Top Gear: How the BBC Helped Careers of Iconic Musicians

Before streaming, social media, and the internet, many music fans learned about new artists and up-and-comers — as many of our readers remember — from visiting the record store and listening to the radio. Let’s speak specifically to radio right now.

In the UK, the BBC had a tight hold on the radio industry. The majority of their output included programming like The Archers, The Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour, and Friday Night is Music Night. All of these shows were groundbreaking in their own right and considered classics today, but when it came to programming to teenagers, the BBC fell almost flat. The one show British youth found engaging was The Saturday Club, presented by Brian Matthew and produced by Bernie Andrews had been on the air since 1957.

In the mid-1960s, however, pirate radio stations and Radio Luxembourg began drawing massive audiences of young music fans wanting to hear new and exciting sounds. The BBC decided to up their game and introduce new programming to bring back young listeners.

Introduced late at night on the BBC’s Light Programme (rebranded in 1967 as BBC Radio 2), the new high-energy and modern music show kicked off a chain of pop and rock sessions that have gone on to become legendary. What did they call this show? Top Gear.

Of course, this show did not feature Jeremey Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, or the Stig and nobody raced around in flashy cars giving droll commentary.

Howard Timberlake explains how the show received its name in his BBC Culture article about the programme:

“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”.

Hosted by Brian Matthew and produced by Bernie Andrews, the same team as The Saturday Club, Top Gear started out with a bang, featuring live sessions from Dusty Springfield and The Beatles. The programme mixed recordings and live guests for two hours. Unfortunately, however, the first version was cancelled in 1965 after only a year.

Two years later, the BBC reintroduced Top Gear with John Peel, Tommy Vance, and Pete Drummond on their newly-created Radio 1, their station directed at a youthful audience and a direct response to the popular pirate stations. Soon, John Peel became the sole presenter and Top Gear changed from an upbeat pop show to a progressive music show with a wide range of acts appearing thanks to Peel’s deep love and knowledge of music. A year later, “John Peel, along with producers Bernie Andrews and John Walters, had turned Top Gear in to an award-winning and highly respected programme”.

Some massive acts that played influential sessions on the show include Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, The Who, Free, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones, and the Kinks. With many of these musicians rising to superstardom after their performances on Top Gear, the sessions became incredibly important and showed that the programme was definitely on to something great.

Andrews also gave newer acts decent studio time, which helped nurture some of pop’s major 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”.

In 1975, the BBC pulled the plug on Top Gear, along with other programmes on Radio 1, after facing financial problems. John Peel continued his influential career in British popular music and broadcasting, however, with his Peel Sessions continuing for 37 years until his death in 2004. Both Peel and Top Gear were pioneers and gave musical acts of that era a chance to be heard and share their art with the youth of the United Kingdom. Without them, our musical landscape might have ended up vastly different than it did.

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