Sunday, July 15, 2018

Top of the Pops 50!

July 2018. We couldn’t let this time pass without marking a very important anniversary: Top of the Pops, the best and most famous series of cover version albums is 50 years old! It would go on to enjoy some 92 standard editions, not to mention copious spin-off releases, but here we will focus on the first of them: Top of the Pops volume 1.

We don’t know the exact release date for this debut LP, but it was right around now, five decades ago, that it hit the bargain record racks of Britain. 

Let’s start by listing the tracks, and where the original versions got to in the singles charts:

  • Young Girl – Originally a hit for The Union Gap Featuring Gary Puckett (No. 1)
  • My Name Is Jack – Originally a hit for Manfred Mann (No. 8)
  • Can't Take My Eyes Off You – Originally a hit for Andy Williams (No. 5)
  • Blue Eyes – Originally a hit for Don Partridge (No. 3)
  • Something Here In My Heart – Originally a hit for The Paper Dolls (No. 11)
  • Jennifer Eccles – Originally a hit for The Hollies (No. 7)
  • Do You Know The Way To San Jose – Originally a hit for Dionne Warwick (No. 8)
  • I Can't Let Maggie Go – Originally a hit for Honeybus (No. 8)
  • Lovin' Things – Originally a hit for Marmalade (No. 6)
  • Where Is Tomorrow – Originally a hit for Cilla Black (No. 39)
  • La La La – Originally a hit for Massiel (No. 35)
  • Boy – Originally a hit for Lulu (No. 15)

Top of the shop is “Young Girl”, which had been number 1 for most of June 1968. Here’s the Top of the Pops version, the very first thing most purchasers would have heard when their new LP smashed down onto the turntable, and the automatic arm jerked its way across to the vinyl…

Top of the Pops, of course, was not the first such series to launch. Apart from mfp’s ‘Hits’ albums, the most important competition came from the Marble Arch label, and their ongoing Chart Busters series, which happened to hit instalment number three right around now. So, along with Top of the Pops volume 1, buyers had the choice of the following LP:

Note how it too contained a version of “Young Girl”. Top of the Pops were, of course, keenly aware of this rival offering, and it’s interesting to read the sleeve notes on the back of the album, which take a sly dig at the Chart Busters series:

Welcome to the 'Pop' scene, here we present a wonderful bunch of 'Pop' goodies. All the songs on this record are 'Chart-Busters' and we take great pleasure in reproducing them for you using the swinging-est bunch of talent on the scene. Switch on and we dare you to try and SIT through both sides.

In terms of recording Top of the Pops, it seems the early editions were made at Marquee Studios in Soho, under direction of Bruce Baxter. We once heard from the engineer on that very first edition, Gery Collins, who recalled his work on volume 1 and the next few editions which followed:

“I engineered the first TOTP album. To help date it, I know ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’, was on it. I'd only been with the Marquee for about nine months when Allan booked us. The studio then really was stretching its facilities to burst to accommodate such a large session. In fact, I remember the session men were in the studio and the backing singers were hastily located in the adjoining studio office and stairs up to the loo. Picture it if you can as you listen to the track…”

(and here it is, for you to do just that!)

Gery continues, “Bruce Baxter was the MD, and I believe the arranger was called Andrew Jackman. As I stated, the basic rhythm, brass and strings were laid down on an Ampex four-track machine. Yes, just four tracks! Sometimes we pre-mixed the four across to three tracks of a Leevers Rich half-inch tape machine, leaving one track free for vocals.”

The link between these recording artists and the Hallmark label remains a little sketchy. It seems that Hallmark purchased the tapes, rather than having funded them themselves, and set about putting the LP package together. One conundrum Gery couldn’t solve when we asked, was how there came to be stereo versions of some of these tracks in circulation; although the Top of the Pops album was issued in mono, there exists a little-known LP without a title, which was released on the Uni-Zel label at around the time, and which contains nine of the recordings – in glorious stereo!

I asked Gery about this, but he was not sure how this obscure LP came to be: “I’ve not heard of Uni-Zel. The original four-track would have been mastered on half-inch tape, and mixed down, I’m pretty sure, to mono. Allan [Crawford, the man behind the series] was a business-minded, no-frills man. Don’t think he would bother then with stereo. At that time, I know from contemporary engineers that stereo was not widely accepted for pop singles as many thought the stereo detracted from the audio impact that mono would give… maybe Hallmark leased the master to Uni-Zel and they remixed it into stereo?”

Whatever the back-story, Hallmark needed to create a striking cover for the forthcoming record, and when it emerged, it was housed in a bright orange sleeve which couldn’t be missed! The cover design would become iconic, and established a standard for cover version LPs from then on.

The man behind the design was Bill Graham, who worked for Pickwick International and was in charge of the small creative studio, based in Victoria Works, Cricklewood, designing the label’s regular sleeve art:

“I remember when the MD (Monty Lewis) briefed me on the project. I had a couple of hours to come up with a design using an existing photograph that, quote, ‘could be seen from the other side of Victoria Station’.”

The photograph supplied to Bill was one which Pickwick had used previously, on the US album, The In Crowd – a collection of original hit recordings:

Bill recalls, “The first picture, the girl in the cap, was supplied to me. I can’t remember now in what form, but it was probably a transparency. Most of the covers I worked on were photographed specially in a small photographers in Gerrard Street. The problem was that these were produced very quickly, the design studio had limited facilities and remember it all relied on the printers re-touching (I believe at film stage) to achieve any cut-outs, so sometimes it could be a little crude especially with the hair (How easy it is now with computers).”

So contrary to popular belief, the models were not cut out and stuck onto coloured backgrounds; rather, the colours were painted around them. Of course, there was an issue with this particular photo in that Bill needed to select a bright, bold colour, but the model’s hair was in jet-black shadow. Consequently, it was subjected to an unusual cropping effect, to the left as we look!

This image, by the way, was re-used when the Best-of collection form 1969 was assembled the following year. Here she is again, with her hair restored!

Key to getting the series launched was the title, Top of the Pops. As Bill recalls, “We knew that the most important thing was the name and its connection to the BBC program.” And apart from that photo, Bill also had to come up with the logo for the albums:

“For the record, the font, Cooper Black, at that stage did not have the outline I required – so I had to draw it, which I can say I did not enjoy. I wanted it because the white and dark outline would ensure the title would show up whatever the background.”

Thus, Bill’s idea for the style of lettering allowed any and every variety of colour scheme to be used, which indeed it was. Bill had immediately created a design classic, the basic template for which would remain unchanged into the 1980s. “Nobody realised how popular it would be, and that the series would continue so long. My format was hardly changed for many years.”

And here we are, half a century on, still celebrating that first Top of the Pops LP. What followed is well-known. Top of the Pops ultimately accounted for almost a hundred full albums, all freshly recorded and containing over one and a quarter thousand individual cuts. That’s pushing a hundred tracks a year. Check the little coloured panels on the front and you will see lists of song titles which provide documentation of what was hot, and occasionally what was not, in each six- or eight-week micro-era, which taken as an entirety, charts the development of popular music through well over a decade, bridging from the 1960s to the 1980s.

We salute Top of the Pops on this 50th anniversary, and the people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

Happy Birthday Top of the Pops!

And finally, one last cut from the LP, for your delectation:


  1. Happy Birthday - Playing 92 as I type. :)

  2. I got the collation got as they were released they are music to my life and I still love and play them and I'm 57 now love u more groovy boy I'm