How Top of the Pops Made a Nation Fall in Love With Music

From Nirvana to Dexy's, New Order, Rod Stewart and more... we revisit the memorable Top of the Pops moments that lodged the show in our hearts

Top of the Pops March Music Madness header image
Photo: Chloe Lewis

Weekly music show Top of the Pops counted down the UK pop charts, jam-packed with performances from bands and solo artists whose singles had been selling well that week. It ran on the BBC from 1964 to 2006, seeing off seven prime ministers, 12 major military conflicts, and three separate Sugababes line-ups. As the decades passed, viewers watched the musical, cultural and fashion tastes of a nation shifting through the lenses of their musical heroes.

But as those things changed, so did the ways in which we experienced music. It began with MTV and VH1, and continued with the proliferation of portable entertainment tech; the evolution of the internet, downloads and streaming; and our ability to listen to or watch whatever we wanted, whenever and wherever we pleased. In this futuristic soundscape, Top of the Pops became an anachronism. The show still managed to occupy a warm niche in the public consciousness thanks to its annual Christmas Day edition – which started in 2006, just as the weekly version ended. That tradition continued in 2022, despite reports in early December of last year that the BBC planned to axe the Top of the Pops phenomenon for good.

And what a phenomenon it was.

For decades, Top of the Pops was a byword in hip and cool, but it wasn’t just the star factor that put bums on seats. Top of the Pops was also loved for its ‘end-of-the-pier meets finger-on-the-pulse’ cocktail: the miming, technicoloured controversies and exquisite naffness. Audiences loved it when the bubble popped, when acts ran amok, when equipment stopped working and gaffes crept unchecked into the recording.

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Let’s take a look back at the barbs, boobs, banter and brilliant performances that made Top of the Pops so unmissable in its heyday. Before we do, there are obviously serious controversies swirling around the legacy of Top of the Pops, primarily concerning some of its early presenters. It’s all a matter of public record. We won’t give those vile culprits any more coverage or mention, but choose to remember the parts of the show that brought happiness to millions.     

Top of the Trolls

For most of Top of the Pops‘ first three decades, acts were encouraged to mime their music and vocals over a pre-recorded track – barring rare exceptions. Many acts sought to play around with this stricture, shattering the shared illusion for comedic effect. Sometimes this was done in a spirit of fun, as when Rod Stewart and his Faces bandmates had a quick game of football mid-‘Maggie May’, while DJ John Peel uncomfortably squatted nearby ‘playing’ a mandolin.

Sometimes the mockery came in the spirit of a two-fingered salute. In one memorable appearance in 1995, Oasis’ Gallagher brothers decided to swap places for their performance of ‘Roll With It’. Liam strummed gamely away in the background, while Noel channelled his brother’s bow-legged, front-man swagger, complete with tambourine. Perhaps owing to Oasis’ nascent fame in those days, the producers reportedly didn’t notice the switch until it was pointed out to them afterwards.

A question-mark has long hung over Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ 1982 Top of the Pops appearance. They were performing their cover version of Van Morrison’s 1972 hit ‘Jackie Wilson Said’, when viewers noticed behind them what appeared to be an egregious yet hilarious mistake: a large video screen displaying the image not of the late, great soul singer Jackie Wilson – on whom the song was obviously based – but of Scottish darts’ legend Jocky Wilson. Viewers were quick to assume that Top of the Pop‘s production staff must have goofed, but the wheeze was apparently very much Dexy’s idea. In 2002, the band’s frontman Kevin Rowland admitted to The Guardian: “For a laugh, we told the producer to put a picture of Jocky Wilson up behind us. He said: ‘But Kevin, people will think we made a mistake.’ I told him only an idiot would think that. The morning after, the [Radio 1] DJ Mike Read said: ‘Bloody Top of the Pops. How could they mix up one of the great soul singers with a Scottish darts player?'”

But no flipping of Top of the Pops‘ format was as memorable as Nirvana’s version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in 1991. Singer Kurt Cobain’s surprise languid, low-octave performance of the high-energy grunge hit has been mythologised as the ultimate fuck-you to the man in response to the show’s miming tradition. The reality though, might have been much more banal. From around 51:00 in Top of the Pops: the Story of 1991, hear James’ Tim Booth, who performed on the same show, tell a completely different story. In this version, Cobain had lost his voice and was suffering with a cold during filming and so asked to mime his vocal but Top of the Pops refused. According to Booth, the Ian Curtis/Morrissey impersonation was Cobain’s workaround response. Whatever the behind-the-scenes truth, the performance went down in legend. 

Live and Dangerous

In 1983, New Order was the first band to throw caution, and their potential credibility, to the wind by going fully live, synthesisers and all. This performance of their hit ‘Blue Monday’ is regularly cited in lists of Top of the Pops‘ biggest gaffes and cringe-worthy moments, though its inclusion is a little unfair. Sure, singer Bernard Sumner occasionally looks like a tortoise trying to recreate Henry Hill’s final car-borne dash in Goodfellas, and the music isn’t always exactly in key, but it’s a fine and bold performance of one of the most 80s songs ever; one, moreover, that’s proven to be timeless.

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More worthy of inclusion in said lists is All About Eve’s performance of their song ‘Martha’s Harbour’ in 1988. Due to a production snafu, everyone – the studio audience, the viewers at home – could hear the first minute or so of the song… except for Julianne Regan and Tim Bricheno, who sat on stage deathly-still, staring awkwardly out at the audience, in a move that must have been interpreted, at least initially, as a devil-may-care protest. ‘Those bastards are pulling a Nirvana.’ ‘Who’s Nirvana?’ ‘Oh right, that hasn’t happened yet. Forget I said anything.’ 

Drink Jiving

In 1982, the Scottish national football team appeared on the Top of the Pops’ stage along with actor John Gordon Sinclair to sing their World Cup anthem ‘We Have a Dream’: a half-spoken, half-chanted, self-deprecating ditty that seemed to say: ‘Yeah, we know we’re probably going to last about as long in this tournament as a red-shirt on his first away mission with Captain Kirk, so let’s just have a good time’.

Whatever you think of Top of the Pop‘s lip-syncing tradition, it’s undeniably the best way to counter your average pop star’s predilection for imbibing potentially performance-wrecking substances prior to taking to the stage. That goes ten-fold when your act is a bunch of booze-loving Scottish footballers, none of whom seem to mind leaning hard into national stereotypes. Scotland’s goalkeeper, the appropriately named Alan Rough, explained in a recent BBC Scotland documentary: “You could tell why we were all swaying. We’d been in that BBC bar for about five hours so we didn’t have to practise that bit.”

Given Shane McGowan’s reputation, it came as no surprise to anyone that when he took to the stage in 1987 to mime his way through a performance of ‘Fairytale of New York’ with Kirsty McColl, he was in such a state of inebriation that the act of mouthing along to his own words made him look like a badly dubbed Korean movie. This was jarring for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the young and goofy McGowan – cocooned inside an ill-fitting leather jacket – didn’t look like the kind of man who’d be in possession of a voice so rich in pathos and world-weary agony. Instead, many in the audience would have been wondering: ‘Where is the real Shane McGowan? Why have they kidnapped a young drunk boy from a school disco and forced him to mime along to this song? I’m calling Ofcom.’

Speaking of complaints, no act attracted the level of official opprobrium as the Manic Street Preachers when they performed their 1994 hit ‘Faster’ with singer James Dean Bradfield decked out in a balaclava, which was interpreted by more than 25,000 angry viewers as some sort of signal of support for the IRA. Needless to say: it wasn’t.

Memorable and Iconic

The singles’ charts were a capricious beast, so it was often impossible to predict who’d be appearing on any given Top of the Pops edition. The show could be forced to put bad boys like Cliff Richard on the same bill as more wholesome acts as Rage Against the Machine. Juxtapositions like that, of course, were a crucial part of its charm. Especially when, divorced from their natural environment of the club, rave or music video, even some of the acts weren’t entirely sure how to convey their vibe.

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Take The Orb’s rendition of ‘Blue Room‘, their 39-minute epic trance tune, heavily cut down for transmission, featuring two people dressed in industrial, vaguely post-apocalyptic garb playing a weird variation of space chess for three long minutes. Any member of The Greatest Generation who happened to be passing by their TV set that evening in 1992 – and catching a song that sounded like the sort of aggressive hold music their descendants might be subjected to in 2096 – might have been moved to opine: ‘Ah, so THAT’S the freedom millions of us went to our graves protecting in the 1940s…’  

Certainly memorable. However, the artists who gave the most iconic Top of the Pops performances were those who best understood the show’s format and how to play to its strengths and weaknesses. It was about pitching yourself in a fun, endearing way without coming off as too silly, but steering clear of pompous pretentiousness – in short, giving the audience a live music video.

Pulp pulled this off with aplomb in 1995 when they show-cased their anthemic hit ‘Common People’. The band, including much-missed bass player Steve Mackey, were dressed in scruffy suits pitched somewhere between bohemian loafer and Chaplin’s tramp, with lead singer Jarvis looking like an early prototype of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Cocker owned the stage. His animated performance – channelled mainly through his hips, eyebrows and fingers – was as choreographed and theatrical as it was rock and roll. A giant shopping trolley containing a lone female dancer and stacks of boxes marked ‘Pulp’ hulked to his right, as he took the audience on a rousing physical journey through his band’s masterwork on class, nihilism and angst. The performance still stands up today, which is hardly surprising since the song itself – immaculately constructed, emotionally resonant, and fiercely intelligent – is timeless.

And then there’s David Bowie, who proved time and again in his lifetime that all you need to make a David Bowie performance work is, well, David Bowie. He arrived on stage in 1972 to perform ‘Starman’ kitted out in a technicoloured jump-suit and Space Karen haircut, the band mates around him all looking like extras from Blake’s 7. But it works. Because of course it works: it’s David Bowie. Everything about the performance is memorable and epoch-making: the simple yet seismic glee in the telling of the song’s story; the familiar way Bowie interacts with and shows affection to his band mates; and, of course, Bowie’s superhuman confidence.

Top of the Pops: you gave us tears and tantrums, shock and awe, joy and laughter. You made people of a certain vintage fall in love with music, and for that, we’ll always love you back.