Wednesday, 4 May 2011

I think er no, I mean er yes...

I have no idea whether anyone reads this blog from outside the UK, but if they do they might be unaware that tomorrow I get my first ever opportunity to vote in a referendum; in fact here in London there are no other elections on the same day so I get to go to the polling station for that reason alone. The subject is whether the voting system should be changed for parliamentary elections, a complex and potentially important question with many potential implications: so it's disappointing to report that the official campaigns on both sides have been so reluctant to even try to explain them.

Readers, especially those overseas, will doubtless be pleased to learn that I have no intention of trying to summarise the issues here, still less of expressing a preference one way or the other, not least because the above failure to get down into the question means that I don't even know myself. If anyone is looking for explanation, the best discussion I've seen of the case for and against was on the newsgroup of a radio soap I no longer listen to. On the one hand, the Yes campaign have gone for celebrity endorsements and the glib and largely unexplained assertion that MPs elected with 51% of the vote or more will "work harder" than those who currently get in on a minority. On the other, the No people sent me an ugly leaflet full of scare figures about the cost of a new voting system (including the cost of the referendum itself, which is of course the same whichever way the result goes) and the reverse of a celebrity endorsement: they have an out-of-focus picture of Nick Clegg and captions saying that he approves of AV because we would have coalition governments. Er, like the one he's Deputy Prime Minister in now.

Actual politicians on both sides seem equally determined to treat us as idiots and refuse to take the arguments seriously. Indeed the Prime Minister seems to have forgotten that referring to the current system as First Past The Post in many of his public pronouncements, including one at the Grand National which encouraged me to write this post in the first place; yes, that's how fast I write. And the media have been only too happy to cast the whole thing in terms of party and personality politics: the policitians have no reason to discourage them either, as they're competing against each other in the other elections. To their credit, Radio 2 did have a discussion about the merits of the idea today: their representatives of the two sides were the satirical comedian Armando Iannucci and Peter Stringfellow. Any hypothetical overseas readers who have got down this far: if you don't know who Peter Stringfellow is, you're probably better off that way.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chris Watches another TotP

Don't worry, I'm not going to do another 1976 one, but here's an equivalent one from another year: 31st March 1994, as helpfully posted by Pop Unlimited 1994. This is evidently an off-air recording, rather than coming from the BBC archive, but it's a full episode so I thought it might make for an interesting comparison. No subtitles this time though.

0:00 - The Bee Gees (an act some might have thought past their peak in 1976) are standing in front of an oversized record in a frame, dressed in the typical rock-veteran uniform of the time: jeans and designer jackets. Robin Gibb says "Hi, we're the Bee Gees, join us in 20 minutes when we perform exclusively on Top Of The Pops." The (off-screen) crowd woop with implausible excitement.

0:05 - Very short title sequence, the version with the three-dimensional sculpture of the title and some people dancing in the background.

0:09 - Bruno Brookes greets us, still standing amid female audience members although this time he's on a stage and they're not so he seems to tower over them. He's wearing an expensive (purple) jacket and jeans too. "And here's Haddaway!"

0:15 - Haddaway 'Rock My Heart' (11) - Thanks to technological advances, a caption appears a few seconds into the track to illustrate the title, artist, chart position (where applicable) and a factoid: "1 MILLION ALBUMS SOLD IN EUROPE".
As a mid-90s Europop artist, Haddaway is of course wearing a baggy white suit with no shirt under it. He seems to be singing live too, although the woman next to him is probably miming the backing vocal (the three female dancers behind them obviously are, they don't have microphones). The singing's actually pretty good, and he also takes the opportunity to gee up the crowd, although they don't obviously need encouragement: as was the standard at the time, they're very loud in the mix so you can enjoy them cheering and clapping along.
3:00 - Yes, she's definitely miming, you couldn't do those electronic effects live I don't think.

3:26 - The camera seems to get bored of the Haddaway song (understandably) and pans 180 degrees to Bruno while they're still singing. He promises "Bruce Springsteen live in the USA, a Eurovision exclusive and a big surprise from the Bee Gees" as the next band start playing.

3:30 - James 'Say Something' (24) - Confusingly, the caption lists 'Jam J/Say Something' but they're performing the more radio-friendly side of the single tonight. It also tells us they have a "GOLD SELLING ALBUM". Tim Booth still has the curly hair that makes him look a bit like the Michael Stipe of ten years earlier. The violinist is sitting on the drum riser and doesn't stand up until the chorus arrives and he has to start playing - although he doesn't seem to be miked up which suggests the music's mimed. Booth may be singing live: he seems a bit self-conscious and rooted to the spot.
I remembered this song as being a bit ho-hum, and it still seems to be. But at least it makes a change to hear one that isn't 'Sit Down'.

6:31 - Back to Bruno and some male audience members have found their way into shot, although they are behind him.

6:39 - Madonna 'I'll Remember' (10) - Her 32nd TOP 10 HIT, and perhaps her least accurately titled. Nobody does seem to remember this ballad, and I for one don't remember the film With Honors that it apparently came from. The clips of it in this video don't look familiar either.
7:36 - The chart rundown begins in captions over the video, rather more thorough than the 1976 version with the song titles and symbols to indicate direction of progress. We get 40-11 at this point, and then Madonna is allowed to warble on a bit longer before a very of-its-time computer graphic scrunches her up and throws her at Bruno and his surrounding girls - anyone suspected of having a Y-chromosome is kept out of sight again.

9:32 - "I'm just getting a message in my ear that the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure are going to be on next week's show live. Meanwhile Culture Beat."
Call me a cynic, but I believe that as much as I believe that they were still compiling the chart as he started to read it out on Sundays. 

9:37 - Culture Beat 'World In Your Hands' (20) - They have a GOLD SELLING ALBUM too.
Somebody's had a brainwave and put a big spinning globe at the back of the stage, and surrounded it with a space backdrop. Unfortunately, the two dancers right at the back of stage are wearing black and thus almost invisible.
The song is a bit too slow for clapping and stomping (in fact, it seems to be about somebody threatening to commit suicide) so the crowd don't seem to know what to do except wave their arms around in a manner even I can tell has no connection to any recogniseable rhythm.

12:39 - Frances Ruffelle 'Lonely Symphony' - This actually starts while the camera is still on Culture Beat, and as we pan across the studio, an offscreen Bruno tells us that she used to be a cheerleader for Top Of The Pops (eh?), and as the caption then explains this is a EUROVISION EXCLUSIVE. As most people now know she's the mother of current pop sensation Eliza Doolittle and the resemblance is obvious. She doesn't sing in a mockney accent though.
14:09 - "Sometimes it makes me feel naked like a tree in Autumn." Er, OK. It's not a bad song, really, as these things go.
15:13 - Ruffelle turns her back to the audience and gyrates during the instrumental break. She lifts her dress to reveal Union Jack bloomers but intentionally or otherwise this part is only seen in longshot.
15:33 - We cut (nervously?) to the string section. The cellist looks a bit like Blythe Duff from Taggart. Ten seconds later the singer's safely back in front of the microphone and we're allowed to see her again.
15:53 - A side-on shot which entails pointing the camera directly at somebody who doesn't look like she's enjoying it at all (in fairness she may be a producer or floor manager rather than a member of the public). Anyway, we pan around and zoom out... and then suddenly cut to another camera that can rotate to where Bruno's standing, so we can go "Over to the US now, live by satellite."

16:12 - Bruce Springsteen 'Streets Of Philadelphia' (2) - We cut to black-and-white for his BIGGEST EVER HIT, performed in a room full of streetlights. A full-screen caption at 16:29 reminds us that this is:
I'm pretty sure Bruce is singing this live - it's certainly not the record though I suppose there's a tiny possibility that it's a specially-recorded track to mime to. He probably wouldn't do that though. It's a good version of one of his best songs but four people wearing black and standing still in a darkened room isn't exactly televisual. Interesting to see a live drummer playing what I always thought was a loop on the record though.
18:01 - We lapse into colour half-way through the middle eight...
18:13 - ...And back to monochrome again.

19:01 - Inappropriately jolly applause and when we cut back the studio it looks so overcoloured it hurts your eyes. Bruno tells us that the only other performance was at the Oscars. And now "New Wave Of New Wave hits The Pops."

19:08 - S*M*A*S*H 'Shame' - Not a chart single but celebrating a TOP 30 ALBUM CHART ENTRY, and one of the more unlikely acts to appear. Actually, Elastica had been on already but they seem to have been retrospectively claimed as a Britpop band, so we can claim this as NWONW's big moment. 
I'd never heard this before but the vocals aren't really good enough to be mimed. 
20:21 - "Your girlfriend was a bitch but you missed her" Were you allowed to say that on TotP?
20:26 - Cut to the fans in the audience headbanging.
21:06 - Bassist pulls a face into the camera during his close-up. Of course he does. 
21:31 - Bassist now appears to be swatting a fly with his instrument, thus proving that the backing track's mimed.
21:33 - "Shame on me, shame on you, shame on this government!" they squeeze in as the track ends and they're about to be cut off. Little bit of politics there. 

21:35 - "Great, just great." Bruno is now standing in front of the giant record: "With me are three members of the Bee Gees, Barry, Maurice and Robin." How many did he think there were?
"Celebrating 30 years in the business and 100 million records sales, please allow me to present to you on behalf of Top Of The Pops this megadisc from the land of the giants."
Considering they were posing in front of it 20 minutes ago, I don't think it can be that big a surprise to them. Bruno then hands the mic to Maurice who thanks the fans and Polydor while he looks impatient to get it back. When he does get it back, Barry is already walking out of shot, but it's OK because he's on his way to do:

22:03 - The Bee Gees 'How To Fall In Love Part 1' - Another massive EXCLUSIVE tag here, although it had been available on the album for months already. Three decades in the business or no, Robin Gibb doesn't seem to know what to do with himself during Barry's vocal; at least Maurice has a keyboard to keep him busy. 
23:36 - The saxophonist who kept getting caught in the longshots with nothing to do gets his moment. It's quite a long solo. 
25:08 - The song fades, which is the most interesting thing that's happened during it. Fun fact: there was never a part 2. 

25:12 - The Top 10. Artists and titles read out by Bruno with the videos playing silently in a corner of the screen. 

25:54 - Doop 'Doop' (1) - Third week at the top so this is obviously a performance from a previous show. 
A troupe of female dancers do the Charleston centre stage while we occasionally cut to two people pretending to play keyboards at the side. 
26:20 - Rolling caption: Top of the Pops predicts Top 40 entries on Sunday for Take That, Paul Weller, Prince, Little Angels, Des'Ree, Bitty McLean... And when they say "predicts" they mean "read the midweek figures from the chart compilers", which in those days weren't as easily available to the general public as they now are. Unsurprisingly, they're not wrong, although they seem to have missed out Tony Di Bart who enters higher than several of their tips - not least Des'ree who initially only just makes the Top 40 with a song that takes two re-releases to make the Top 10. 
27:40 - The vocals come in. I know all the words you know. 
28:17 - Bruno, right in the middle of the crowd, warns us that Meat Loaf will be presenting in two weeks's time, next week it's Andi Peters. Then he advises us to check out Sound City from Glasgow on 1FM and wraps up "Thanks for watching, you were fab, goodbye!".

28:29 - End credits, run over a montage of slowed-down-footage from the performances, however jarringly out of place they might look. Set to 'How Gee' by Black Machine, another of the next week's new entries. 

If we've learnt anything here, it's that this was a bit closer to the 1976 episodes than I expected. Also that it takes me a long time to write these posts. 

Meanwhile, anyone curious about the 1976 episodes is directed to Simon T's new blog Yes It's Number One, where he's looking at every show. And he's a proper writer and stuff. 

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Chris watches an old Top Of The Pops so you don't have to

As people with televisions may already have heard, the BBC have begun re-running old episodes of Top Of The Pops, starting at the not-exactly-vintage point of April 1976: apparently this is because this is as far back as they have a complete archive, so if you were hoping for classic shows from the Sixties, you're out of luck.

Meanwhile, those of us in the UK can watch it on iPlayer until Monday the 11th. Be warned that the show contains Tony Blackburn from the very start. To save you the trouble I thought I'd try to up my blogging output again by watching it for you in a sort of 35-year-old-liveblog.

00:00 - Tony Blackburn welcomes us. He's filmed from below and looks very smug.

00:03 - The top 30 countdown, which viewers in the 70s will recall is done by photos and names of the acts in the chart, but no song titles (which is awkward when, as here, the same act have three singles in the chart). Also, John Miles appears to be four people and Hank Mizell is a gorilla.
You can see the full chart here if it's not too much of a spoiler for you.

00:45 - Sailor 'Girls Girls Girls' (21) Less than a minute in, we already know what the Number One is and we launch into the first performance (unannounced as the budget didn't run to on-screen captioning of song titles back then). Two of them are actually dressed as sailors, the others have got the usual central casting outfits of quirky Seventies pop groups, street urchin and colonial playboy.
The song is lyrically apt for the name I suppose, a song about women from various parts of the world. "Moonlit oceans, girls full of emotions/ Stepping on that slowboat to China/ Next door in Japan they know how to please a man/ Dropping for tea with my Geisha". They don't write 'em like that any more, at least I hope not. The less said about "that certain moment when you draw back ze curtain" the better.

03:39 - Of course Tony Blackburn does the "Hullo Sailor" joke. "Little bit later on, incidentally, we're going to be seeing the fabulous Beatles!" Spoiler: they won't be there in person.
Then he introduces "a lady who's touring round the country with a most sensational show at the moment."

03:51 - Diana Ross 'Theme From Mahogany' (25) She's not there in person, we just get a filmed sequence of Ms Ross being taken on a bus tour around Rome. I presume the idea was suggested by the lyric "Do you know where you're going to?" and I suppose she would have been touring the rest of Europe.
Not a bad song, to be fair, but it's cut off after about 90 seconds.

05:21 - "Here's Tarney & Spencer and it's their very first record. See what you think of it - I think it's going to be a smash hit for them.
Tarney & Spencer 'I'm Your Man Rock N Roll'. As you might have noticed, it wasn't and indeed they never charted at all in the UK. I'd certainly never heard of them as a duo, although I correctly guessed that the former was Alan Tarney, then a member of The Shadows and also a successful producer and songwriter. Among other things, he wrote 'We Don't Talk Anymore', making him the second person on this episode to write a hit single for Cliff Richard after Georg Kajanus of Sailor. I don't think Diana Ross ever wrote one though.
The largely female audience don't seem to know it either. It's not awful but it's one of those songs about how great music is that always seem to appeal more to DJs than listeners. It's also a very obvious studio confection, with considerably more instrumentation than the two men on stage could possibly be producing. As Blackburn notes afterwards, Tarney plays all the instruments except the drums "and you can probably guess who plays those".

08:25 - It looks like Tony Blackburn is being consumed by the fires of hell, but he's actually just being crossfaded (or dissolved as I think the correct term is) into the video for the next track.

08:26 - ABBA 'Fernando' (14) Blackburn crashes the vocal while telling us it's the highest new entry; that's true in Top 40 terms although it had entered at 44 the previous week.
This is the familiar promo video we've all seen loads of times, so not a lot more to be said.

10:22 - Laurence Andrew 'I'll Never Love Anyone Any More' - First time on television, informs an off-screen Blackburn. And possibly the last too, as this is our second unknown act. It took me a good few minutes of Googling even to establish the spelling of his name - and I found out that the actual credit on the record was to Laurie Andrew & Zero. The backing group live up to their name here though: I can't tell whether they're the same Zero who did the theme tune to the medical soap Angels, but I did discover that this track was played on Radio Stoke in 2007.

13:22 - "Hank Mizell - we'd love to have him on the show... trouble is nobody can find him. But we have got Pan's People, who are deep in the heart of the jungle".

13:27 - Hank Mizell 'Jungle Rock' (18). A record that was already almost 20 years old by now - it seems a feature of the charts at this time that they were very backward-looking, stuffed with oldies and cover versions. Here the sound of the fifties is matched with the vision of the Seventies: in-house dance troupe Pan's People will need little introduction to most who would be interested in this post, though this would be one of their last appearances on the show. For those too young or not British for this to have been part of their cultural memory, it was considered perfectly normal in those days for a load of female dancers in often revealing costumes to represent charting acts who were unable to appear in person. Here they start out in safari costumes like the cover of an old easy listening LP and carrying blunderbusses.

14:29 - "I saw a chimp and a monkey yeah-ah doing the Suzie Q" - Cut to two dancers in simian costumes dancing what might indeed be the Suzie Q for all I know. These routines were known for their literalist choreography
14:33 - "A gator and a hippo was a-doing the bop" - these non-primate costumes are less suited to bipedal dancers. Especially the alligator, which consists of a head and a green jumpsuit.
14:38 - "While a great big frog was making me hop"  - I guess the BBC Costume Department was all out of frogs, because we cut back to the safari suits at this point.
15:15 - "The fox grabbed the rabbit and they did the bunny hug" - because these are exactly the animals you'd associate with the jungle. Possibly the worst costumes yet, not least because the rabbit is slightly taller than the fox.
15:22 - A lyric subtitled as "All the fish stepped by, cutting a rug" although the choreographer seems to have heard it as a grizzly bear and for once I agree with her. Not that a stepping fish wouldn't be interesting to see.
15:27 - "Well a camel was jitterbugging with a kangaroo" although these costumes seemingly aren't well enough stitched together to allow much actual movement. At least they do look like the right animals though.
15:30 - "And the elephant moved with a ring-dang-doo". You can probably guess this bit.
Incidentally, this is one of two tracks from this show I own a copy of, on the recent compilation album Before The Fall. As well as commenting on the remarkable biodiversity of this jungle, the notes claim that somebody did eventually find Mizell and get him onto a subsequent episode.

16:10 - "They borrowed the trousers from David Hamilton, incidentally, who has thousands of pairs like that." The female members of the audience clustered around Blackburn react to this witticism with understandable bemusement. 

16:20 - John Miles 'Music' (4) - Only the second example in this episode of what most would consider TotP's stock in trade, ie somebody actually miming their current hit in the studio. Pity I've always hated this song. 
16:40 - "Music of the future and music of the past". I used to wonder why he didn't seem so enthusiastic about music of the present, but having seen the preceding sixteen minutes I'm starting to understand. Miles is at the piano doing his serious face.
17:05 - ...But he also has a guitar around his neck on which he now pretends to play the solo. 
19:18 - The bass-player (wearing a cravat over an open shirt) smirks during his close-up. Miles is still doing the wow-I'm-really-expressing-myself bit.
20:25 - The song finally ends. It has even fewer lyrics than I remembered but boy do they make a meal of it. 

20:30 - Fox 'S-s-s-ingle Bed' A new release that very week, although unlike some tracks on this show it did ultimately become a hit, peaking at 4, and they had had hits before. I only know it from former repeats of this performance though.
Noosha Fox seems to be wearing a French waitress outfit and a pair of net curtains, and in close-ups faintly resembles Jennifer Saunders dressed up as Marie Du Santiago. The bassist looks positively disgusted when he lip-synchs the title phrase, although I presume he's acting. The guitarist upstages him with one of those talkbox things that were all the rage back then. The song itself is of course utter filth. 

24:12 - "The Beatles have got three in the charts at the moment. I tell you what we're gonna do, we're gonna hear the one that's at Number 22. We're gonna go back to 1966 for this one called..."

24:20 - The Beatles 'Hey Jude' (22) - This is, of course, from 1968. It's the original promo video which was shot in colour, but appears here in monochrome (and terrible sound quality) because it must have been copied from a 1968 episode of TotP. Paul McCartney sang a live lead vocal (though everything else, including his double-track, is mimed) making him the only person on this episode to do so. 

26:51 - Another sudden fade, before the "Nah-Nah-Nah" bit has even started. "There you go, one of their last live performances back in 1966." Well, apart from the fact that it's not really a live performance and it's not from 1966, you're pretty much on the money there Tony. 

27:02 - Blackburn fluffs the intro to the Number One single.

27:04 - Brotherhood Of Man 'Save Your Kisses For Me' (1) - Already its second week at the top, so it looks like a repeated performance from an earlier show. The best I can say for it is that it's not the worst Brotherhood Of Man record I've ever heard. 

29:18 - Blackburn mercifully cuts them off before they get to the punchline and hopes they'll win Eurovision the following Saturday. 

29:27 - End credits, set to 'Hello Happiness' by the Drifters, probably the second or third best song in the whole programme.

So, there we are then. I wasn't surprised not to be impressed by the show, but I was surprised about just how bad it was. I was surprised to see as many as three songs on there that weren't proven hits. People who eulogise Top Of The Pops in this era are clearly talking out of their hats, but I do applaud the Beeb for pulling them out of the vaults. Let's hope they're still doing it when we get to more musically satisfying times.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Some things I've learnt in the last gosh knows how long

Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo used to work in Fenwick's at Brent Cross.

I wasn't the only one who used to get Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins mixed up.

There was an Andy Capp video game.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Information About Andrew Marr

I think I'm permitted to report that he presented a TV show last night (Friday 25th) about some of the subjects covered by the Census. I mention this because my mother also appears in this programme, and so do some ducks.

If you happen to read this post before the 1st of April 2011, you can watch the programme on iPlayer.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

What I've learnt (comeback edition)

I gave these a bit of a break over the holiday season, but now we're back.

The late JB Priestley was a big fan of Monty Python, and was annoyed when the BBC didn't show it in the Midlands region.

There are a lot of duplicated Latin names for plants.

The technical name for a a hare's dropping is caecotroph.

New Zealand television shows the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.

According to official figures, more cassette singles were sold in 2010 than in 2009.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

England F (second half)

No, I didn't think I'd be posting about sport so much either, but a few documents have appeared online which shed a little more light on where the money might have gone on the World Cup bid.

Of course in some respects it's a bit irrelevant. We all know politicians cite the financial studies that make these big events look profitable but they do it because they want to be the man (or woman) who brought the games to the city or the country. Even though the mayor who brought the Olympics to London was unseated at the next opportunity they never seem to learn. Still, I've got to admit that I sort of like the fact that our present mayor has withdrawn the free hotel stay he'd offered to FIFA during the Olympics. Only sort of though because I'm not sure it was worth giving them in the first place.