Kate Bush singing Wuthering Heights on Top of the Pops in 1978

A Look At Life: Top Of The Pops

9th September 2011

Five years after it was axed, is it time to revive Top Of The Pops?

Jack Watkins

They’ve been showing repeats of Top of the Pops shows from the 1970s on BBC4. It’s a real nostalgia trip for a music-mad, ageing hipster like me, who can actually remember many of the performances from first time round. Yes, I was sitting there all those years ago, unimpressed by the tackiness of glam rock, swooning through the sweet soul of The Stylistics and The Chi-lites, hiding behind a chair with the advent of punk, sporting a (distinctly collapsible, hairspray-buttressed) quiff through rockabilly’s brief Stay-Cats-led revival, and then, on the arrival of the 1980s, beginning to feel my look was truly ‘in’ with groups like ABC, Altered Images and Haircut One Hundred.

I’d like to claim that this was some golden age of television, but what you notice is how static everybody was back then, both the musicians and the ‘live’ audience – how angular, innocent and unmanicured. Yet the thing I most recall about TotP, before it lost its way circa 1990, was how catholic was the range of popular music it showcased. I suppose that there must have been a few of my contemporaries who didn’t watch the programme, but just about any one of us who did could probably have sat an A-level in the subject, so wide was the accidental education it afforded. I come from a family that always listened to music, from my mother’s classical, to my father’s jazz, to my brother’s heavy metal. Even if I hadn’t had this background, though, the featuring on TotP of just about everyone from Perry Como, Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette to Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and The Stranglers gave me an insight into a huge range of genres.

As such, it was a show that even my grandparents could watch. I distinctly recall the approving comments when Gilbert O’Sullivan made an appearance wearing hobnail boots, braces, a flat cap and an alarmingly severe short back and sides, singing Nothing Rhymed. You could practically see the years slipping away from Grand-dad, for it was if they shared the same wardrobe. His rosy old cheeks positively glowed with pride.

In fact every member of my family watched TotP – even my mother, whose interaction with pop had basically ended with the Beach Boys, but who had a soft spot for Jack Jones (sadly too classy to ever come on the show).

Of course, no self-respecting youth would be seen dead listening to the music of the older generations (although I did) yet it seems to me that something was lost with the programme’s demise. It was finally axed in 2006, after a shift from its original evening (Thursday) and its original channel (BBC1) to an unforgiving slot: Sunday evening, BBC2. Admittedly, by then its audience had dwindled to one million – compared to 15 million in its mid-70s pomp – and it was purely appealing to the young teen market. Yet popular music is now incredibly badly served on TV, with only Jools Holland’s Later holding the line. While the musical-moron market is very well served by The X-Factor and Pop Idol, the more discerning fan is forced to scavenge like a tramp around the dustbins for morsels, outside of events like Glastonbury.

Last year it was rumoured that while Richard Desmond, owner of Channel 5, was willing to offer a substantial sum to acquire the rights to TotP, there was no chance whatsoever of the Beeb entering negotiations on such a ‘valuable brand’. Nothing has been heard since, though, so if they’re keeping it, what are they doing with it?

Meanwhile, the music industry is in serious decline, with revenues down across the board, propped up only by one-offs like Adele. Even banker box-office names like Rod Stewart and Kings of Leon are now opting to play smaller venues to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to play to half-empty houses.

Maybe this doesn’t matter, and we should be contently absorbed in our preferred individual niches – but how do you know what you might like when you never get the chance to hear it? TotP introduced you to different avenues down which you might carry out further exploration. You probably rejected the programme in the end because, as your tastes sharpened, it seemed too light and shallow, but it had planted the seeds. At a time when the industry seems short of answers to its present plight, though, some sort of imaginatively updated relaunch is surely worth a punt.

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