R.I.P. "Top of the Pops": Why It Was the Toppermost


My favorite music TV show ever has been cancelled. Admittedly, I haven't been able to watch it regularly since 1998, when I lived in London, but I still count this as a tragedy on the Biblical scale.

I'm talking, of course, about Top of the Pops, which has had a simple formula for the last 42 years: once a week, it counted down the top hits on the British singles chart. Acts on that week's chart came on to perform their songs (or sometimes, just to lip-sync them). But it wasn't just a fish-and-chips version of Solid Gold, or an English Bandstand: at its best, Top of the Pops captured a glorious pop-music democracy, where rock bands reeking of integrity would be sandwiched between Eurodisco dollies and novelty songs about the World Cup.

There's technical reasons for why the blend was so good for so long, mostly centered on the way singles charts get tabulated: when USA music fans stopped buying singles, Billboard started heavily weighing radio airplay instead, which led to many songs having way-too-long runs on the American charts. The essence of pop music is that it's always moving onto a new thrill, be it rock or dance or rap. Sometimes, a novelty song can be the best thing in the world for three weeks, after which you never want to hear it again. Americans have recently rediscovered this, only now we call it "viral video" — "back in 1966, "Lazy Sunday" would have taken its rightful place on the pop charts alongside "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!"

England got by for a long time with just three television channels; having a country full of teenagers tuned into the BBC meant that every single brilliant moment on Top of the Pops had the power to change that nation's youth. Now that the UK has moved on to MTV and the net, the show's time may have passed, but back in the day it was at the very center of rock 'n' roll. John Lennon knew that when the Beatles were still scuffling around nightclubs and he would cheer the band up by telling them they were headed to "the toppermost of the poppermost." When David Bowie appeared on TOTP in June 1972 performing "Starman," in bright red hair, makeup, and a technicolor frock, he inspired a whole generation of young British men to start bands and raid their mother's closets--not necessarily in that order.

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