10 times rock bands totally ruined Top Of The Pops

Manic Street Preachers, Nirvana and Faith No More on Top Of The Pops
(Image credit: Youtube)

For over 40 years, Top of the Pops was judged as the pinnacle of TV success for any artist playing the UK. Appearing on the BBC’s flagship music programme immediately put you in music’s big leagues; New Order's Peter Hook told Mojo in 2005: “Being on Top of the Pops was one of the highlights of my life, it was the only time when people like my mother, and relatives that didn’t have anything to do with us, thought that we had made it.” Understandably, most people who got booked for the show knew it was a hell of a career opportunity, took it very seriously and acted as professionally as possible. But we’re glad to report that not everyone was so overawed by TOTP’s Lustre. Some rock bands deliberately set out to mock, fuck with the formula of and, in some cases, full on sabotage the show. They might have had Auntie Beeb’s producers pulling their hair out, but here are 10 times we loved seeing rock bands totally ruin Top of the Pops. 

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Rod Stewart and The Faces – Maggie May (1971) 

Top of the Pops' insistence that all artists were to mime to a backing track of their song has been a source of endless shenanigans over the years. But the big bang for not taking miming seriously was Rod Stewart’s performance of his number one hit Maggie May in 1971. Before it all goes pear-shaped, the first clue we get that this might not be entirely serious is BBC Radio DJ John Peel sitting on a stool playing the mandolin. He’s not in the band! How curious. Then guitarist Ronnie Wood can be seen having to peg it over from the back of the studio and jump back onstage when his solo comes in. Why was Wood wandering about, you ask? Well, he seemed to be distracted by a rogue football, which he retrieves, kicks on the stage and the entire band just give up on the whole charade and decide to have a kick about instead. It’s a funny old game.  

The Stranglers – No More Heroes (1977) 

When punk broke big in the late 1970s, it wasn’t a genre that was really compatible with primetime BBC television. The two biggest names in the scene completely gave Top of the Pops a swerve; The Clash never played the show, and it wasn’t until their 1996 reunion that Sex Pistols appeared. Those punk bands that did show up massively jarred with TOTP’s usual aesthetic. When The Stranglers came on to play their 1977 top-ten hit No More Heroes, you could clearly see vocalist and guitarist Hugh Cornwell and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel more concerned with wafting the dry ice off the stage than making any suggestion that they were playing the song. Even when Cornwell starts singing, with his vocals legitimately being performed live, Burnel trots off to find a newspaper, aggressively waving it about to clear the smoke. They do eventually settle into it, but when the song's solo comes along, Corwell sarcastically performs it no-handed right into the camera. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated? 

Killing Joke – Empire Song (1982) 

When the first single from the post-punk legends' Revelations album reached number 43 on the UK singles chart, Killing Joke were invited onto TOTP to perform it. Too good a chance to turn down, but slightly awkward for the band at that time, as vocalist Jaz Coleman had recently fled Britain to go live in Iceland, believing that we were on the verge of the apocalypse. Still, not a problem: rather than turn down the biggest music show in the country, why not just hire a man in a big hazmat suit to stand by the keyboards and pretend to be Coleman, and then get drummer Paul Ferguson to mime the words as if he were the singer? That’ll work, right? No shade on the song or the performance of those who did turn up but lads, you’re fooling no one here! 

New Order – Blue Monday (1983) 

Obviously, there were a lot of bands that really weren’t keen on this whole lip-synching malarky that TOTP forced upon them. But a look at this performance from dance-rock legends New Order may lead you to concede that they had a point when it came to their insistence on miming. “Playing live, singing live,” presenter Richard Skinner explicitly discloses by way of introduction, and, there’s no doubt about it: New Order are definitely playing Blue Monday live. But when you couple the difficulty of performing what was then an entirely new genre of music and a studio not used to the demands of live acoustics, you get something of a car crash. The synths are overpowering and often out of step with the rest of the band, the mix is flat and vocalist Bernard Sumner, not a man known for his charisma at the best of times, looks and sounds like he’s been forced onstage and told to sing as part of a hostage situation. Even though today the whole thing feels oddly charming, Sumner’s awkward little laugh toward the end feels like an acknowledgement that he knows it’s all going tits-up. Still, despite the urban legend to the contrary, Blue Monday actually climbed the charts the next week, so it all worked out fine in the end. 

Faith No More – From Out Of Nowhere (1990) 

From Out Of Nowhere was re-released after the success of Faith No More’s breakthrough hit Epic and peaked at number 23 on the UK singles chart in 1990. The band were invited on to play the song and were asked to mime and lip-synch the entire thing. Now, unlike most artists who wanted to protest the policy, FNM’s Mike Patton decided that he would absolutely adhere to the request. Patton gurns, grimaces and contorts his face around the words, hilariously chewing up the scenery and leaving you in no doubt whatsoever that he is not singing the song, even though he technically hits every word. Now, was it a sharp piece of satire, mocking the absurdity of forcing artists to “play live” without actually playing anything live, or was Patton just mucking about? Look, the guy shat in a hairdryer, we have no idea what goes on in his head. But whatever the reason, it was certainly entertaining.  

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991) 

The most infamous troll in Top of the Pops' entire history? It surely must be. Nirvana turned up to the BBC studios armed with a generation-defining anthem in tow, only to be shocked when they were informed that they wouldn’t be able to play the song live. TOTP’s producers thought they had sated the grunge trio with a compromise that allowed vocalist Kurt Cobain to perform his vocals live. Nope. You know the result: bassist Kris Novoselic aimlessly throwing his bass up and down and rolling on the floor, Dave Grohl hitting either every drum or no drums at all like a toddler who has just sat behind a kit for the first time, and Kurt Cobain, barely touching his guitar, pulling a Jesus Christ-pose, singing like a stoned Morrissey, deliberately annunciating the “Load up on guns, kill your friends” line in the song and deep-throating his mic before a few members of the crowd rush the stage at the climax. Over 30 years later, it’s still an iconic and utterly glorious middle finger.  

Manic Street Preachers – Faster (1994) 

After the release of their thematically brutal 1994 masterpiece The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers were in visceral, harsh and untamable form. They could still pen a hit, though, and despite Faster being a song about self-abuse with the hook “so damn easy to cave in, man kills everything”, it still reached number 16 on the UK singles chart. Still, with the band in such nihilistic form, probably don’t invite them onto prime-time BBC to sing in-between The Brand New Heavies and Wet Wet Wet? MSP turned up to career through the song in full military regalia, with vocalist James Dean Bradfield wearing a balaclava that was perceived by many as a move to show support to the IRA. Incorrect though that assumption may have been, their performance still racked up an impressive record number of complaints to the show (over 25,000), as middle England shat its collective pants. Excellent work. 

The Eels – Novocaine For the Soul (1997) 

One of the most ingenious ways ever to mock the show's miming policy, when LA band The Eels' breakthrough single saw them invited onto Top of the Pops, they decided to treat themselves to a whole new set of equipment to use for the performance. Hilariously, though, they decided to purchase a bunch of miniature, child toy versions of their setup. Fair play to the band for playing it completely straight, even though their tiny guitars and drumkit look comedically absurd on fully grown men, until drummer Butch decides to pick his kit up one-handed and smash it to smithereens towards the song's end. His bandmates then join in, stomping their plastic replicas into pieces, in the process making us laugh, and upsetting every budding guitarist aged 5-7 who never got their toy six-string for Christmas.

Faith No More – Ashes to Ashes (1997) 

Another entry for the funk metal superstars, except this time it’s them having their performance ruined by a member of another band. When Ashes To Ashes charted in 1997, Faith No More were asked to come play the song on TOTP. Unfortunately, drummer Mike Bordin wasn’t available due to his touring commitments with Ozzy Osbourne. FNM recruited Robin Guy, drummer with UK glam rock revivalists Rachel Stamp, to fill in, giving him a mask of Bordin’s face and instructing him to wear it on the show. Guy, aware that this was a chance to be seen on telly by millions, defied the band’s orders and can be clearly seen whipping the mask off seconds into the performance, revealing his mug to everyone - including FNM vocalist Mike Patton, who was clearly furious that Guy had ignored his orders, and promptly spent most of the performance giving the stand-in drummer his middle finger in increasingly unsubtle ways.

Symposium – Fairweather Friend (1997) 

There was obviously something in the water in 1997, because here’s yet another entry from that year. They may have only enjoyed a brief moment of mainstream notoriety, but youthful Brit-rock band Symposium certainly earned their reputation as something of an uncontrollable live outfit. When their fourth single Fairweather Friend peaked at number 25 on the UK singles chart, the band came on to play it fully live on Top of the Pops, bringing what appears to be their entire fanbase along with them. Like any Symposium show, the performance is raucous, and a full-blown mosh pit opens up in front of the stage, which vocalist Ross Cummins promptly dives into. It inspires what may well be the largest stage invasion in TOTP’s history, as Ross is followed back on stage by most of the audience. Obviously, we’re used to seeing this sort of thing at gigs all the time but spare a thought for the poor Top of the Pops floor manager.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.