One never wants to live in the past, but the present is a nightmare and the future isn’t looking any better, so until further notice it’s your only healthy choice. And there is simply no better, brighter, more glamorous version of the past in which to hide than the 1980s, specifically the version displayed on the legendary BBC chart show Top of the Pops, now largely available (almost certainly illegally) on YouTube.
TOTP ran from 1964 to 2006, and served up the week’s top 20 (sometimes 40, sometimes 30) pop hits. It more or less served as the UK’s American Bandstand, with more performances (or Solid Gold without the dancers, whichever you’re most comfortable with). It was an institution, and while it had great moments in all five of its decades, for me its peak was in the peppy, synthy, day-glo ‘80s. England had the pop music world on lock for most of that decade, from the Human League all the way up to Rick Astley, and every Aqua-Netted, daringly-draped act had to stop by the show. Each frame of each episode is a megadose of highly-concentrated ‘80s, and I just can’t get enough.
Top of the Pops was hosted by a coterie of BBC Radio and television personalities, who managed to be the arbiters of what was cool around the world while mostly dressing like your dad on Casual Friday. Among them: Jimmy Savile, who we do not talk about anymore, and John Peel, who was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the culture, so obviously here he is introducing Toto Coelo’s “I Eat Cannibal.”
Everyone who was anyone passed through the TOTP studios, as you can see in this episode featuring New Order, Tracey Ullman and The Style Council. If you are wondering, yes: I have tried to climb into my laptop and live inside this video. No luck so far.
U2 and Kajagoogoo on the same stage, as God intended. By 1984, Duran Duran and Culture Club had swept America, and we in the States had learned to look to London for fashion and music inspiration. Here’s an episode hosted by Simon Bates and Janice Long—dressed for two very different occasions!—featuring The Smiths, with legendary British singer Sandie Shaw sitting in for Morrissey.
I consider myself lucky to have been an adolescent in the mid-‘80s, because its mainstream pop music gave you a little bit of everything. Top 40 radio was a mish-mosh of styles and attitudes in America, and it clearly was in the UK as well, because here’s a Top of the Pops with both art-pop cult legend Kate Bush, and the guy who sang “Tarzan Boy.”
Whole episodes are available on YouTube—at least until someone from the BBC reads this— or you can order a la carte, as I have done here with my favorite pop group of 1986: the—family act Five Star, with a song that should have been huge in the States, “Can’t Wait Another Minute.”
By the end of the decade, Wham! had broken up, Boy George was on heroin, and the world’s attention had turned to hair metal. It was less glittery and magical, but I’ll still take it.
Each episode gives you at least one song you know, along with some weird UK wedding standard you definitely don’t, one pop experiment that didn’t take, and, like, something from Chess. It is a glorious throwback to another time, a jolt of pure joy at a moment when you really need it. Get an ear and an eyeful. I cannot be held responsible for what it might make you do to your hair while you’re in seclusion.
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