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Top of the TV pops: The best music shows of the 1960s

24 January 2019 ( 26 February 2021 )

From TOTP to American Bandstand via Beat Club - the best on-screen pop shows of the most poptabulous decade ever

Pop and rock records

As any pub quizzer worth his salt will tell you, the first music played on Radio1 was The Move’s Flowers in the Rain (actually, it wasn’t. It was Theme 1, composed by George Martin in between overseeing Beatles albums. The Move followed it). But even the most-quizzed-up might be pushed to name the first act/song on the first-ever Top of the Pops in 1964 – The Stones’ I Wanna Be Your Man.

TOTP is held up as the ‘great deliverer’, bringing pop music into living rooms throughout the UK, seemingly for as long (too long, perhaps) as we can remember. But what of its rivals? Who dared to challenge TOTP’s supremacy during the 1960s?

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Broadcast dates: 1961-1966
Channel/network: ITV, UK

Brasher than TOTP and with the advantage of a Saturday spot, it actually predated TOTP by three years. It successfully oversaw the early 60s British pop transition from basically rubbish to Beatlemania with the Fabs making only their second TV appearance on the show.

The three presenters were Keith Fordyce, who astutely jumped ship to Ready, Steady, Go; Jim Dale, who was to carve a very successful career on Broadway; and the great Brian Matthew who helmed Sounds of the 60s on Radio2 until 2017.

It included a sub-Juke Box Jury element, Spin-a-Disc, with Brummie voice of the people Janice Nicholls’ ‘Oi’ll give it foive’ attaining national catchphrase status for a mercifully brief moment. By 1966 it was in the final death throes of a struggle with the Musicians’ Union over artists miming.

Growing up with the Beatles

Juke Box Jury, BBC

Broadcast dates: 1959-1967
Channel/network: BBC, UK

The avuncular verging on oleaginous David Jacobs oversaw this Saturday night new releases hit-or-miss show. It was a Saturday evening staple for eight years, from its first broadcast in 1959. A hotel reception bell signalled a palpable hit in the eyes and ears of the panel. The asthmatic honk of a knackered klaxon gave it the thumbs-down.

It was an entertaining enough format, though typically of the time, you’d be as likely to find Thora Hird on the panel as any pop star of the day. Susan Stranks (later to decamp to ITV and Magpie fame) guested as the voice of teenaged Britain in the first show.  And you could revel in the embarrassment of panel and artist alike when a mystery guest heard their new release being defenestrated.

When the Beatles appeared on JBJ in December 1963 the nation came to a standstill. They gave everything a hit rating. In July 1964, The Stones, with yawning predictably, slagged off everything. Like all thing ‘pop’ it outlived its time and was brought mercifully to a close in December 1967. Its John Barry composed theme Hit and Miss, however, remains an earworm today.

Ready, Steady, Go! (RSG!)

Broadcast dates: 1963-1966
Channel/network: ITV, UK

‘The weekend starts here’ was its Friday night boast and with Manfred Mann’s 5-4-3-2-1 opener, who was to disagree?  It has entered television pop culture legend. You might say it created the legend. Even the portly, uncle figure Keith Fordyce couldn’t put a dampener on the proceedings. Co-presenter, Cathy McGowan, all Mary Quant cool but never flashy, still one of the girls, with an almost atonal delivery, gave it a cool that Stranks and Nicholls could never lend to its rivals.

RSG would host Tamla and Stax shows, giving black soul artists exposure they would never get over here, Dusty Springfield occasionally hosted and The Who got their own show. It was Mod through and through and if a camera banged into Fordyce or Cathy Mc tripped over a cable, then how cool was that?

The producers knew their audience, and the audience, in turn, loved the show. It was one of them. It never spoke down, always eye-to-eye.  Whatever came before and after – MTV et al - RSG remains the benchmark for pop music shows.

Colour Me Pop

Broadcast dates: 1968-1969
Channel/network: BBC2, UK

An oh-so-simple format from 1968-69 that gave bands 30 minutes to demonstrate their chops. For the RAF greatcoat brigade it was heaven-sent, with Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, Moody Blues, Caravan, Ten Years After etc  let loose to the horror of parents, while the likes of The Hollies, Move, Tremeloes, Small Faces and Equals showed they were more than just chart fodder. It lasted just over a year but, along with Lords of the Rings and Afghan coats, was de rigeur for discerning ‘hairies’ and was to pave the way for the Old Grey Whistle Test.

A Whole Scene Going

Broadcast dates: 1966
Channel/network: BBC, UK

While not strictly a pure pop show, it remains a monochrome, mid-60s time capsule A-lister. Artist and poet (Private Eye’s EJ Thribb) co-hosted this young people’s music/arts/discussion series. A serious-looking Eric Clapton is in the credits, and everyone from The Who to Lulu, Spencer Davis and the Pretty Things guested.

If you want to know what a skateboard looked like in 1966 (pretty much what one looks like now) this is the show to see. It was Swinging London brought to the small screen and therefore inevitably fell foul of sensitive, not-wishing-to-offend BBC middle management (twas ever thus). It lit up teen and twenty lives for a tragically brief while but soon A Whole Scene Going was a Whole Scene Gone.

For UK fans of US pop/rock artists, chances to see their heroes were few and far between, RSG, of course, and, depending on their UK chart position, TOTP were pretty much the only outlet over here for the likes of Cashbox and Billboard chart fixtures the Lovin’ Spoonful, Young Rascals, Tamla and Stax stables. The likes of the great Paul Revere and Raiders and The Association never got a look-in.

American Bandstand

Broadcast dates: 1952-1989
Channel/network: WFIL-TV/ABC, USA

This was the must-appear show. Hosted for most of its astonishingly long run by the frighteningly ever-youthful Dick Clark (one fears for the picture in his attic), it ran from 1952-1989, riding whatever changes rock music could throw at it over four decades and its ‘Mister Clean’ host. It pioneered the public record judging with Rate-a-Disc and from A-ha to 80s big-hair rockers Y&T practically every chart act played American bandstand, with the surprising exception of The Beatles and Stones. It was uncool, unhip and a real guilty pleasure for those too cool to admit to liking it at the time.


Broadcast dates: 1964-1966
Channel/network: ABC, USA

A great show created by the pioneering Jack Good in 1964, who’d pioneered the 50s pop show Oh Boy! in the UK, Good had a head start on US rivals on the British Invasion, and British bands were heavily featured, as were major US acts such as James Brown, The Ronettes, Beach Boys and the brilliant Lesley Gore.

Shindig was a lot cooler than its competitors (and US TV is nothing if not competitive), with a house band that included Glen Campbell, Get Back keyboard player Billy Preston  and guitarist Delaney Bramlett who formed the ground breaking Delaney, Bonnie and Friends and resurrected Eric Clapton’s career. On keyboards was Leon Russell who, after the acclaim of D&B’s European tour, helped himself wholesale to their Friends and sent Joe Cocker’s career into the stratosphere.

It regularly broadcast  from London and among its regular dancers (all shows had go-go dancers at the time) was Toni Basil, years before she inflicted Oh Mickey on us all. It only lasted two years but time and US TV ratings wait for no man.

The Ed Sullivan Show

Broadcast dates: 1948-1971
Channel/network: CBS, USA

A man with all the stage presence of Richard Nixon with sciatica, Sullivan was the most powerful TV entertainment figure throughout the 60s. He was the first to wise up to The Beatles and their 1964 appearance on his Sunday night show is a milestone in American pop culture.

In between mouse puppet Topo Gigio and assorted vaudeville turns he’d astutely slot in ‘something for the youngsters’, and even counter culture acts such as Jefferson Airplane and the Doors  knew to answer the call when Ed came a’knockin’.

There are themed DVDs on release of various band’ appearances on his show and together they make a decent chronicle of US chart history in the 60s.


Broadcast dates: 1965-1972
Channel/network: ARD, Germany

Despite hipster pretence that French pop is/was cool  (it’s not; it’s lamentable), it was Germany’s Beat-Club that kept continental Europe's TV pop afloat. It ran seven years, from September 1965, and leant heavily in a rockist direction, featuring US bands that couldn’t get a sniff of TV over here - Grateful Dead, MC5, Steppenwolf, Frank Zappa - while prog and heavy British rockers such as Led Zeppelin, ELP, Deep Purple, King Crimson and Black Sabbath were showcased.

The downside was the compering presence of the ‘Hairy Cornflake’, Dave Lee Travis, but when you trawl the Beat Club archives and stumble across Sharon Tandy’s Hold On, even that’s a price worth paying.


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