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MY AFTERNOON AS A STAR: Ugly Duckling on ‘Top of the Pops’

TOTP

I’ve got my passport and fifty dollars in that silly pouch around my neck

Recently, when I writing about Jimmie Nicol* and his strange experience as a temporary Beatle in 1964, it reminded me of a time when I, very briefly, was thrust into the unlikely position of Pop-Idol. In June of 1999, Ugly Duckling (the silly, hip-hop band of which I am a member) was given the opportunity to gig around Western Europe for 2 months as the opening act for rap legends ‘The Jungle Brothers’.  At this point in time, Rod, Dustin and I had never taken part in a musical tour and none of us, aside from brief, depressing trips across the Mexican border, had actually left the United States so, as one might imagine, we were very excited and completely out of our depth.  None the less, we over-packed our needlessly large suitcases and boarded a ‘Virgin Atlantic’ flight from LA to London with grand expectations on our minds and newly printed passports in our hands…

oh la la

‘Ooh La La’ single cover

Upon arrival at Heathrow airport, we were scooped up by a representative from our UK record label ‘Wall of Sound’ and taxied to a ‘Jury’s Inn’ where we’d share a double room and make the mistake of believing international calls on our hotel phone would be paid for by someone else.  That night, still jet-lagged and seriously confused, we went out to dinner with ‘Wall of Sound’ staff-members and a label-mate called ‘DJ Touché’ (now known as ‘Fake Blood’) who was enjoying success in the UK charts with his high-powered, ‘Big-Beat’ instrumental ‘Ooh La La’ which had been released under the name ‘the Wiseguys’.  After fighting my way through one terrible, English interpretation of a cheeseburger, I listened as our label’s owner Mark Jones politely asked if we’d be interested in posing as ‘Wiseguys’ for a few television appearances to help promote Touché’s hit song because, up to that point, he was spinning records with no back-up group which limited in his live presentation.  Honestly, in 1999, if a label exec had asked us to kidnap a ‘Spicegirl’, we would have responded, “Ginger or Posh?” so the request to be on TV was met with a resounding “YES” and no thought as to whether it was a smart career move; we didn’t have a career.

ansley

“STOP COOKING!!!”

We met Touché the next day to create a show routine for his track that had now climbed to #2 on the BBC top-20 and later in the afternoon, we were taken to a nearby TV studio to film a performance of ‘Ooh La La’ for a music show called ‘CDUK’ which was largely viewed by children.  It was new and fairly intimidating being around all of those lights, cameras and assistants but once the music started, we basically jumped around while rapping excitedly and, 45-minutes later, we were back in the over-crowded double-room watching ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’.  Our ‘CDUK’ performance aired the following Saturday but we never saw the broadcast because, that same morning, me and the guys were in a cramped, Vauxhall mini-van travelling to ‘Twickenham film studios’ in West London where we’d be appearing on the most famous music show in Europe; ‘Top of the Pops’.  I asked the few English people I knew (there wasn’t much of an internet at the time so one had to ask questions) about ‘Top of the Pops’ and was informed that every famous musician since the 1960’s had done ‘TOTP’ so I, being, even at this point, somewhat of a music historian was thrilled to take my place alongside of Jagger, Bowie and the guys who sang ‘Macarena’.

TOTP3

Knock-Knock “Can we borrow some hairspray?”

When the van arrived at Twickenham, we were escorted to a modest dressing room and once there, we realized that hairband heavyweights ‘Def Leppard’ were also on the show which only added to the surreal nature of the situation.  I couldn’t help but see the absurdity in a scenario where a totally inexperienced idiot like me was pretending to be in a hugely successful group as the lead-singer/rapper of a song I’d only just recently heard for a European television audience of millions.  Honestly, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and stand where the stage director told me to stand.

TOTP2

My adoring public

After rehearsing a few times for the cameras, I was able to slip outside of the studio where I came across hundreds of teen-aged girls lined-up to be a part of the ‘TOTP’ audience who would, in theory, be going wild for me.  Just beyond the sea of sequins and mini-skirts, I saw a few younger people standing at the front gates with pens and pads, waiting to get a celebrity signature from an actor coming or going from the lot and I will never forget the moment when one of those kids recognized me from the ‘CDUK’ show he’d seen just hours before and enthusiastically handed me his autograph pen.  In the spirit of the day’s ridiculousness, I happily accepted the request and seized the notepad having no idea where to sign, how large to write my name or whether I was supposed to include a little message (good luck, god bless…).  I scribbled something, snapped a photo of them and handed the boy his prize before I rushed back to wardrobe acting like I wasn’t over the moon.

getting read totp

DJ Touché and I getting outfitted

When I returned to the set, a stylist hired by ‘Wall of Sound’ presented me with an outfit I didn’t know I’d be wearing which I can only describe as a slim-fitting, schoolboy get-up with thin tie and nerdy glasses.  I had never worn a tie before so I was hugely embarrassed when the understandingly amused style-pro fixed my collar like the mother of a nervous teenage boy on prom night.  I was also uncomfortable with the tightness of my trousers because, as some might recall, Hip-Hoppers of that time wore only the baggiest of jeans but by this point, I didn’t even know what dimension of the universe I was inhabiting so I just went with it.  Minutes later, I found myself sitting in a lounge with Rick ‘Thundergod’ Allen, the one-armed drummer of ‘Def Leppard’ whom I, without thinking, asked if he wanted to join me in a video game on the backstage ‘Sega Dreamcast’ console; he politely demurred.  Next thing I knew, the director called for ‘The Wiseguys’ and we were briskly rushed to the famous ‘TOTP’ stage where we took our place under the lights as host Jamie Theakston introduced us and the music began to play.

tall tom totp

‘Wiseguy’ drummer ‘Tall’ Tom and Rodney being smug with a very young gold chain

Luckily, we didn’t mess up and the tune was so popular that the crowd was easy to please.  As a completely unseasoned entertainer, it was incredibly odd to watch an audience go nuts during a performance in which I was participating.  It felt like I was acting in a movie that, somehow, I was also watching; if that’s possible.  Earlier in the day, the boys and I had formulated a plan to invite the ladies in the first few rows to join us onstage for the final segment of the song in hopes of making it appear as if we created some kind of Beatlemania-esque female riot.  When the time came, we executed the plan to perfection and it worked so well that the entire audience rushed the stage nearly knocking all of us over.  As I was being swallowed by the crowd, I remember catching a glimpse of Mark Jones standing off to the side smiling with evil delight, I have to imagine the money was rolling in for ‘Wall of Sound’.  Finally, the song ended and, before I knew what had happened, the entire crowd was commanded, by bull-horn, to move quickly across the studio to reassemble for ‘Def Leppard’ who would be pouring their sugar on another stage.  Within minutes, all of us were piled back into the van and, after a goodbye wave from a TOTP staff member, our driver took off down the road leaving Twickenham studios and our Pop-stardom in the rear-view mirror.

TOTP host

How can I ever live up to the legacy left by Jimmy Savile?

That Thursday night, Rodney, Dustin and I gathered around a blurry television in Cardiff’s ‘Clwb Ifor Bach’ (that’s Welsh) to watch our big moment on ‘Top of the Pops’ where we’d be appearing with other popular, late 90’s acts ‘Sixpence (None the Richer)’, ‘Jamiroquai’ and ‘Supergrass’.  We were joined at the TV by a couple of ‘Jungle Brothers’ crew members who were anxious to see the opening act make fools of themselves on international airwaves; we didn’t disappoint.  I sat nervously as the jaded roadies shared hearty chuckles and snide comments while watching us bounce around the 15-inch screen like smartly-dressed monkeys with microphones.  That said, everyone agreed that we didn’t look completely amateurish and, kind of, pulled it off; I’ll give all the credit to the ‘TOTP’ editing department.  Our small viewing party sarcastically applauded when the performance ended on a close-up of me being mobbed by the studio audience, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Then, someone switched off the TV, the crew went back to work and the whole thing was never mentioned again.

Later that evening, I walked around Cardiff in the vain hope that someone would spot me and cry joyful, ecstatic tears while I put on a falsely modest show of humility, but I was to have no such luck.  In fact, I never met anyone who saw the program and, of course, all the people I knew at the time lived in California where ‘Top of the Pops’ would never be aired so there I found myself, a Pop star without a fan in the world, not unlike someone who wins ‘The Voice’ or ‘X-Factor’.  I very ignorantly thought that it would only be a matter of time before my group would also hit the musical heights and triumphantly return to ‘TOTP’ to promote our own song but, alas, it wasn’t to be.  Somehow, my pop-stardom was over before I knew it ever began and, for whatever reason, that now seems very appropriate for an Ugly Duckling.

 

*For the lowdown on Jimmy Nicol, read my article ‘Beatle for a Week’

Posted on by andycooper in RAP RELATED, THE UGLY (DUCKLING) TRUTH

5 Responses to MY AFTERNOON AS A STAR: Ugly Duckling on ‘Top of the Pops’

  1. Martin Matthews

    You know, Andy, your writing is highly entertaining. And I have to leave you with this thought: Can anyone really remember those TOTP acts ten or twenty years on? I doubt it. But what they do remember is the joy and entertainment your music has brought them over the years. 16 years on and I still love listening to you guys. There’s an eternal sort of stardom, of touching people’s souls through music and writing and creativity. To that end, you guys will always be the top of the pops.

    • andycooper

      thanks for the very kind words Martin, we’ve always done our best to produce high-quality content in the studio and on the stage (on the blog as well in my case). God willing, i am determined to remain creative and dynamic as an artist and i hope will you enjoy my output in the future. please keep checking in on the site and give me your opinion of ‘Free EP’ when it goes public on the 28th, I’d love to hear what you think.

      thanks again,
      ac

  2. Stone Monkey

    I do remember that TOTP performance – I’ve keep checking to see if someone’s put it up on Youtube – I’m sure you had a very short haircut on it and I remember you and Dizzy prancing around in black trousers, white shirts (short-sleeved, I think) and skinny black ties 😉

    • andycooper

      that was it! dizzy was not happy about tucking in his tight button-down shirt

  3. DJ Moneyshot

    What a surreal anecdote – it just got madder and madder. If you could turn back time would you have challenged the drummer to a game of ‘thumb wars’ instead? I bet he’s undefeated.

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