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Pop Will Rewrite Itself: Why No One Is Celebrating Top Of The Pops's 50th Birthday

And if we're allowed to edit and screw with the past, we have to ask who's doing the editing.

I know everyone who reads Noisey is a hungover student who has the same basic memory capacity as an amnesiac on a K-bender, but try, if you can, to cast your mind back to November 2013, when the BBC celebrated the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. It was a huge event, with blanket coverage across every BBC channel and radio station. Millions were spent on a feature length episode of the programme, a dramatisation of its commissioning in the 1960s, a Brian Cox programme about the science of time travel and endless documentaries on the show’s history.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of Top Of The Pops, undoubtedly the biggest institution in British pop music. You’d be forgiven for expecting a similar BBC-wide fanfare with classic archive footage and documentaries on the show’s history and controversies. But there has been nothing. It’s presumed the BBC isn't honouring the anniversary because Jimmy Saville is so central to the show’s history - presenting the debut episode and appearing regularly throughout its first twenty years. Clearly the corporation are still scarred by the tribute programmes they aired about the presenter while he was under investigation by their own Newsnight programme for a history of child abuse and paedophilia.

You can’t show the history of Top Of The Pops without showing the history of Saville and the uncomfortable knowledge that many of his abuses took place on the set of the show. Any of those cheery waving teens in the background may have ended up back in Saville’s dressing room. Indeed, as this disturbing clip shows, at least one girl was molested while Saville was presenting a link.

Yet none of that detracts from the show’s cultural significance. Top Of The Pops is just as much about The Beatles performing “Ticket To Ride”, Pan’s People, the Sex Pistols’ sneering debut of “Pretty Vacant”, Nirvana miming their way through “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Jarvis Cocker hosting the Oasis vs. Blur chart battle, Ian Dury’s rhythm sticks and Alien Ant Farm covering and bettering Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” (that last one might just be me).


Pop has a natural tendency to rewrite or ignore its past when it becomes too ugly for it bare. Simon Reynolds excellent book Retromania deals extensively in our obsession with recycling thematic and stylistic motifs from pop’s recent history. But there are occasions when the opposite happens, when pop expunges its ugliest sons and most morbid tales.

You can watch this happening right now with Lostprophets. HMV have already announced they’ll be removing all the band’s albums from their stores. In Pontypridd, Watkins hometown, paving stones with the band’s lyrics are being removed by the local council. Their music has, of course, been effectively banned from British radio stations (the band’s last play on the BBC was in November 2012). It’s astonishing how quickly a band who were widely seen as the preeminent British rock group, have been whitewashed out of recent history.

Last year a huge retrospective of glam rock called Oh Yes We Can Love was released to critical fanfare. The Guardian praised it for extensively exploring the roots of the genre in Noel Coward and even Burundi’s Ingoma drummers, as well as rattling through the biggest hits of the genre. Just one hit-making glam artist was missing from the box set’s five discs: Gary Glitter. Daryl Easlea, a music consultant and DJ who compiled the tracklisting for the Universal compilation told The Independent “If we’d included Glitter, it would have overshadowed everybody’s contributions and music.”


Glitter has pretty much been removed from every retrospective of that period. His hugely popular Christmas song "Another Rock n' Roll Christmas", appeared on the Now That’s What I Call Music Christmas album throughout the 80s, but by the 2000s it had been taken off the record. His brick in the wall at Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club was removed in 2008. He also filmed a four-minute cameo for the Spiceworld movie but it was cut at the last minute once news of his arrest broke.

Interestingly, the one place Glitter hasn’t been erased from is Top Of The Pops. The BBC has in the past defended showing episodes of Top Of The Pops that feature Glitter performances. Seemingly, they are happy to objectively reflect the truth of the past, as long as it doesn’t make them look bad.

And herein lies the first problem with these rewrites and blind eyes in musical history. If we’re allowed to edit and screw with the past, we have to ask who's doing the editing. The BBC don’t want to remind the public of their failings, in the same way the Spice Girls didn’t want to admit they’d filmed a segment with a peadophile. But these things happened and to deny them serves only the interests of those doing the denying. Of course corporations try and do this all the time, Kodak and Hugo Boss are all desperate to obscure their deep and long-standing ties with the Nazis. But it’s the job of those writing about and cataloguing music to not let the past be rewritten.


The other problem is that if we Tippex out some parts of music history, and leave others in, there’s a tacit endorsement of the music history we create. In this excellent and widely shared Village Voice piece, the journalist Jim DeRogatis discussed how, despite a litany of allegations against him, music journalists have either been ill-informed, too scared to report or have willingly ignored the accused child sex crimes of R.Kelly. In particular, he focuses on the way liberal, intelligent music sites like Pitchfork (but equally The Guardian or New York Times or VICE) have side-stepped Kelly’s past, instead praising Kelly as the godfather of sexual R&B - cheerleading records like Black Panties and Kelly’s general pervy persona.

There must be a middle ground between forgetting musician’s crimes and simply forgetting musicians. We can make our own judgements on whether an artist's past means we should still listen to their music, but being ill-informed helps no one.

What real responsibility looks like is Kerrang! doing an issue surrounding the issues of Lostprophets and providing support to young fans who’ve discovered their idol is beyond the pale of humanity. It’s the BBC celebrating the most adored pop TV show in the world, while dealing with their huge oversights that allowed a monster to molest children on their property. Silence is how these men were allowed to commit their crimes, it’s not something the rest of us should have any part of.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamWolfson

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