Britain’s longest-running and best-loved pop show ran from 1964 to 2006 and brought the nation’s families together round their TV sets. Dad would invariably mutter “Is it a boy or a girl?” while the kids rushed to finish their homework on a Thursday – later, Friday – night, before sitting in front of the box, transfixed by generations of changing idols.
As it was a chart show, Top Of The Pops offered a reliable barometer of the prevailing musical taste, and made stars out of musicians and DJs alike. And then there were the dancers: everyone remembers Pan’s People and Legs & Co, but Go-Jos and Ruby Flipper? Who knew? The show evolved with the times – how could it not? – with celeb presenters and ever groovier theme music, though the CCS version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ laid down the best marker.
Much missed but probably impossible to revive, Top Of The Pops was a four-decade-long chronicle. We’ve cherry-picked some choice moments for you to relive that golden era from which the immortal phrase rang out: “It’s No.1! It’s Top Of The Pops.”
The Rolling Stones – ‘The Last Time’
The Stones were the show’s debut act, singing their cover of The Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. But, like so many of the old BBC shows, that’s been lost forever. However, we do have this fantastic 1965 performance, with Mick Jagger’s button-down Ben Sherman, Bill Wyman’s shades, Brian Jones’ dulcimer… and George Best in the audience adding to the adrenaline rush.
Manfred Mann – ‘The Mighty Quinn’
Vintage Mike d’Abo-era Mann (with Klaus Voormann on flute) is a thing of wonder. It’s also the first time that ordinary mortals got to hear what was then an unreleased track from Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” recordings. The Manfred’s were renowned for covering Dylan and this is one of their best efforts. You won’t see anything else like it.
The Move – ‘Fire Brigade’
Cast your mind back to this brilliant Brumbeat bullet with Roy Wood in his pomp wearing his crusader outfit and Carl Wayne adding his nightclub doorman’s menace. Trevor Burton and Ace Kefford aren’t to be messed with, either.
John Lennon – ‘Instant Karma!’
You can’t see The Beatles on Top Of The Pops (the Beeb erased the tapes!) but Lennon’s song sold a million in 1970 and raced The Fabs’ own ‘Let It Be’ up the charts. Here you get Yoko Ono in performance-art mode and an integrity-packed performance. Shine on, Johnny.
David Bowie – ‘Starman’
He had to phone someone, so he picked on you. This is where David Bowie – as Ziggy Stardust – burst into our living rooms with what many consider to be the show’s seminal moment. The way he drapes his arm round Mick Ronson… His animal grace… And then the song itself… This is the stuff of legend.
The Sweet – ‘Block Buster!’
Unfairly derided, The Sweet’s ridiculously camp builder’s glam image make this performance epochal. It also helped the song keep Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ off the top spot, though both choons owe a debt to The Yardbirds’ take on Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m A Man’. The riffs and the poses are ridiculous (bassist Steve Priest wore a German World War I uniform), but for high-energy commercial pop it can’t be faulted. Does anyone know the way? Probably not.
Alice Cooper – ‘School’s Out’
Pure teenage rebellion. Moral-majority campaigner Mary Whitehouse tried to have the song banned, and teachers wept while Noel Edmonds declared it “unorthodox” and “controversial”. Hey, that’s exactly what the kids wanted at teatime in 1972. None of yer fame school rubbish here.
Slade – ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’
An autumnal 1972 smash from Wolver’ampton’s finest glam thugs. Noddy Holder’s mirrored stove pipe, bassist Jim Lea wearing his girlfriend’s coat, and the sheer ear-splitting magnificence of the refrain took this epic to the toppermost. Check Tony Blackburn’s fruity intro, perfectly lampooned several years later by Smashie And Nicey on Harry Enfield’s television programme.
The Who – ‘5.15’
An early taste of Quadrophenia – and it’s incendiary. Keith Moon is utterly manic blotto (he trashed the green room after this), Pete Townshend demolished the stage (the band were fined their fee for that) and The ’Oo messed with the public’s collective mind. Doubt if you’d get away with those lyrics at 7.15pm now, though!
The Walker Brothers – ‘No Regrets’
Scott and the boys’ comeback single from 1975 was a version of Tom Rush’s classic weepy, and they give it the full country-with-a-twist treatment. It’s a moment of calm in an otherwise hyperactive show. And those voices are sublime.
Rod Stewart – ‘Maggie May’
Great chance to see Rod sing this with his erstwhile Faces, even though they didn’t all play on the actual record (but then John Peel didn’t the mandolin on it, either). These were the days when sending up the TOTP routine was actively encouraged – it’s only pop music, right? Post-mod magic.
The Clash – ‘Bankrobber’
Joe Strummer et al refused to pay lip service to the show, but TOTP played ’em anyway. This (presumably intentionally) hilarious interpretation by Legs & Co goes down in history for its mind-boggling insanity. The Clash must have been delighted.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – ‘Relax’
The second wave of the Liverpool invasion saw those naughty Frankies bring an element of threat back into the front parlour. The homoerotic overtones got Auntie’s knickers in a twist, but the kids loved it in their droves. Don’t do it? Oh, to Hell with that…
The Smiths – ‘This Charming Man’
Another flash fire is lit as Manchester’s most miserable man brings his gladioli and spectacular quiff to the party. Even if they didn’t have a stitch to wear, they had Jonny Marr on guitar and a sad tale of a rent boy to boot. Get in!
Happy Mondays – ‘Step On’
You’re twistin’ my melon, man. Bez’s simian Manc dance and Shaun Ryder’s ready-for-a-rumble delivery kicked us into the 90s. Paul McCartney said that Madchester reminded him of The Beatles in their ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ phase. These Northern nutters nailed it nicely.
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
One for all you deodorant lovers. Kurt Cobain and his merry men chew – and trash – the scenery in time-honoured fashion, while dazzling the censors with the reworked opening demand to “load up on drugs and kill your friends”. Chilling.
Blur – ‘Parklife’
Phil Daniels adds some King’s Cross authenticity to this faux-cockney stomp at the height of the Blur vs Oasis battle for Britpop supremacy. ’Tis said that Blur won the battle, but Oasis won the war (poptastic cliché #468)… Really, though, we were all winners. We loved a bit of it, me old mucker.
Oasis – Roll With It
Introduced by Robbie Williams, here’s “the band of the people” subverting TOTP by having Noel Gallagher pretending to sing the lead while bro’ Liam takes the axe duties. So much for miming – and don’t forget to kiss the girl. She’s not behind the door. (Er, us neither…)
Pulp – ‘Common People’
Being a child of the 70s, Jarvis Cocker understood the significance of TOTP and also knew how to manipulate it – hence the go-go dancer in the giant shopping trolley. This song launched the Pulp movement, and it still sends a tingle.
Spice Girls – ‘Wannabe’
Their debut appearance launches Girl Power. Dads perk up. A refreshing antidote to the laddish Britpop and a re-birthing of modern pop in 1996, from the five girls who shook the world and taught us how to zig-a-zig-ah.
Top Of The Pops closed its doors 10 years ago, in 2006, after four decades of more than living up to its name. However, eight new 3CD collections, tracing the show’s history from its first broadcast, on 1 January 1964, to its last, on 30 July 2006, capture exactly what made it so special. Breaking the show’s legacy down into five-year periods, they amass a slew of timeless classics to bring each key era back to life.