Friday, 12 November 2010

Great lost pop papers #1: Top Pops

It’s hard to believe nowadays, but in the heyday of the British music press several newspapers appeared weekly. Most music fans have heard of Melody Maker, Record Mirror and the NME, and some have heard of Disc and Sounds – but Top Pops is the one that got away. Even the British Library doesn’t hold copies in its press archive. Published by Woodrow (later Lord) Wyatt as part of his short-lived attempt to become a print mogul, it first appeared in May 1967, and ran fortnightly until November 1967, when it became weekly. 


Colin Bostock-Smith was appointed editor in the summer of 1967, and used the paper to build a bridge between light pop coverage and the more serious approach that was emerging as albums overtook singles in popularity . Last week I asked him a few questions about his time at Top Pops, and he kindly answered them as follows:

Were you always a pop enthusiast?
Yes! Some would say an over-enthusiast… I was born in 1942, so I was exactly the right age for rock and roll when it all happened. I went to boarding school, so hearing music on Radio Luxembourg was a big thing. I was especially fond of Little Richard – still am.

How did you get into pop writing?
After leaving school I became a journalist on various local papers, and was soon running the pop pages, as well as managing various semi-professional groups. Eventually I became a features sub on the London Evening Standard, and was working there when I heard that Top Pops was looking for a new editor. This would have been in the summer of 1967, a few weeks after it started.

What did the job involve?
The owner, Woodrow Wyatt (of all people), had started Top Pops in the hope of cashing in on the pop scene, but by 1967 the era of screaming girls had largely ended, and music was being taken much more seriously. He therefore wanted the paper to become less girly and more journalistic, in the hope that it would attract advertising from record companies (which was how such publications made money, rather than from sales). Needless to say, he had no interest in pop music himself. I decided what went in, and wrote quite a lot of it with my colleague Gordon Coxhill, who was a lovely chap. Editorial was basically a two-man effort, and my main memories of Top Pops are of us frantically getting each new edition together. I lost touch with Gordon years ago, and have tried to find him on Google, but nothing much comes up. It would be terrific to be back in touch with him.

How did you decide on what to write about?
To fill the paper each week we had to cover as much as we possibly could. There was a lot of ducking and diving – part of the appeal of the pop scene for me was how dodgy it was; you never quite knew where you were with anybody. A lot of the content was dependent on who an artist’s publicist was, and if I had a good relationship with him or her. If you were friendly with the publicist, you would get invited to a gig or a launch party, and then write about the artist. Derek Taylor would slip me Beatles stories. I remember we attacked John Peel one week in April 1968. It was only mischief, but we got a lot of flak for it. But my overall memory is of sitting in the Top Pops office, drawing up layouts and desperately trying to get the thing out on time!

How did Top Pops differ from the other pop weeklies?
Woodrow Wyatt owned his own printing press, in Banbury, so we had access to good quality technology, which meant we could add colour pages, which set us apart a bit. In fact, the only copy I still have is from December 1967, and has various colour stills from Magical Mystery Tour in the centre pages, which still look great. But in general I was so absorbed with just getting the thing out in time that I didn’t pause to analyse our place in the market. We were hopefully somewhere in between girls who wanted pin-ups and something more substantial for serious music fans. Another difference between us and the competition was that we were based in Banbury to start with, but I soon persuaded Wyatt to move us to Fleet Street, where things were much livelier – and for a short time it was terrific fun.

Do you recall any particular interviews or encounters with musicians?
I saw Cream playing in a dive in South London shortly after they formed in the autumn of 1966, and remember thinking that they were a sensation waiting to happen. I remember a very tricky interview with Long John Baldry, who treated everything I said sarcastically. I don’t blame him – he was obviously bored of being a pop star, and had probably already been asked the same questions hundreds of times. Sadly Jimi Hendrix didn’t turn up to our interview (though Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell did), so I never met him. I remember Janis Joplin living up to her reputation, with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Southern Comfort in the other. And I remember the launch of Mary Hopkin’s Postcard album in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower in February 1969 – one notoriously unstable member of the music press managed to put the controls onto high speed! I didn’t go into recording studios much, but I do remember visiting Roy Wood when he was recording the single Brontosaurus. I asked him what 'Brontosaurus' meant, and he said it was far too rude to tell me. Since then I’ve worked it out for myself, but it's far too rude to tell you. He’s a splendid man, is Mr. Wood.

What was the circulation of Top Pops?
I have no idea. At one point I remember claiming on the masthead that it was 78,000, but that sounds very unlikely! There was also a German edition for a while – Wyatt brought some poor linguist in to translate each edition, before it was sent over there for printing. God knows how many that sold.

German edition, August 19th 1968

How did record reviewing work?
You’d tear open the latest package of LPs from a record company, stick an album on and start writing! We couldn’t be too high-minded about it, as we needed their advertising. It was usually done in an hour and-a-half on a Sunday afternoon, as I recall. Tony Macaulay, who was a terrifically successful songwriter at the time, reviewed the singles for us each week. I have no idea what was in it for him, but he obviously liked doing it. Unfortunately I got rid of all of my records at a car boot fair in about 1980.

Rare info about CBS signings The Fox, 4/68
How did your association with Top Pops come to an end?
It was actually quite funny. Wyatt was the sort of person who behaved like an eccentric aristocrat, though he wasn’t one, and because he was self-important, people began to treat him as if he was important. We’d been striving to move away from the old-fashioned style of pop writing, but sometime in the summer of 1968 he ordered me to give Russ Conway a weekly column. I ignored him, and as he wasn’t used to being ignored, he fired me in September for ‘not conforming to the Chairman’s suggestions’! But I had my revenge by giving the story to Private Eye.

The flimsy Top Pops annual, autumn 1969
Nifty Led Zep piece from the above
What came next for you?
I became editor of Rave magazine, which was fun. While working there I asked John and Yoko to design a peace poster as the prize for some competition or other. Instead of just knocking something off, they actually made a real effort to produce something impressive. If it still exists, someone somewhere is sitting on a fortune! I went along to meet them with all the anti-Yoko prejudices that you’d expect, but she was so charming that I was completely won over. Anyway, after Rave I worked on some women’s magazines, then moved into TV writing, thank goodness. There was a time when I could have recited the whole top 20 and the names of all the musicians in each band, but by the end of the 1960s my interests were changing – and there’s nothing sadder than an elderly pop journalist.

Colin Bostock-Smith
Colin went on to become one of Britain’s leading TV comedy writers. An interview about his subsequent career can be found hereAs for Top Pops, Colin was replaced as editor by Jeff Tarry, then John Halsall. In September 1969 it changed its name to Top Pops & Music Now, and in March 1970 it became plain Music Now, before going out of business in May 1971. Top Pops and Music Now are treasure troves of arcane information about British pop, but both are pretty scarce these days. If you have any copies, please get in touch!

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