Celebrating the best and worst of Top of the Pops

Top of the Pops turns 50 in January of next year. Picture: Complimentary
Top of the Pops turns 50 in January of next year. Picture: Complimentary
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To mark the 50th anniversary of Top Of The Pops, Dani Garavelli tunes into ten moments that showed it at its best – and worst

John Lennon sings Instant Karma

David Bowie sings Starman. Picture: Contributed

David Bowie sings Starman. Picture: Contributed

12 & 19 February 1970

John Lennon’s pre-recorded appearances with the Plastic Ono Band on two successive weeks in early 1970 were remarkable for several reasons, not least of which was that this was the first time any member of The Beatles had been on the show since 1966. It was also the moment Lennon chose to unveil his new “cropped” look, his long hair having been shorn off to mark the beginning of what he dubbed Year One AP (after peace, in the wake of their bed-ins). But the aspect of the two performances, recorded on the same day at BBC Television Centre, that marks them out as truly extraordinary is the role played by Yoko Ono. In the take aired on 12 February, she sits mute with a blindfold that looks suspiciously like a sanitary towel wrapped round her head, knitting as he sings. In the 19 February take, she is similarly attired, but, Bob Dylan-esque, holds up a series of cue cards, with the words Smile, Breathe, Love and Peace written on them.

David Bowie sings Starman

6 July 1972

Legs and Co dancing to The Clash. Picture: Contributed

Legs and Co dancing to The Clash. Picture: Contributed

WHEN David Bowie took to the TOTP stage in full Ziggy Stardust regalia and sang Starman with his band, the Spiders from Mars, it represented a defining moment both for pop music and the gay rights movement. The sight of the androgynous rock idol in a multicoloured Lycra jump-suit dangling his arm limply around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder and casting occasional longing glances in his direction sent a frisson of excitement (and a degree of consternation) through living rooms across the country.

It was a time of tremendous social change; the Gay Pride movement was on the rise and, months earlier, Bowie had told Melody Maker magazine he was bisexual. To many parents, Bowie’s public gender-bending was one more sign the country was going to the dogs. But to rebellious teenagers on a voyage of sexual discovery it was mesmerising.

The impact the TOTP appearance had on a generation of aspiring artists can be seen by the number who still cite it as life-changing. Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet, recalls watching it at a friend’s council flat. “My reality was so far removed from this guy’s place, that my journey from that moment on was to get there, and I think the same applies to most of my generation,” he has said. “It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative,” wrote Dylan Jones in his book When Ziggy Played Guitar. “For me and others like me it felt as if the future had arrived.”

Legs & Co dance to The Clash’s Bankrobber

21 August 1980

FOR surrealism and a comic mismatch between track and visuals, it would be difficult to beat Legs & Co’s painfully literal interpretation of The Clash’s Bankrobber, which they performed in striped leotards (like robbers, geddit?) with highwaymen’s bandanas round their necks. Legs & Co were the dancers who – in the days of one TV per household – provided dads with compensation for having to listen to “that dreadful noise” every Thursday evening. The women, generally scantily clad, would perform whenever the featured artist was unavailable to make a live appearance. Opposed to TOTP’s miming policy and keen to maintain their street cred, The Clash famously boycotted the show. But instead of showing the video for Bankrobber, which featured footage of the band in the studio interspersed with footage of two of the roadies performing a heist, the programme-makers asked Legs & Co to dance. The routine is something to behold as the women, all standing behind jailhouse bars shake their booty to the subversive lyrics. Most hilarious is their attempt to act out specific lines, throwing pound notes in the air to the words “and he loved to steal your money” and pretending to be working in a factory to the words “a lifetime serving one machine is ten times worse than prison”. It’s difficult to imagine what this performance did for the band’s reputation but it could be argued the performance is kind of punk rock in its sheer incongruity.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners sing Jackie Wilson Said

30 September 1982

Many audience members assumed the producers had made a monumental cock-up when a photograph of darts player Jocky Wilson appeared behind Dexy’s as they performed their cover version of Van Morrison’s tribute to the soul singer. In fact, the band’s frontman Kevin Rowland had asked them to do it as a joke. When the producers complained people would think they’d made a mistake, he replied: “Only an idiot would think that.” But the morning after Radio 1 DJ Mike Read said: “Bloody Top of the Pops. How could they mix up one of the great soul singers with a Scottish darts player?” The story of the “embarrassing mix-up” became part of the TOTP narrative to the extent that, when Jocky Wilson died last year, the incident featured prominently in his obituaries.

All About Eve Performs (or doesn’t perform) Martha’s Harbour

4 August 1988

YOU have to feel for Julianne Regan and Tim Bricheno. There they are on TOTP for the first time, all keyed up and ready to perform their debut hit Martha’s Harbour when a technical gremlin strikes. Unable to hear the backing track, and unaware the song has already started playing to the TV audience, they sit shifting about on their stools looking awkward and embarrassed. At first it seems they may be engaged in some kind of right-on protest against miming, but as the backing track clicks in for them and they finally start performing, it becomes clear it has all been a terrible mistake. Regan gives it her best shot but the humiliation just adds an extra air of melancholy to what could never have been described as an upbeat ditty. In the dressing room afterwards, Regan later said, there were no tantrums or tears, just glum disappointment. “Janice Long and Mark Goodier came down and were lovely, offering their condolences as if there had been some kind of death.” It wasn’t all bad news, though. Britain’s love affair with the underdog meant that, despite the woeful performance, the single rose five chart places the following week.

The Happy Mondays & the Stone Roses perform on the same show

23 November 1989

When you watch repeats of TOTP it seems as if most editions consisted of one good artist surrounded by lots of dross. But the night the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses made their debuts there was a embarrassment of riches. Towards the end of the 1980s, the music industry had stagnated, but as Ecstasy flooded clubs, the Hacienda’s Ibiza night took off and the indie and dance scenes merged, a new phenomenon was born. When the Happy Mondays sang Hallelujah (featuring Kirsty MacColl) and the Stones Roses sang Fools Gold on TOTP, Madchester came into its own and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson declared the 1990s open for business. With the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses there was none of the animosity that was to come later with Blur and Oasis. The band members were good mates and respected each other’s talents. “I thought it was great that when we first did Top of the Pops, the Roses were on the same show,” Shaun Ryder, the lead singer of the Happy Mondays, said later. “It felt like Manchester was taking over. People still talk about it to me, blokes in their 40s saying, ‘I was at college when you and the Roses first did Top of the Pops and it was f***ing brilliant.’”

Nirvana performs Smells Like Teen Spirit

28 November 1991

Told they had to sing live to a pre-recorded instrumental backing track (they wanted the whole performance to be live) Nirvana set about hijacking their own appearance, leading to one of the most chaotic and defiant finger-up to the programme in TOTP’s history. In what he later said was an attempt to emulate Morrissey, Kurt Cobain sang more slowly and an octave lower than usual, giving the song a dramatic, operatic feel. He also changed the first line to “Load up on drugs; kill your friends” and made it obvious he wasn’t actually playing his guitar by holding his fingers inches away from the frets as fellow band member Krist Novoselic swung his bass guitar recklessly round his head and Dave Grohl danced behind his drum kit.

Blur sings Country House

3 August 1995

Though Blur and Oasis had originally praised each other, a bitter enmity grew up between them after Oasis hit the No.1 spot with their album Definitely Maybe (though Parklife had been No.1 the year before) and Liam Gallagher started winding up Damon Albarn about his and Noel’s success. By now both bands were working on their second albums The Great Escape and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and were at the vanguard of the Britpop movement. Such was the antagonism between the two, they released their lead singles Country House and Roll With It on the same day, with the clash billed as the battle of Britpop. Country House achieved top spot, selling 270,000 compared with Roll With It’s 220,000. To celebrate, Blur’s bassist Alex James wore an Oasis T-shirt for the band’s triumphant appearance on TOTP. The Gallagher brothers got their revenge by singing a rendition of Parklife when they picked up their Brit Award for Best British Band the following year (Liam had changed the lyrics to “Shitelife”).

The Spice Girls sing Wannabe

19 July 1996

So much water has passed under the bridge in the ensuing years it’s easy to forget what an impact the Spice Girls had when they first crashed into the charts and on to TOTP in 1996 as part of the Britpop explosion. The first all-girl band to reach No.1 with their debut single, they were touring in Japan when the news of Wannabe’s triumph broke and their debut appearance had to be beamed in by satellite. The Girl Power message quickly became distorted, but as the five strong characters – who were given their Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Posh and Baby nicknames by the programme’s magazine – belted out their anthem to friendship on the steps of an oriental temple, they did seem to offer the promise of empowerment. Older feminists may have hated them for offering up an inane, plastic version of girlhood, but when you compare their carefree, sisterly solidarity to the sexualised strutting of the likes of Miley Cyrus, they seem a breath of fresh air.

Every time Morrissey was on

From his first TOTP appearance singing This Charming Man with The Smiths on 24 November 1983, when he swung a bunch of gladioli around like a medieval flail, Morrissey was determined to provide a spectacle. Whether it was ripping open his shirt to reveal the words Marry Me scrawled across his chest in eyeliner during William, It Was Really Nothing on 30 August 1984; machine-gunning the crowds with an imaginary weapon during How Soon Is Now? on 14 February 1985; or stencilling the word BAD on his neck to perform The Boy With A Thorn In His Side after a disastrous US tour later the same year; he was always provocative. Of the TOTP debut guitarist Johnny Marr said: “We had used gladioli at the Hacienda before to counteract the austere aesthetic of Factory Records. People assumed it was an Oscar Wilde homage, but that was a bonus. Morrissey provided flamboyance, the rest of us wore sweaters and provided a streetwise, gang aspect.”