Retro chart for stowaways – 31 March 2007

Due to a whole bundle of personal things coming up, I need a bit more space to get the charts posted, so here’s a retro chart from 12 years ago this week:

  1. Air – Once Upon a Time
  2. Onetwo – Cloud Nine
  3. Tracey Thorn – It’s All True
  4. Client – Drive
  5. Client – Zerox Machine
  6. LCD Soundsystem – North American Scum
  7. Faithless – Bombs
  8. Client – Lights Go Out
  9. Eric Prydz Vs. Floyd – Proper Education
  10. CSS – Off the Hook
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History of the UK Charts – Singles (Part 2)

As will become clear from this series of posts, the UK’s Official Charts Company has a slightly strange code around what is and isn’t considered an official chart. From 1969 onwards, despite some slightly confusing recent attempts at revisionism, we can pretty much all agree on what is and isn’t official. But the first seventeen years of the chart are rather more complex, and have tended to cause a degree of controversy among chart watchers.

Much of the blame for this can be given to The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, compiled by Paul Gambaccini, Mike Read, Tim Rice and Jo Rice, and published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first chart in July 1977.

We can all agree that the NME Top 12 was the first published chart, starting in November 1952, which had grown to a Top 30 by the end of the 1950s, but for British Hit Singles, the decision was made to stop using that chart in March 1960, and switch to Record Retailer’s Top 50.

This has disadvantaged certain releases, perhaps most famously The Beatles‘ Please Please Me, which hit the top spot on the NME chart in March 1963, but only got to number two on the now-canonical Record Retailer chart. But the crux of the controversy appears to twofold: NME had a much higher circulation, so was better known by the public; and the size of the sample it used to compile charts was much larger – NME was sampling around 100 retailers, whereas Record Retailer was only sampling around 30.

The counter-argument, which doesn’t appear to be given often, is that of course Record Retailer (later renamed Music Week) was a trade magazine, established by record labels and dealers in August 1959, and so while its distribution was naturally smaller, its reputation should have been more solid. Their chart also seems to have been audited by slightly more reliable (and external) sources than other publications. Also, by March 1962, Record Mirror was also carrying these charts, surely increasing their reputation further still?

But neither the NME nor Record Retailer chart was, of course, really official at the time, the most recognised charts were really the ones in the publications that sold the most. But once British Hit Singles had decided what was official, that decision stuck, and now even the Official Charts Company follows that standard too.

Record Retailer

Record Retailer was launched as the trade magazine for independent record retailers, from August 1959, and when it switched the following year from being a monthly to weekly publication, it also started its own chart. Although published using returns from a small number of retailers (around 30), they produced the largest chart yet, a Top 50, and it was technically superior – it used postal returns, and whereas their competitors allowed tied positions, the Record Retailer chart compared the rate of change in sales to declare an absolute leader.

Crucially, Record Retailer’s chart was also independently audited, meaning that at least within the music business, it could be considered to have a degree of authority. This didn’t mean it was immune to abuse, though, as numerous accounts exist of record companies employing people to bulk-buy records.

Niche Charts and Reconciliation

It should come as little surprise that by the early 1960s, pretty much everybody had their own charts. The pirate radio stations were making charts up for themselves, and Merseybeat each launched one of their own in 1962. Within five years, one had merged into another publication, and the other had ceased to exist. 1962 also saw Record Mirror give up on its own chart, and start carrying the Record Retailer chart. Disc & Music Echo continued until 1967 before winding down its chart.

Modern-day chart watchers make laboured but persuasive arguments for regarding the NME chart as more official than the Record Retailer one during this period. The Official Charts Company rightly accepted the decision of the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles to use the Record Retailer ones, but at the same time, NME’s was very popular, Melody Maker’s was also widely used, and the Pick of the Pops chart was very well known.

This came to a head in August 1968, when the BBC’s points-based system led to a three-way tie at number one, between The Bee GeesThe Beach Boys, and Herb Alpert. They started working with Record Retailer to develop a new, official chart.

The Official Chart

From February 1969 onwards, there is no argument about which one the “official” chart is, as the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) took over compilation of the charts, which were used by Record Retailer, Record Mirror, and BBC Radio 1. NME and Melody Maker were invited to take part, but the high costs of collecting a reliable chart appear to have prevented them from joining.

It had its teething problems – notably, the early BMRB charts contained multiple tied positions. It was initially compiled as a Top 50, although during a newspaper strike from February to March 1971, only a Top 40 was published (and a Top 20 broadcast on BBC Radio 1), and a postal strike in early 1973 led to only a Top 30 being published. This led to BMRB using motorcycle couriers to collect sales data, and by the mid-1970s it was well accepted as the official UK chart.

Apart from those blips, the chart remained a Top 50 until May 1978, when it grew to a Top 75 while BBC Radio 1 started taking interest in the Top 40. The chart remained a Top 75 until the 2012 relaunch of the Official Charts Company website, when they started listing the Top 100 Singles as official.

The compilers have changed, and the rules have changed many times, but for the last fifty years, the official UK chart has remained the most widely recognised source of information about musical successes in the UK.

On the Radio

Radio Luxembourg had been broadcasting charts for several years by this stage, starting with sheet music charts, then switching to the NME Top 20 until July 1965, when they worked with NME to use their Friday chart. In spring 1967, Paul Burnett replaced this with an airplay chart, but they were losing ground to the BBC. From 1970, they tried to predict the next week’s charts instead, and saw varying degrees of success.

The BBC Light Programme’s Pick of the Pops show had been broadcasting various charts from September 1957 onwards. In March 1958, David Jacobs started using a points-based system to combine the charts, counting them down live. Alan Freeman took over, still using the same system and overseeing the show’s move to Sunday nights and then later to BBC Radio 1 in October 1967. The show started using the new official BMRB chart at some point after it launched in February 1969.

Pick of the Pops was replaced by Tom Browne‘s Solid Gold Sixty in October 1972, featuring highlights and the full Top 20. Simon Bates took over in April 1978, who saw the show extended to a two hour show playing the full Top 40, before passing on the baton to Tony Blackburn the following year.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Tommy VanceRichard SkinnerBruno Brookes, and Mark Goodier took the helm, as the show grew to two-and-a-half and then three hours. This, the iconic format remained, fronted by Wes ButtersJK and JoelFearne CottonReggie YatesJameela Jamil, and Clara Amfo until it finally left the Sunday slot.

The Chart Show moved to Friday afternoons in July 2015, with Greg James taking over as presenter, and then Scott Mills jumped into the role more recently.

Next time: the birth of the UK Album Chart.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

Jem – Finally Woken

Fifteen years is a very long time – long enough for pop music to have got a lot less interesting, apparently. This week in 2004 saw Jem appear pretty much out of nowhere with her debut album Finally Woken. But things took a while to get going for her – she didn’t actually manage to enter the charts until early 2005. But the US version of the album appeared almost a year earlier, and despite barely charting (it peaked at number 197) apparently led to a substantial underground following. Having written for Madonna‘s preceding album, she had strong credentials already.

It opens on fine form, with the hit single They, which was a top ten hit the year after the album came out. It has some odd production in places, with the weird child samples and the mandolin section at the first break, but in general, it’s just surprising and unusual enough to stick out, and definitely catchy enough to earn a place in the charts.

Come on Closer also presents some slightly eccentric production, but with this track it flows a lot more smoothly – the childlike verse parts contrast beautifully with the grungy guitars of the chorus. It’s a great song

Title track Finally Woken has a sweet, springlike quality with a trippy beat, but somehow after the first couple of tracks, the production here just feels a bit boring. It isn’t, of course – there’s plenty going on – they just seem a bit shorter of ideas on this track. Ironically, this was the song that broke her, after she dropped a demo off at KCRW.

Save Me is great, with a brilliantly lazy organ part playing in the background, and some dirty guitar work in the foreground. At their best, Jem‘s songs are sonically eccentric and exploratory, and Save Me is definitely a good example of that. Ironically, the songwriting feels secondary – and these are all good songs, but so much thought has been put into designing the production that it’s hard not to focus on that.

Much of the success of this album is owed to Jem taking a leaf out of Moby‘s book, and licensing every track to be used on television and advertising. In the UK, the strategy was a little more traditional, taking the radio and media plugging route, although plenty of the songs made it onto the media as well.

24 marks a transition – there’s still plenty of work been put into the production, and that never really fails throughout the whole album. But it just feels as though it’s starting to get a bit old now – we’re five tracks in now, and the vocals are still hidden behind heavily overproduced backing. If you didn’t like the first few tracks, you’re not going to like this.

So it continues – Missing You is a lovely atmospheric piece, but as always, the vocals are so deep in the mix that it’s difficult to really enjoy the song when it’s hidden so deep under the instrumentation. Similarly, Wish I has a sweet sixties pop feel, that almost works beautifully, but somehow doesn’t quite seem to work in full. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what the problem is here – maybe it just had its moment fifteen years ago and isn’t quite as relevant any more. Still, I’m a fine one to talk…

The album’s far from over by this stage – second single and significant UK hit Just a Ride follows, and is another of the better moments on here. It’s also another of the four tracks on here lifted directly from Jem‘s debut EP It All Starts Here…, and although the production team is essentially the same, it’s tempting to wonder whether they had lost a bit of momentum when they came to finish the album off. Just a Ride has a slightly more traditional pop production, which serves the song well.

But that’s pretty much it – the trio that close the album, Falling for You, Stay Now, and Flying High, are all perfectly nice, but in this overproduced state it’s apparently difficult to introduce new ideas at such a later state, and somehow any special qualities that the songs might have had get a bit lost in the mix. All fine, and easy to listen to, but difficult to find much to love.

What’s funny, listening to these last few tracks, is that you can imagine each of them playing their part in a dramatic scene of some teen drama, and since that’s how the album was marketed, maybe that’s the angle they were going for. Any one of them could be deeply meaningful to me if I’d seen Temperance making out with Deuteronomy in the closing episode of 90416. I didn’t, unfortunately.

So Finally Woken is a conflicted album in a way – it’s great at the start, and it’s probably fair to say that this would be true whatever the track order would have been. But allowing the songwriting to play a distant second fiddle to the production comes at a cost, namely that a full hour of this kind of thing gets a little tiresome. Or maybe I’d just heard most of it already – working with the same producer who worked on Frou Frou and Björk means that a lot of this had been on the charts for several years already by this stage.

You can still find Finally Woken from all major music retailers.

Chart for stowaways – 23 February 2019

This is the latest album chart for stowaways:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Equinoxe Infinity
  2. Ladytron – Ladytron
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Planet Jarre
  4. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  5. The Radiophonic Workshop – Possum (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  6. Moby – Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.
  7. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  8. LCD Soundsystem – Electric Lady Sessions
  9. David Bowie – Let’s Dance
  10. The Prodigy – No Tourists

History of the UK Charts – Singles (Part 1)

The sixty-seven year history of the official UK Singles Chart is complex, in part because its first seventeen years weren’t actually official. From 1952 to 1955, there was just one chart, so we can all agree that the NME chart should be regarded as “canonical” now – but from 1955 to 1969, you could choose between at least two, and sometimes as many as four or five, and it’s really up to you which you prefer.

This was, of course, an era when many record companies still ran their own shops (which explains how HMV seemed to have switched from company to retailer at some point) and were only just getting the hang of selling each other’s releases. Initially, the choices of chart were fairly simple – NME, Record Mirror, Melody Maker, and Disc & Music Echo all had their own charts, and you probably just preferred the one that was published in your favourite publication. By the 1960s, though, things got a lot more complicated.

So for this week, let’s focus on the 1950s, when somewhere between 12 and 60 of the UK’s best selling releases were catalogued every week in various publications.

The First Charts

The UK’s first recognised chart was published on 14th November 1952 in New Musical Express (NME). Supposedly, the management of the newspaper contacted a number of shops and built a list of 53 who were willing to share sales data. Their then advertising manager Percy Dickins phoned a selection of around 15 to 25 stores every Monday to gather sales data. Each store would provide their top ten records, and Dickins would then use a point-based system to compile this into a single chart, which appeared as a Top 12 on initial publication.

Just over two years later, on 22nd January 1955, a second publication launched a chart, as Record Mirror started publishing a Top 10. Starting with a sample of 24 stores, it quickly grew to 60, and the chart grew in size too. The following year, Melody Maker followed suit, publishing a singles chart alongside its Top Tunes sheet music chart, based initially on returns from 19 stores, crucially including sales from Northern Ireland for the first time. In 1958, Disc & Music Echo launched its chart, a Top 20 based on returns from 25 stores, and from the following year became the first to award gold and silver discs for particularly high sellers.

But by the start of the 1960s, NME’s chart was probably the best known. Its sample size had grown to around 50-60, and charts were being syndicated to Billboard for publication in the USA. It was published by a number of regional newspapers, and broadcast weekly on Radio Luxembourg.

Record Mirror’s chart also held some sway, sometimes sampling more than 60 retailers and apparently published by more newspapers than any other, while the other two initial competitors put fewer resources into their operations.

By the end of the 1950s, there was a fifth chart, broadcast on BBC Light Programme’s Pick of the Pops – this used a points-based system to combine all four of the contemporary charts, and due to the size of the listenership, was better known by some than its contributors.

So during the course of the 1950s, the UK had gone from no music charts to four major ones already, competing to be the best regarded. Which would take its place as the official chart? Well, none of them, actually, as we’ll find out next week.

On the Radio

As we explored last week, Radio Luxembourg had been broadcasting sheet music charts for several years before the sales charts started, and they didn’t switch until the end of 1959, when they started broadcasting the NME Top 20.

Replacing the previous Hit Parade show, the BBC Light Programme started its Pick of the Pops show in 1955, and from September 1957 onwards, presenter Alan Dell started reading out the various charts and playing highlights. More details on that next week.

Next time: part 2 of our exploration of the UK Singles Chart.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above: