To any music loving Brit of a certain age, the phrase ‘Top of the Pops’ has a certain resonance. In the dark years before MTV ‘Top of the Pops’ or TOTP as it’s often abbreviated was THE music programme on British television. And even in the days when there were other music based programmes TOTP was the programme that performers aspired to – if you’d been on TOTP then you’d arrived.
TOTP was first broadcast on New Years Day 1964, introduced by Jimmy Savile one of the country’s first disc jockeys. The show’s format was pretty much defined from day one, featuring music from the pop charts (or hit parade as it was then known) culminating with that week’s number one (best-selling record).
TOTP was broadcast each Thursday evening from 1964 through to 1996, when the BBC started shifting it around the schedules, it finally ended (to a chorus of disapproval from recording artists) in 2006 – Jimmy Saville (then SirJimmy Saville) presented the final edition, as he had the first. There are occasional rumours of resurrection, and repeats are often shown on the BBC’s digital channels, but the golden age of TOTP was probably the sixties and seventies.
In the early days, before studio technology was sufficiently advanced to make live performance really convincing, many acts would mime to their singles (or in the seventies to versions recorded specially for the show). This lead to many examples on bands emphasising their miming – the DJ John Peel ‘played’ mandolin on Rod Stewart’s performance of ‘Maggie May’, DJ Dave Lee Travis ‘played’ drums on Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ and on one occasion Status Quo used a life sized marionette of their absent bassist Alan Lancaster. Status Quo performed on TOTP more than eighty times, more than any other band.
Often, when bands were unavailable to perform (in the days before promotional films or videos became commonplace) TOTP would resort to an in-house dance troupe performing to a single. The first dance troupe in the sixties were the ‘Go-Jos’ but the dance troupe from 1968-1976 “Pan’s People” became a household name in their own right.
In late 1975, the band Queen famously realised that they would be unable to perform ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on TOTP because they would be touring. Instead they recorded a promotional video, and can justifiably claim to be the fathers of the MTV generation.
Another British obsession which can be traced to the door of TOTP is the weekly ‘Number One’ race, and particularly the race for the Christmas Number One. In recent years that race became somewhat devalued as TV scheduling meant that the winner of ITV’s ‘X Factor’ was virtually assured until 2009 when a Facebook campaign started by Jon & Tracy Morter usurped the X Factor winner, getting a track by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas Number One.
Update – Sir Jimmy Saville died on October 29th 2011, two days short of his 85th birthday.