Wednesday 21 March 2018

The music genius who made Top of the Pops rock

It was supposed to be a stop-gap until the BBC could think of something better to do with its moribund Thursday evening slot but in the end Top of the Pops would run for over 40 years, attract tens of millions of viewers and change the face of popular music.

The show's crucial role in shaping the musical tastes of generations was brought into focus this week as its original arranger and conductor died aged 85.

A behind-the-scenes figure who helped artists as diverse as The Beatles, The Who and The Dubliners make the transition to live television, Johnny Pearson had a huge influence on Top of the Pops's perky bubblegum identity and its commitment to showcasing exciting new sounds.

He was synonymous with the programme in its early years, when it cut a swathe through the staid world of music TV, providing teenagers with an escapist conduit to all that was exciting in the pop world.

He was there when Jimmy Saville presented the first episode from Manchester on New Year's Day 1964, a broadcast which featured The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, The Hollies and, grinning their way through their number one, 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', The Beatles.

At that time, the plan was to shuffle Top of the Pops quickly off the airwaves, but such was its popularity it rapidly became one of the BBC's signature shows, spawning spin-offs around the world.

In our era of YouTube, it is difficult to emphasis how important Top of the Pops was. Through the '60s and '70s especially, when mainstream radio was stodgy and conservative, it was the only place where you might see David Bowie with red hair and platform boots or watch Kate Bush fluttering around like a banshee after too much cake and ice-cream.

For Irish artists hoping to break the UK, a slot on the show could make all the difference. A rollicking 1967 rendition of 'Seven Drunken Nights' introduced Britain to the bawdy delights of The Dubliners (surreally they appeared on the same episode as Jim Hendrix and The Who). A decade on, The Boomtown Rats clocked up half a dozen appearances, the best known a July 1979 rendition of 'I Don't Like Mondays'. Flapping about stage, a streak of limbs and stringy hair, Bob Geldof established his persona as the twitchy pop star with the enormous gob.

Two years on, U2, looking like they'd just stumbled out of a school disco, made their debut with 'Fire', and in 1983 achieved the pop equivalent of a knock-out with 'New Year's Day'. The band wouldn't play again until 2005, by which stage the BBC was toying with canning the programme, finally yanking the plug in 2006.

Through its sometimes troubled first 16 years, Pearson was the softly-spoken father figure who helped keep the show hanging together. It's hard to imagine now, but from the start, Top of the Pops was riven by disputes.

A major flash point was the insistence that artists mime, to guard against live flubs. This was the policy for the first two years, with Pearson and his orchestra fleshing out the pre-taped music in order that it sounded better on television.

The Musicians' Union protested and miming was briefly banned, but a series of ragged live performances caused the decision to be reversed.

Rather than going away, the miming rule became an ongoing issue for Top of the Pops. Many artists chafed under the restriction, feeling ill at ease mugging for the cameras. Performing their 1989 hit 'Orange Crush', REM's Michael Stipe was so mortified he insisted on doing the entire thing with a megaphone to his lips, the better to hide his rubbish miming technique. The electronica group The Orb famously played chess whilst their song 'Blue Room' burbled in the background.

By the '90s, the Johnny Pearson orchestra had long since been consigned to history's dust-bin and the BBC had relaxed the miming rule to the extent that bands were now allowed sing live.

This led to the infamous 1991 appearance by Nirvana, where Kurt Cobain crooned 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' in a funny voice, so that it sounded he was up all night gargling cough syrup (he claimed it was in tribute to Morrissey). Were this to happen today, the clip would be all over YouTube in a few minutes.

Pearson was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire on 18 June, 1925. He showed talent with the piano at an early age. By nine, he had won a scholarship with the London Academy of Music. Here he spent four years under English pianist, Soloman. In his teens, he would give classical recitals, but his true love at the time was jazz. His first band was the Rhythm Makers.

After World War Two, he signed up and became one of the founding members of the Malcolm Mitchell Trio, before leaving in 1954. He toured England and Europe with the trio, playing the West End and theatres.

Ed Power

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