Was 1976 the worst year for music? Luke Fear looks back at the ‘ variety club hellhole’ of Top Of The Pops
Top of the Tops 1976 Reflections
As someone who wasn’t remotely alive when the 1976 season of Top of the Pops originally aired, I approached the rerun of the series, that began on BBC Four a couple of months ago, with much excitement and anticipation. Not only was there the feeling that you’d be revisiting something that we no longer have, particularly as Top of the Pops got the axe as a weekly show in 2006, but 1976 is well documented as being a huge turning point in pop music.
Watching these repeats though, it appeared as though the turn had yet to come. The sense of disappointment when presented with what actually graced the charts in 1976 hit me pretty quickly and it would appear that even those who remember the period reasonably well felt likewise. Guardian scribe Alexis Petridis his regret at wanting to give the pop music of 1976 a second chance, stating:
“It took about a minute of Sailor’s follow-up to Glass of Champagne, Girls Girls Girls, to make me strongly reconsider my position on the unfairness or otherwise of punk obliterating guileless, mid-70s, medium-wave radio-pop from memory. After two, I was pretty much ready to form Sham 69 myself.”Â
What he speaks of is a nauseating grey area between glam and punk where for every Abba, there’s a Wurzels, a Harpo and a Bay City Rollers.
When you’ve got Top of the Pops showing the Hairy Cornflake parodying ”ËConvoy’ (a novelty song in itself) as Laurie Lingo & The Dipsticks on one side of the pop spectrum and The Old Grey Whistle Test showing Rick Wakeman in a cape on the other, it’s not difficult to see why so many youths were bored, irate and totally disenfranchised.
One of the differences between the Top of the Pops of old and the Top of the Pops of a few years ago, that will be immediately noticeable to anyone living in an era saturated in Channel 4 Top 100 shows and meaningless Box TV countdown shows, is that the countdown opens the show. From a modern perspective, this removes a large portion of the excitement of watching Top of the Pops, particularly when you’ve already been told that the climax of the half hour show is going to be a performance from The Brotherhood of Man for the third week in a row, mimed and choreographed in exactly the same way as previous renditions.
Not to mention the fact that the backing track for this countdown, and indeed theme for the whole programme, was ”ËWhole Lotta Love’, suggesting that producer Robin Nash felt that the excitement of anticipating the most sold single of the week should be epitomized by a band who more or less turned their noses up at the very idea of singles. Given the supposed war between singles music and album bands taking place at the time, the choice of Zeppelin may work musically, but does come across as sleeping with the enemy slightly.
The seventies also saw Top of the Tops manned solely by Radio 1 jockeys. Whilst my childhood narrowly missed out on some of John Peel’s most acerbic asides from the eighties, I was fortunate enough to bear witness to the likes of Lee and Herring’s (http://condescending putdowns
and total contempt for the music they were being forced to present.
By contrast, the revolving door line-up of Noel Edmunds, Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis amongst others, is simply stomach-churning. If anything, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s Smashy and Nicey characters didn’t go far enough, in their parody of the patronizingly merry spirits of 70’s Radio 1 disc jockeys. Faced with the prospect of these tedious berks, the occasional presence of Jimmy Savile becomes a merciful blessing.
They are at their most loathsome when being encouraged to make ”ËNudge nudge, wink wink’ remarks and dribble on cue over the female dance troupes, Legs & Co and Pan’s People, who take to the stage whenever an artist hasn’t been able to make the show.
Robin Nash has been quite open about the fact that the costumes that these groups wore, were often chosen with the specific intention of expanding the show’s demographics to include dirty old men. Watching them now though, from the standpoint of an era where videos like Rihanna’s ”ËS&M’ populate the digital music stations, they are so dull it’s difficult to imagine all but the most dedicated of Contemporary Dance students finding any interest whatsoever in their performances.
Perhaps the most bizarre of these routines comes as a result of ”ËPretty Vacant’. The Top of the Pops studios are hardly seen as a place of anarchy, in the UK or elsewhere, and so instead we’re given a naff, proto-Riot Grrrl parade of Toyah Wilcox and Sam Fox lookalikes kicking their legs merrily in the air.
Which brings us to the question of why the show seems so sadly bereft of a punk spirit. Admittedly, there are eventually performances from Sham 69 and The Buzzcocks but rather than punk bands with a self-perceived underground credibility not wanting Top of the Pops, it would appear that Top of the Pops didn’t want them.
In a recent BBC documentary on Top of the Pops, Dave Haslam pointed to the fact that Top of the Pops wanted to remain in its crass fantasty realm, willfully oblivious to the frustration of the British youth, by saying “The real world was definitely knocking on the Top of the Pops door by ’76”Â¦but not getting in.”Â
With figures like Tony “I try and block punk rock out of my mind. I hated it.”Â Blackburn at the show’s ostensible helm, it seems unlikely that punk was even going to be allowed on Top of the Pops, let alone drastically change the face of it. If there was an effect, it can be seen years later in the more accessible post-punk, New Wave and New Romantic acts, in the same way that early dubstep artists could claim to have eventually altered daytime radio playlists via Katy B.
So ultimately, as a portal into an era I never lived through, Top of the Pops makes 1976 look like a variety show hellhole. Which is both surprising and disappointing. As Simon Reynolds has spent the last few months pointing out, there is a tendency to look back to previous times as being superior to what’s around now. The decade that seems to get eulogized more than any other seems to be the seventies. There is a legitimate argument that every decade aims to emulate that which came twenty years prior to it. Five years ago, for example, it was impossible to move for t-shirts that had a direct reference to the eighties emblazoned across it. But, amongst my peers at least, the seventies are consistently praised as a Golden Age in which few musical crimes were committed.
A couple of years ago, BBC Four commissioned a show called Pop on Trial in which Stuart Maconie and various pundits and artists discussed the musical merits and drawbacks of each decade. Each decade from the Fifties to the Nineties had an episode dedicated to it, with the series being rounded off with a debate to determine the greatest ten-year period.
The judging panel was fairly unimpressed with the 70’s speech. David Quantick comically concentrated solely on his seventies, a seventies of Kraftwerk, Krautrock and punk, whilst pretending that prog and Disco Duck never happened. Despite the panel’s disapproving response to this, every single one of them opted for the seventies, ultimately crowning it the winner. The message of this, whether intentional or not, was essentially a shoulder shrug that said “Well everybody knows the 70’s are the best anyway.”Â
In 2009, Luke Lewis wrote a piece for the NME, suggesting that British pop music was on a downward slope, his evidence being the list of the top 10 best selling singles of the Noughties. Granted, it is a an utterly abhorrent list made up of ITV talent show winners, limp charity covers and galling novelty records. He compared it to the equivalent list for the usually much-maligned eighties, a list made up of Human Leagues, Culture Clubs and Frankie Goes to Hollywoods, concluding:
“The fact is, the pop charts were once a window onto Britain’s exuberant, eccentric, uniquely accelerated cultural life – an enthralling rogues’ gallery of freaks and outsiders. Now they’re a wasteland.”Â
Ignoring for a second the slight injustice in banishing a whole decade’s worth of chart music to the gallows purely because of what sold best, comparing modern British pop to that of the eighties would be avoiding the reality that the last ten years has hardly been the only period that the UK has been a wasteland for pop music.
You don’t have to remember too far back to recall a Nineties plagued by Wet Wet Wet, ”ËCandle in the Wind’ and sixteen weeks of Bryans Adams’ assurance that everything he does, he does it all for you. Likewise, if you actually look at the ten most sold records of the seventies, it’s god-awful. Discounting Abba again, unless, like me, you consider Boney M to be one of your guilty pleasures, there really is little to enjoy.
What both this, and the recently repeated Top of the Pops series, clarifies, is that the notion that there was a long distant period where all music was untouchable is a myth, often perpetuated by people who never even lived through it, usually used to express disdain for whatever currently rules the airwaves. Ironically, Top of the Pops 2 only encourages this line of thinking. Cherry-picking the best performances only serves to create an illusion of persistently evergreen-grassed pop charts from the faraway past.
Still, as sickly as watching this series of Top of the Pops can often be, at least it hadn’t yet morphed into the Michael Hurll-produced 80’s Top of the Pops, which simulated the experience of being trapped inside a never-ending cheap disco at the reception for a wedding you prayed would end in divorce.