In the mid-1960s the BBC was concerned. Pirate radio stations and the commercial broadcaster Radio Luxembourg were drawing in huge audiences of young British music fans, hungry for new and exciting musical sounds. It was clear that ‘Aunty Beeb’ was losing the nation’s youth, and that something must be done.
Until then, the BBC’s radio output was a relatively pastoral landscape of programming that included The Archers, The Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour, and Friday Night is Music Night. The quality was high - plenty of these programmes were groundbreaking and still stand up as classics today. On the flip side, the offering of BBC music shows that British teenagers found engaging was mainly limited to The Saturday Club. This early pop programme was presented by Brian Matthews, produced by a young and ambitious Bernie Andrews and had been a stalwart of the airwaves since 1957.
From 1945, the BBC’s Light Programme was the corporation’s main output of light entertainment and music. It was on this station where the BBC’s new lively, modern music show would land (late at night, mind you) and kick off a chain of pop and rock sessions that have now gone down in recorded music history.
What’s in a name?
The name Top Gear, chosen by a competition winner, referenced the slang word ‘gear’ for fashionable Carnaby Street clothing and the Beatles’ popular expression ‘fab gear’. Contrived as it may sound now, the name was a statement of intent from the BBC, which wanted to connect with the trendy fans of the underground British music scene.
The first episode, presented by Brian Matthew and produced by Bernie Andrews, got off to an impressive start with live sessions from Dusty Springfield and The Beatles. The format mixed recordings and live guests and lasted for two hours. This first incarnation of Top Gear only lasted a year and was axed in 1965.
Fast forward two years and Top Gear had been revived with presenters John Peel, Tommy Vance and Pete Drummond at the helm. Meanwhile, the BBC had decided to create a new radio station for their younger audience – Radio 1 – in a direct response to the ultra-popular pirate stations. It was on BBC Radio 1 where Top Gear had found its more suitable home.
Peel, with his relaxed and personable presenting style, may have seemed like an unusual choice for an upbeat pop show. But in the long-run, it was exactly what the programme needed and it wasn’t long before John Peel became the sole presenter. Top Gear was changing into a progressive music show and Peel’s deep love for, and knowledge of, a broad range of music resulted in a wide roster of acts appearing, right through into the 1970s.
Nature and nurture
A year after its revival, John Peel, along with producers Bernie Andrews and John Walters, had turned Top Gear in to an award-winning and highly respected programme. Acts who played influential sessions for Top Gear during its lifetime included Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, The Who, Free, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. Many of these acts made the big time after their performances on the programme, making their Top Gear sessions even more important. Whether their success was a direct result of their appearance on Top Gear or other means, it proved that Top Gear was on to something good.
Andrews’ dedication to giving newer acts decent studio time meant that Top Gear also helped nurture some of pop music’s brightest stars. One of those performers was a young David Bowie. During Bowie’s stuttering start to life as a mainstream act, he performed a number of times on Top Gear. “We kept Bowie alive for a couple of years,” said John Peel on Radio 1’s Radio Radio programme in 1986. “He went through a bad patch of not getting very much work and people not paying a great deal of attention to him. He did a lot of sessions [for Top Gear] during that time.”
In 1975, faced with financial strife, the BBC decided to call time on Top Gear as part of a wider cutback to Radio 1’s schedule. The programme may have dropped out of fashion by that time, but John Peel continued to be a massively influential figure in British popular music and broadcasting. His Peel Sessions took the baton from Top Gear and the programme continued on Radio 1 for 37 years until Peel’s death in 2004.
Like John Peel, Top Gear will be remembered for its pioneering nature – giving so many bands that much needed space to blossom and to be heard. It handed them time and let their talents shine.
As for the name ‘Top Gear’, well… whatever happened to that?
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