What: Top of the Pops Christmas Special 1979
Where: BBC 4
When: Christmas 2014
In 2014 I’ve been following as much of the Top of the Pops re-runs from 1979 as the BBC would allow me to. The episodes where Jimmy Saville and Dave Lee Travis were hosts weren’t broadcast but I kept track of the rest right up to the broadcast the other day of the Christmas Day special which covered many of the records from that year which made the top two in the charts.
The only two limitations on the programme seemed that they left out anyone who wouldn’t appear “live” in the studio for the big occasion and the time restraints of the hour long format. In later years, they would probably have just made a second edition for Boxing Day or New Year’s Day but this time it was just the one.
1979 seemed to me at the time and seems to me now to have been quite a pivotal year for pop music (and rock, and rap, but more on that in a moment) and I figured that it is interesting to look back now and see how much of what we thought were going to be the trends that would lead us into the new decade actually materialised. It all seems such a long time ago…
Punk was dead. You might still see 50 year old guys with mohican cuts in Camden Town with T-shirts that argue otherwise but punk was as dead as Jacob Marley by the end of 1979. We talked about New Wave which seemed to have more to do with music and less to do with a social movement to me than punk ever did. Punk was entirely absent from the 1979 Christmas Top of the Pops but New Wave was a strong presence.
Synthesisers had a big year in 1979 and on the Christmas special they were represented by Gary Numan and his band.
Rap and hip hop were still at the infancy stage. The Sugarhill Gang had made it to no.3 in December of ’79 with “Rapper’s Delight” but the cutoff for this programme was no.2 so the BBC missed a trick. Kurtis Blow also had a December UK hit. But Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash were still two years from making a commercial impact on the British scene.
I remember hearing an interview with Numan in early-1980 when he was headed out to work on an album with Robert Palmer where he talked about the large sum of money that Warner Brothers was prepared to offer him to keep him on their roster. He said that “(Warners) thought that we would be around a lot longer than Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd”. How wrong they were!
In the U.S., it was that “old” rock that was still the flavour of the day in the last third of 1979 and the first third of 1980. Led Zeppelin’s “In Through the Out Door”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Eagles’ “The Long Run”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” dominated the album charts. Even in dear old Blighty, the year ended with Floyd atop both singles and albums list with their new material (indeed their latest album has just been declared one of the top 10 sellers of 2014 in the UK so the song really does remain the same as one of their contemporaries said).
So the record companies were guessing quite incorrectly but which of the acts on that TOTP Xmas special would have an ongoing impact. The results might just surprise you!
There were. of course, the acts that signified the passing of the old school. Here, they were represented by the openers Boney M., the passing of disco in the shape of the Bee Gees and the death of the middle-of-the-road balladeer shown here in the shape of the god-awful, Lena Martell.
But what else was there? Well, some of the big players were missing in action. The Police who had 2 chart-toppers and a no. 2 in 1979 were not on the programme. The Jam weren’t eligible as their biggest hit to date, Eton Rifles, only made it to number three.
But who did Peter Powell and David “Kid” Jensen have for us? Well, after Boney M, we were given Ian Dury and the Blockheads in high-visibility jackets, retreading “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. Live and in the studio, they were at a peak in ’79 and looked set for big things but once the “Do It Yourself” album and the “Reasons to be Cheerful” single had had their moment in the sun, we would be stunned to see that the Blockheads would never trouble either sales chart top 20 again.
Next, we had the lovers’ rock sweetness of Janet Kay and “Silly Games”. The genre and the artist was always (literally) a minority pursuit and it would be 12 years before Ms Kay had another minor hit and then with a re-recording of the same song. No-one thought she was one for the future and lo-and-behold, she wasn’t.
Gary Numan “Cars”. Now here was the one that Powell and Jensen were convinced was the “future”. In fact, Jensen said that this was what the future sounded like. But did it? In fact, Numan who also appeared on the programme performing his other number one “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” belongs more to the 1970s than the 1980s. In the new decade, there were no more top-selling singles and whilst he managed to place another number one album (Telekon) that doesn’t equal the measure that he had in the last year of the 70s (2- Replicas and The Pleasure Principle). Numan was going to deliver a further 35 hit singles (yes, I typed that correctly) but it was a case of diminishing returns and a hardcore following with only four of them breaking the Top 10. If Numan was tomorrow, we would have to go back to the future…
Next, we had Roxy Music with the very pretty “Dance Away”. Pretty was the word but the critics have always preferred the Eno-years of Virginia Plain and semi-clad models on album covers. The band was done by 1983 and moored forever in Avalon. Ferry looked as slick, well-tailored and handsome here as ever but he was not seen to be as cutting edge as he was before.
Novelty pop and Legs and Co. meant that we had to re-tread Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” but Legs and Co. whilst being a tad less literal than Pan’s People were facing Hot Gossip opposition on the “other side” with the Kenny Everett TV show and like disco they had lost a lot of their appeal. Anita was never to be seen again.
And then Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Now if there was ever a novelty hit this seemed to be it. But appearances can be deceptive even with glasses like that. Buggles only had three more (minor) hits – and one hit album – in them but in allowing them into our living room, we unleashed far more than we realised at the time.
It has been mentioned many times elsewhere that “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video used on MTV and MTV, of course, changed the nature of popular music in a way that it has never recovered from. For the first time, the emphasis swung to the point where visuals out-weighed the songs. Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan made dramatic visual impressions. Glam-rock scarred some for life but now video budgets began to exceed recording studio costs.
But Buggles wouldn’t stop there. Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn became part of Yes for long enough to see them through the short-lived period when New Wave seemed likely to sweep all the old bands away. As a result, Yes (a band I’ve never really been able to understand the appeal of) survived and Wakeman and Anderson rejoined to restore them to their preposterous pomp of earlier times.
Geoff Downes then formed Asia who along with bands like Boston, Foreigner and Journey forever inhabit those American driving compilations and “Glee” soundtracks, with their high-pitched vocals and melodic guitars.
But it was Horn who was to rule the roost. He produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood who for a few brief moments in the mid-80s dominated the music world. “Relax” may have owed a lot of its success to the controversy stirred by its lyrical content and a t-shirt craze but you cannot help acknowledge the way that the production sound that Horn arrived at was to push at the borders for the next decade.
Mr Horn would go on to produce Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Robbie Williams, Cher, Grace Jones, Seal, Tina Turner, Lisa Stansfield, the Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, Marc Almond, T.A.T.U., Genesis, Charlotte Church and a cast of thousands. He was originally destined to produce the first Band Aid single but things didn’t work out but otherwise, commercially at least, he never put a foot wrong. And it has to be said that when compared to that other ubiquitous production label of the era – Stock, Aitken and Waterman – he has quite a track record.
Who would ever have thought this of two men in silly plastic glasses? Who could have seen it coming. Video killed the radio star but the men from Buggles revived something also and gave us a whole new type of star.
Next, B.A. Robertson. “Who?”, you might say, before recalling the lanky Scotsman who came up with a series of mildly humorous hits around that time. In total, he did spin it out to six singles and two albums over the next four years but it was the careful crafting of his lyrics which might have given us a clue that something was going on here. And it was for his songwriting rather than his vocals that Robertson carved out a quiet place in the annals of rock music. Genesis’ guitarist Mike Rutherford needed a side project and formed “Mike and the Mechanics” and turned to Robertson as a co-writer. Big hits like “The Living Years” came from his pen which will keep him comfortable into his old age. They were hardly at the forefront of change in the musical genres but creativity comes in many forms and they made their own niches with many fans which saw Robertson having an influence, of a kind, that saw out many on this programme.
Blondie had a lot more going for them than Debbie Harry’s looks but their track record of singles was a little patchy in my book. On the programme, they chose to perform the excellent “Dreaming” and also the disappointing “Sunday Girl” but left their big hit “Heart of Glass” unrepresented. 1979 was their biggest year, 1980 was also huge but after they began to fade and their influence and appeal is now more about nostalgia than anything else.
And then we had M. Yes, you remember M, the band who sang “Pop Muzik” and had a lead singer who dressed like and did a passable impression of, Bryan Ferry. Well, here on the Christmas special, Ferry and Roxy and M were side-by-side and M’s lead singer (Robin Scott) decided to opt out of the argument and trade his Ferry-lookalike suit in for some army fatigues. M lost the battle and the war and were seldom heard from again. Who needs a fake Ferry when you can have the real thing?
Elvis Costello and “Oliver’s Army”. Elvis did quite well but fell into the trap of taking himself too seriously at times. By the time he cut “Almost Blue” in 1981, he was ready to trade his New Wave audience for something more grown-up and his run of hit singles came effectively to an end. However, his album career has continued to push at the boundaries and he has out-lived, out-thought, out-sold and out-grown most on this programme. And he married Diana Krall too.
I noted that they should have brought the Bee Gees on the programme and had Legs and Co. dancing to Lena Martell’s hit instead. Now that would have been funny!
And then Squeeze. Here with “Cool For Cats” which was a bit like a band looking for a definitive sound and doing all the better for it. Their first three major hits: this; “Take Me I’m Yours” and “Up the Junction” all fell into different stylistic pockets. Later they became more repetitive and less successful. Sometimes it’s good to struggle to find an identity.
When Dr Hook made no. 1 with “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” in 1979, they had already been around for 7 years but probably their biggest year in the UK came in the first year of the new decade when they had 5 charting singles and three albums on the list. Again, it was bland, it was formulaic but it sold – but by 1981, surprisingly, they were washed up.
As mentioned earlier Blondie returned to do “Dreaming” and Gary Numan to perform Tubeway Army’s hit “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”. Both are better songs than the others that they performed here but have proven to be less well remembered.
If Gary Numan at least looked like the future, Racey positively smelt of the past. They performed “Some Girls”, a hideous piece of pop. Interestingly, it was written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman who had much better moments as the power behind the early hits of some of the big names of the early ’70s pop scene. Curiously, one of Racey’s early single releases was penned by two members of another 70s band, Smokie and one of their album tracks was reworked into “Mickey” by Toni Basil to give us another dreadful moment in that coming decade. The kind of sound that Racey pedalled was not a million miles away from what Shakin’ Stevens used in some of his more forgettable hits and we would do well to remember that for all the talk of the 80s being the era of electronica and the New Romantics, it was also as much an era for rock’n’roll revivalism as the ’70s before it.
Something else that we don’t talk too much about anymore, was the on-going success of Cliff Richard who had returned to the charts with “We Don’t Talk Anymore” after a few lean years. He was to build upon this with hits like “Carrie” and “Wired for Sound” in the next year or so (notably written by that lanky Scotsman Robertson from earlier in the programme) and then was seldom absent from the lists of big sellers for the next two decades. So the brave new world that we saw stretching out before us not only had to reckon with rock artists with greater longevity than the New Wave but also a number of pop artists who just refused to go away.
Now this programme couldn’t cover all the bases – Two Tone and Ska would have to wait for the turn of the year to reach the kind of chart positions required for a show of this kind, for example (Madness surprisingly would have to wait another three years). But it does enough to give us an impression of how wrong our guesses of where music was going in the ’80s were. When we look back and see that two of the most enduring members of this cast were the guy in the plastic glasses from Buggles and the old pop/rocker from the late ’50s and early sixties, we would do well to catch our breath before guessing where pop music might be in five years time.