❉ “It’s Friday, it’s still number one… it’s Top of the Pops!”
It’s hard to believe that regular editions of Top of the Pops have been absent from British television for over a decade. Barring the Christmas and New Years specials that roll out annually, the show was put out to pasture in 2006, unable to keep up with the plethora of music channels that were becoming available 24/7. Since the early 1980s, TOTP was criticised for acts, many of which were full bands, having to lip-sync or sing along, karaoke-style, to a pre-recorded backing track, while pretending to play their instruments. Ironically, there’s now a whole TV show dedicated to lip-syncing!
We now look back at Top of the Pops with fondness (minus one infamous presenter – enough said!), and can enjoy old episodes over on BBC Four from a nostalgic perspective and also as a historical document of pop culture. We can see how music trends changed and evolved, how fashion adapted and how the audience, for over 40 years, never quite learned 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 We Are Cult, we’ve compiled what we feel are the top 10 most iconic (yes, that word) Top of the Pops performances between 1960 and 2006.
In at 10…
10. Happy Mondays: ‘Hallelujah’ (1989)
Welcome to the nineties
Come the dawn of the ‘90s, the TOTP 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 friends kicked down the door to 1990 with Hallelujah, accompanied by the late Kirsty McColl making the performance that little bit more special. 808 State 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, in 1982 this iconic appearance introduced the world to Boy George, as he took the stage wearing heavy make-up, androgynous clothing and long hair tied with ribbons, causing a nation to ask, “Boy George or Girl George?” and opened the door for equally boundary-pushing performances by Dead or Alive and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
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 TOTP was a pop music show and the Spice Girls were the headliners for arguably the final era of TOTP‘s popularity. The late ‘90s 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 kickstarted the Cool Britannia era, which was a essentially a kid-friendly version of Britpop mania.
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 months 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 that edition (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 knows what Yoko is doing but I’m sure Lennon once pretended to understand and explained it – love ’em.
6: Dexys Midnight Runners: ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ (1982)
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 by the VT department or a genuine misunderstanding, having a random image of darts legend Jocky Wilson during a song that’s nothing to do with Jocky Wilson, or indeed darts, is BBC gold. Let’s enjoy it again for the 800th time…
5: Blur: ‘Country House’ (1995)
The ‘80s had the Cold War but the ‘90s had the Cool War…
I’d happily claim that the 1960s was, and always will be, the most important decade for music, primarily down to the competitive rivalry between The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Would we ever see such a rivalry again? Fast-forward thirty 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 (Memorably described by NME as “a flatpack Oasis song”) on the same day as their enemy’s Country House. The Britpopwar 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 ‘95. This fantastic performance, couldn’t be more ‘90s. Not only does it have Alex James taunting Oasis 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.
4: Kate Bush: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978)
She was only 19 years old…
I mean, what can I say about this one? An unknown teenager takes to the Top of the Pops plinth and puts in a performance of a lifetime. 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 a mere nineteen years old here – nineteen! Has there ever been a performer able to put so much drama 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 single 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 naughty school boys at the end.
2: David Bowie: ‘Starman’ (1972)
Moments 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.
“So that was the official top 10, 9 to 2 – I’m John Peel, now here’s this week’s NUMBER 1…”
1: Nirvana: ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ (1991)
The magic of live television…
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. The most memorable protest, 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 the style of Sisters of Mercy before going in to a bit of Morrissey for the chorus… The half-arsed stage invasion by spotty teenagers at the end of the performance on the outdated ‘80s set just completes this perfect Top of the Pops moment of awkward adolescent rebellion and, for us, makes it the greatest in the show’s history.
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 – D’you Know What I Mean?, Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String, Pulp – Common People, Sandie Shaw (with The Smiths) – Hand in Glove, 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…
What did you make of our list? Did your pick not make the Top Ten? Leave us a comment below and tell us yours…
❉ Sam Michael is a stand-up comedian, writer and actor based in the South West of England and host of the Comedians Talking About Football podcast. Follow Comedians Talking About Football Podcast on Twitter: @ComTalkFootyPod