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  • Tony Harris

POP'S FINEST HOUR


Actually it's around fifty eight minutes but there's no need to quibble...


One of the joys of Christmas, in the UK at least, was the arrival in the house (and it was the only time of the year it happened in our home) of the Christmas editions of the Radio Times and TV Times which meant the whole family could excitedly map out their next fortnight of viewing across the then barely four channels and timetable turkey sandwiches and mince pies around it.


Back then there were special editions of your favourite comedy shows, some all-star variety for your more elderly relatives and of course, the big blockbuster films, which in those days were inevitably around five years old before they ended up on terrestrial TV and so were a cause of some excitement in a world before Netflix, Prime and even dare I say, Blockbuster Video.


For me of course, the highlight was the Christmas and New Year editions of "Top Of The Pops" which were essentially a compendium of the best hits of the year and like the charts themselves were an indiscriminate snapshot of the most successful releases of the year, with a nudge towards a more multi-generational appeal so novelty records would rub shoulders with the big stars of the day and some hardy old perennials like Cliff or Shaky or Status Quo to keep everyone happy on the festive couch.


Some of the best mid-period footage of the Beatles from around 1965 comes from their appearances on the show's Christmas specials.


This would of course, be tied together by the mainly un-hip Radio One DJs introducing the acts and various video compilations of big hits featuring stars who couldn't make it to the studio (normally from the US) and then spread it over two episodes. This was because up until the 90s, the Christmas number one would be announced just before Christmas and then held the spot for a two week period until after New Year when a new chart was released so two compilation shows would be put together by the BBC. Often, they would shoot both festive specials on the back of the final regular weekly show, which would showcase the Christmas number one.


And regardless of the mixed bag of musical content (complaining about it was half the fun after all) it was my favourite piece of Christmas viewing despite the unyielding predictability of its presentation.


Apart from Christmas Day 1984, that is, which may just be - as the grandiose title of this piece says - "Pop's Finest Hour". One that certainly proved to be a real turning point.


To understand this bold claim, I'm afraid I'm going to have to burden you with a little bit of a pop history lesson because it will take a reminder of the context for all of the themes behind my assertion to come together. So apologies in advance.


When MTV had launched in 1981 as a 24 hour channel devoted to pop music , it quickly ran into trouble through a real lack of decent content which necessitated frequent repetition and accordingly poor viewership. However, the burgeoning video promo buzz from the UK provided a whole new - and as then untapped - treasure trove of spiky-haired, eyeliner-ed clothes horses presenting quality content with high production values that seemed to highlight a very different kind of musical genre.


Even Michael Jackson's video breakthrough "Billie Jean" would use the directorial skills of a UK promo director, Steve Barron.


And so began the second British Invasion of technicolour photogenic artists that the US would term New Wave because they were so obviously different from their Transatlantic counterparts who tended to lean towards AOR and Yacht Rock. Christopher Cross might have been a great singer but he was not going to end up on a poster on anybody's wall.


Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet called 1983 "the start of the 80s" and by then, this influx of British artists went into overdrive with virtually any record with an interesting pop promo hitting the American charts. It would take a good three of four years for the US to catch up because even the hoary old rockers such as Peter Gabriel and David Bowie had picked up the video mantle much quicker.


America took all of these bands to their hearts and so in 1984, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Wham (The Big 4) and a host of others had set off on global jaunts and were left to their original fans mainly as live-feed catch-ups or their promos. They had rather disappeared off the radar of appearing on TV for the audience that had helped to build them.


It is easy to under-estimate the scale of this popularity as Duran-demonium and other such phenomena swept the world's youth; each territory succumbing to the day-glo tidal wave from the pride of British Pop.


British bands like A Flock Of Seagulls had broken through in the US a year before gaining any traction in the UK thanks to their off-beat look and sound whilst bands like The Fixx and Modern English achieved the kind of success there, that they never gained a whiff of in their homeland.


Of course, in the UK, the followings were much more tribal and there was no wholesale adoption of all things UK popping their totality because the different fans of each did not necessarily cross over. Not least because it mimicked the rivalry that existed between the artists themselves.


Pop was never more vibrant and in 1984 there were more records sold than any year previously.


Now, full disclosure, there were some astonishingly successful but largely awful records to sell bucketloads such as the twee three of "Hello", "I Just Called To Say I Love You" and "Pipes Of Peace" but they are ironically important to this story simply because they do not feature at all.


While so many of 1983's big names were on the road, they still released successful and popular singles and none more so than George Michael and Wham! who were the latest to follow a similar path of global domination only 12 months behind their predecessors. This, of course would include their much-heralded trip to China in the following year.


But the gap was filled by another slew of home-grown successes, especially, the initially controversial emergence of Frankie Goes To Hollywood who had achieved the incredible feat of achieving the number one spot with their first three singles in the same calendar year (only Gerry and The Pacemakers, also from Liverpool had ever achieved that before).


And then, of course, there was Band Aid.


This musical aggregation had come together to create "Do They Know It's Christmas" and so put pop music squarely on the front pages of the world's media throughout December. We all avidly learned the long-established machinations of record distribution and government taxation levies, all of which the chief instigator, Bob Geldof sought to drive a bulldozer through via his contact with the press every days; and of course, let's not forget his mighty argument with Margaret Thatcher about VAT.


But more of all of this later.


So come Christmas Day, pop music had never felt more important and as if to recognise the fact, for the one and only time that I can remember, the show was basically handed over to all of the important artists. There were no simpering DJs handling introductions and continuity. It might have felt a little stilted but it eradicated the need for any mood-breaking video promo reviews or dreadful novelty hits.


With one notable exception, everyone appeared in the studio. Like the rest of the nation, pop came home for Christmas.


Despite the launch of Channel 4's exceptional but challenging "The Tube", "Top Of The Pops" was receiving around 15million viewers a week in the UK in 1984. It had the power to break artists with one well-choreographed and well-dressed appearance and its regular appearance in Britain's living rooms could be just the final push a single needed to reach the top spot. For example, the show had only recently hosted an unforgettable second appearance from (the then just-breaking) Madonna, when she had owned the show armed with just a pink wig and a racy (and ironic) new song called "Like A Virgin" a good month before its emergence stateside.



With its strict rules about only records in the charts appearing, the BBC had even reworked their schedule and given over five minutes of airtime prior to the an edition earlier in December to preview the Band Aid promo, introduced (and therefore entirely legitimised) by David Bowie. The Beeb seemed to know something important was happening in this normally more lightweight of its divisions.


The show opened powerfully with "Two Tribes" by Frankie, which had been number one for 9 weeks in the summer. They were allowed to perform all three of their #1 hits including "Relax" which had been rather ludicrously banned by the BBC earlier in the year for its alleged lewdness. Were the Corporation publicly making amends?


Instead of the DJ presenters each of the artists would introduce the next act in a huge break from tradition and so on we went with Duran Duran, back from their overseas trips and they were allowed to perform their spring #1 "The Reflex" and the unstoppable "Wild Boys".


Soon enough, there's an appearance from probably the biggest celebrity of the time, Boy George with Culture Club and their decidedly lame but current "The War Song". This was really the last knockings of the band as the relentless touring schedule and tensions within the group had significantly diminished their creative flow as the returned copies of "Waking Up With The House On Fire" would surely testify. However, at the time, they hadn't really been seen in their homeland, having trekked right across the world to ever-increasing crowds for the previous year, so their appearance was big news. George had flown back on Concorde to record his part for Band Aid.


In between, appeared three of the solo successes of the year Howard Jones (singling boldly live and without his mime), Nik Kershaw and Paul Young (who sang the opening line of the Band Aid song of course) and though they might be considered footnotes in pop history now with productions that very much sound frozen in time. The first two had produced mega-selling albums during the year, taking advantage of the latest trends in technology that allowed them to be genuine one-man bands. This of course, was a real boon to the TOTP production crew with such limited space in their studio.


Paul Young's "No Parlez" from the year before was still shifting units over a year later and so he performed his #2 hit "Love Of The Common People". He had endured a miserable year where he had to halt his then all-advancing chart career after a throat scare which necessitated an operation and rest.


Their albums of course, are now very much cornerstones of Bootsale Bingo, which is, I feel, an unfairly brutal reflection of the impact all of these albums had. That said, I defy anyone to not produce a beaming smile when they hear "What Is Love" or "Wouldn't It Be Good" should a non consumer-group focused radio show choose to go rogue and play them. They may have dated production but great songs they remain.


There was of course one outlier which smacked more of "one for the grannies" with Jim Diamond's "I Should Have Known Better" which had popped up out of nowhere with its infectious "I-I-I-I-I..." hook to reach number one only a couple of weeks before. It seems strangely out of sync with the rest of the colourful proceedings but number one it had been and there he was.


Meanwhile at the forefront of these colourful proceedings were a band I had really liked at the time, the Thompson Twins who had had an incredible year with their "Into The Gap" album going double platinum and five singles in the charts during 1984. Often forgotten is that their final single of the year, the excellent "Lay Your Hands On Me" also donated (as did "Last Christmas") all of its proceeds to the Band Aid foundation too.


Such was their success that the band were allowed two slots as well with the less impressive "You Take Me Up" and the eminently more atmospheric if very simple "Doctor Doctor". Again, largely unheard nowadays, they were the cool edge of pop having come from a rather underground background. They were scheduled to headline Glastonbury in 1985 and would perform with Madonna at Live Aid such was their draw.


Don't be surprised if i dig out "Into The Gap" for a vinyl voyage in coming editions - after all, I clearly wasn't the only one to buy it.


As an aside, I often think that - a little like the show giving Frankie three slots because they felt guilty at banning them earlier in the year - they granted an extra spot to the Thompson Twins because during a BBC technicians strike in the previous summer the show had been cancelled for a couple of weeks thus depriving them (and Depeche Mode I should add) of likely appearances that would have more than likely propelled them to the #1 spot - something both bands have never sadly managed to achieve.


The one notable exception and the only promos were those of George Michael and Wham. 1984 had been their breakthrough year with three number ones (including the solo "Careless Whisper") and they would be closing the year with what we now know as the best-selling record never to reach number one "Last Christmas" - though often forgotten is that it was a Double A side with probably Wham's finest ever record "Everything She Wants" which they would perform on the show in January in a late but vain attempt to get finally to number one, as the Band Aid juggernaut outlived its festive relevance well into the New Year.



The line was that George was unable to come to the studio for health reasons and certainly they were in the middle of promoting their sophomore "Make It Big" album with their Big Tour of the UK which had gigs even on Christmas Eve. However, Andrew Ridgeley's charming memoir about his time in Wham talks about George's sense of disappointment that his single couldn't reach number one. He was of course active on Band Aid so I doubt this would have piqued him enough to withdraw. However, he had taken something of verbal lashing from Paul Weller (then of the staunchly right-on Style Council) for selling out with his glamorous "Club Tropicana" high-life image. Wham! had of course been the original DHSS boys and had (often forgotten) played several Miners' Benefits - albeit mimed, for which they also were berated. Apparently, Andrew felt that George was not in any mood for another confrontation. We know what a sensitive soul he was and such a conflagration of egos was not something he would have enjoyed.


At the recording of the single, Boy George had also been notoriously bitchy about him.


To close the show, therefore, we are lucky enough to see the only other footage of Band Aid (aside from the promo video and the Live Aid version) which is basically an ensemble of everyone in the Top Of The Pops studio for all of the shows' various recordings joining together to mime the momentous Christmas #1 "Do They Know It's Christmas".


And nearly everyone is there.


We see the finally returned Spandau Ballet back from their "Parade" tour (and tax exile), Midge Ure and Ultravox, Bananarama and Bronski Beat - all of whom were not deemed gigantic enough for the Christmas show and so were (perhaps unfairly) relegated to the more traditional pre-New Year show rammed in with Shaky and "Agadoo", complete with Lenny Henry's "hilarious" characters hosting.



Geldof is there of course and a whole host of others who appeared on the actual record but were not performing on either of the shows such as John Taylor's then girlfriend, the glamorous Jody Watley from Shalamar, Heaven 17 and Status Quo who had clearly only come for the party afterwards. Even Sting pops along.


The BBC had obviously gone to immense trouble to try to recreate the record as best they could - hence the inclusion of Paul Young and Tony Hadley for instance. They tried to faithfully match the vocal with the attending though clearly refreshed members of the ensemble and would cut away when there was a vocal non-attendee so we would catch a glimpse of Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford waltzing for the cameras for example. What an after-party it was doubtless going to be.


Of course, one of the key moments of the record is the line "Thank God it's them instead of you" originally sung by Bono but it would be a difficult moment to cut away from and so the equally po-faced Paul Weller mimes as Bono's stand-in. I am really still unsure whether this was intended to be an ironic, waggish or an insulting gesture.


Top Of The Pops seemed the perfect venue to celebrate what had really been an unbelievable achievement. Rivalries were ditched and something truly meaningful was taking place.


Pop came home and had never shimmered so much.


And never would again.


Band Aid changed the face of celebrity forever. It was important once again (and still is) to demonstrably assert fame with a sense of compassion. Brand values if you will. Inspired by Band Aid's impact, Sting, Bono and Springsteen - to name three of the most prominent - would all incorporate social, political and environmental issues much more closely into their public personae. As the next 6 months unfolded towards Live Aid, you felt this move as the legends of rock all seemed to take up the mission and would continue to do so - certainly in the most high-profile way since Lennon and Harrison's activities at the cusp of the 60s and t 70s.


I flinch from using the "bandwagon jumping" phrase because there is no doubt that the spotlight they have used their fame and music to create on various causes has been incredibly important so it would be wrong to belittle it.


But what we witness now, did all kick-off here.


However, all of this festive camaraderie also marked a real pivot in pop. Live Aid would be dominated in our collective memories by the traditional rock old guard such as Bowie and Queen (though you don't want to start me on that last one).


Culture Club, as I said earlier, were in creative decline as were Spandau Ballet - both would only trouble the Top 10 once more during the 80s. Duran Duran would splinter into Arcadia and the Power Station and never quite cement the schism to such powerful effect again. Wham were already working towards George's solo career. Messrs Kershaw, Jones and Young would see their careers never reach such heights again by the close of 1985. Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins collapsed with a serious illness and so delayed their opportunity to build on their growing success. They would release a very 1984 album eventually in the latter half of the year. Unfortunately that year was 1985 and the audience had already moved on quickly. Pop success in 1985 was a little edgier and darker with bands like Tears For Fears and the Eurythmics (neither part of the Band/Live Aid) experience coming to the fore.


One of my favourite books on this subject is called "Like Punk Never Happened" written by Dave Rimmer and published in the late 80s. He believes that this dramatic curtailing of this era's pop groups can pinpoint Band Aid and its collaborative nature at the root of its demise. What had once been very clearly divided, now merged into one. Simon Le Bon and Boy George had traditionally hated each other and yet there they were burying the hatchet for the cameras. The Montreux Rock and Pop Festival - a trans-continental super TOTP (that became a mid 80s Bank Holiday staple) assemled every year for the cameras - turned into a pop-star's drinking club as Messrs Young & Hadley to name but two, would pal up for a night's boozing.


How could the weekly Smash Hits devotee follow the trends and pick who was in and who was out if their idols were no longer prepared to conspicuously plough their own furrow and deliberately (and often publicly) put clear space between themselves and their chart rivals. I remember one debate within the pages of the pop press about whether Andy Taylor of Duran Duran had slicked his hair back with Brylcreem before Paul Weller or had just copied being a very live debate for some readers.


It seems strange to think it would be confusing but all boundaries were now blurred and this episode chose to highlight that more than ever.


What made the show so special, also made it so strange.


I think this theory has merit but like many pop phenomena they are cyclical and the audiences grew up and naturally moved on. Rimmer's theory does perhaps explain the speed of the change but equally, the lack of preparedness for some of these artists to be ready for the global adoration they were so swiftly thrown into the midst of, must have taken its toll. The demand for more and more releases while in the middle of such schedules can only have brought a lessening of genuine creativity at the expense of speed.


No wonder it was the more established war horses who rose into the mid 80s vacuum as they had something of a second (third or fourth) career wind.


But never forget it was the seemingly inconsequential spiky-haired, eyelined clothes-horses who started all of this and we should always celebrate Band Aid's incredible achievement in lassoing tribal egos together to show that celebrity really could change the world for the better.


What is just as important is that all of these bands remembered that to appear on "Top Of The Pops" had always been their single-minded obsession. It was the signal that they had made it and their return symbolised even then, at the height of their fame. how important it had been in their rise to success. They may have been dubbed the new pop aristocracy (and indeed they may have been on the cusp of a subsequent reign of terror) but they never forgot where they needed to be and created an iconic but familiar show's most legendary episode .


It's like the G20 of pop music. For a glorious 53 minutes or so you can see all of the most important people on the planet in December 1984 in one place. Go on you can watch the whole show here.


Apart from Wham.



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