Cheap Thrills – The Amazing World Of The Top Of The Pops Cover Version LPs

 

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Dollies and Ravers and all young Groovies! Here’s another fantabulous Top of the Pops album by Hallmark! Just look at some of the really meaty, beaty numbers – ‘Bad Moon Rising’, ‘In The Year 2525’, and that smash hit from ‘HAIR’, ‘Good Morning Starshine’ – all high, high, up in the charts!

Let your hair down and feel free, free, free, to shoot way up in space to these smashing, crashing, modern sounds!

It could be argued that the cover version has never been more popular than in recent years, with the slew of here today, gone later today Pop Idol and X-Factor contestants cranking out bland facsimiles of popular hits from yesteryear, and often having more chart success than the original recordings. Some of these cookie-cutter products even churn out entire albums of disposable cover songs before vanishing back into the obscurity that they were unnecessarily plucked from to begin with. But one particular form of cover version has long since vanished into the mists of time.

From the middle of the 1960s until around 1987, the racks of retailers like Woolworths would be crammed with LPs consisting of soundalike recordings that were cranked out while the original hit was still in the charts. These budget-priced collections were pitched at an unfussy audience who were happy to have sixteen or so songs – vaguely resembling the original if you didn’t listen too closely – for the price of a single seven-inch. There were, at their peak of popularity, several different collections running up multiple volumes – Hot Hits, 12 Tops, Chart Busters, Solid Gold, Parade of Pops and others that appeared every few weeks. All followed the pattern set by the unquestioned market leader, the mighty Top of the Pops series that ran for 92 volumes (plus annual ‘best of’ compilations) from 1968 to 1985.

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The Top of the Pops LPs were launched on Pickwick’s budget label Hallmark, the brainchild of producer Allan Crawford who had seen the success of earlier EPs and then LPs featuring anonymous cover versions of recent chart hits. Records were, even then, not cheap, especially if you were a pop-mad kid with limited spending power, and so an album full of the latest hit singles had a certain appeal, even if the recordings were not by the original artists. And in the 1960s (and into the 1970s), it wasn’t unusual for the songs of the Beatles and other top artists to be immediately covered and issued as singles, so these albums were perhaps not such a shock to the system (indeed, throughout the 1970s and beyond, there was also a market for entire budget LPs featuring soundalike recordings of single bands like Abba, for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t afford the real thing).

The Top of the Pops LPs had two things going for them that the earlier recordings didn’t have. One was the name, cheekily swiped from the BBC’s flagship pop show when it was discovered that there was no copyright on the title. Top of the Pops was were the undiscerning pop fan and their families heard these songs to begin with, and so the name implied a certain connection and authenticity. The other selling point was the cover design – an immediately recognisable logo with a listing of the songs included (both large enough to spot from quite a distance) and a photo of a sexy glamour girl to lure in the dads. These would feature many a famous dolly bird, Page 3 girl and cult movie actress of the time – from Katya Wyeth, Penny Irving and Suzy Shaw to Blonde on Blonde pair Nina Carter and Jilly Johnson, Big D Nuts girl Beverley Pilkington and – on the final two covers – Linda Lusardi and Samantha Fox. Unlike some of their rivals, the Top of the Pops LPs were reasonably circumspect in their imagery – while Volume 16 caused a touch of controversy with a photo of a model in a transparent top, this was mild compared to some other LP covers (Pye’s Chart Busters in 1971, for instance, had featured a saucy topless photo of soft porn model Nicola Austin; Austin would also appear on a few Top of the Pops covers in less revealing images), and the other covers avoided nudity. Some had models posing sexily, others could’ve appeared on the cover of Woman’s Own quite frankly – but taken as a whole, they are an intriguing representation of the changing face of the glamour girl over the decade and a bit that the series ran.

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On the back were sleeve notes – more like a desperate hard-sell – that extolled the virtues of this latest recording, written in early editions by ‘Groovy Boy’ and hyping the LP with such hyperbolic commentary as “Ravers, want to be shot so high you’ll hit the moon? Then take this album, listen, and jump, jump, jump, higher and higher to the swinging beat of the current, explosive top pop tunes!”. In later years, the sleeve notes would be toned down and finally dropped, while the back covers went from plain, text-driven white card to full colour reproductions of the front cover photos.

The series really hit its stride in 1971, when Bruce Baxter took over as producer. Baxter brought in his own team of singers and session players, led by Tony Rivers, and the whole production was turned into a well-oiled machine – songs would be chosen on a Friday, with the singers sent off to buy the singles chosen and to then work out the lyrics (if they couldn’t be deciphered, educated guesses came into play) while a quick arrangement was worked out for recordings in the next few days. As with the Top of the Pops TV show, the only criteria for inclusion was if the song had made the top 30, which meant that the musicians had to be able to knock out passable versions of some songs that might not have easily lent themselves to being covered otherwise. Standard pop was simple enough – songs like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Kate Bush‘s Wuthering Heights were more of a challenge, and the results would be ‘variable’ (Bohemian Rhapsody is widely accepted as a decent stab, knocked out in a few hours; Wuthering Heights is genuinely shocking). Some tracks are (perhaps accidentally) inspired reworkings – Motorhead’s Ace of Spades replaces Lemmy’s guttural vocals with a new wave sneer, for example, while the cover of Bowie’s Life on Mars is genuinely great, adding a grandiose sense of majesty that is astounding.

The series was popular enough that it also spawned an annual ‘Best Of’ that came with a free pin-up calendar, a European edition featuring newly recorded Euro pop hits (the original LPs, often repackaged and renamed, were also released in countries as varied as France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Turkey and the Lebanon), the Sing and Play series (albums featuring covers of songs by a single artist, performed by ‘The Top of the Poppers’), the Top of the Tots children’s LPs and assorted compilation albums collated from tracks originally on the Top of the Pops albums.

The albums also became, briefly, eligible for the charts, with Volume 20 actually hitting the top spot (ironically displacing Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, featuring Maggie May, with an album that covered the same track). Shortly after this, albums of this sort were disqualified from the charts, much as later compilations like Now That’s What I Call Music were in the 1980s. Nevertheless, by Volume 75 in August 1979, the LPs could boast of having sold over 20 million copies.

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But even as Top of the Pops boasted of this success, the writing was on the wall. Baxter left the series at the end of 1978, and Hallmark decided that, rather than replace him and his team, they would instead buy in tracks from Coombe Music, who cranked out covers for a variety of labels. The problem here was obvious – these songs were not bought exclusively, and so the exact same cover would turn up on other, rival LPs. Even the buyers of these cover version albums were not so undiscerning that they would put up with the same remake ¬†across several records, and sales would start to decline rapidly. More significantly, labels like K-Tel and Ronco had started to release low price LPs featuring the original recordings of recent hits, and in 1983, the Now That’s What I Call Music series was launched, effectively sounding the death knell for cover version LPs. ¬†The series effectively ended in 1982 with Volume 91, returning for a 1984 Best Of and a final edition in 1985.

But the albums have never quite died. Sure, there are no new recordings, but several LPs were reissued on CD in the 1990s, and a decade later, the entire series was digitised and made available to buy on download. The original albums are mainstays of charity shops and car boot sales, and there’s a small but eager fan base for them – I have around half of the releases so far. The cover art alone makes them a must-have items for fans of 1970s kitsch and glamour girls, while the music is startling, eccentric and sometimes extraordinary – removed from the context of having to pass as a duplicate of a current chart smash, they can flourish as oddball covers in their own right. And if nothing else, the albums are a somewhat definitive record of just what pop music the British masses were listening to between 1968 and 1982.

For more on these albums – including a full track listing, alternative covers and so on, visit the exhaustive fan site: http://topofthepopslps.weebly.com/

The complete collection, from Volume 1 to Volume 92 (click all gallery images to enlarge):

The Best Of collections:

The calendars:

The European editions:

Highlights and lowlights:

And even more, if you can handle it: