Music:The tune that hooked a generation

Nick Coleman explains why Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' will always be Top of the Pops

Nick Coleman
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:26

Top of the Pops is to have a new signature tune this week. Remarkable news given that research carried out last week revealed that TOTP has sufficient brand identity after 34 years to warrant a straight cut from continuity anchor to presenter's pout, without first having to go through the graphix'n'shouty-music routine of stolid convention. Normally, only the News gets to do that.

That kind of brand identity doesn't grow on trees, you know. It has taken decades of unswerving self-refinement to ensure that, whenever you see a TV studio half-full of herding teenagers capering diligently beneath spotlights, then you know that it's Top of the Pops and not one of the others.

How do we know? Chiefly, we know it's Top of the Pops because of that very format, which has resisted editorial tinkering at any fundamental level since the beginning. Second, we know what it is because, once upon a time, that format was associated with signature music so freighted with pungent implication that, 17 years since it went out of currency, you still think you're hearing it even when you're not.

Led Zeppelin can claim some credit for that. It was a cover of their "Whole Lotta Love", turned into an apocalyptic big band strut by Alexis Korner's CCS in 1970, that the BBC bought three years later to top-and- tail their premium pop show.

"A ragged, nasty projection of male hormonal anguish," wrote the American critic Dave Marsh sniffily of the Led Zep original. Now, although Alexis Korner was a man of impeccable credentials, being the "Godfather of British Blues" and the possessor of a hipster rasp finer even than Keith Richard's, his sax-saturated take on "Whole Lotta Love" is neither ragged nor nasty; but it is unequivocally hormonal. Somehow, CCS (standing for Collective Consciousness Society) succeeded in ameliorating the tune's sexual specificity without stripping it of its rutty throb.

But, while Jimmy Page's overloaded riff is a pretty cogent account of the way sex hangs heavy as a wet tarpaulin on the adolescent male psyche - all suffocating weight and chafing anxiety - CCS's "Whole Lotta love", on the other hand, is saucy: a playful, slithery token of generalised social sexiness - the perfect sonic emblem for a teenage pop show. And how sweet it is to know that the players involved in the CCS version were, by and large, moonlighting beardy British jazzers.

However you slice it, "Whole Lotta Love" is, to the over-30s at least, sonic heraldry for a form of pop consumerism that is long gone. There is real innocence in the way the record has content; in the way it exhibits narrative form; in its plasticity; in the way it suggests, as all rocking big band music always does, that making records is a splendid social activity with options on a sordid party to follow.

Compare "Whole Lotta Love" with "Yellow Pearl", the Phil Lynott-composed piece that succeeded it as TOTP's signature tune in 1981. Now that was a dreary piece of music: a clumping, thumping, sterile non-event of an arrhythmic cipher, devoid of narrative urge and faddishly tricked out in the latest technological gizmos of the period.

Amazing, "Yellow Pearl" stuck around for five years, in the period that Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and A Flock Of Seagulls had most of their hits.

In 1986 it was replaced by a fleet little number called "The Wizard" by Paul Hardcastle, he of "N-N-N-Nineteen" fame. "The Wizard" at least shifted itself a bit. And although, again, a lack of harmonic and melodic substance rather limited its gruntalongability, its relentless stabs, splats and wibbles did serve to connote animation in the electronic pathways of Hardcastle's bedroom studio, if not in the parts of the house where other people go. It is TV pop music of the most serviceable kind: as useful as a weightless cipher of youthful energy as it is as a bright accompaniment to "Goal of the Month" or those Sunday afternoon programmes in which hapless skiers crash into snowdrifts.

Furthermore, "The Wizard" served as the technical model for subsequent efforts at TOTP sonic branding: Tony Gibber's "Get Out of That" in 1991 and, more recently, Vince Clark's "Red Pop Head". Remember how they went? Me neither.

I received the new TOTP signature tune from the sticky gantlet of a bike messenger not 10 minutes ago. I have just played the cassette, and guess what? It's the old TOTP theme: the dear old CCS "Whole Lotta Love" riff, spliced to a chattering Chemical Brothers-style drum programme and greased with modem echoey sounds ... Except that it isn't CCS's saxes, by God. It's Led Zep's electric guitar. It's that projection of male hormonal anguish, cut down to its fundamental gesture - a priapic lurch - and stripped of the weight and chafing anxiety which always gave the full-length version its redeeming psychological depth. The BBC clearly knows what it's doing.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments