The world of popular music will bear witness the end of an era on the 30th June. The former stalwart chart show Top Of The Pops is finally being put out to grass after serving the needs of our pop hungry populace for the last 42 years. While its significance to today’s teen audience might be comparatively small, anyone over the age of twenty five will recognise that while the show has recently been little more than a shadow of its former self in its halcyon days it ruled Thursday nights with its promises of the week’s charts in an age when the charts actually seemed to mean something.
During its history the show has seen performances from pretty much all the big names not just from British music but also from pop performers across the globe. Think of The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who and you’re just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to performers who cut their teeth on television in the sixties. Sure there were imitators but TOTP saw them come and go in its wake.
By the 1970’s the show had attracted an audience of 15 million viewers, although in an age before political correctness a large number of these were fathers who tuned in to watch the all girl dance group Pan’s People and later Legs & Co who were renowned for some of the more suggestive dance routines you would see on your television before the watershed during the 70’s.
The show was also famed as much for its presenters as much as the music itself. Most commonly plucking its roster from Radio 1 you could at any time find yourself exposed to the cheesily cheerful Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds or Jimmy Saville. Its only when I type those names it makes me wonder just how the show managed to survive as long as it did. Yet we watched amidst a plethora of dry ice, miming and over enthusiastic crowds who were often clearly irritating the hosts.
Some hosts presented the show more often than others, the late lamented John Peel often came across as the subversive uncle of the show. His deadpan commentary often laced with a degree of barbed wit aimed at any potential act that didn’t take his fancy (and let’s be right, that could be the vast majority of them). Who could forget his jaded commentary on George Michael & Aretha Franklin’s single of the time “You know, Aretha Franklin can make any old rubbish sound good, and I think she just has.”. The show deserves credit simply for giving us gems like that and more besides.
Of course one of the contentious issues that the show generated was based around the factor of actual live performances. Let’s be fair, for most of the show’s life the sounds you heard were courtesy of a tape machine round the back rather than the artists themselves. Some of the bands played up to this fact when they were on stage, The guitarist with the Wonder Stuff “played” wearing boxing gloves and during the Christmas Day special in 1984 Paul Weller was caught miming to someone elses vocal during a performance of the Band Aid single.
Later on bands were permitted to provide a live vocal to a backing track although even this wasn’t without incident. Kurt Cobain’s mournful caterwaul through Smells Like Teen Spirit bore little resemblance to the original and it was this fact and a number of other dodgy vocal performances that saw the live element subsequently dropped.
In recent times the show has alas become something of a pale imitation of its former self. You might say the writing was on the wall as early as 1996 when the show lost its traditional Thursday night slot and was shunted unceremoniously to Friday nights, a nation clicked its tongues and sighed. As time went on the show faced stiffer competition from the likes of MTV and other digital channels offering a glut of music services. In the face of the young upstarts the old format was starting to look a little paunchy and the show in trying to compete was effectively punching above its weight.
In a bid to cling to ratings the show gave itself a funky makeover for the MTV generation. Tim Cash was brought in from MTV and proved he had the presenting style of balsa wood. I’d sooner have watched DLT The Hairy Cornflake presenting the show and that really is saying something. The last nail in the coffin was a move to Sundays and once again a rotating guest list of hosts (although the main anchor was Fearne Cotton).
It seems apparent now that the show was killed (as so many shows are) by progress. The format that was cutting edge in the sixties is pass? in the present day. In an age where digital television rams the music into your living in a relentless fashion, TOTP looked a little bit too gentle to survive. There is also the consideration that the charts are potentially not as relevant today as they once were to the average viewer. We no longer watch the musical dramas of the top ten unfold as the young watch their favourite act scale the top ten like intrepid explorers aiming for the summit, only to stall and lose their footing mere feet from the top. Nowadays an act, comes in at one and leaves by the back door the very next week. It’s all part and parcel of being part of the digital generation. I’m not trying to say its better (I’m already aware of how much I’m sounding like a nostalgic old fart), its just different. And I suppose TOTP has no real role to play anymore as a result.
The show might be dead but the brand it would seem will live on. The sister show TOTP2 still has access to the vast libraries of performances the show spawned and will no doubt continue to look back with its irreverent continuity links that make us smile and there is of course a magazine that bears the name for the kids. However the main show it would seem will now be bowing out not with a bang, but a whimper.
Good while it lasted though…