Top of the Pops: Background information when reading Utopia Avenue

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Utopia Avenue

by David Mitchell

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell X
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2020, 592 pages

    May 2021, 592 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Top of the Pops

This article relates to Utopia Avenue

Print Review

Top of the Pops LP, 1975 David Mitchell's novel Utopia Avenue centers around a fictional British pop band in the turbulent years of 1967 and 1968. Acts popular in both the United States and Britain included the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Supremes, the Byrds, the Kinks, Aretha Franklin… and the list goes on. Many of these stars (as well as the fictional Utopia Avenue) appeared on a BBC TV show called Top of the Pops.

Top of the Pops was the brainchild of its first producer, Johnnie Stewart, who modeled the show after a program airing on Radio Luxembourg called The Teen and Twenty Disc Club. Premiering on New Year's Day in 1964, the weekly show was televised live from the BBC's studio in Manchester (and later, London). The host (the job rotated between presenters) would count down the week's "Top 20" pop songs, some of which were performed over the course of the show by the recording artists in front of a studio audience. The first show featured the Rolling Stones with "I Wanna Be Your Man," Dusty Springfield with "I Only Want to Be with You" and the Beatles with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," among other acts.

At the time, music studios made a large chunk of their revenue through sales of 45 RPM records. These small disks had just two songs etched into them: An "A Side," which would be the song the record labels hoped would be a big hit, and a "B Side," which would generally be another song from the same album. Artists were under tremendous pressure to crank out new songs. Since selling a 45 depended on generating an audience for a specific tune, it didn't take labels long to figure out that having their acts appear on Top of the Pops could rocket a song up the charts. The show was consequently able to consistently book appearances by some of the most famous bands on the planet.

Stewart had some very specific rules about how the show was structured, one of which was that the best-selling song of the week always ended the show. No song, other than the number one hit, could be highlighted two weeks in a row, and only songs going up the charts were performed (never those headed down). Also showcased was the new song that made the highest debut, as well as the one that rose the most slots during the week (unless it had been featured the previous week).

During much of its history, musicians weren't permitted to actually play or sing during their appearances on Top of the Pops; instead they mimed. In 1966, the Musician's Union banned the practice in an effort to protect employment for musicians. But it quickly became apparent that many musicians weren't all that good at performing their songs live in a small setting. So, a compromise was reached; a studio band would lay down a new track behind the recorded vocals, and some instrumental music was played live by the show's in-house orchestra while the actual artists lip-synced and pretended to play their instruments. Many performers abhorred this arrangement, and the show's history is rife with both missteps (e.g., the recorded version starting when the band was still getting ready to "perform") and deliberate sabotage (exceptionally poor lip-syncing, messing about with the instruments, or — in Rod Stewart's case — kicking around a football instead of miming the performance).

Originally, the studio audience danced to the featured songs, but later on professional dance troupes were enlisted. The Gojos premiered in November 1964, wearing white knee-high boots and miniskirts, but were replaced by the even more skimpily-clad Pan's People in 1968. This six-woman group was immensely popular, and became an iconic part of the show for eight years. Next came co-ed group Ruby Flipper, which only lasted a few months before being ousted in favor of a second group of six women – Legs & Co – followed a few years later by Zoo, another mixed-gender act. In 1983, Top of the Pops reverted to the original concept whereby the audience did most of the dancing, although they employed "cheerleaders" to help with the effort.

Top of the Pops was originally slated for just six episodes, but it ended up being the world's longest-running musical TV show, ending its 42-year run in 2006. It became a significant part of British culture, and at its peak in the 1970s attracted over 15 million viewers each week. It continues on as Top of the Pops 2, a weekly spin-off that first aired in 1994 and features performances from the TOTP archives. Some content potentially offensive to modern sensibilities is cut, and programs featuring disgraced host DJs Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis are no longer aired (Savile was at the center of a massive sex abuse scandal and Travis was convicted of indecent assault).

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Utopia Avenue. It originally ran in July 2020 and has been updated for the May 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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