“So, pop fans, grab your copy” – Pickwick’s Top of the Pops

Top of the Pops

In 1976 I had my music gap year. I was seven years old. I had been buying records since I was four.

There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, the music in the charts, and therefore the music I had access to, was going a bit soft. Glam rock, with its fast and simple riffs (perfect for a kid like me to jump about to) had fallen out of fashion and many of the bands and artists associated with the genre were now distancing themselves from it. Even Slade, who had rocked my very early world with Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Cum On Feel The Noize, were releasing much slower material by 1974. The rough and ready rock’n’roll that I had loved was becoming increasingly rare and the BBC’s weekly Top of the Pops TV show was becoming less fun to watch.

1975 was particularly grim. It started well with Status Quo’s Down Down at number one (possibly my Uncle R’s favourite song of all time), but went down down from there. 1975 saw two of the slowest and quietest records ever released hit the number one spot – 10cc’s I’m Not in love and Art Garfunkle’s I Only Have Eyes For You. I like both of those records now, but absolutely hated them back then. They seemed to be perpetually stuck in first gear, struggling to get uphill and never making it. Another song I hated back then (and still do in this case) was Rod Stewart’s Sailing, which was number one in 1975 for four fucking weeks! And the less said about Telly Savalas’s If (number one for two weeks in the March of that year) the better. I mean who on earth watched Top of the Pops that Thursday night, saw Telly Savalas attempting and failing to sing (he was mega famous at the time for playing tough TV cop Kojak) and thought “that’s great, I’m whizzing down the High Street this weekend to pick me up a copy of that!” Apparently, it seems, plenty did.

In 1976 some of the songs sped up a bit, but they did so in a nice way, in a pleasant way. 1976 brought with it a plethora of songs my mum and her friends liked. Urghhhh. Number ones in ’76 included Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me, J. J. Barrie’s No Charge, Demis Roussos’ Forever and Ever and Johhny Mathis’s When a Child is Born. Hardly the stuff revolutions are made of. ABBA also had three number ones that year and, I know, I know, we’re all meant to like ABBA now and bow to their songwriting genius, but I detested them then and I detest them now. There I said it. I hate ABBA. Sorry.

Although I had no idea at the time, I was not alone in my view that pop music had become disappointingly boring (and if there’s one thing pop music should never be, it’s boring). The first issue of the weekly music paper New Musical Express for 1976 featured a photo of a trashed room on the cover along with the headline “Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Ready For 1976? Is 1976 Ready For Rock ’n’ Roll?” Inside, writer and singer Mick Farren moaned about the previous year and argued that rock’n’roll had to reconnect with “the street” if it was ever to once again deliver the energy and excitement that it had in the past. He needn’t have worried. It was already connecting. By the time Farren wrote that piece, the Sex Pistols had already played their first gig. Not many people went, but it was a start. I wouldn’t become aware of the Sex Pistols until 1977. News travelled more slowly back then.

NME 1976

The second reason I turned away from music was because of the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. Most of my friends had not yet become pop fans, so it didn’t matter to them that ITV chose to broadcast the new sensational show from America at the same time the BBC broadcast Top of the Pops, but it mattered lots to me. Top of the Pops was my main gateway into what was happening in the pop music world. Every week a DJ would count down the current Top 30, always announcing the number one spot like it was the most important thing in the world. It was my version of the news or the weather forecasts and I wouldn’t miss it. I was far too young for the BBC’s other television music show at that time, the brilliantly named Old Grey Whistle Test, which dealt with serious album oriented artists and went out long after my bedtime. So Top of the Pops was very, very important to me. And even though pop was becoming less exciting, I still clung on in the hope that one week something explosive would happen. As The Six Million Dollar Man became increasingly popular, it became a dilemma as to which show I should pledge allegiance to. I remained with Top of the Pops.

This soon became intolerable. Not only did my classmates talk about The Six Million Dollar Man all the time (“Did you see the bit where he did that big jump and the bit where he ripped the door of that car off?”), but it also became a staple part of the action at play times. Kids pretended to run at supersonic speeds by moving across the playground in slow motion whilst singing the theme tune. Everybody did it. Except me.

Things came to a head one day when an argument broke out in the classroom. A pattern had developed where one member of the class was allowed to pretend to be The Six Million Dollar Man for the whole morning or afternoon. On this particular morning there was much debate as to whose turn it should be. The argument confused me because three different phrases were used.

“I wanna be the Six Million Dollar Man!”

“I wanna be the Bionic Man!”

“I wanna be Steve Austin!”

As the argument reached the point where the teacher had to intervene, I decided to show a bit of courage and leadership and blurted out my proposed solution.

“Look,” I said, pointing at each classmate in turn, “why don’t you be the Six Million Dollar Man, you be the Bionic Man and you be Steve Austin.”

There, I thought, sorted. For a second or two I wallowed in my cleverness before the teacher took me to one side and explained that they were different names for the same person. Steve Austin was the Bionic Man and it had cost six million dollars to make him that way. Hence the name of the show.

I had made myself look a fool. My classmates immediately stopped arguing because it was now much more fun to take the piss out of me instead.

That Thursday I watched The Six Million Dollar Man for the first time and I thought it was great. The following morning I pretended to run at supersonic speed by moving across the school playground in slow motion whilst singing the theme tune.

So long Top of the Pops. So long pop music. It would be almost 18 months before I returned and when I did I would be listening to records with older ears and watching Top of the Pops with older eyes.

This gap in my musical journey was bookended by two records. Both were compilation albums, both were bought from the budget rack at the low price department store Woolworths, or “Woollies” as it was commonly known and both were called Top of the Pops.

Three Top of the Pops albums

In the 1970s the phrase “Top of the Pops” could mean one of two things. Firstly, there was the BBC’s weekly television show, but there was also a series of compilation albums with the same name. Apart from the fact that both were concerned with pop music, there was no connection between the two. The BBC had launched Top of the Pops in 1964, but hadn’t trademarked the name. In the late 1960s a number of record labels operating at the budget end of the spectrum started to issue compilations of current hits. When the Pickwick company decided to get in on the act, they found that the perfect cash-in name for their records was available to use.

These budget compilations had one key difference to the K-Tel, Ronco and Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations that came later. There was a very good reason why one of K-Tel’s big selling points in their advertising was that their compilation albums featured “original artists”. The budget compilations didn’t. They consisted of cover versions by unknown musicians. They were cheap because rather than containing the original recordings, they merely contained impersonations of the original recordings. Enough people didn’t seem to mind to make the budget anonymous compilation albums phenomenally successful. On more than one occasion in the early 1970s, a budget compilation of unoriginal recordings was the number one selling album in the UK. Who cared if instead of Elton John singing Rocket Man, it was a bloke from Romford called Barry? Barry had a good voice, did a fair impression of Elton John and you were still able to singalong. What was not to like?

The first of the budget albums was the Hot Hits series, put out by Music For Pleasure (MFP). Contour Records had a popular series called Chart Hits, but the kings of the genre were the Pickwick Top of the Pops records, which became as much a part of 1970s British life as space hoppers, Ford Capris and ugly shopping malls. Not only did Pickwick choose the best name, they also hit upon the idea of putting an attractive young lady on the cover. The other companies soon did the same.

The Top of the Pops albums were turned around very quickly. Once a list of songs had been selected, the producer and the musicians spent a couple of days in the studio (often having to make up lyrics when it wasn’t that easy to decipher what was being sung on the original) and the album would be out in the shops a couple of weeks later. A new volume came out every six weeks or so.

I latched onto them towards the end of 1974. I’d started my musical journey by buying noisy glam rock singles the autumn before, but towards the end of 1974 I must have realised that a Top of the Pops album gave me more for my money. I was too young to realise that with a TOTP album, I was not getting the original hits.

The first one I bought was Volume 40, probably, I suspect, for the inclusion of Kung Fu Fighting, which I thought was a tremendous tune. With glam on the decline, I went mad for anything that still sounded fun.

Over the next year I bought almost every one that came out. They became treasured items, although I was a bit confused by them. As well as not realising that they weren’t the original recordings, I also didn’t get the word “volume” which always appeared on the back cover followed by a number. To me “volume” just meant loudness. The word was written on one of the dials on the front of my record player and when you turned the dial marked “volume” towards the higher numbers, the sound became louder. I didn’t know that “volume” had more than one meaning and that in the case of the Top of the Pops records it referred to the release number. I thought it was a guide as to how loud you should play the record when you got it home. As a fan of loud music, I was quite pleased that the recommended volume level increased by one every time I bought a new album. Duh!

I also thought it was a rule with albums that you couldn’t like every song. As I’ve mentioned, back in those days I liked my music fast. I hated slow numbers. To appeal to a wide audience, the Top of the Pops albums always covered a wide spectrum. They tended to begin with an uptempo track, but then usually slowed things down with the second. I therefore usually liked the first song on any Top of the Pops album, and usually hated the second. And I thought that was how it had to be, like it was a scientific fact that after a fast song you had to have a slow one, that as you journeyed through an album there would always be a few dull moments that you had to wade through. You had to have a balance. I believed in the fast/slow rule until one of my dad’s work colleagues bought me the Sex Pistols’ album Never Mind The Bollocks for my 10th birthday and I realised that you could have your cake and eat it after all. You could fill an entire album with just the good stuff. The Pistols provided me with my own little revolution. But that was still a long way off.

The final Top of the Pops album I bought before The Six Million Dollar Man took me away from pop was Volume 48 and a rather lacklustre affair it is too.

There isn’t much here for the six year old me to jump up and down on the sofa to. Even the more uptempo tracks lack power. The album opens with L-L-Lucy, a hit for Mud, one of my favourite bands a year or so before, but this wasn’t one of their best. The slowing down of pop I spoke about earlier is well and truly in evidence. There are versions of I Only Have Eyes For You, Morris Albert’s Feelings and the excruciating The First Hello The Last Goodbye, a hit for Roger Whitaker, who was only in his thirties at the time, but who to me seemed to be more like sixty-something. I think that song put me off country music for life.

The album isn’t completely devoid of merit. It contains a reasonable attempt at David Bowie’s Space Oddity and the emerging worlds of 70s soul and disco are catered for by competent covers of George McCrae’s I Ain’t Lying and The Trammps’ Hold Back the Night.

Soul, disco and funk are genres that Top of the Pops always did surprisingly well. I say surprisingly, as those genres at the time often featured exuberant horn parts or lush orchestrations. Considering the time constraints caused by the need to get the albums into the shops as quickly as possible, that they were replicated with such care and attention is remarkable. Also, these are genres, I think, where the songs themselves are the stars and where cover versions are fairly common anyway. The guy singing I Ain’t Lying doesn’t sound much like George McCrae, but the recording sounds more like a good interpretation rather than a bad impersonation. Top of the Pops struggled when the song and the original artist were more inseparable. Space Oddity isn’t bad, but many of the Bowie songs Top of the Pops covered over the years were often sung in an over-the-top cockney accent and they sound like pastiches, as though the singer was just taking the piss. Covers of punk songs later in the decade generally didn’t work at all.

It was punk that got my antennae buzzing in 1977, but the key song that got me started buying records again was not an angry punk anthem, it was a trashy piece of eurodisco, namely Ma Baker by Boney M. With its “Freeze, I’m Ma Baker, put your hands in the air” start and the “FBI’s most wanted woman” middle section, I thought it was an action-packed humdinger of a song.

By now I knew that the Top of the Pops albums did not contain the original artists. But I was young and they were cheap and Volume 60, which came out in July 1977, featured a version of Ma Baker on its second side. So on a warm July day, I went down to Woolworths with my mum and bought my first record in 18 months. It was good to be back.

Like all the other volumes, Top of the Pops Volume 60 is a mixed bag, but I have more affection for this volume than any of other. It must be tied up with the memory of being excited by music again and of playing it on the new record player my parents had just bought. There’s plenty of slow, slushy stuff that had to be endured on each listen, but remember I still thought that was how albums had to be. And apart from Ma Baker, there are a couple of tunes that I used to absolutely love on this one. Track two, usually a slow one, is a cover of Donna Summer’s sensational I Feel Love, which when it came out sounded like nothing else on earth. Star Wars had arrived in the cinemas that summer and I Feel Love sounded like music from another world. True to form when it comes to disco, the Top of the Pops version here is extremely good.

The track that closes side one isn’t anywhere near as successful. It’s a piss-poor copy of the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, sung by Tony Rivers in a style that just mocks the original.  Whereas in the original John Lydon sings the word “vacant” as “vacunt”, emphasising the “cunt” part, the Top of the Pops version goes out of its way to make it abundantly clear that the second syllable is in fact an “a”, giving the recording a curious cockney knees-up quality. Tony Rivers didn’t care much for punk and it shows. The thing is, though, at this point, I’d never heard the Sex Pistols for real and when I first bought Top of the Pops Volume 60 I didn’t even know this was a Sex Pistols song. The original had only been released a week or two before, as too was Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, which just shows how quickly the Top of the Pops albums were produced. For the time being, I was happy enough jumping on the sofa to this.

Getting back into music and buying a new Top of the Pops album was the start of a new journey. I didn’t go back to the albums I’d bought in 1974 and 1975. That curious thing had happened. Those older albums had transformed from present day items to historical ones. They remained unplayed and they gathered more dust.

And my reacquaintance with the Top of the Pops albums was short lived. I only bought one more, Volume 62, which came out that Christmas. By now K-Tel and other companies were releasing compilation albums that featured “original artists” and they now seemed to me to be a better thing to spend my money on. As I got older, having the original recordings became more important. And on these new compilations you got twenty songs rather than Top of the Pop‘s measly twelve.

The Top of the Pops albums became an embarrassing part of my record collection. They were the runts of the litter, to be sneered at, ridiculed and bullied out of existence. Occasionally I’d drag one out to play to a friend and we’d roll around on the floor laughing. One day I even took a compass to one of them and scratched the names of my favourite punk bands into its grooves, ruining it forever.

I no longer have them. Records take up a lot of space and I decided a few years back to sell a few. I sold fifty or so albums online, but nobody wanted the Top of the Pops albums, so I’m afraid they were dumped. I played a couple before doing that, but I’m afraid I’d moved on. Some of the songs were good, especially the soul and disco ones, but there was too much slow and slushy stuff on them. Still, I no longer felt like ridiculing them. For a cheap product displayed in the bargain racks at Woolworths, they were, particularly in their heyday in the early 1970s, far better made than they perhaps deserved to be. They were an essential part of my early education in pop music and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

 

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