22 June 2006

Another piece of my childhood, gone

After 42 years, the BBC chart show Top of the Pops is going off the air. And it's not being retired with dignity or anything like that, it's just getting flat-out cancelled. For low ratings. I mean, come one, man. The BBC is like the UK's national network; surely presenting the weekly pop charts, particularly in a country in which they mean so much to so many, must count as some sort of invaluable public service. Is it really just about the ratings? Is that what we've come to?

As a young lad, I lived in London for a few years in the early 80s1, where I followed the pop charts obsessively. I would buy some music magazine2 the day it hit the stands so I would know the results before they were broadcast every Thursday. I actively rooted for songs I liked over ones I didn't, as though the bands were sports teams or something. I can recall being particularly invested in the success of Duran Duran, whom I found incredibly cool. In contrast, I lived for the weeks when Wham! did not make it to number one. My sister liked Wham!; they were for girls. Being a boy, I was into tougher bands. Like Duran Duran. I'm older now3.

There was only one TV in our house4, so the evening's entertainment choices had to be debated and settled upon by the kids, and every Thursday I insisted on TOTP. My younger siblings, who didn't care nearly as much about pop music as I, would occasionally be tempted by some imported American tripe over on the ITV network in the same time slot. Street Hawk, for example, essentially a Knight Rider knock-off revolving around a futuristic arsenal-equipped motorcycle, springs to mind as one such point of contention. Fortunately, for both myself and for the public at large, the show was quickly cancelled, and TOTP resumed its unopposed rule of Thursday nights.

I can still distinctly remember some of the singles I saw "performed" on TOTP for the first time, like the Smiths doing "What Difference Does It Make?" and Depeche Mode's "People Are People", and years later, back in the US, felt lucky to have witnessed moments some of my high school peers would have killed to have seen.

My plan in writing this post was to track down a few YouTube.com posts of classic performances (and they are myriad) and link to them with a bit of wry commentary. But viewing these grainy videos exposed a rather surprising universal trend throughout the performances: most of them are terrible. (You're welcome to sift through them if you like.) Bad sets, bad lights, bad studio audiences dancing, bad pantomiming. And the worst part: guests on TOTP don't actually play. The singers sometimes sing (and sometimes not), so it's not just a lip-synch show, but the instruments aren't plugged in. In fact, the only really good TOTP performances I've seen are ones by snotty bands taking the piss out of the show. If you've ever seen Nirvana's Live! Tonight! Sold Out!5, you'll certainly remember the band's withering desecration of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", in which Cobain sings in a shitty Jim Morrison impersonation while Novoselic and Grohl hop around and make no attempt to pretend they are actually playing. And the Stone Roses video retrospective features the band's rendition of "Fool's Gold" during which Ian Brown holds the microphone over his head, flaunting the fact that he's not singing a word6.

So with that in mind, is it really so bad that the show is gone? Is it really necessary, or is it one of those institutions that has long outlived its usefulness and now gets by on reputation alone, like CBGB's? I say the former: England needs TOTP. The singles chart still means something to British music fans7, and the show continues to represent a career benchmark for British bands great and small. With the loss of first John Peel and now TOTP, to what shall young Britpoppers aspire? And what will the kids watch on Thursday nights? Even Street Hawk is but a memory.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Which, as you probably know, was a terrific time to be a pop music fan in the UK. If you didn't know, read this. [Return]
  2. I can't remember what it was called, but it had glossy photos, puff-piece Q&A's, and lyrics to the latest hits. Can you imagine? [Return]
  3. Though, curiously, heterosexual. Just a little tidbit for the whole nature/nurture debate. [Return]
  4. Y'know, in the UK you have to pay for a TV license. Just to have rabbit ears and a regular ol' TV. That's how they fund the BBC and provide the public with much-needed news programming like Top of the Pops. I don't know whether it costs extra to have multiple sets in the house, nor do I know whether that's the reason we had only one. [Return]
  5. It's unbelievable that this still isn't out on DVD. But not a travesty. The travesty is that this still isn't on DVD. [Return]
  6. Incidentally, if you've ever heard live recordings on which he actually sings, you know this was the right call. [Return]
  7. Contrast them with their American counterparts. Do you even know what the Number One song in the US is right now? Do you care? Click here to find out, then come back. Have you ever heard the song? Better yet, have you heard of it? How 'bout the rest of the top ten? [Return]

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