To an extent it’s counter-intuitive; a TV station (and a highbrow one at that), getting away with running thirty-five year-old episodes of Top Of The Pops every Thursday evening for the past few years. Makes for cheap scheduling, of course – a maximum number of viewers for the minimum outlay being a well-trodden mantra in broadcast media – but that’s only part of the story.
Because people watch it. It doesn’t matter which crumple-haired novelty act is miming along to their one hit wonder in front of an audience of badly-dressed urchins. It’s not an issue that the big names rarely appear, their place taken up by danced interpretation of the far-too-literal kind and a wardrobe department that has confused sexy and alluring with revealing and unflattering; we tune in regardless. In numbers that far outweigh the general proposition of turgid, thirty-five year-old chart music.
You don’t need me to tell you how incredibly important the late ‘70’s were in terms of moulding the musical landscape; the post-punk, new wave aesthetic remains an integral part of our sonic pallete all these years later. Only, you won’t necessarily pick up on this fact from retro chart shows. The BBC’s ingrained conservatism – combined with its light entertainment leanings – all but decreed the tight rationing of airtime given over to interesting performers, and whilst post-punk wasn’t ignored entirely, neither was it lauded. In fact, if you’re of a cynical persuasion, you could argue that the BBC was ultimately complicit in the attempt to subsume angular guitar music into the mainstream – either by treating was it saw as safe as part of the popular music continuum (cue Sham 69 appearing on TOTP between a lame approximation of a disco hit and whatever pap won Eurovision that year), ghettoising onto late night TV and radio, or (for the most part) ignoring completely.
To put 1978 into some sort of context, the time elapsed between now and then is greater than that between ‘78 and the end of the Second World War – it’s no wonder that entire chunks of vintage TOTP feel quaintly alien to our pop culture sensibilities. Which, paradoxically, may help to explain the programme’s attraction to modern viewers. For whilst we get the opportunity to point and stare and laugh as these twentieth-century clowns showcase their end-of-the-pier anti-sophistication to an audience of kids in polyester jumpers watching at home, we’re also recognising that those very kids grew up to be us. It’s not a 1978 thing, specifically – many of us were yet to be thought of, or Top Of The Pops coincided with our bedtimes. Rather, such is the cultural impact of chart music in general and TOTP in particular that to have even a passing familiarity with the concept of a hit single is to implacably understand the nuances behind such a programme. Call it nostalgia, nostalgia by proxy, or a simple appreciation of how each week’s biggest selling singles acted as a conduit through which our hunger for recorded sound first flowed – it’s this (pre)historic landscape that forms the bedrock of our personal musical heritage.
The Rezillos / Top Of The Pops