Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Top Of The Pops thoughts

In the paper today it is suggested the BBC are looking for a new format for Top Of The Pops. My first thought was, they have one. It's called Top Of The Pops.

I, like many people of my age, was dismayed by the cancellation of TOTP in 2006 and long for its return. It was a major part of my childhood, and went through many changes, but ultimately it was the same basic show. It had the pop music acts of the day into the studio, live or as-live, miming or really playing, and that was the long and short of it. The pop music of the day appeared on TOTP when it was hot, and disappeared when it wasn't.

Since TOTP's demise, I've lost touch with popular music quite badly. This is only to be expected, given my immense age, but it was TOTP as much as anything that kept me up to date. I don't know what acts look like. You forget how much that helps. And I don't know when something's new or old. Given the number of records these days that are both (be they samples, covers or retro, like Crosby Stills Nash & Young tribute act Fleet Foxes).

The music biz needs it, a shop window for their wares on BBC1 every week. What could be better? If an act wants to plug their new single on TV now they have to appear on a breakfast news programme, sing on a dancing shiny-floor contest or pop up on a bloody cookery show. Or, if they're really lucky, they might get a slot on Jools Holland, where they have to compete with acts selected for the previous 70 years of music, and from all over the world, all getting two chances to perform in each show. Statistically that means next to nobody new's ever got a chance of getting on. And if they do, Jools will ruin your record by playing honky bloody tonk bloody piano over the top of it when you least expect.

Or you can wait till Glastonbury comes along, or T4 on the Beach, so you get to plug your new single, but only once your new single's been a big enough hit at the time of the year when people actually buy records, ie the winter and the spring, so that you're famous enough to be invited on a show in the summer, when they don't.

So, Top Of The Pops is vital for those of us desperate to know what acts look like, who hold to the old fashioned notice that TV is a better advertising medium than the radio, and who think live appearances in the studio have a magic that a pop video, which can be seen on MTV and a hundred other channels and online at the drop of a hat, don't. Certainly TOTP specials at Christmas, and TOTP-like shows on ITV, prove popular with viewers. Added to which the broadcaster comes away every week with unique and valuable footage for the archive.

Godammit, no TOTP? Wasn't it a format so successful they franchised it? I've seen the American and German versions of Top of the bloody Pops. How can we not have one?

So, the BBC are asking people for formats, but they're not happy with any of the formats they've been presented with? Did they never watch the programme? Actually, given the fact that the current commissioners are possibly 20 something public schoolkids, no, they probably didn't. Let me fill them in on the 'format' of TOTP.

The format: Pop acts from this week's charts come into the studio and play their current single. We have a rundown of the singles chart. It is presented by.. someone. That's about it for the format. Over the years it has varied:

The music. For most of its run, from 1964 to 2006, the music had to be in that week's singles chart, and had to be going up (for the benefit of the very very young and the very very old, this meant the single had to have sold relatively more copies this week than last). On rare occasions in the 1960s, album tracks were played. In the mid 1990s the format saw quite a radical change whereby records could appear on TOTP in advance of their release. This was a record-pluggers dream and, coinciding as it did with the advent of Britpop, saw certain acts start to dominate. As they were British, this was largely a good thing, though it led to the phenomenon of singles rocketing to the top of the charts immediately on their release, then dropping out of the top twenty a week or so later. (This phenomenon went on to be repeated by Pop Idol / X Factor singles, who now have a near monopoly on the TV-promoted pop market).

The quality of the music has varied widely, as has the quality of its presentation. From the 60s to the 80s, the Musicians Union imposed tight rules on the show, dictating that, if acts could not perform live, then they should mime only to backing tracks that they had recorded themselves at BBC studios, or be backed by a BBC orchestra or band. This led to a lot of performances sounding less good than the record (see Althea & Donna's Uptown Top Ranking, where the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra, possibly not their actual name, fail miserably to sound like a Jamaican groove).

Live performances were variable, sometimes a mess, and miming frequently laughable (although the mileage that's been got from All About Eve's no-show vocals, Status Quo's walking into the drums, Vic Reeves very-drunkenness etc, suggests that's a bonus), but I would argue there's not a TOTP performance that's not valuable in some way. For many acts, especially in the pre pop-video era, their TOTP appearance was the only televisual record of their song's 3 minutes of fame.

The presenters: For most of its 32 years, TOTP was presented by Radio 1 DJs. This served as a perfect symbiosis between the BBC's main TV channel and its pop station and was varied at its peril. In the late 70s pop stars occasionally appeared as guest presenters. Let's just say they weren't all Elton John, and he was only good as a novelty. In the mid 90s the new wave of comedians, including Vic & Bob, Jo Brand and Lee & Herring, all got shots as guest presenters, with some very good results. The turn of the 90s/00s saw a dreadful experiment whereby "professional" TOTP presenters were recruited. They were neither pop stars nor familiar DJs, or what could really be described as personalities, and proved how much of a vital part the previous arrangement had been.

The content: Music and links. At its best TOTP presenters introduced the act, the act played, the presenter introduced the next act, and so it went, with the only break in the rhythm being the chart rundown. Frequently the links were embarrassing, whether a bad gag from Tony Blackburn or Jo Brand, a sexist ogle from DLT or Jimmy Savile, or anything said by the Fearne Cotton ever, but they were rarely allowed enough time to leave a lasting bad memory. And sometimes they were the archive gold we were waiting for (see anything said by John Peel, ever).

The worst messing around with the content came with the Andi Peters revamp of the 00s, when interviews were added. Frank Zappa had described music journalism as "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read". It is for the best that he was dead before he had to experience Fearne Cotton doing an in-depth piece with 5ive.

Other bits of the format that everyone remembers as being set in stone that weren't really so fixed included the chart rundown and the theme music. A scour through YouTube reveals that, in the 1960s, there were seasons with no theme tune, a variety of theme tunes and title sequences that only lasted a few months, with the famous Whole Lotta Love theme running through most of the 1970s, being revived in the 2000s, the rest of the time having themes changing every 5 years or so, some less memorable than others. Theme tune was nice, but largely irrelevant. Logo even more or less so.

The chart rundown used to appear at the beginning of the show in the 60s and early 70s, with the number 1 being revealed before the first act had played. A missed goal of a format glitch that no-one even noticed until the programme had been running for 52 weeks a year for 7 years. Through its heydays the singles chart rundown lasted about a minute, culminating in the playing of the Number One at the close of the show. In the 00s there was an attempt to supplement the singles chart with other charts, such as albums and even games, and it is the case that the singles chart as was will never quite regain its status in the music business. But something like it, which represents what's hot and what's not in new music, will.

So, any or all of the above are what constitute Top Of The Pops. Am I the only person who thinks it could, and should, come back to mainstream TV? What, I wonder, are the arguments against it?

Here is how the Socks feel about it all:

1 comment:

Peter Gray said...

Very good points..

I also don't know what they look like..and there are some good songs out there..

More live pop music on tv..

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