Department S

“The more we know, the less we show” – Top of the Pops, 16 April 1981

Peter Powell“Hi.” Hi yourself, Peter Powell, in your monogrammed shirt, white blazer with the sleeves rolled up and, let’s not beat about the bush here, beige slacks. Powell seems to have taken on the mantle of “senior presenter” of TOTP recently, his relatively youthful enthusiasm outstripping the likes of DLT and Simon Bates; Read, Wright and Skinner have yet to fully prove themselves, Tommy Vance appears to have been sidelined for the moment and Jimmy Savile remains an anachronism. Tonight Pete promises us “stacks of live bands,” “a great film featuring Spandau Ballet” and “some artists who’ve flown in specially for the show.” As the intro to the Jacksons’ Can You Feel It? plays in the background, could it be that the Beeb has finally convinced one of pop music’s greatest superstars to return to the TOTP studio?

Watch on iPlayer (UK only, available until 5 April 2016)
See the full top 75 for this week on the Official Charts Website.

BAD MANNERS – Just a Feeling (#15)

Bad Manners……..No. Lovely bit of misdirection there from Powell as he fails to complete his sentence about “artists who’ve flown in specially for the show” with the all-important words “…all the way from Italy where they’ve just mooned the Pope!” Not strictly true, of course; it had been a couple of months since Buster Bloodvessel, flushed with success as the band performed at the San Remo music festival, felt the need to celebrate by stripping to his vest and pants. Not an unusual occurrence at a Bad Manners gig, but supremely unfortunate tonight because (a) he was on live television at the time and (b) His Holiness Pope John Paul II was watching. Apparently an avid viewer of the festival, the Holy Father was not impressed by the unholy sight of the Bloodvessel buttocks and the band was banned from Italian television. No such shenanigans tonight; Buster is the epitome of respectability in his morning suit, red carnation, umbrella and bowler hat. What does he have to do to get banned from Top of the Pops? Let’s wait and see, shall we?

SPANDAU BALLET – Musclebound (#18)

Spandau BalletFortunately Buster only has time to remove his hat and jacket tonight before Powell comes to the rescue, ostentatiously calling Buster “Dougie” because they’re clearly such great showbiz mates that Pete gets to call him by his real name. On to that “great film” Pete (I always call him Pete, even though his real name is… Peter) promised us earlier. Yes, Spandau have seen the video for Vienna and decided they wanted a piece of that, so out come the bits of black cardboard to make it look like we’re watching a widescreen Cinemascope film on our resolutely 4:3 1981 televisions. Apparently set in Outer Mongolia, with blue-faced dwarves and the band on horseback billowing orange smoke as they ride through the barren wastelands of the Lake District in March, the snow doesn’t stop Steve Norman from getting his kit off and sowing some seeds on the ground (not a euphemism) which almost immediately grow into people, emerging from under the snow like… well, like a bad metaphor. Armed with pickaxes and scythes, the newly-grown people work till they’re musclebound, even somehow fashioning a plough from their rudimentary materials, until night falls and the Spands build fires that will burn until morning. If Flick Colby had been given the budget of a mid-range Hollywood movie every week instead of an empty studio and a dressing up box, this is what Limbs & Co would have come up with.

GIRLSCHOOL – Hit and Run (#33)

GirlschoolNow, here’s a thing. Fresh from their co-headlining slot with Motörhead a few weeks back, this is the only TOTP appearance for Girlschool in their own right. Indeed, Hit and Run was the band’s only top forty hit apart from the St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP and despite the constant explosions occurring behind drummer Denise Dufort, it was a far more restrained track than you might expect from a band that spent so much time in the company of Lemmy. Still, in all fairness most bands were more restrained than Motörhead and Girlschool’s place in the NWOBHM pantheon was already assured; their 1981 album, also titled Hit ‘n’ Run, was a top five hit and they were one of the headliners at the 1981 Reading Festival which had revitalised Slade’s career the year before. Although guitarist Kelly Johnson died in 2007, Girlschool are still going with the three surviving original members and released their latest album Guilty as Sin in 2015.

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SUGAR MINOTT – Good Thing Going (We’ve Got a Good Thing Going) (#7)

Sugar MinottTime for Pete – I always call him Pete – to demonstrate the importance of rehearsing your links. “Now we go for a bit of a good thing, a little bit of disco, the gentleman in name is Sugar Minott!” Even if you do rearrange the words to form a coherent sentence (and you’ll probably have a few left over), there’s no getting away from the fact that this reggae dancehall classic isn’t, wasn’t and will never be “disco”. Anyway, it’s another showing of the performance from two weeks ago, still with the pedantically long-winded title and the unnecessarily large on-stage entourage. Although he remained a hugely important figure in Jamaican music right up until his death in 2010, this was Sugar’s only UK top forty hit; still, you may have unwittingly picked up one of his later recordings in an unguarded moment of online shopping while drunk (or high) as he performed a version of Exit Music (For a Film) on the Easy Star All-Stars’ 2006 Radiohead tribute album Radiodread.

DEPARTMENT S – Is Vic There? (#40)

Department SUp next, “for their début on the show, and also having just finished a national tour,” here’s a band named after a late ’60s TV show about a special department (so that’s “S” for “Special”) of Interpol which starred Peter Wyngarde as Jason King (later featured, as Wikipedia is keen to point out, in spin-off series Jason King). “When a case proves too baffling for the best minds of Interpol, they turn to the talents of Department S.” Well, it might be time to call them up because ’80s hits don’t come much more baffling than Is Vic There?. First released on Demon in December 1980 with a cover of T-Rex’s Solid Gold Easy Action on the B-side, it was picked up and reissued by RCA in March and finally crawled into the top forty this week. Singer Vaughn Toulouse does that thing where you hold the microphone kind of like a telephone receiver while trying to establish the whereabouts of Vic, but ends up looking like Ian Dury doing a bad Alvin Stardust impression. This is on another twice in the next few weeks though, so get used to him talking to Bob instead.

THE BEAT – Drowning (#53)

The Beat“Now then,” begins Pete – I always call him that – “one of the very best cuts of vinyl you can get in the shops at the moment has got to be this, it’s a double A-side from The Beat.” Ah, we’ve hit the problem there, haven’t we? The (English) Beat’s sixth single, All Out To Get You would eventually peak just outside the top twenty; Drowning, its “other” A-side, did little or nothing to help its cause – certainly I’ve no recollection of ever hearing it before – but Pete says it’s “by far my favourite” so here it is. Pre-empting Madness’s “serious period” by a good few months, Drowning seems to be a metaphor for bankruptcy – “Can you hear accountants call? Could you refuse another dollar?” – or it could be a metaphor for the band’s declining chart positions over the next couple of years. Either way, it’s an atonal, dubby mess. Luckily nobody else on Radio 1 shared Pete’s opinion about the relative merits of the two A-sides and All Out To Get You ended up with the lion’s share of the airplay.

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WHITESNAKE – Don’t Break My Heart Again (#29)

Whitesnake“That’s a brilliant track,” claims the now blazerless Pete, “and look out for their forthcoming album called Wha’ppen?“, a title which makes Powell sound like the whitest person on Earth. Time for more BBC lies and deception now: “They’re out of the country but our cameras did catch them in concert, it is Whitesnake!” Really, Pete? The Beeb sent a full camera unit out to capture David Coverdale and his suggestively-named combo in concert in an empty warehouse? With a full lighting rig but no audience? That must have cost the licence payers a fortune, it’s a wonder the Daily Mail wasn’t up in arms about it the next day. Or could it be that this is just the regular promo video for the song and you’re trying to claim credit for it? Poor show either way, really. Don’t Break My Heart Again is standard Whitesnake fare, like the second cup of tea from a teabag that’s already been used to make Fool For Your Loving, but it went on to reach number 17, making it their biggest hit since the aforementioned first cup and until their LA period in 1987.

UK SUBS – Keep On Running (Till You Burn) (#54)

UK Subs“Dead raunchy, that track,” leers Pete, but before we can dwell on that, “we welcome to Top of the Pops a band called UK Subs.” You might have heard of them before, given that this is their seventh appearance on the show since their first hit Stranglehold back in 1979, although they may be the only act to have appeared on the show that many times without ever reaching the top twenty. Now, though, they’ve apparently “gone through quite an image change, as you’re about to see.” No, not really. Charlie Harper still looks like Ben Elton pretending to be a punk singer, even if he has tied a red rag around his right wrist for no clear reason. The only apparent image change is the electric piano sitting centre stage, which Harper tentatively prods at in the instrumental break, producing a total of six pointless notes. Stand aside, the Human League! Even though Pete thinks you’ve probably not heard of them before, this was the Subs’ last appearance on the show. They’re still going today, mind, with original singer Harper now a sprightly 71 years old; 2016 saw the release of Ziezo, their twenty-sixth album, each with a title beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet.

ENNIO MORRICONE – Chi Mai (#4)

Legs & CoWell now, what better and more obvious track to follow the UK Subs than an orchestral piece from the 1971 film Maddalena and the theme from major TV drama The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, a history of the Prime Minister who had come to power sixty-five years previously. Sadly the great Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone can’t be with us tonight – and it’s probably just as well, imagine him trying to conduct the TOTP Orchestra through this – so… enter Limbs & Co, and if you thought Whitesnake were “a bit raunchy,” wait until you see what the girls have come as tonight!…. Oh. Erm. Suffragettes, apparently, in demure floor-length red skirts and jackets, although even dressing in red was a bit daring, perhaps black might have been more appropriate for an appearance on such an immoral medium as colour television. No such worries in the choreography department as the fine upstanding young ladies do little more than walk around, hands clasped primly in front of them, while black and white images of the late 1910s are displayed on the screens behind them to distract the more red-blooded male viewers lest one of the ladies should inadvertently flash an ankle and cause one’s monocle to pop out.

THE CURE – Primary (#46)

The CureBack to something a mere thirty-five years old now with the first part of the top thirty countup and you’ll notice that the official period of mourning for John Lennon is now well and truly over, his second posthumous single release Watching the Wheels only reaching number 30. How soon we forget. “But right now, making their début on Top of the Pops, The Cure!” BZZZZZZ! Wrong, Pete, don’t you even read this blog? The Cure, of course, made their first appearance on the show almost exactly a year ago doing A Forest. Primary was their first single release since then, a shocking state of affairs in those days, but despite the length of time spent on their third album Faith this single shows little progression. There’s an amusing Spinal Tap feel to the performance as Robert Smith and Simon Gallup both seem to be playing bass – innovative subversion of the musical norm, or clerical error? You decide. The musical norm is again subverted as Primary appears to have no memorable features to it at all; indeed, it’s hard not to absent-mindedly slip into singing A Forest even while it’s still playing. Primary peaked at number 43 and it would be over another year until The Cure found themselves back in the top forty.

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THE NOLANS – Attention To Me (#14)

The NolansMore chart business to attend to now, before we alight at number 14 and if you were waiting for the Nolans to appear again so you could set your watch by them, here they are. For their ninth studio appearance since the start of last year, the sisters have turned up in matching black jumpsuits, showing Limbs & Co a thing or two when it comes to appropriate attire – it is almost Easter, after all. After a string of undervalued pop gems last year, Attention To Me is a bit of a let down, although the return of the TOTP Orchestra doesn’t help matters – it never does, does it? Didn’t we go on strike last summer to get rid of them? Anyway, the girls at least put the effort in, as always, even if nobody in the audience is really paying that much attention to them. “They won the Tokyo Song Festival,” pleads Pete, “beating Jermaine Jackson and the Manhattans amongst others!” Not with the TOTP Orchestra backing them, they didn’t.

BUCKS FIZZ – Making Your Mind Up (#1)

Bucks FizzTop Ten time, for once featuring actual video clips for each song instead of randomly chucking in some still photos, so it can be done. The Fizz have finally made it to number 1, so here’s that outfit-disassembling performance yet again; clearly the Pope wasn’t a regular TOTP viewer. Once they’re done, Pete – I always call him Pete – warns us, “You’re about to witness a clip from from a new film from The Jacksons,” as if they’ve made some kind of full-length Hollywood blockbuster when in fact what they’ve made is a five minute Hollywood blockbuster to promote their latest single Can You Feel It?, in which the brothers apparently invent fire, rainbows and electric guitars which create supernovae when strummed. There’s so much self-mythologising going on here it’s a wonder Jarvis Cocker doesn’t wander into shot to waft his backside at them. We skip three weeks now on BBC Four, for various reasons which we’ll come to in the next few posts, but tomorrow 2016 viewers suddenly leap forward into mid-May without a word of explanation. This is why the blog is already three months behind the reruns. Bear with us.

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