While Top Of The Pops, that global brand of schmaltz, cringe, and well, well, WELL dodgy hosts (as we would later discover) was for many of us an important staple, and a part of our musical education – no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise – the simple fact is that by the early 90s it was pretty much dead in the water. There are many reasons for this, declining sales of singles and the increasing irrelevance of the Top Ten chief amongst them, but I have often wondered whether the real reason is very simple. It just didn’t matter anymore.
Even during the late 70s, when punk was on the up, and when the BBC could have been forgiven if they had shied away from the noise of wannabe anarchists, the preaching of teenage socialists and the inanity of Dadaist art posturing, they still rose to the challenge. A quick glance of the acts who graced the ToTP soundstage during the era shows a remarkable amount of bands who were full of these qualities. Aside from those you might expect to be allowed through the door like The Undertones or the Buzzcocks, there were also some more out-there acts: The Vibrators, Iggy Pop, X-ray Spex, Sham 69 and The Stranglers all played (well, ‘mimed’ is technically more accurate). Some even did the show more than once.
What was probably missed at the time though, was that punk and what came after it might not have led to an immediate change in music itself, but had a profound effect in the fracturing of youth culture. It was really a watershed moment for the idea of music as something infinitely smaller and personal, something reflected in the growth of the indy scene where bands who might well have had a large enough level of popularity on their own terms were never going to compete with the big acts and labels when it came to sales. They began to vanish from the public eye as the industry began the splinter into ever smaller shards. In a way that had been hinted at for years, but never really commented on, music broke along a fault line into two parts – music that was commercial, and music ‘that mattered’. And the crossovers which had always been so important went into decline.
By the time we got into watching ToTP on a regular basis in the late 80s, it was far less of the near religious experience it might have been a decade earlier. TV listings in newspapers were scanned the day of the show in a hope that we might find out whether someone worth watching would be on it. Sometimes you got lucky, like when a visibly wurzelled Kurt Cobain improvised the words to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ when Nirvana played, or when someone like the KLF or Happy Mondays would appear, weirdly, from the pages of one of the music papers and look strangely and deliciously, out-of-place. Mostly though, it was Cliff, and Sheena Easton. Sometimes at the same time. Christ.
But while the BBC may well have considered many of these young bands dangerous enough to keep at a bit of arms length (somewhat ironically considering what they were allegedly letting their presenters get up to), the arrival of house music simply seemed to confuse them. If acid house and techno acts had found the cool, indy-centric nature of the British music press a difficult enough challenge, the BBC were at another level entirely.
We knew this would be the case without having to be told it. It was, after all, a chart show and if the acts didn’t chart we couldn’t expect them on. Even in those days when house and techno were shifting in volumes that are impossible to imagine now they weren’t usually being sold through the vendors and distributors which transformed sales into the official music industry approved figures which mattered. Even at the most basic level, that of the performance, BBC producers must have had strokes over the idea of putting a spotty, bald herbert in a crap t-shirt on television when all they were going to do was ponce off behind a couple of Roland boxes. Who can blame them? We’re not talking about the Stones at Hyde Park here.
The brilliant and scary thing though is that, eventually, that’s exactly what they did. While house music was never (and never is) going to be embraced in the same way rock music, or even rap, was, certain acts began to sell enough through the regular channels that it became impossible for even the Beeb to shy away from this alien youth movement which was filling the heads of so many young people with dubious ideas about dungarees and bandanas. Gradually, and with all the obvious hunger of a man offered a monkey’s arse for his dinner, The BBC allowed house music into the club.
The effect was slight in the great scheme of things, yet it was brilliant. 808 State were first. Long one of the darlings of the indy press it was a sensible enough choice. In fact, Farley Jackmaster Funk – a true Chicago hero – had been the real first way back in 86. But 808 State were different. We knew who they were. They were followed over the next couple of years by bands like Altern8, the Orb, Frankie Knuckles, Bizarre Inc and other until the music industry began to latch on with its usual vampiric self-interest and these trailblazers were replaced with an endless procession of commercialised house.
Orbital got on early. Their debut, Chime, reaching number 17 and won them a spot on the show for which, famously, they had to quit their jobs to appear on as their boss wouldn’t give them the time off. This was why they were important. They weren’t a ‘proper’ band. They were a couple of lads cooking up tunes at home who got that chance. How brilliant is that? Radiccio, the follow-up from which Halcyon is taken, charted lower and only just hit the top 40. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s still a knock out track, swimming into existence on the back of that famous sample from Opus III’s It’s A Fine Day (Opus III also appeared on the show, pop fans!)
ToTP is long gone now, passing into legend after a period of self parody and darker, less pleasant truths. Even though house and techno’s moment under the ToTP studio lights was as brief as brief can be, they set the stage for everything that dominated the show for many years afterwards. My one regret is that the Aphex Twin was never on. That would have been the TV moment to beat all.