The cast

Oral histories



- working with the Top of the Pops Orchestra


Jeff Wayne:
David Essex was one of the category of artists that was never allowed to sing to the backing-track of the records: it had to be played live with the Top of the Pops Orchestra. It was like a cattle-market, the sound quality was dreadful. And it's not that the people there weren't good at their jobs, but they were under the pressures of having just a few run-throughs, of having a sound-booth that wasn't designed to be a music studio, and you had - depending on the style of music of your artist - the complexity of trying to get live arrangements of something that was produced in the studio. And although everything was written out and you had the same notation, if you were using synthesizers - which were embryonic in that era - or if you were doing anything at all complex arrangement-wise, a couple of run-throughs wasn't enough.
But the reason David, along with other artists of that type, had to do it live was that he didn't have a band that he was paying royalties to. The Musicians' Union, and I think the BBC, had this agreement that distinguished between the band artist and everyone else, who fell into this cattle-market approach. And there was a lot of tension, a lot of bad playing. Not deliberately.

In those days it was not very good. The guys got the score and they had like two rehearsals, and unless you had a couple of hip guys that you used, you knew the rhythm was going to sound bad. The sound was going to be bad because everything was chaotic. I used always to complain and moan and bitch, but what can you do? That's how it was in those days. And maybe my timing was not spot-on because I'm not a conductor, I mean I'm not a trained musician. I've been playing music all my life, but it's quite daunting when suddenly here's this little kid from India and he's got the BBC orchestra and he's on Top of the Pops.

Mike Moran:
Biddu used the Top of the Pops Orchestra, pretending to conduct. It was hysterical.

Tina Charles:
It was a nightmare. You had to use the terrible band that they had - they should have been pensioned off years ago - and you had the kind of musicians who had no feel, all they were doing was reading the notes. And they couldn't give a shit. They were in the pub from one to three, and they'd come back in and read the notes. Once I had to do 'Dance Little Lady' and it was twice the speed, and I couldn't stop, because I thought: well, if I stop I'll be classed as being an awkward artist. I actually did it that way and it went out that way. Which was silly really, I should have stopped it.

Richard Dodd:
The ridiculous thing [about the Orchestra] was that very often they'd have a substitute come in either for the rehearsal or for the show. What's the point in having a rehearsal if the person who's at the rehearsal and the person who's going to be at the show aren't one and the same person?

Mike Moran:
The Top of the Pops band was one of the old sinecures, people that'd been in the job for years and were still doing it and it was a death really. It was a job-for-life job if you see what I mean, and so a lot of people in it didn't give a toss. And also, let's say you used thirty or forty strings on your record, you'd get about six on Top of the Pops because the BBC was too cheap to hire a proper orchestra. So it all sounded a bit pathetic.
And BBC live sound has never been the greatest thing in the world: the guy who did the sound at the BBC would do Match of the Day one day and Top of the Pops the next. They weren't specifically music engineers, so you were on a hiding to nothing. And forget anything strange, like adding echo on your voice. It was a nightmare, to be honest.


Eddie Amoo:
The worst nightmare was when they made you do it live. With us being classed as a vocal group, sometimes we had to use the house band. Oh God, man, that was a nightmare. They used to have a house pit-band and they were all pissed. The first time we did 'You To Me Are Everything', the producer got pissed and insisted on conducting the orchestra himself on the live thing. And you didn't argue. You just had to get on the friggin' show, cos it was so important. I mean, it sold a lot of records, man, it sold a lot of records for you. And we had no clout whatsoever. They said to us, 'You're doing this,' and you had to do it. And you couldn't be seen to be even moaning about it, you just had to appear to be glad to be doing the programme.

Ken Gold:
That was another big problem we had - the Top of the Pops bloody Orchestra. They were dreadful, they didn't know a thing about soul music, they were used to playing 'Congratulations' and all that kind of stuff.

Jimmy James:
Funk and soul music - they couldn't deal with it, they couldn't play it. They just could not play it.

Bill Oddie:
It always amused me that no one could play 'The Funky Gibbon' except Dave Macrae. It's actually really hard, a really busy clavinet part. When you did Top of the Pops in those days, you were supposed to use the orchestra, and I thought: they'll never play it. So I said to Dave the first time we did it: 'Would you mind coming to the studio because we're gonna have trouble with this?' And we dropped the music down in front of the Top of the Pops guy and he went: 'H-h-hah, I can't do this.' And I said: 'That's alright, I know a man who can.'

Russell Mael:
We performed 'Get In The Swing' on Top of the Pops and the Top of the Pops Orchestra was having real difficulty staying in time. Tony Visconti was conducting them and they were really having troubles, cos that song changes its tempo and the metre and stuff - it's 3/4 in one part of it.

Richard Dodd:
The only time it got tricky with Smokie was when they had 'Living Next Door To Alice', which had strings on it. We'd done the back-track but the strings had to be done by the Top of the Pops Orchestra. And when they were rehearsing to the back-track it was so bad, it sounded dreadful, and just before the live take Chris Norman said, 'This is terrible, what are we going to do?' I suggested that he might have a sore throat, so he called the nurse five minutes before airing and they were panicking. So I said, 'Well for reference I just happened to bring along a copy of the record.' And they said, 'Do you mind if we use that and they mime?' And I said, 'I'll have a word with him.' So we got over it that way.

Alwyn Turner:
And behind the Top of the Pops Orchestra were always the equally soulless backing vocals of The Ladybirds, another target for the scorn of the artists.

Jimmy James:
Anything that Connie Francis used to do - great. But you talk about soul, and they were totally lost. Not a clue.

Billy Ocean:
We would get our thing together and then you go on TV and you're faced with session singers who didn't have a clue about where the first beat started. Now what we understand is that it was nothing to do with making the artist look good - it was a show and you accepted it as it is and that's it. I mean their backing voices were so bad it used to sound like echoes sometimes, it was so behind. They couldn't get it, and it wasn't their fault - they just weren't exposed to it. Something that took us two weeks to make, or more, and they were expected to do it in an afternoon. But if you're really on the ball, you should be able to do it, you should be able to cut it really. It just was not within their culture.

Flick & Babs
Pan's People

these words were brought to you by
Eddie Amoo
Tina Charles
Richard Dodd
Ken Gold
Jimmy James
Russell Mael
Mike Moran
Bill Oddie
Alwyn Turner
Jeff Wayne
and Billy Ocean

Gary Glitter
Top of the Pops
'The Funky Gibbon'
Fuck the critics
New Seekers
Gerry Shury
New Faces
'Rock On'
The Sweet
Sparks vs Rubettes
'Under the Moon of Love'
Generation X
Biddu's roster
Crisis, what crisis?
Glam fashion
Rock indulgence
The Drifters
The Real Thing
Bay City Rollers
'I Love To Love'
The death of Arnold