In the few years before K-Tel and Ronco locked down the market segment dedicated to officially licensed compilations of recent rock and pop hits, there existed a demand for budget LPs with experienced session musicians reverse-engineering.recent hits to the best of their ability. If, as a listener, you are indifferent to craft and just want some recent chart-toppers pulsating through your stereo system, then why not buy an album like that, right? It’s 99% as good and costs less.
The world leader in this peculiar industry was, without much doubt, the “Top of the Pops” series put out by the budget Pickwick label between 1968 and the early 1980s, although their heyday was the mid-1970s. Listening to these tracks today yields an odd variety of delight, like watching a pirated DVD purchased on Canal St. or wearing an obvious knockoff of a Rolex watch.
As you can see, Pickwick’s strategy was pretty evident: Package together a dozen or so recent radio faves at the barest minimum cost and put a picture of a pretty girl on the cover. To put this into context, according to this affable enthusiast of these “TOTP” LPs, in 1970s England a full-price album cost about £2.10, and a 7-inch single ran 50p apiece. At 75p, the TOTP albums were a fantastic deal, and customers gobbled them up. They came out every six weeks or so.
The series was founded by a producer named Alan Crawford, but he quit after finishing work on Vol. 14 in late 1970. Bruce Baxter took over the project and was responsible for many of the most beloved/scorned volumes, taking care of the next 65 volumes, all the way into 1980. In its Sept. 2000 issue, MOJO Magazine took a look at the beloved old TOTP LPs, and Baxter was interviewed for that piece. These albums were recorded very quickly, usually in a week—Baxter would receive the dozen tracks to be recorded on a Wednesday, he would score the tracks for the session musicians on Thursday; on Friday the recording sessions would begin. By the next Wednesday, “in a state of abject knackeredness” he would deliver the completed tracks to the label. Baxter also mentioned that the session singers on these LPs usually were given no more than a quarter-hour to nail down their vocal track! Wow wow wow, that’s crazy.
Most of the songs they covered constitute your basic classic treasury of disposable pop treasures. But every now and then they decided to mimic something more special, and the results are predictably jaw-dropping. Examples include David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” and the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.”
Not all of the imitations are uniformly terrible—you can nod your head in a gesture of strained respect some of the time—but when they start trying to reproduce a dizzying track like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” that’s when they get into trouble. For sheer awfulness it’s hard to top the Poppers’ versions of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” or Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” The Kraftwerk cover is particularly striking—Baxter told MOJO that it was “very hard,” continuing that “I did it all myself on an ARP2500 synth. It took the best part of the day.”
We’ve embedded six YouTube videos below of these reverse-engineered tracks; I opted to focus on some Dangerous Minds favorites here, like Bowie, Dury, Bush, Blondie, and so forth. But there’s tons more out there, you just have to do a little research, which is very easy (YouTube search string “dancing queen poppers,” et al.). Many of these bizarre tracks are available on Amazon; all you have to do is put in the title and the word “Poppers” or “Top Poppers” and it will come up if it’s available (here’s an example). Here’s a basic general list; I’ve gone to the trouble of linking to Amazon for the six tracks that follow.
TOTP “Life on Mars”:
TOTP “Wuthering Heights”:
TOTP “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”:
TOTP “Pretty Vacant”:
TOTP “Heart of Glass”:
Thank you Darren Dodd!