“It’s Friday, it’s still number one… it’s Top of the Pops!”
From 1964 to 2006, Top of the Pops graced British screens and brought the weekend to your living room in style. In the process, it charted decades worth of cultural history as it earned the title of the world’s longest-running weekly music show. Therefore, the archives are naturally a force to behold and today we’re dipping into them to bring you a slew of the finest moments that they have to offer.
The show began with Dusty Springfield performing ‘I Only Want to Be with You’ then 42 years later, Snow Patrol closed the classic show with ‘Chasing Cars’ as the curtains closed on a show that gave so much and asked for so little in return. It was the show that spawned a thousand dreams and made more than a handful of them come true.
Below we have collated ten of the greatest and most iconic moments in the show’s history. From Marc Bolan basically birthing glam rock to Madchester getting its mainstream moment, these are snippets of British cultural history to be relished.
The most iconic Top of the Pops moments:
10. ‘Hot Love’ by T. Rex
When Marc Bolan appeared on the show bedecked in glitter and satin, he essentially invented the future of glam rock on the spot. Looking like some androgynous alien from the future, he finally brought some vibrant colour into the dower living rooms of Britain.
Frank Zappa had said roughly 5 years earlier that music was now 50% about image and nothing embodied that proclamation quite like the dawn of Top of the Pops where miming was the name of the game by necessity and as a result, it was simply exhibiting your full artistic gestalt. Enter T. Rex and the wild new revolution that they prognosticated in song.
9. ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush
At 19 years old, Kate Bush came onto our screens and displayed literary spiritualism well beyond her years. She was basically unknown at the time, and she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that induced head-scratching and dumbfounding wonder in equal measure.
With confidence and feminine bravura, Bush celebrated her individualism with a blast creative spirit. It might have put some stuffy critics noses out of joint as they were still struggling to come to terms with the sideswipe of punk at the time, but as the performance itself basically screams, Bush didn’t give much of a damn.
8. ‘Instant Karma’ by John Lennon
In 1970, John Lennon was in a race against The Beatles very own Let it Be to reach the top of the charts and impart a very clear message in doing so. The performance itself is thunderous, but the true beauty of it is a paradigm of what often made Top of the Pops so great: the film crew and performance seemed to be joyously on two very different pages.
Yoko Ono turns over cards ala Bob Dylan in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ only nowhere near as well, although to be fair to her, the sweeping camera whizzing around the studio miss more than half of her act. The ensemble band on display also only get a few quick pans so you can barely pick up on who is playing. Alas, this manic mishmash is a force to behold and a perfect time capsule of the era.
7. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana
Defying the censors became a huge part of Top of the Pops. Artists were continually using the platform to express their iconoclasm and Nirvana did that in style when they took to the stage and almost instantly uttered “load up on drugs and kill your friends,” in an onslaught that divided the watching nation.
Thereafter, they proved to be right on the nose of rock ‘n’ roll as they embarked on the obligatory trashing of the set and equipment. It might not have been the most original move but it certainly enamoured an army of Gen-X punks hungry for the return of some sixties spirit.
6. ‘Step On’ by Happy Mondays
In our meme-ified age, the brilliance of Happy Mondays as a band often gets forgotten. The maraca shaking madness and drug-fuelled mayhem was merely a side note of the cultural movement that they heralded and not the forefront that it is now remembered as.
In actual fact, ‘Step On’ is an anthemic record with some genre-bending musicology thrown into the mix that proved ahead of its time. Nevertheless, the band still ended up briefly banned from the show after they were told off for giggling and didn’t take too kindly to it.
5. ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart
When it comes to not taking the show all that seriously, Rod Stewart, his former his Faces bandmates and John Peel on the mandolin really take the biscuit in this lark of a performance. The song might be his opus, but Stewart has always been about rinsing as much fun out of life as he can so why suddenly turn towards the sombre for Top of the Pops?
Sadly, as is often the case with footage from the BBC archives, the performance now proves hard to come by these days, after all, the ‘Beeb’ also wiped clean clips of The Beatles and David Bowie. Thus, you will have to deal with Stewart and the Faces rattling off the rollicking classic ‘Bad ‘n’ Ruin’ instead.
4. ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths
Morrissey, the eponymous flower swinging frontman announced himself to the wider world as some sort of one-man anti-stag-do as he sang the dower tale of a boy of the night bemoaning his beleaguered wardrobe. The ethereal tones of the classic song were matched stride for stride by a band who fit their material like a sonic glove.
Performances on Top of the Pops often defined how a band would be viewed thereafter and when it comes to this showing from The Smiths, the sauntering antics became part of the iconography of the band. They were a breath of fresh air not only for the show but also for the synth stilted era.
3. ‘Common People’ by Pulp
A dancer in a giant shopping trolly, that was all, that was the only gimmick that it took to imbue a Top of the Pops performance with a sense of bombastic artistry. When coupled with a song of such societal incision, this hint of whimsy seemed to embody that laughing in the face adversity ethos of the song itself.
Back in 1995, this iconic Pulp performance welcomed in a new edge to the Britpop spear and a wave of adulation was rightfully lauded upon the band. Tropes from eras gone by were worked into the routine as though it was a meta homage to the whole Top of the Pops medium. Jarvis Cocker swaggers about, points down the lens and messes around with the sincerity of the format, in a celebration of a show for the many in a song that did the same.
2. Frankie Goes to Hollywood ‘Relax’
Part of the beauty of Top of the Pops is that it brought in a large mainstream audience and often proved challenging as a result. When ‘Relax’ was first released it charted at a measly 67 in the UK charts, however, when the leather-clad lads from Liverpool appeared on Top of the Pops two months later, they proved provocative enough to cause a stir and shoot the track up the charts.
Thereafter, the song caused a mini revolution. BBC DJ Mike Read expressed his distaste for the clearly sexual track and many other tabloids followed suit. However, for the rest of the populous, it was cracking jam that represented all that was best about the gaudy tones of the glitzy era.
1. ‘Starman’ by David Bowie
Phase one of David Bowie’s iconic appearance went as follows for youngsters watching agog: Who was this strange being in granny’s shrunken blouse with red hair? Phase two: the toes involuntarily began to tap as the song itself came to the fore. Phase three: Bowie pointed right down the camera lens and unzipped the TV screen with his lurid wispy finger, welcoming millions of youngsters into his bohemian world and life would never be the same again. Phase four: the rest of the song played out in rapturous wonder as a new hero crash-landed with a song to back up the kaleidoscopic oeuvre that he had just supernova-ed into existence.
This, in short, used to be what TV was all about. Millions all over the country were safe in the knowledge that their friends had no doubt just had their melon’s twisted by Bowie too and the next day they would argue in the playground or around the work watercoolers about who he really pointed at, and wonder about when they could next track down this unearthly marvel. Top of the Pops was the perfect platform for these seismic edifying events whereby a mainstream medium met with the cutting edge of culture.