From 1968 to 1979, studio-based musicians in the employ of Pickwick Records in Britain, mimicked everyone from The Sex Pistols to Roxy Music. Eight albums were issued every year for 12 years, one every six weeks, with each albums 12 tracks recorded in four days or less.
Strikingly housed in sleeves adorned with Pans People look-alikes, those collections of faceless impersonators somehow shifted 300,000 copies at their peak, dominating the album charts in 1971. The rules were quickly changed to prevent budget releases ever sullying the Top 40 again.
They were pocket-money friendly – 95p at Woolworths in 1975 – and obviously weren’t the real thing. Even the title was a sleight of hand. Pickwick borrowed the name from the BBC after discovering it wasn’t registered. However, many an auntie must have given one to a sick nephew, thinking she’d bought the soundtrack to the TV show.
Tony Rivers, formerly leader of The Castaways and Harmony Grass, was a regular contributor. As a session singer, he treated the records as his calling card and disagrees with any suggestion that they were worthless. He argues that nobody would know the difference at a party . . . He’s probably right. But nowadays they’re clogging up charity shops and car boot sales at 50p a throw.
The series began in 1968 when producer Alan Crawford sold the idea to Pickwick Records. Bruce Baxter was recruited for Volume 4, auditioning with an arrangement of Cilla Black‘s Something’s Happening for Volume 3. Crawford left after Volume 14 in 1970, handing the reigns to Bruce.
Timing was vital. A committee at Pickwick consulted Music Week each Wednesday, choosing 12 titles and attempting to hoover up as many prospective Number One’s as possible. Bruce Baxter was sent the singles on Wednesday evening and immediately worked out the instrumental line-ups, to ensure the right instruments were booked for the studio.
“If there were strings on six songs, all of those would have to be done in one session” he explains. His next task was writing a score for each track by listening to the records.
The singers were charged with working out the lyrics. If they couldn’t, they improvised! Meanwhile Pickwick pre-printed the sleeves, choosing the shots of models from agency photos.
By 1975 the sessions began on the Friday after the tracks were chosen. “I kept moving backwards”, says Bruce, “I delivered on Wednesday in a state of abject knackerdness. For the first week after that I was gone – I’d just sleep”. Eventually he was dashing between three studios working in parallel – one for backing vocals, one for vocals and one for overdubs.
Of the finished product, Bruce says; “There were varying degrees of success. Some were very close to the original, virtually indistinguishable, but some left a bit to be desired.
We never had an awfully good Mick Jagger, though a few people had a go”.
Backing vocals were a problem until Bruce managed to bring Tony Rivers on board in time to take the lead on Chicory Tip‘s Son Of My Father on Volume 22. Tony and his vocal team of Stuart Calver, Ken Gold and John Perry contributed to the series until 1977.
“It was great experience” says Tony. “I never saw it as ridiculous. It’s your ass on the line – when the red light goes on you’ve got to sing it in tune, whether it’s Long Haired Lover From Liverpool or Bohemian Rhapsody“.
Bruce Baxter bowed out in 1978 after Volume 79. He had been solely responsible for 65 albums in the series. “The sales had begun to dwindle – they’d been hit by compilations of original artists”, he says. Pickwick pulled the plug in late 1979, although they briefly revived the idea in 1985 for Volume 92, a singular failure.
The Top of the Pops series was a vital part of the 70s pop scene – total sales must have topped three million – yet, inevitably, they’re treated with embarrassment or scorn by serious ‘rock’ fans. But those involved in their production were taxed almost to the limit of their skills.
Where irony-filled ABBA tributes are OK, these products of the 70s pop boom were created with an admirable absence of kitsch. Perhaps that’s why they’re still fun!
Music For Pleasure (MFP) – a joint venture between EMI and the publisher Paul Hamlyn set up in 1965 – also issued a series of LPs in the early 1970s containing anonymous cover versions of current hits. Called Hot Hits, the series ran to 20 before folding.