‘Is you is or is you ain’t my baby….top of the pops top of the pops’
So sang my dearly departed Grandad within earshot on more than one occasion during my childhood. Sadly his follow-up ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ failed to match up in the hit parade. Still, if nothing else, these quotes brought home to me then the cultural magnitude of the generation-spanning show and it’s status as primary talking point for many households around the country every Thursday dinnertime. Certainly from the time Shakin’ Stevens and Bucks Fizz emerged from the primordial pop soup (constituting my earliest memories of watching TV in the process) to the Battle of Britpop some 13 years later it was something unmissable for me. Essential viewing, just as the Top 40 on Sunday evenings was a listening experience of ritualistic nature.
Such sentiments are hardly original as time and time again pop fans and music critics have expressed their appreciation for TV music shows in providing them with a primary source for hearing and seeing new music whilst growing up and learning how to deal with hormonal upheaval, teenage angst and subsequent rebellious urges. Often the acts on the show would provide perfect targets for cathartic outbursts of spite directed towards the screen, or alternatively you’d catch something so fantastic it would inspire you long enough to mention it in the playground the next day (from Duran Duran to the KLF and beyond there was always this exciting prospect to look forward to). Often however, the love turns to hate. I stopped watching Top Of The Pops from titles to credits sometime shortly after the Blurasis shenanigans of the mid 90s. Admittedly this was more due to personal circumstances (I had to get a part-time job that swallowed up my Thursday and Friday evenings more often than not) than a sense that the show no longer entertained me as it once did, although it’s also true that I never felt a greater sense of loathing for chart pop than I did at that time.
Nonetheless, when opportunity knocks, you have to accept the charges (or something). And there was still a frisson of excitement within me as on a whim and with a ‘well it’ll be nice to say ‘I was there’ attitude we secured access to an unusually scheduled afternoon recording of the show. It wasn’t until we arrived at BBC TV Centre (where it occurred to me again how much more convenient Top Of The Pops must be to both attend and film now it’s moved back to Wood Lane rather than distant Elstree) that we learned the reason for the re-schedule (the whole reason we were able to attend in the first place) was due to the producers attempting to align things more conveniently with the schedule of the delectable Ms Spears. Sadly Britney still didn’t turn up and we could only imagine what wonders her materialisation in the studio would’ve yielded.
Annoyingly we had to make do with Big Brovaz who were signing flyers in the foyer. Ignoring them in favour of beer we could only loiter and watch the promotional video loop for the show on giant plasma screens while Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ piped throughout the room. Not a bad start, despite the absence of dearest Britters.
We’d already learned the line-up: The Darkness, Electric 6, Blur, Big Brovaz, Texas featuring Kardinal Offishall and Emma Bunton. However when we eventually ambled into the remarkably compact studio – along with some 200 sixteen year old girls in ludicrously short skirt-belt hybrids, oikish students, oikish meejaslargs and mates of The Darkness – we found the first performance was to come from spanking new girl group Clea. Their ode to the merits of digital freeloading was adequately delivered and received thanks to the sterling efforts of the motivating floor manager and the fact that for some reason the track acquired a much bassier vibe in the studio, almost to the point where I could barely hear their vocals. Excellent.
After a second take, Clea tottered off happily, making way for virtual headliners The Darkness. Justin and his motley crew bounded on stage gamely and the frontman was only too happy to act up and crack jokes for the flailing punters. The Darkness remain vaguely likeable (if not completely adorable) and the mood is genuinely charged – if you really do hate fun then do look away at 7.30pm this evening. Some excessive smoke, pink spandex and swish pyrotechnics later and following a second take it’s on to Big Brovaz giving it their acoustic all. It may dismay readers to know that while ‘Baby Boy’ was bawled out with predictable mediocrity (twice) at least half of the audience preferred to skulk around the opposing stage where Damon, Alex, Dave and Joe Sessionist had emerged, seemingly from nowhere. Now that’s a ‘Taking Sides’ thread if ever I thought of one…
Sadly Blur’s new single cannot quite compete with their relatively pleasant sound-check ditty. Much like Mickey Pearce – sorry – Mr Albarn, we drift through ‘Good Song’ rather aimlessly but are not completely offended. At some point during the next three minutes I feel moderate guilt for realising I quite like ‘Crazy Beat’ – some people in the audience actually call out for ‘There’s No Other Way’ which baffles me all the way through Emma Bunton’s tolerable performance which then follows.
Bunton appears to be staking her claim for the next Bond theme (or at worst the next Austin Powers movie) with a new song, the title of which I have been unable to determine. It’s pleasant enough and quite possibly her best single yet. More impressive are the range of backing dancers who thankfully ditch the yawnsome Dairylea formation in favour of all manner of strange manoeuvres, complimented by costume design clearly inspired by the bastard offspring of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Evanescence.
At various points hosts Richard Bacon and Margherita Taylor conduct the necessary links. Their voices are barely audible despite the small scale of the studio so we’re forced to wait for Bacon’s ‘razor-sharp’ quips announcing the Metallica video and what have you. Do listen for the obligatory reference to The Darkness as ‘antidote to manufactured pop’ and make of it what you will though.
Texas follow and it’s time for a sit-down as all this standing around applauding like idiots has become extremely tiresome. Kardinal Offishall is much taller than I realised and this proves to be the most interesting thing about the four minutes that follow. Sharleen Spiteri reveals how they were eager to work with him after hearing ‘Belly Dancer’, just in case we’d forgotten that Texas really dig hip hop and dancehall don’tcha know. Good taste not withstanding, it’s fortunately a hitch-free rendition and we’re on to the mighty all-the-way-live Electric 6, some of whom have already been milling around the audience, dazzling all with their appalling hair and lovely suits.
‘Dance Commander’ ignites the place unlike anything since about an hour ago when The Darkness were on stage. But the band provide a fine spectacle of their own and just about steal the show. Dick Valentine may have ditched the Ron Mael look completely as his toothy grin and unswept locks would confirm, but he does look genuinely happy to be there despite resisting the urge to goof around on the tiny stage more. The second take inevitably follows but what remains essentially a more buoyant, discofied mutation of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ does not become tedious. The band then wrap up with a cover of Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’. It sounds like a bizarre but potentially marvellous concept. The reality doesn’t QUITE match up and you can’t help but wonder if The Darkness might’ve handled it better. Most disappointing of all the band do not break for the obligatory audience double-claps – guitars drone throughout which blunts the song’s dynamic noticeably. Still, significantly better than a knitting needle in the ear, and Valentine remains in good voice throughout, even for that all-important second take.
So after around three hours another week’s edition of the longest running music show on television is done and dusted. Goodie bags are given to selected members of the crowd, presumably the ones who applauded the most enthusiastically, grinded the most horrendously and wore a skirt the most minimally. Fair enough. We shuffle out quite satisfied, even declaring our intent to do this again sometime, and only a slight amount of time is spent pondering whether the demystification process of being in the audience would weaken my current level of enthusiasm and appreciation for the show, the charts or even pop music itself. None of this is actually likely, as I haven’t watched the show in full for some time though I do retain an avid fascination with the charts themselves.
Top Of The Pops, much like a vinyl single, may not retain the same allure with most of today’s teenagers as it did with generations before, but whether this is due to the increase in non-terrestrial music programming over the last ten years or a fault with the show’s format itself it is hard to tell. When considering how to improve the show my personal instincts are to drop the more recent ideas such as the pointless on-the-spot interviews that tend to make Premiership footballers look eloquent and enlightening by comparison. Cutting to videos remains a useful tool but I miss the old FULL chart rundown and to discard it merely adds fuel to the fire that the charts, the reason this programme exists, do not have the same relevance or power they once did – due to the lack of slow-burn ascending hits if nothing else. Still, TOTP’s future seems safe for the foreseeable future and Bacon himself was heard to remark that he had not seen an atmosphere like that on set during his (albeit fairly brief) time presenting the show. Of course he hadn’t seen The Rapture the night before unlike me so his opinion is really meaningless in that respect – but it does suggest that The Darkness, clearly the incentive for so many of the audience’s choosing to attend, may be having the biggest impact on British pop music since Oasis, at least in terms of exciting the NME-shepherded mainstream media.
Regardless, TOTP’s survival really depends on whether the charts continue to accommodate such a broad range of releases. Thirty minutes remains the perfect timespan to deliver a sweeping glance at the pop world that week with the more variation the better, and the slick professionalism and efficiency with which I witnessed the ‘magic’ being made at least reinforced the idea that this actually is mainstream entertainment at its most decent. CD:UK carries certain advantages over TOTP for sure (it’s scheduled better and is able to focus on the forthcoming chart rather than the previous one for example) but some of TOTP’s original ethos and spirit remains. It’s this sense of tradition that means that while it may not quite be still number one, it’s still up there as a non-mover – and that may be enough for now.