Thursday, 8 September 2011

Put yourself in the picture: the 1000th show

For this cutting we go forward in Radio Times time, to 30th April-6th May 1983:

As milestones go, Thursday's celebration of 1000 Top of the Pops will be a bit special. A stereo link with Radio 1 and a parade of stars past and present will honour the longest-running pop show on television. Among the screenful of DJs in charge for the night will be JOHN PEEL. Here he reveals how his attitude to he show has changed over the years.

"Top of the Pops is a national disgrace. All it does is reflect the very worst of popular taste, with no effort being made to present anything remotely progressive or innovative. Anyone who appears on the thing should be ashamed of themselves."

The above, taken from a student newspaper, typifies the ill-tempered invective which has rained down on Top of the Pops over the past nineteen years; surly stuff from critics who neatly sidestep the fact that the programme has never had pretensions to advancing one rod, pole or perch beyond that which its name some unequivocally states.

As Top of the Pops regular Sara Norman remarked in an aside to your correspondent, although she cares for such non-chart bands as Weekend and Everything But The Girl, she doesn't believe they should be on the programme unless they have a hit single.

Producer Michael Hurll goes further. Top of the Pops makes no attempt to set fashions - although others would argue the point - or establish trends, he says. It is, however, "a form of access programme. If viewers buy the records, the artists appear on television. We can change the packaging, we can't change the content."

The content of the very first Top of the Pops, transmitted on New Year's Day 1964, from an unfrocked church in Manchester, hardly required changing. The line-up reads like an archivist's dream. The Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand was at number one, and the toothsome foursome appeared on film, as did Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Live in the studio, and miming as prettily as you like, were Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clark Five, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Hollies and The Rolling Stones. The twisting and jitterbugging were in the charge of the Go-Jos, who were eventually to hand over the reins of office to Pan's People, from whom they passed in turn to the shortlived Ruby Flipper and Legs and Co, before coming to rest with Zoo.

Featured disc jockey on that first Top of the Pops was Jimmy Savile, who still surfaces from time to time to present the show. Savile was senior disc jockey when I made my debut on the programme in 1968. Half mad with terror, I forgot the name of Amen Corner and was banished into the outer darkness for 14 years, apart from a brief appearance as a mandolinist with The Faces in 1972.

Nowadays, in tandem with the hunky Canadian David 'Kid' Jensen, I crop up fairly regularly. Kid and I arrive in the studio at 3.30 and we are each handed a thirty-page document detailing every aspect of the impending programme, from the charts themselves to the names of the cheerleads. We seek out Michael Hurll for a brief discussion of the line-up, our roles in the proceedings and the preceding weekend's Football League action, before retiring into a corner to devise and rehearse our lively ad-libs.

At four o'clock we record the chart rundown and the Top Ten Video Show, the latter a recent innovation but already a popular feature of those Tops of the Pops that the Kid and I introduce. Once these have been recorded and approved, the stages are set for a dress rehearsal, something of a trial for Kid and myself, as our prettily-turned quips are usually met with huge indifference by the company, compelling us to retreat to the bar to reconsider our lines.

When we return to the studio the audience has been admitted. Sara Norman and her shipmate Caroline Wooden have, they compute, attended seven editions of Top of the Pops. Caroline enjoys coming to the studio because, as she remarks with engaging frankness, it is free. Also it provides Sara and Caroline with an opportunity to meet the bands whose records they buy. So far they have exchanged pleasantries with Blancmange, Bucks Fizz, Orchestral Manoeuvres, Soft Cell and Duran Duran.

Although the bands and, to a lesser extent, the disc jockeys are the focus of Top of the Pops, it is the cheerleaders who hold the live action together. As Caroline observes, the cheerleaders ensure that no one feels left out; they cajole the audience into dancing and generally create the required atmosphere.

It is not always easy for Kid and me to remember that we are working for the millions watching television, rather than the hundred or so gathered in the studio. Some of the latter, seeing the presenter as the only obstacle between them and a nationwide television debut, work hard at heaving us out of the way and the jostling for position can be pretty tough.

Michael Hurll says that the 1000th Top of the Pops will stick principally to the business of reflecting the week's charts, although about ten minutes of the 50-minute edition will be devoted to clips from earlier programmes. There will be, he concedes, 'a bit of a party atmosphere'. This will also be the first stereo Top of the Pops, with the celebrations being carried simultaneously on Radio 1.

One thousand editions on, Alan Freeman, who introduced the second Top of the Pops, admits that 'the programme is better than ever now'. And that ill-considered quote at the beginning of this article? Why, that was John Peel, interviewed in 1967.


Anonymous said...

You know, I don't think British music has been the same since John Peel died...

Arthur Nibble said...

I tend to agree. People just saw him as Radio 1's champion of punk rock, but Peelie's range was far more diverse (progressive and reggae being two other strings to his musical bow) and he gave a chance to acts who wouldn't have been given the time of day elsewhere in the schedule. 6 Music plays an important role these days but it's out on the fringes, while we get spoonfed the same r'b / Autotune / Buble puree from a dizzying range of mainstream stations.

Steve Williams said...

And also, as proven here, he was never a musical snob, he knew exactly what Pops was about and he never slagged off anyone involved. In The Observer the other week they reprinted a piece he wrote about presenting Pops, where he said one of the most memorable moments was having a drink with Dan Hartman in the bar and intensely discussing toll roads.

Adam Maunder said...

God bless Peel. I don't think I ever even listened to the whole of one of his shows, but on the odd occasion towards the end, I'd tune in & hear... well, what DID I hear? The first Sonny Boy Williamson, Cliff Edwards aka 'Ukulele Ike' (or Jiminy Cricket in Disney's 'Pinocchio', if you prefer), thrash metal - all kinds of stuff.

I know Mr. Williams posted a link to a Wiki site dedicated to his shows on the Creamguide a while back, but I can't remember the address for that, so instead, here's what was in his 142-strong Record Box, his favourite singles of all.

In furtherance to what Arthur was saying, the sheer range of stuff is breathtaking: rockabilly, reggae, electronica, punk, trad jazz... I've always been blown away by the amount of Southern U.S. soul he treasured - Mel & Tim, Eddie & Ernie, Johnnie Taylor, Sam & Dave, all of which seldom rates a mention in discussions of his musical loves, and clearly it meant the world to him (damn rightly).

His total lack of snobbery - quite the most sensible attitude to take with something as serious as music - is reflected in his owning 2 copies of Sheena Easton's '9 to 5' (he always had a thing for her), or 'Down Down', surely the most quintessential of all Status Quo records. Plenty of humour there, too (and not just of the obvious, Bill Oddie parody kind).

The amount of care he put into presenting TOTP is neatly reflected in that lovely RT piece; all those verbose, silly-costumed intros the Rhythm Pals burned so indelibly onto our mind's eye could only have been the product of love, and this shows it.

With him gone, 6 Music is indeed quite the only place you can expect to hear much beyond the constant rotation of hits from either the 80s (why?) or now, and last Xmas, Radio 2 lost the one person doing something in any way similar when Mark Lamarr, tired of being shunted around the graveyard shifts, decided to sling his hook too. So I share the following link for anybody who misses the same anything-goes mixture of sounds Peel pioneered, in the hope you may find a drop of solace from its rather gorgeous contents:

Simon said...

Should also point to this, part of that aforementioned Peel Wiki, but good quality recordings have been found of John's week-long stand-in for Jakki Brambles on the lunchtime show in 1993, during which someone faxes the studio requesting he "play some real music":

Adam Maunder (alright - I'll stop soon, I promise) said...

Oh, wow! That's sparked off a hitherto dormant memory. Lamarr said he was on the judging panel of some Awards or another in '93, and he & his fellow adjudicators voted unanimously in favour of awarding Radio Presenter of the Year to Peel, not in recognition of his regular show, but for his week standing in for Brambles. Fantastic! No wonder she's not on Loose Women anymore...