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Revisiting the cultural impact of Top of the Pops

BY Brendan Sainsbury

9th Jan 2024 Music

4 min read

Revisiting the cultural impact of Top of the Pops
Remember watching Top of the Pops every week to find out the latest most popular singles and must-know songs? We explore the cultural impact of the world's longest-running weekly music show
It’s Thursday evening, sometime in the early 1980s. Bored after a drab day at school, you’ve just finished loading the dishwasher after baked beans on toast and a pot of strong tea. Your dad is reclining in his favourite armchair pretending to read the newspaper. Your sister is perched on the sofa doing her chemistry homework. And then, on goes the telly, as it always does at around 7:25pm, the final five minutes of Tomorrow’s World followed by the programme that everyone, including your dad (although he won’t admit it), has been looking forward to all week: Top of the Pops.
"Top of the Pops was watched by everyone from school dinner ladies to bus drivers"
Ask any British person who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s what they used to do on Thursday evenings at around 7:30pm and the answer will invariably be: “tune in to Top of the Pops.” As the closing credits of Tomorrow’s World flashed across the screen, homework was gratefully pushed aside and family arguments suspended, as everyone clustered around the TV to check out Elton John’s latest jumpsuit, or watch Duran Duran lip-sync to “Girls on Film”.

A cultural phenomenon both cool and cringeworthy

In an era of TikTok and limitless TV channels, it's hard to imagine the cultural influence once wielded by the BBC’s flagship music show. Conceived as a modest six-week series in January, 1964, the programme went on to become a cultural phenomenon that was beamed into the nation’s living rooms on a weekly basis for 42 years.
Drawing audiences of up to 19 million at its peak in the late 1970s, the show established itself as a barometer of popular taste, watched by everyone from school dinner ladies to bus drivers. In the days before mobile phones and music streaming services, an appearance on its hallowed stage marked the pinnacle of many artists’ careers.
Peter Hook, bass player in the band New Order
Peter Hook, bass player in the band New Order, put it succinctly in an interview with Mojo magazine in 2008. “Being on Top of the Pops was one of the highlights of my life, it was the only time when people like my mother, and relatives that didn’t have anything to do with us, thought that we had made it.”
Hook’s comments ring true. The beauty of Top of the Pops was its universal appeal, the way in which it could be both swaggeringly cool and embarrassingly lame in the space of a single show. One minute you’d be watching AC/DC belting out “Rock n Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, the next you’d be contemplating St Winifred’s School Choir singing “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma”. It was potluck. You spent half the time lauding the acts you loved, and the other half, lambasting the ones you didn’t. 

A winning format 

Part of the show’s success was its predictable format. The setup rarely changed: a gamut of musical acts miming their songs in front of a live audience introduced by well-known DJs of the day operating as cheesy anchors.
"It was all-encompassing and, most importantly, Britain loved it"
Each episode ended with a rundown of the week’s Top 40 hits culminating in a performance of the number one record. It wasn’t exactly edgy, but it was all-encompassing—and, most importantly, Britain loved it.

Top of the Pop's powerful influence 

For teenagers, the programme was about way more than just music. The performing bands and singers also inadvertently shaped fashion and spawned subcultures. In one famous episode in 1972, David Bowie appeared on the show dressed in a flamboyant jumpsuit to perform the song “Starman”. Pop stars masquerading as space aliens were not a common sight on British television in the early 1970s and the knock-on effect was instantaneous.
When Bowie pointed his finger at the camera and sang the words “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you,” thousands of impressionable teenagers slapped on eye glitter and rushed out to buy their first guitar. In a nano-second, a new generation of androgynous glam rock bands was born.
David Bowie performing on Top of the Pops in 1974
Another notable 1979 episode featured three up-and-coming two-tone bands—Madness, The Specials and The Selector—and sent shockwaves through the corridors of Britain’s educational establishments. Within what seemed like days, a whole fashion revolution had kicked off at schools around the country. Suddenly everyone with any street cred wanted to be a rude boy or rude girl, dancing to the beat of Jamaican ska and embellishing their school uniforms with Harrington jackets, tassled loafers, and pork-pie hats.
There were countless other epoch-defining moments. Freddie Mercury in a fur coat singing “Killer Queen” in 1974, 19-year-old Kate Bush mesmerising viewers with a dramatic rendition of “Wuthering Heights” in 1978, Morrissey and The Smiths warbling through “This Charming Man” while swinging a bunch of gladioli in 1983. If a band couldn’t make it in person, they’d often send in a music video, or get the show’s resident dance troupe—Pan’s People or later, Legs & Co—to whip up a routine.
Without Top of the Pops, some bands would never have made it in the first place. Wham! were only invited to appear on the show as last-minute replacements for another act in November 1982. They subsequently mimed to a loosely choreographed version of “Young Guns (Go for it)” to widespread acclaim. Within two weeks, the performance had propelled the record from number 42 in the charts to number three and Wham! had become overnight teen idols.

Top of the Pops—Gone but not forgotten 

As viewing figures steadily fell in the 1990s and successive makeovers failed to counter the show’s growing lack of hipness, the BBC finally decided to pull the plug in 2006. For old-school fans it marked the death of an institution that had defined much of their youth, introducing them to the likes of Boy George and Marc Bolan, The Sex Pistols and Blondie.
Today, the BBC still broadcasts occasional specials and runs repeats of old episodes on BBC4. Tragically, most of the shows made between 1964 and 1973, including The Beatles’ only live Top of the Pops performance in 1966, have been wiped from the record and no longer exist. It’s a huge cultural loss, like misplacing a stash of priceless masterpieces from the National Gallery, but oh the memories!
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