Wednesday, July 05, 2006

the fat lady sings

It's with some sadness that I note the demise of Top of The Pops. It was always mostly crap, but that was part of what gave it its value.

When The Jesus and Mary Chain's April Skies was released and went Top 10, they were given a TOTP appearance. Janice Long asked Jim Reid if it was a sellout and he emphatically said not.

He explained that he'd grown up watching it and there would be all this disposable commercial fluff, then there'd be some wild card, someone who looked like they shouldn't have been allowed on in the first place. Reid cited Bolan and the Buzzocks, naming them as key stages in the development of his will to make music.

The first important musical choice of my life was made whilst watching Top Of The Pops. It was the week of my tenth birthday and I'd got a little bit of money from relatives. The Jam did Strange Town, I went out and bought it and nothing was ever the same again.

It is classic Jam, muscular, tense, urban, volatile, political and restless. It was nothing like life in the dull middle class dormitory suburb I was growing up in, and that was its magic.

Whilst the Jam and punk in general were welcomed by some for speaking about things you recognise (an understandable craving in the decade that brought you albums called Tales Of Topographic Oceans and Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow Or A Creamed Cage In August), for me it was something different. It spoke of a vibrant, exciting life out there, where things were alive and real, where you could live by your passions and make your own choices.

When the American Religious Right had their big push to censor music in the late 80s, it led to the invention of those 'Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics' stickers being volunteered by the record industry as a way to head off any regulation.

But whilst it made some albums seem cool to the youth they were supposed to protect by virtue of having the stickers on, there was a genuine censorship effect. Big chains like Woolworths and Wal-Mart refused to stock anything that bore a sticker. For many people growing up in small towns, that was their only record store. So it was away with Public Enemy and Prince and on to a strict diet of Michael Bolton and Debbie Gibson.

Similarly, as an adolescent hating the conformity of my surroundings, knowing that music could provide the outlet, I was constrained. Not by censorship, but by what was put in front of me blocking the view of where I wanted to go. I didn't know where to start. Top Of The Pops had its one or two freaks per show. They were my first steps.

The Jam were it for me, and to this day still command a powerful respect. I recently made a compilation for someone and it still absolutely zings out of the speakers, full of intent and fire. Beat Surrender just throws you round the room, fucking amazing.

In the days before dedicated music channels, there was so little music on TV. Yet pop music was the dominant cultural expression, it was to the late 20th century what the novel was to the 19th. In the same way that generals are always competant for fighting the last war, so pre-Sky TV commissioning editors were good for making programmes for the previous generation. They only let us have TOTP, Whistle Test (a bit grown up for a 13 year old), and Saturday morning programmes (too stupid and full of Keith Chegwin and cuddly toys). So TOTP was the one.

Pretty much anyone born between 1960 and 1980 will remember certain TOTP performances; things they saw once, on TV, for the length of a commercial break, twenty years ago!

I remember seeing Bauhaus doing Ziggy Stardust in the days when TOTP gave you stage space in proportion to your comercial standing (Bauhaus got a postage stamp, whereas Jagger got three stages linked by catwalk bridges). It sounded so fucking alien to my ears, barely like music at all. It let me know that there was a lot more lot music than the Thompson Twins and Leee John.

Then every Smiths appearance felt like a victory. There was The Bard, chief giver of not a fuck, his very presence mocking all that chart froth. Ripping open his shirt during William It Was Really Nothing to reveal MARRY ME in eyeliner on his chest. The presenter's sneery acidic tone after saying 'at just over two minutes, that's the shortest record on the chart this week', as if length was quality. I remember the smug glow inside, the one-over extra edge in knowing that the B-side, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, was even shorter.

Then holy moly, Shoplifters of The World Unite, such a rolling thundercloud of anti-chart pop. Like all their songs, the music set them apart from everything around them, but the fact that The Bard could be on national TV holding a placard with the title on was fucking revolutionary.

John Peel managed to keep on being allowed to present TOTP despite huge sarcyness. After I Knew You Were Waiting for Me, Aretha Franklin's duet with George Michael, he said, 'it's long been said that Aretha Franklin could sing any old rubbish and make it sound good, and I think she just has'.

As well as remembering specific performances, whether they'll admit it to you now or not, most people of the TOTP generation will have fantasised about being on it. I just about managed it! In February 1996 Julian Cope got to present a show. Mercifully, he broke with his past habit of doing it peaking on acid.

He was knee deep in the Newbury Bypass campaign at the time, so he took a couple of us from the protest along with him.

It was hilarious. Newbury had dominated the news for weeks. Julian brought hard hats and fluoro tunics so we'd look like the familiar Newbury security guards. He'd had a bunch of T-shirts made up, and swapped them between songs.

One aimed at Newbury's pro-road MP, David Rendel: RENDEL: U-TURN NOW!

He'd ad-lib nods to it all, 'we're sailing high over the Mother Earth tonight, we're clearly out of our trees'. We got the singer from Terrorvision to wear a hard hat. It was a fabulous prankster mix of topical politics and cultural collage.

It got more complaints than any other edition, even the one where Larry out of Cameo wore that massive red codpiece. One of them came in from David Rendel himself, the LibDem corporate scumpig.

I've still have a souvenir, a packet of king size Rizlas with roaches ripped out of the flap that we retrieved afterwards from East 17's dressing room.

I don't mourn the show's passing too much. The fondness is all nostalgic, really. It dies because there are so many outlets for music today. If you want to get your hands on relevant music in these cybertimes, you can easily find your kind of people and get their recommendations and be listening to things quickly, and without blowing money on a record that could turn out to be shite.

In these days of plenty, I am grateful to those who sustained us through the famine.

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