Top Of The Pops: Mock Rock Going Cheap
I can still picture the tableau vivant; it’s around forty years ago, I’m in Woolworths trying to decide which particular slice of pounding glam rock I’m going to spend my ten bob on, when I spot an album, that not only features a bunch of tracks I like but is (just) within my meagre pre-teen budget. I seize the disc, there’s a chick in a yellow leotard on the cover, but that’s not going to do much for me for a couple of years yet. If I buy this, I can get ‘Hell Raiser’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Can The Can’, plus a bunch of other stuff. I look at the back of the album and a dim bulb comes on somewhere in my young brain. Why is this so cheap? There has to be something fishy. A line of blurb about ‘Britain’s best session musicians playing the best current tunes’ connects with my uncertainty. I have no idea what a ‘session musician’ is, but they make it sound like a good thing. It’s probably the recordings from the Thursday night TV show or something. So I make the leap.
Once I’ve given the album a spin, it occurs to me that some of these songs sound a bit different to how they did on the radio. Still, ‘Hell Raiser’ rocked and whatever the hell ‘Also Sprach Zarasthustra’ is supposed to be, it’s bloody funny. It’s my first album, and it would soon be joined by others of its kind, plus such esoteric titles as Hot Hits. All adorned by – for some reason – girls on the cover. Why don’t they have pictures of the bands like those K-Tel albums?
Of course, I soon wised up to the fact that these were, well … knock offs. That was why the K-Tel/Ronco albums cost more – they had the actual bands and for some reason that’s why they’re more expensive. I became more discerning, graduating to buying whole albums by the same band within a matter of months. Thus, the four or five Top of the Pops albums began to gather dust, nestling at the back of my growing collection until they were conscripted into service as ad hoc clay pigeons when someone obtained an air rifle around the middle of the decade.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one buying these albums – at the peak of their popularity they sold more than 250,000 copies per edition. Produced by Pickwick, who held weekly meetings to decide which rising singles were to be covered for the next album, the tracks were often recorded and mixed in under a week. Such alacrity meant that there wasn’t always time to perfect every nuance of the material covered, ‘There were varying degrees of success,’ explained former Pickwick producer Bruce Baxter. ‘Some were very close to the original – virtually indistinguishable, but some left a bit to be desired. We never had an awfully good Mick Jagger, though a few people had a go.’
Looking back, the Top of the Pops albums were wholly consistent with the disposable nature of a lot of the glam rock and bubblegum pop that populated their grooves. Once punk kicked in the whole concept started to look decidedly creaky. Session man Tony Rivers was a Top of the Pops regular, but by 1977 he found himself faced with the task of reproducing Johnny Rotten’s seditionary sneer for Volume 60 of the series. ‘I was sitting at the control desk, and suddenly I heard a voice,’ he recalls. ‘It was Paul McCartney. He said, “It sounds great – can I have a listen?” He came back in with Chris Thomas, who produced the Sex Pistols. He was in stitches – I did it like Norman Wisdom.’
A further surreal attempt at recreating the Lydon tones on Volume 74, saw ‘Death Disco’ sung very much in the manner of Albert Steptoe, and marvellously ludicrous versions of tracks such as ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Going Underground’, and ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ eroded what tiny crumb of marketability the series maintained, and aside from a half-hearted mid-eighties resurrection that featured Page 3 model Linda Lusardi on the cover, the whole series was consigned to a bygone age of innocence by the end of 1982.
Which is a shame, as like Aztec Bars, Cresta and Smith’s Savoury Pickle crisps, the early 70s Top of the Pops albums and their ilk were a slice of my childhood. Fortunately, in the digital age, nothing remains ‘lost’ for long and there are compilations out there available for anyone interested in sampling the Warholian delights of these reproduction hits.