‘Top of the Pops’ Christmas Special, 1979

Exhibit / December 13, 2017

Object Name: Top of the Pops Christmas Special
Maker and Year: BBC, 1979
Object Type: Television program
Description: (Richard McKenna)

For the pop-minded inhabitant of the British Isles in the late ’70s, the dull edifice of the passing weeks rested upon the two mighty, glowing columns that made it all bearable: the British Top 40 countdown, broadcast from 5:00 on BBC Radio 1 every Sunday evening (cancelled only once as a result of what would prove to be an inexplicably traumatic event for the nation: the 1997 death of Lady Diana) and Top of the Pops.

Top of the Pops was a weekly chart rundown show broadcast—for most of its existence—every Thursday evening on BBC 1 starting on the 1st of January, 1964. Over the program’s 30 minute slot, DJs from BBC Radio 1 would run down the charts and introduce a selection of acts filmed playing—or more often miming—in the studio, as well as dance routines by the program’s various dance troupes. Despite often being top-heavy with the chancers, novelty acts, heritage throwbacks, and tearjerkers (sometimes combined in one single atrocious unit), which were a persistent feature of the British pop landscape and became legion as Christmas and the possibility of a lucrative seasonal number one approached, Top of the Pops was a huge draw. There was little pop music on British television at the time, and the competition faced by the show tended to be either serious-minded affairs like The Old Grey Whistle Test or ephemera like the panel show Juke Box Jury (which offered the bizarre spectacle of Joan Collins reviewing Siouxie and and Banshees). As the ’70s drew to a close, Top of the Pops commanded an audience of 19 million viewers—a third of the country’s population—and the annual Christmas editions took on almost religious significance. And what better instrument for taking the psychic temperature of a nation at the threshold of a new decade than popular music?

While the regular Thursday editions were filmed in front of a studio audience, the Christmas specials were shot in a closed studio and featured a range of acts that had been “number ones and twos” over the previous year. The presenters of the episode in question are Peter Powell and Canadian David “Kid” Jensen, both alumni of Radio Luxembourg. Like “pirate” radio stations Radio Caroline and Radio London, which broadcast from ships moored outside British waters, Luxembourg was a commercial radio station located outside British territory that had become famous in the 1960s for supplying the demand for pop/rock programming that the BBC, with its monopoly on broadcasting in the UK, refused to do. Between them, London, Luxembourg, and Caroline provided many of what would become the voices of British pop radio for decades to come.

After leading in with an archive recording of Boney M. (the German vocal group was ubiquitous through the late ’70s and early ’80s) and the program’s title music—the Top of the Pops orchestra’s bombastic rendering of Collective Consciousness Society’s flute-driven cover of Whole Lotta Love—the show proper begins with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” Written and produced by Dennis Bovell of British reggae band Matumbi, “Silly Games” had reached Number 2 the previous summer, helping to popularize the nascent British-born reggae genre known as Lovers rock. Kay would go on to appear in the Black Theatre Co-operative’s No Problem! (1983-1985), the first sitcom to be broadcast on Channel 4, while Bovell (a schoolfriend of New Musik’s Tony Mansfield) would provide the score for Babylon, Franco Rossi’s 1980 look at the lives of working-class black musicians in London.

Also featured is Anita Ward’s wonderful “Ring My Bell” in the form of the first of two appearances by Legs & Co., the program’s resident dance troupe. Legs & Co. had taken over from short-lived mixed-gender, multiracial troupe Ruby Flipper (seen here dancing to Champs Boys Orchestras disco makeover of “Tubular Bells”) in 1976. According to dancer turned Top of the Pops choreographer Flick Colby (a Pennsylvania native and founding member of TotP’s second dance troupe, Pan’s People), BBC 1 controller Bill Cotton had ordered her to form a new all-girl group, claiming “the British public didn’t want to see black men dancing with white women.” The Top of the Pops dancers were one of the few unfettered expressions of sexuality (though almost exclusively female sexuality) that the notoriously prudish Corporation permitted, and their performances—coy as they might appear to modern eyes—were in themselves a powerful draw for the program.

The 1979 Christmas Special compensates for its lack of clumsy spontaneity—a hallmark of the weekly show—with bizarre contrasts: Scottish singer Lena Martell’s rousing cover of “One Day at a Time” sandwiched between the spiky urban disaffection of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ “Oliver’s Army” and Squeeze’s “Cool For Cats”; Blondie’s frenzied blankness cutting through B.A. Robertson’s ersatz punk schtick like a laser through butter; the devastating self-possession of Debbie Harry and the frantic joviality of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show’s Ray Sawyer; the retrograde holiday-camp revue R&R stodge of Racey and the chilly throb of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”.

(It would be remiss of me not to state that I was a youthful fan of B.A. Robertson—who appeared in 1981’s The Monster Club —and his brand of catchy, spiky pop, and spent my 1980 Christmas record token on his Initial Success LP, to the derision of the shop assistant in Doncaster’s Bradley’s Record and Tape Centre: upon asking for his “latest” record, I was informed (inaccurately, as it turned out) that it was and would remain his “only” record. Robertson also wrote a couple of hits for British pop monolith Cliff Richard, though not “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” the year’s mid-life-crisis anthem that ends the Christmas Special).

Roxy Music’s brilliant pastiche of suave MOR being at this point indistinguishable from the real thing, it is Numan who forms one corner of the show’s synthesized futurist triumvirate, the other two made up of Buggles and Robin Scott’s M. Unfairly remembered as a one-hit-wonder, collective M, with its playful evocation of resonant visual motifs of the day—ID badges, guerrilla camo, corporate business suits—were as sharp as tacks despite their evident pop skill, and “Pop Muzik,” its twangy throb lifted up by Brigit Novick’s backing vocals, comes on like a particularly cryptic and accurate deconstruction of the pop of the moment. At once a wry, self-deconstructing look at pop music’s repetition, cynicism, and self-referentiality, and a joyful celebration of its power to excite and thrill, it remains stupid and smart in equal measure. Missing from the video for copyright reasons is Ian Dury and the Blockheads performing “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” a huge hit the previous year that, in its way, was another anthem to pop’s ability to mutate and incorporate new forms (which, in the case of “Hit Me,” includes everything from ska, prog, music hall, funk, and krautrock) in ways that crossed tribal and demographic lines.

It’s a truism that those immutable fixed points in culture or time around which a society can congregate—points like Top of the Pops, which once were commonplace—nowadays appear so transient as to barely exist. Forming any kind of shared idea about who we are or what we are doing on the basis of the slippery broth we inhabit increasingly feels impossible, unless it’s that of confirming beliefs we already hold. The Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher that had taken power in May of that year was about to institute huge changes in British life, and the program seethes with a sensation of something ending and something else beginning—of a future fast arriving. And yet the British world of televised pop music, where commercial considerations forced the diverse tastes of generations and social groupings through a single small window, accidentally produced an inclusive, shared hearth around which a vast range of tastes could be accommodated. Common ground could be found in a cheap TV show that for many was more important, uniting, and nurturing than the festivity it was supposedly celebrating.

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