no one buys singles and anyone who means anything would not be seen dead on the show anyway.

Unfortunately for Blackburn, his argument falls apart if you watch the ancient episodes of Top of the Pops presently filling the gaps on the repeats-only satellite channel, UK Gold. These are not the carefully clipped highlights which appear on nostalgia shows, packaged with ironic commentary by Danny Baker. These repeats are the full story: the unedited, unavoidable, unedifying truth that Top of the Pops never was the home of the stylish.

Take one edition screened earlier this week. Dating from March 1975, it was chocker with acts you would be pushed to recall under regressive hypnotism. This was the era of the Bay City Rollers, the one that taste forgot. But the Rollers, who at this safe distance invoke a certain cuddly memory, were not even on the show. Instead we were treated to Wigan's Ovation and Kenny, acts with stacked hair and wide trousers, flapping collars and jersies with a big star in the middle, no-hopers who bobbed along in the Rollers' tartan wake. Their songs are now serving time for offences to taste.

And they were not the only ones. There were Guys and Dolls, in unforgivable his and hers suits; there was Lulu shouting and Cliff Richard wearing a jacket which he must have stolen from the set of Star Trek. There was Tony Blackburn himself fronting the show with a professionalism he says are lacking from today's spotty presenters. Indeed how many of them could introduce Wigan's Ovation with this aplomb: 'It's been a good year for Wigan,' he said. 'And here's Wigan's Ovation.'

But what was worse, the whole show was presented with a Luddite's technical flair. The cameras apparently were incapable of moving, the lighting looked as though it was sponsored by Swan Vesta, there were no videos to break the monotony - instead we had Pan's People, the patron saints of the rhythm-free.

Compared to this, today's Top of the Pops - pacy, clever, imaginatively camera-angled - is a whirl of pyrotechnical imagination; the chart run-down alone looks as though it were directed by Spielberg. In 1974 everything was awful - the music, the clothes, the style - and so was Top of the Pops. In 1994, everything's still awful, but at least we know how to gloss over our short-comings with a bit of cunning packaging.

In this The Pops of today is not the treasonable dissipation of heritage that Blackburn would have it. It is exactly what it always has been, serving a role not as fashion-leader, but as fashion reflector: the perfect mirror of our times.

(Photograph omitted)