TOTP made me a star
As Top of the Pops airs for the last time tonight, former guest and fan Louise Wener remembers
Sunday July 30, 2006
TOTP was the dream. I grew up on it. Every Thursday evening throughout its heyday, I'd capture the best bits by holding my tape recorder up to our television speaker until my arm ached. Between shows, I'd wear out the tapes I'd made, reliving every detail of my favourite performances. Bowie doing 'Ashes to Ashes'. Blondie oozing her way through 'Heart of Glass'. Bob Geldof spitting out 'I Don't Like Mondays' and, um, David Essex singing 'Gonna Make You a Star'. In a childhood landscape of power cuts, Mr Whippy ice cream and Morecambe and Wise, Top of the Pops was a piece of magic, a portal to an exotic and fabulous world.
But the day was also anticlimactic. The set was smaller than we'd imagined, the dressing rooms were shabbier and the after-show bar had all the atmosphere and cool of a suburban pub. The make-up ladies were old-school, piling on the pancake and glittery blusher as if we were the offspring of Pan's People and T Rex. This became the essence of Top of the Pops for me; a surreal mix of the glamorous and the mundane. Over there was Kylie in rollers. Behind her, Barry White munched a bacon sandwich. In the corridor, Celine Dion practised vocal exercises while assorted members of Take That bounced around like overexcited puppies. In the lavatories, the new guitar kids on the block dusted their noses with cocaine, emerging with the residue glinting on their leather jackets like expensive dandruff.
In the mid-Nineties, the show was still powerful. The Britpop era was perhaps the last time when an appearance on Top of the Pops could be career-defining. Getting on to promote your single was the difference between sink or swim. The gloss wore down as the pressure ramped up and, like so much about the music industry, innocence was fast replaced with cynicism.
By now, bands were expected to perform live but the broadcast sound was notoriously ropy, and press officers would encourage their charges to mime if they got half a chance. Your best bet was to claim a sore throat, but you couldn't do it too often. It was a bit like playing your joker.
My love affair with TOTP faded after Sleeper split. I lost track of it. Tuned out from it. Switched allegiance, like millions of others. In truth, I haven't watched it in years, nor had I realised that the day it comes off air is the very same day I turn 40. It feels sweetly resonant. My youth, my musical history, is indelibly linked to Top of the Pops. There was a time when the show meant everything to me. As pale as its glamour became, as dilute its relevance, today I'll raise a glass to Jimmy Savile and mourn its passing.