Today sees the first instalment of a two-part post from Terry TOTP - mastermind and
curator of the online goldmine that is The Top of The Pops Definitive Website. And what a treat, as Terry hand-picks his top ten highlights from the unlikely alliance formed when punk's pinch-eyed, spit and spikes songbook was refashioned for Hallmarks budget priced audience - filtering exploding dayglo rage through rose tinted studio arrangements...
Top of the Punks - Part 1
Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the old “Top of the Pops” LPs, which ran to some 92 volumes, spanning the whole of the 1970s. The idea was to cherry-pick songs from the hit parade and give them the anonymous cover treatment. On the way the series charted the rise and fall of styles such as glam, disco, soft soul, Eurovision and so on, all interspersed with outbreaks of Wombles, Smurfs, Osmonds and the like.
It was all wholesome family stuff of course; the Poppers had, after all, safely bleeped out a mild expletive on their adventurous version of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” (volume 50) to keep things respectable. But then something else happened: punk arrived in the pop charts, thereby kicking and spitting its way to Top of the Pops’ door. How would they react?
The response was initially predictable, with producer Bruce Baxter simply turning a deaf ear. Top of the Pops was, after all, the stuff at which punk’s venom was most sharply targeted – middle-of-the-road pop which had no interest in confronting mums and dads (who usually bought the things for their kids). But when the Pistols placed “God Save the Queen” at number 2 (or number 1, depending which version of history you prefer), the Poppers were forced to take notice, and as the Pistols’ follow-up, “Pretty Vacant”, headed for the top 10, the Poppers captured a celebrated cover version, their first foray into the world of punk (which will be looked at in greater detail in part 2 of this blog).
By the start of 1978, punk and the associated New Wave bands were starting to invade the charts regularly. But strangely, there was a meeting of minds, with Top of the Pops enthusiastically putting their unique spin on these new styles with no trace of irony, many of them fascinating to hear in hindsight.
This selection kicks off with the Poppers’ take on The Stranglers’ “No More Heroes”, from volume 62 (October 1977). The vocalist here sounds a little more like Douglas Hurd than Hugh Cornwell, but we can forgive that thanks to the overall tightness of the backing music.
No More Heroes from vol. 62
Next up is “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”, originally a hit for The Adverts, with its subject matter the use of the murderer’s corneas for transplants after his execution. Unable to decipher all the lyrics (eg “I’m wincing in the light”), the Poppers’ man ad-libbed in places, Adverts singer Tim ‘TV’ Smith apparently amused on hearing it and commenting, “It would have been terrible if he'd got the words right”! It can be found on volume 61.
Gary Gilmore’s Eyes from vol. 61
Moving into 1978, we have the Poppers’ version of Blondie’s “Denis” (volume 65). This is actually quite a spirited attempt, and to the casual listener is a fair facsimile. Credit as well to the singer for having a confident stab at the French vocals. In fact, Blondie’s “original” was also a cover version, the song first recorded by Randy & The Rainbows back in 1963!
Denis from vol. 65
Top of the Pops volume 68 from August 1978 is one of the more punk-inflected LPs in the series, which we will dip into a couple of times here. It includes one of the most admirable Poppers covers in “Jilted John”, which is arguably a better listen than Graham Fellows’ original! It’s funny, and for all the right reasons.
Jilted John from vol. 68
For the last track in part 1 of this survey, we’re sticking with volume 68, and a recording which, Like “Denis”, was an updated cover of a 60s tune. Thus, The Kinks’ “David Watts” arrives via The Jam, marking their arrival in the Top of the Pops series. Here, you can certainly spot the difference, but it’s a solid stab nonetheless.
David Watts from vol. 68
Part 2 of this post will follow, with the story behind “Pretty Vacant”!