Book marks anniversary of first Top of the Pops

The Bay City Rollers. Picture: BBC
The Bay City Rollers. Picture: BBC
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THE thumping Whole Lotta Love introduction, the thrill of the chart countdown, the total inability of the audience to dance in time to the music and... well, in light of recent events perhaps it is best we don’t mention some of the presenters.

It could only be the “number one” television music show to cap them all – Top of the Pops.

Sharleen Spiteri with Texas. Picture: comp

Sharleen Spiteri with Texas. Picture: comp

In classic chart countdown style, the days are being ticked off to the 50th anniversary of the first time the BBC show blasted on to television screens, kick-starting what would go down in pop history as one of the longest running and most successful music programmes of all time.

What began on New Year’s Day 1964 with the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield and The Hollies and was intended to run for just six weeks, ended up continuing for the next 42 years, attracting 15 million viewers at its peak in the Seventies – a quarter of the UK population – and notching up more than 2000 shows.

Every pop, rock and cheese-smothered novelty act imaginable, including Abba, The Wombles, The Beatles and ZZ Top, appeared, either in person or on video, and some of them actually managed to play live.

For bands that made it on to the show, the rewards were often a massive boost in record sales, even if it meant sacrificing their rock star credibility to mime, usually awkwardly, while sandwiched between The Smurfs and Eighties’ doe-eyed Save Your Love duo Renée and Renato.

Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds on Top of the Pops. Picture: PA

Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds on Top of the Pops. Picture: PA

The weekly programme came to an end in July 2006, having lost viewers to 24-hour satellite music channels. Although Christmas editions survived, calls for it to return to television screens – most recently in 2008 by then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham – have gone unanswered.
Now the history of the programme is being told in a new book by former New Musical Express writer Patrick Humphries and ex-A&R man turned presenter Steve Blacknell. Top of the Pops 50th Anniversary (published by McNidder & Grace, £24.99) will be launched at the end of the month in time for the half-century anniversary.

In its heyday, the show was essential viewing and a rare chance for young music fans to enjoy sound and vision, gazing in awe upon their musical heroes as they performed, or blushing with teenage embarrassment as scantily-clad Legs & Co taught them a thing or two about dancing provocatively.

But we, of course, only saw the show from the comfort of our sofa.

So, as the big birthday approaches, what was it like for those lucky enough to be real life Top of the Pops?

Bay City Rollers cause chaos

BANDS don’t get much bigger than the Bay City Rollers at the height of their fame. In fact, they were so huge that their Top of the Pops appearance at Television Centre caused mayhem, with fans blocking entrances and exits and keeping staff, actors and presenters trapped inside the building for hours.

The incident even led to a BBC directive ordering that no more bands with such a massive following should be allowed to appear on the show and instead were to be filmed at a secret location.

The hysteria was just par for the course for the five Edinburgh lads at the height of their fame. Although bass player Alan Longmuir, 65, who now lives in Bannockburn, does recall the massive excitement that spread through the band when they heard they were to appear on the BBC hit music show. “It was huge,” he remembers. “After a while we got quite blasé about it, but the first time we heard we were going on was incredible.

“It was 1971, and we were on the show with Rod Stewart and a load of other really well-known bands. Keep on Dancing had broken into the Top 50 – funny really because we were supposed have released Saturday Night instead. That didn’t happen, Saturday Night got to number one in America but for Top of the Pops we went on playing Keep on Dancing. It gave us an instant boost – sales went through the roof. It was brilliant,” he adds. “We met all the big time performers, one of the big ones was meeting Marc Bolan who was a really nice guy.

“And we got to work with Pan’s People. Yeah, that was quite good,” he laughs.

‘Your accent is so cute and sweet’

IT is a long way back from appearing on BBC’s The Voice earlier this year to Top of the Pops in August 1978, when Bilbo Baggins singer Colin Chisholm led the band for their sole appearance on the flagship music show.

At least they did it in style, sharing the billing that night with music legends, The Jam and Blondie. “Debbie Harry was on the show, I definitely haven’t forgotten that,” laughs Colin, 60, of Chesser. “We were all pretty awestruck at the time. She came up and said, ‘Hey guys, your accident is so cute and so sweet’.”

If that was memorable for good reasons, other members of the Seventies group cringe. “It still horrifies a couple of guys in the band,” laughs Colin. “Brian Spence (the band’s guitarist and keyboard player) had to get up and dance with Legs & Co. They just grabbed him and another one of the lads and started to dance.

“There was this total look of horror on their faces as they realised what was happening.”

The Top of the Pops appearance was the band’s high point on the small screen. For the song, She’s Gonna Win, only reached 42 in the charts– and they split in 1979.

“Our record had jumped from 112 to 53 in a week in the charts. We got a phone call saying we were going on Top of the Pops and we said: ‘What? WHAT!?’ It was amazing. We were on tour and staying in this Holiday Inn, and we were jumping around the room.

“There was a football – we used to have a kick about now and again – and our drummer Gordon Liddle, who’s now a Sheriff, decided to kick it.

“Unfortunately, he hit this massive picture on the wall that was framed behind glass and it shattered. Typical rock and roll types wouldn’t have bothered, but we took the measurements, trooped to the local glazier and fixed it without the Holiday Inn knowing anything about it.

“We went on Top of the Pops, but it made no difference to sales. There was a delay at the record pressing plant and the record company ran out of records.”

‘Charlie had forgotten his pass’

SCOTS rock legends Simple Minds almost didn’t make it intact on to their first ever Top of the Pops, recalls former manager Bruce Findlay, 69, now boss of Schoolhouse Management in York Place. “They had a lot of records out before they had their first hit,” he remembers. “I Travel, Love Song, The American were all out before their first time on Top of the Pops in 1983 with Promised You a Miracle.

“The band was quite excited, even though they’d done a lot of television at that time and the song was from their sixth album. They were still young. They had to mime, which Jim Kerr was useless at,” adds Bruce.

He recalls the band rehearsing before their call to do the ‘live’ show.

“They were all glammed up – it was the days when they wore a lot of make up. The call came, they grabbed their stuff, and Charlie ( Burchill) and Derek (Forbes) got their guitars which they’d carried with them rather than leave in the studio. They made their way there and were right outside the door. We could hear the crowd.

“There was a bouncer to check the passes and, of course, Charlie had forgotten his. I said, ‘Look, he’s got a guitar, he’s got all this make-up on, he’s with the other guys who are in the band’. But he point blank refused to let him in.

“It actually looked like the band would have to leave him behind when at the very last minute a member of the floor staff came, then got a producer and let him in.”

Terror at playing live

FORMER Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones recalls the invitation to appear on the pop show bringing a mix of terror, excitement – and slight disappointment that they were one of the few bands to be asked to play live.

“Everyone who watched Top of the Pops knew that the bands didn’t play live,” remembers Rod, 36, who, apart from making The Birthday Suit’s third album is currently working in Wester Hailes on a music therapy project. “We started thinking ‘great, our first big TV performance’ and being very excited and then we were told we’d be playing live.

“Apparently it was because, unlike some, we actually could play live, but we started to panic because playing live on TV is actually really nerve-wracking, especially when it’s the first time you’ve done it.

“We kept thinking, ‘Hang on everyone else is going to be miming and sound just like their record, then we’ll come on playing live’.”

There was nothing to worry about – the band cruised through and went on to appear in several other ToTP shows. “We did Top of the Pops when it was at the studios they used to film Star Wars. You walked out and there were the Grange Hill gates and out another door and you were in Albert Square,” remembers Rod. “We met the actress that plays Dot Cotton in the green room. A true pro, she slipped straight into character.”

For some reason the band timed their performances on the show with another famous group at the opposite end of the music spectrum.

“We did Top of the Pops twice with Steps for some reason,” says Rod. “Most I can remember of them was that bloke H being far too loud.

“But it was fun. When you grow up watching something and then find yourself part of it, it’s great.”

• Cliff Richard really is Top of the Pops, with more appearances than anyone else on the show – 160 in all

• Top of the Pops became a global brand, with the format used in more than 120 countries

• The first band to appear on Top of the Pops continues to outlive the show. The Rolling Stones sang I Wanna Be Your Man on January 1 1964

• The first dancers were three girls called the Go-Jos. Later came Pan’s People, Ruby Slipper, Legs &Co and Zoo