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Music

The 10 greatest 'Top of the Pops' debuts of all time

For a good few decades, there was only one show that could truly seal the deal and confirm your band had ‘hit the big time’ in the UK and that was Top of the Pops. The BBC stalwart may have been the home of the official charts, providing a neat rundown of the singles released that week, but it also gave those few acts who had just made their way into the charts to be given a national audience and a TV performance that few networks could compete with.

Originally broadcast weekly between January 1st 1964 and July 30th 2006, TOTP was the world’s longest-running weekly music show, and for people of a certain generation, they remember it as a highlight of their generational musical evolution. It is incredibly difficult to summarise the cultural potency that TOTP once had, now that it is reduced to a terrible Christmas special every year.

Each weekly edition consisted of performances of some of the week’s best-selling popular music, excluding tracks moving down the chart. For many, it was where they discovered their favourite artists and got their lowdown on the state of music at that present point. You have to remember when TOTP was at its zenith, the internet was just a sapling. It was considered an honour to perform on the show, as it indicated that a musical artist had just entered the major leagues.

An estimated 15 million people would tune in each week to catch the latest trends in music and some artists would capitalise on their audience and launch their careers into the stratosphere. While there have been some truly magnificent performances over the years, here we are just looking back at some of our favourite debut performances on Top of the Pops.

Now, we can’t say that every single performance on Top of the Pops is to our liking. For huge chunks of the show’s most popular moments, it tended to promote the saccahrine side of pop, quickly ditching the cutting edge it had effectively sharpened throughout the 1960s in favour of duller, yet more profitable, acts. However, the power the show held in reserve — the power to change a band’s life overnight — was too hard to ignore for much of its televisual life.

Given the opportunities it provided, making your debut on Top of the Pops was a serious moment for any band and below we have ten of our favourites.

The 10 best Top of the Pops debuts:

Oasis (1994)

There is no doubt that 1994 was Oasis’ year. Arguably it all began in the summer and saw the month of June become a pivotal moment in their career that would go on to put the Mancunian legends onto a star-bound trajectory that few could contain. It saw the band making their Glastonbury debut and debut on Top of the Pops, all in a matter of days.

Their immaculate debut record, Definitely Maybe, which has now sold over 15 million copies across the world and been rightly regarded as one of the finest of the decade and beyond, was set to hit the shelves at the end of August and in the preceding months, the whole of Britain got caught up in an Oasis fever dream. Swept away by the swagger and showmanship of a brand new rock and roll, this was the first moment the group really touched down in the collective conscience.

Two months after the release of ‘Supersonic’, their second single ‘Shakermaker’ was released, and that managed to climb its way all the way to number eleven in the chart, which meant one thing; the Gallagher’s were set to bring their unique brand of Britpop to the masses on Top of the Pops.

Happy Mondays (1989)

Now, this debut isn’t exactly memorable for the right reasons. But, as well as Happy Mondays providing a pretty potent rendition of their song ‘Hallelujah’ on the show, complete with Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals, it also signalled the final time the group would ever appear on Top of the Pops as they were swiftly banned by the BBC from appearing while still in the green room.

In 2018, Ryder explained how the band were banned from the BBC and TOTP on Joe Presents: Unfiltered with James O’Brien. “We was giggling and this guy didn’t like us giggling, who was the boss at the time,” he said. “And when he told me to shut up and I’m a young, silly kid… I mean, this guy’s probably never been told to fuck off and do one before.”

“He’s the big boss at Top Of The Pops, and some snotty kid says ‘Fuck off knobhead. Do one.’ He’d never come across that obviously, and he banned me for life.”

The Smiths (1983)

By the time The Smiths appeared on Top of the Pops in 1983, the show had lost a heavy amount of starch from its collective collar but it had also lost its edge. It was no longer the place to be seen for the dangerous edges of the musical spectrum. The Smiths’ performance, however, would send a ripple through Britain.

The band’s frontman, Morrissey, would take to the stage swinging around gladioli flowers with a flourish while Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce stood behind him straight-laced and full of power. Moz may have stolen the show with his onstage antics, but the event would imprint The Smiths into the mind of a generation and change the face of music.

It would be a performance that would change the way people spoke, the books that they read, the artists they listened to, and most certainly which band they now entirely loved. The Smiths would perform ‘This Charming Man’ to a young audience of millions and gather up a huge fandom with every romantic note.

Pink Floyd (1967)

Syd Barret was, for a short time, one of the brightest lights in British music. Leading the band Pink Floyd alongside bassist Roger Waters, Barett quickly became a cultural icon for the counter-culture movement. The singer’s crowning glory would be the Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’ and it would see the group perform the song everywhere they could. The footage of Pink Floyd way back at the beginning of their journey in 1967 as they perform the song on the landmark BBC show Top of the Pops may be a little dirty, but it still has a some serious presence.

For many fans, the pursuit of finding the footage of Pink Floyd’s 1967 appearance on the BBC stalwart music show was a fruitless one. Fans were met with an apology that the Beeb, in their infinite and cost-reducing wisdom, had recorded over tapes to save on cash and thus the recording was lost. That was until 2009.

The music historian and author Andy Neill alerted the British Film Institute to the existence of the once “lost” tape and the organisation went about recovering it from the collection of “an eminent rock musician”. While the film quality is pretty lousy, what the footage is capturing is still too tantalising to ignore. It sees Roger Waters alongside Syd Barett, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, performing their newly acquired hit on the now-iconic music show with all the swinging swagger of sixties London. It’s a time capsule piece that takes us right back to the beginning of the acid rock revolution.

Nirvana (1991)

In 1991, Nirvana had hit the big time. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had galvanised the youth, and globally, they had united behind their spiritual leader Kurt Cobain. The album the single came off, Nirvana’s second outing Nevermind, was the biggest album of the year and the decade. It allowed the group the opportunity to hit the mainstream squarely between the eyes.

Rather than use their position on the biggest music show in Europe to provide a consummate and professional performance (unequivocally mimed on the landmark show) Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic, decided to make fun of the limitations on their performances. Perennial tricksters, the band decided between themselves to mock the spectacle. In front of an adoring live audience, and broadcast to millions, this was a genius way to display what Nirvana was truly about, and to rebel against the consumerist MTV age. Wearing sunglasses and a somewhat sinister smirk, Cobain’s vocal performance was somewhere between a lounge act (pardon the pun) and Morrissey on quaaludes.

Sex Pistols (1977)

If there is a more iconic Top of the Pops appearance than when Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols spat and swore across the stage to deliver a killer rendition of ‘Pretty Vacant’ then we’ll let you tell them. By the summer of 1977, the Sex Pistols had already left an indelible mark on British society. Their song ‘God Save The Queen’ had rumbled HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee celebrations as the band tore down the Thames screaming their desperate need for revolution, or at the very least their desperate need to be heard.

It was a song that sent shockwaves across the nation and was therefore routinely banned by radio and television stations — BBC was no different, stopping the band from performing the number two single (a hotly debated topic itself) on the famous Top of the Pops weekly chart show. However, that all changed when the band screened the promo video for their next single ‘Pretty Vacant’ — a lip-synching festival of ‘fuck you’ to the establishment.

While it may not have been in the famous studio or been received by an awestruck Top of the Pops audience, it did send cultural tremors through the land.

Black Sabbath (1970)

The year 1970 was well and truly Black Sabbath’s time. While their self-titled album came out in February—which was met with phenomenal success for a debut record—it was the band’s second LP, Paranoid, which sent the Birmingham band into the stratosphere.

Black Sabbath appearing on Top Of The Pops was a moment that signalled that change was on the horizon, The other acts that they appeared alongside were the Australian doo-wop outfit The Delltones and American singer Oliver, who was best known for his soundtrack for the musical Hair.

It’s hard quite to imagine what it must have been like to have been a young adolescent sat at home watching Sabbath, a group of lads from the Midlands who looked and sounded like people you would know on a personal level. This was a stark contrast from The Delltones and Oliver who were these pristine figures that seemed whiter than white rather than the realness that radiated from Black Sabbath.

John Lennon (1970)

John Lennon became the first member of The Beatles to appear on the legendary chart show, Top of the Pops, since 1966 when he arrived with the Plastic Ono Band to perform ‘Instant Karma!’. The track has gone on to become a symbol of The Beatles’ disbandment and the seedling growth of Lennon’s all-too-short solo career. It remains to this day as one of Lennon’s finer works either in or outside of one of the world’s biggest bands.

As part of the show, the larger acts invited to perform had often contributed videos or mimed performances, The Beatles, for example, had pre-recorded most of their appearances on the show. But Lennon was keen to do a live take of the song, partly because he was desperately trying to rush release the single and had no time to shoot a video.

It meant that joining Klaus Voormann on bass guitar, Mal Evans on tambourine, Alan White on drums, and Apple employee and music journalist BP Fallon on bass guitar and tambourine, was John Lennon on piano and Yoko Ono on crochet needles. The rest of the band had mimed the song but Lennon’s vocals are live. It is easily the best moment any one of the Fab Four have contributed to the show.

Kate Bush (1978)

One of the most mercurial talents of the last 50 years has now become one of the hottest properties on TikTok, as Kate Bush and her song ‘Running Up That Hill‘ climbs the charts once more off the back of its Stranger Things inclusion. However, it was her debut single ‘Wuthering Heights’ that really confirmed the singer as a truly unique artist.

Given her penchant for performance, the teenage singer delivered a simple spellbinding performance for her debut single. Providing perhaps the ultimate vision of the track, Bush showed herself to be truly dynamic and artistically daring in every single moment.

Blur (1991)

“They are a four-letter word, they are… Blur!” is the sentence that introduced a brand new band who would soon take over the decade as the other bookend of our Britpop spectrum. But, before they became the mortal enemies of Oasis, Blur were already finding themselves in the charts with their classic single ‘There’s No Other Way’ taken from their second record Leisure, which showcased the group as one of the hottest properties around.

Buoyed by the welcomed charm of Dmaon Albarn, alongside the chunky riffs of Graham Coxon, Blur set themselves apart form the deluge of grunge and alt-rock that was starting to wash up on the shores of the Atlantic. With this performance, the band threw down the gauntlet and challenged themselves to become heroes of a generation.