By Ricky Young
Europe’s Best Website plunges into the world of telly only rarely, (as goodness knows every single show that goes out over the ether gets recapped up the wazoo these days, for good or bad) but for this correspondent, the very best thing on the box in the last twelve months has been the weekly 35-years-ago Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4. Pre-’76, the archive was swiss-cheese at best, with dozens and dozens of shows lost to the ages, but when we joined what looks like a considerable on-going project , the gaps were narrowing down to insignificance.
The ‘Pops gets a hard time from the Nostalgia Police, thanks to the gruesome later incarnations and Steve Wright’s voiceovers on the generally-emetic TOTP2. But there was a time when it was always there, always grinding out the chart on a Thursday and heralding the weekend in the best fashion possible. Back when its broadcast rules (highest climber, highest new entry, number one, non-movers only after four weeks, no fallers unless they rose again and beat the previous position etc) emanated from the old-school Light Entertainment honcho who had no agenda other than reflecting the pop singles of the day. Unfettered pop!
And what reflections 1976 and 77 have provided so far. *Just* pre-punk (although this entry works from the entirely acceptable definition that British punk was a few dirty little scrotes and chancers getting slightly uppity then happily dying or selling out, leaving little of note) and firmly controlled by the bow-tied Robin Nash as producer, it’s abundantly clear that the charts are fuelled by either pocket money or your mum. Or, indeed, your gran. How else would you explain the Brotherhood of Man? Or Acker Bilk? Or JJ Barrie?
It’s nostalgia through a prism, of course. I was too young to watch TOTP in ’76 – I was three at the time – but many of the tunes featured go on to become the Radio 2 staples of many a long family drive to visit the rellies, right through my formative years. So now I get to watch songs I know like the back of my hand being performed when fresh and new. (Or, in T-Rex’s case, when sad and bloated.) Although it’s the one-hit wonders and forgotten, low-charting singles which provide the most fun, and – let’s face it – weirdness. Like 5000 Volts. Or Twiggy. Or Johnny Wakelin. Or the Chanter Sisters. Or, heaven help us, Glamourpuss.
There’s a thick seam of unforced batshit running though the whole production, to be frank – I’m not sure whether it’s caused by thirty-five years’ distance, or just that the world was stranger back then, but there’s at least a couple of ‘what the fuck?’ moments in every show, and we could do worse than take a gander at where they usually hang out.
1) The opening chart run-down, to the BBC in-house rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. I didn’t recall this at all (my Pops-watching began in ’81-’82, only months after this bizarre practice ended). Are we now so spoiler-phobic that telling you who’s number one at the start of the show seems like a really odd way to behave?
2) The presenters. Alright, it’s definitely easy money to rag on these guys, especially as this was just an unfortunately-for-us on-screen perk of the day jobs for which they were hired, but it’s a grim old line-up and no mistake. The ‘Pops got a slagging much later in its history for hiring visually-acceptable non-dj’s to front it, but that’s only because we were so inured to having some misshapen gargoyle creep on west from Broadcasting House to pick up the mic.
There’s no reason why any of these people should be considered telly material at all (except for Noel Edmonds, of whom we’ll etc). Look at David Hamilton, for example – a nervous weeble with a Weetabix helmet, barely getting though the links before his own tonsorial static fuses the studio lights. Or Tony Blackburn, a man whose eyes should really feature in a documentary about the dark and unnatural things that cling to the edge of undersea volcanoes. Or Dave Lee Travis (never trust a chap who has to come up with his own nickname), a barrel-chested quasar of obnoxiousness, whose ego expands to fill any space he enters. Or the slick Kid ‘David’ Jensen, shiny of jacket and exotic of accent.
Or Jimmy Fucking Savile, of whom little really needs to be said, although he certainly touched me in a special place as a child, and I suspect he touched many others in the same way.
Only Noel comes out of it with any dignity. Top R1 dog at this point, manning the Breakfast Show, he’s smartly dressed (at least in comparison to DLT, who often looks like he’s wandered on set fresh from gutting a dog), seemingly in control and familiar with the acts, and he gets from one link to the next without fuss or too many extraneous bits of business – no wonder this was only a step-up to justified Saturday-morning domination – he’s just on the verge of his all-conquering Nation’s Big Brother period at the moment – there’s not even a hint of the seething little martinet he’d later become.
3) The ‘People, the ‘Flip and the ‘Co. Yes, pre-video blah blah not all the acts could be booked blah blah dancers were needed blah. Happily we joined just as the tired Pan’s People gave way to Ruby Flipper after eight years (On their last show, Noel rather strangely announced that PP were “shuffling off stage left”, and that Ruby Flipper would now be appearing “throughout the Top of the Pops series”) Never a bastion of sanity or good taste, the revolutionary new four-girl-three-boy line up allowed Flick Colby to come up with some of the loopiest routines of her career. Sadly, the girls having been joined by Phil, Gav & Floyd was regarded as a step too far for the something-for-the-dads brigade i.e. on the orders of Bill Cotton, and we saw them getting the boot in favour of the more traditional Legs & Co, taking my first crush Cherry Gillespie with them. Bye, Cherry. I’ll miss you.
4) Again, despite it being the pre-video era, there’s a surprisingly large amount of shipped-in footage, from American and European pop shows, sometimes around half of any given edition. Professionally lit, colourful backdrop, smoother-feeling video-grain? That’ll be Soul Train.
5) Big cocks. Man, check out the tight trousers on a lot of the performers. There’s plenty of pressed sausage on show behind those gaudy and flammable trouserings, so keep your eyes out for the good stuff. And while we’re on the subject of sizzling-hot man-love, check out this oft-featured promo for Dr. Hook’s ‘Love You A Little Bit More’. Not only is the song seemingly describing the tenderest of potential gang-rapes, the video stops only just short of a glade-set fisting-festival of epic proportions. Colour me disappointed. I like the one with no teeth best!
6) The cut to a man on a horse in David Soul’s ‘Don’t Give Up On Us Baby’, for no godly reason. The song doesn’t mention a horse, and it’s not even him on it! (Also, listen to the lyrics closely and tell me it’s not one long passive-aggressive whine from a not-hugely-regretful domestic abuser).
7) Ah, hang on, maybe David was singing the song to a horse. That might make more sense.
8) The reliable, mildly-annoying mid-70s phenomenon of the young-ish, fey-ish man sitting behind a piano, sharing slightly too much of himself to sustain a pop career. We’ve had jaunty (David Dundas), poppy (Andrew Gold), proggy (John Miles) and my favourite, Randy Edelman’s ‘You’re An Uptown Uptempo Woman, I’m – Going By My Own Lyrics – A Bleating, Freeloading Twat’.
Quite why this genre disappeared is anyone’s guess: as a group they looked as if they could do with being thinned out by a war – let’s hope it was that.
9) ABBA making nearly everyone else look like amateurs. They spend a lot of time at number one, of course, and despite them now being untouchable cultural totems that even Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice can’t ruin, seeing them in the context of the weekly chart can’t help throw unflattering melody-based comparisons every which way. The B-O-M even tried to steal their act! Not something you’d expect from a brotherhood, really.
The promo film for ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ shows the foursome on the very verge of superstardom, and even though Bjorn and Benny are characteristically stuck doing the harmonies, the latter’s look to the camera here says a thousand words:
Okay, 19 words. But by god how he means them.
10) Nostalgia shows will have it that the mid-70s were a pasty and monochrome wasteland, with the only black person in the country living next door to Reg Varney. This is shown to be bollocks, given how around 40% (sometimes more) of the 76-77 acts were black. Soul (be it real or ersatz) was enormously popular with the single-purchasing public at the time, it seems, and every week there’s usually something storming, like this from Billy Ocean, or this from The Real Thing. Or, er, this from The Stylistics. But, more importantly, fans of outré men’s tailoring may want to tune in just for the fashion crimes the soul acts undertake on a weekly basis. You like acres of dayglo polyester? Or glistening and glittery piping on lapels? Or primary-coloured ruffle-fronted shirts? Or jackets, with waistcoats, and no shirts? Of course you do.
11) The audiences. Forget the posing style-victims of the 80′s onwards, these grubby floors get filled each week by what looks like a couple of busloads of sixth-form students, or a youth-club day out. You’ll get a couple of great gormless looks-to-camera every week, too. By someone called Judith, probably. Or Ruth.
12) The end credits on the late-showing extended version – it’s just a song being played over a kaleidoscope stuck to a BBC camera, panning back and forth over the studio as everyone pisses off home. Look, there’s a man winding up some camera cable around his arm! Oh, you missed him.
If you haven’t tuned in yet, you’re in luck – it doesn’t seem to be winding down at any point soon, and these are proper social documents, each edition a wonderful snapshot of the taste of the nation in any given week. As ’77 moves on and we’re gifted an incredibly non-exciting glimpse of safety-pin and nose-ring, we’ll probably hear of Paul Morley or one of his ilk tuning in and declaring ‘Year Zero’ or ‘That’s Why This Was Needed’ or another of their waning clutch of ancient talking-points designed to get their increasingly jowly faces on a Clips’n’Cunts show this tax-year. We didn’t need punk – not unless you felt that 35 years on, you might get a craving to be ineptly sold some butter.
Light Entertainment is, and always has been, the best entertainment. There’s a time and a place for youth rebellion, and it’s not in the middle of Manhattan Transfer – ooh, your gran likes them, don’t you Gran?
Get on board before Paul does – tape it late on Thursday to watch with that first Friday-teatime cider – sorry, Legs & Co have come on. I want to, er, listen to this one.
There’s is Ricky’s eleventh piece for MostlyFilm. You can throw eleven shades of abuse at him here.
Thanks to the excellent ‘Yes It’s Number One’ blog for the hideous pic of Sir Jim’ll.