From 1968 to 1982, 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 on Pickwick’s Hallmark label, one every six weeks, with each album’s 12 tracks recorded in four days or less.
Strikingly housed in sleeves adorned with Pans People look-alikes and outline lettering designed to leap off any brightly coloured background, the 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.
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 reins 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 #1’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.
Meanwhile, Pickwick pre-printed the sleeves, choosing the shots of models from agency photos. NB: It is not true that blue movie queen Mary Millington posed for one of the covers early in her career (the blonde beauty gracing the cover of Volume 29 is the usual mistaken identity).
The singers were charged with working out the lyrics. If they couldn’t, they improvised.
Across the full spectrum of releases, vocalists like Tony Rivers, Martha Smith, John Perry and Danny Street can be heard aping everyone from Donny Osmond to Johnny Rotten.
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 (ex-Harmony Grass) 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 a 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“.
A number of other uncredited singers who went on to become stars themselves included Tina Charles, Trevor Horn and Elton John, who provided the vocals for covers of Spirit In The Sky, Yellow River and Come and Get It.
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 1982 after the 91st release, 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.