“It’s Friday, it’s still number one… it’s Top of the Pops!”
It’s hard to believe that this summer Top of the Pops will have been absent from British Television for a whole decade. Minus the various Christmas and New Years specials that role out annually, the show was put down by the BBC for falling out of date and being unable to keep up with the plethora of music channels that were becoming available 24/7. Since the early 1980’s TOTP was criticised for acts, many of which were full bands, having to lip-sync or sing karaoke style along to a backing track, which pretending to play their instruments. Ironically, there’s now a whole TV show dedicated to lip-syncing! Come the mid 2000’s live band performances were achievable on the show, sometimes even live (U2 – 2005) however by then such footage was available on demand thanks to the rise of YouTube.
Years later and we now look back at Top of the Pops with fondness, especially in the early days of the show when Pop Music and Rock & Roll were a brand new thing (minus one addition to the presenting line up – enough said!) We can now watch the weekly chart show from a nostalgic and even historical point of view over on BBC 4. Watching old episodes, we can see how music genre trends changed, how fashion adapted and how the TOTP’s audience, for over 40 years, never quiet learnt how to dance.
Regardless of the controversial miming, there were some memorable performances from some of the biggest artists in the world that have gone down in British television history. Here at BFT, we’ve compiled what we feel are the top 10 most iconic and very best Top of the Pops performances between 1960 and 2006 (in-studio only)
In at 10…
10. The Happy Monday’s: Hallelujah – 1989
Welcome to the nineties
Come the birth of the 90’s, the Top of the Pops studio was well and truly stuck in 1984 with naff sets and cheesy presenters. It seems that everything changed one day in November 1989 when Shaun Ryder and the Happy Monday’s kicked down the door to 1990 with Hallelujah, accompanied by the late Kirsty MacColl making the performance that little bit more special. 808 and The Stone Roses also appeared on the show that night.
9. Culture Club: Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? – 1982
Boy George or Girl George?
Not just a wonderful performance, it was another step in the right direction for LGBT acceptance as lead-singer, the openly gay Boy George, took the stage dressed in a unique style that allegedly left many watching at the time to ponder whether he was actually Girl George. Today such life-style choice is common place and it’s thanks to boundaries being broken by performances decades ago by Dead or Alive, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (to name just a few) and of course Culture Club – as seen above in 1982.
8: Spice Girls: Wannabe – 1996
Okay, so take that frown off your face and hear me out. Now I may have shoved The Jam’s Eton Rifles performance off of this list to make room for the Spice Girls – I said stop frowning! – but Top of the Pops was a Pop Music show and the Spice Girls were the ‘headliners’ for arguably the final era of TOTP’s popularity. The late 90’s were the last time the show was a ‘big deal’ and with the exception of American artists such as Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys (who would often appear via satellite link) The Spice Girls were arguably the last ratings-grabber with millions tuning in to catch their latest single, which was usually a guaranteed number 1. This first performance kick-started the Cool Britannia era, which was a essentially a kid-friendly version of the Britpop era.
7: John Lennon: Instant Karma – 1970
Yoko, what the f..?
Still with me? Okay, good. So to make up for my last entry here is this brilliantly bizarre performance from Lennon just month’s before he left the UK forever. It’s worth noting that this is Lennon’s second appearance as the Beatles made a pre-recorded appearance in 1965, however this episode (of all the episodes BBC, really?!) was wiped. If you happen to own the DVD of Doctor Who: The Chase, you can find a clip of it on there – just before one of the character’s eerily predicts the future Beatles Museum built decades after the episode was broadcast… Anyway, back to this performance, nobody know’s what Yoko is doing but I’m sure Lennon once pretended to understand and explained it – love ’em.
6: Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Jackie Wilson Said, I’m in Heaven When You Smile
Never gets old…
Okay, so I know it’s been done to death but this is just incredible. Regardless of whether it was a practical joke or a genuine misunderstanding, having a random image of Jocky Wilson, the darts player during a song that’s NOTHING to do with Jocky Wilson, or darts is just BBC gold. Let’s enjoy it again for the 800th time…
5: Blur Country: House – 1995
The 80’s had the Cold War but the 90’s had the Cool War…
I’d happily claim that the 1960’s was and always will be the most important decade for music, primarily down to the love/hate rivalry between The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Would we ever see such a rivalry again? Fast-forward 30 years and you have the hate/hate rivalry between Oasis and Blur. It was 1995 and with temperatures between the two bands so intense to the point it was scientifically impossible to be a fan of both, what did Oasis do? They did what USA and Russia were too scared to do during the previous decade and launched a full-scale war against Blur releasing their anthem Roll With It on the same day as their enemy’s Country House. The Britpop war became national news and although Oasis won the war by hitting the album top spot, they lost this important battle as Country House hit Number 1 in August of 1995. This fantastic performance, couldn’t be more 90’s. Not only does it have Alex James slapping Oasis in the face by wearing their trademark fan-shirt, Blur are also introduced by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker! Man, Top of the Pops was a cool show back then.
6: Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights – 1978
She was only 19 years old…
I mean, what can I say about this one? An relatively unknown teenager takes to the Top of the Pops stage and puts on a performance of a life-time. Seriously, you could watch this video on mute and feel every emotion of the song just by looking into her eyes. Again, I stress that Kate Bush is 19 years old here, 19! Has there ever been a performer to put so much drama and passion in to a performance at such a young age. Incredible.
3: New Order: Blue Monday – 1984
The first ever fully live performance on Top of the Pops and the last for a very long time…
Blue Monday was the biggest selling 12-Inch record of all time, which is hard to believe following this performance! You have to commend New Order on this one, they refused to lip-sync and insisted on playing their hit-record completely live. The result? Well, I won’t ruin it but take note of Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook cringing like school boy’s together at the end.
2: David Bowie: Starman – 1972
Moment’s like this are what made Top of the Pops
There’s a reason that the rolling footage of Bowie following his death always included this clip. The way he flirts straight down the camera lens, injects our hearts with every lyric and genuinely enjoys himself on that stage with the ‘spiders from mars’ is just so enjoyable to watch. If anything, this seems to be one of the clips we all needed after his death because I don’t know about you but seeing Bowie fill the room with such a positive song and performance makes you feel grateful that you shared the same planet with such an artist.
Yes, you probably didn’t see your favourite on the list but this is primarily those I feel are the most iconic of their respective eras. If it was a top 20 list I would have included: Oasis – Roll With it/D’you Know What I Mean?, Sandi Shaw – Puppet on a String, Pulp – Modern People, Sandi Shaw & The Smiths – Hand in Gove, Jackson 5 – Looking Through the Window, The Shamen – Ebenezer Goode, The Jam – Eton Rifles, All Saints – I Know Where It’s At, Mark Morrison – Return of the Mack, Orbital – Chime, Red Hot Chilli-Peppers – By the Way, Travis – Sing and narrowly missing out in this Top 10 List, The Smiths with William it was Really Nothing…
1: Nirvana: Smells like Teen Spirit
Speaking of Mozza…
So it’s a subject that’s been hard to avoid throughout this article, the miming that many artists had issues with. The Red Hot Chilli-Peppers were thrown off the show once in rehearsal for “not doing it right” and Travis broke the illusion with the whole band putting down their instruments and having a food fight with the audience in 2001. The most iconic protest to the miming of instruments however, came from Mr Kurt Cobain and his two pals who went full-on parody for their one and only Top of the Pops performance. First of all they mock the forced pretend playing of their instruments (Dave Grohl wins here with his impression of Animal from the Muppets) and as if things can’t get worse for the TOTP show-runners, Cobain then sings the entirety of Smell Like Teen Spirit in an Ian Curtis style bass-baritone voice before going in to a bit of Morrissey for the chorus… The lazy and forced stage invasion by spotty teenagers who think they’re “so grunge” at the end of the performance on the out-dated 80’s set just completes this perfect Top of the Pops moment and certainly, we feel, makes it the greatest in the show’s history.
What did you make of our List? Did your pick not make the Top Ten? Leave us a comment below and tell us yours…