History of the UK Charts – The Early Years

Growing up, as you and I did, in the UK in the 1980s or 1990s, you can’t have escaped the charts. Nothing could beat the excitement of turning on BBC Radio 1 on a Sunday, late afternoon, and hearing someone counting down the Top 40, mispronouncing all of your favourite stars as you found out who would make the top spot.

Of course, these days, the charts are nowhere near as exciting (as we all know, most things used to be better in some way), and the UK has about a hundred different genre and format charts to digest. But long before you or I ever took an interest in the charts, their early roots were a whole lot more complex than you would imagine.

Top Tunes

Unfortunately the vast majority of British music publications are now long lost in history, but Melody Maker should be one of the most famous. It ran for nearly 75 years in the UK, before being merged into its competitor NME. It launched in January 1926, and around 1942 published its first Top Tunes chart.

Top Tunes chronicled something that may seem somewhat alien these days – sales of sheet music. Prior to that, BBC Radio seems to have also briefly flirted with a sheet music chart as early as 1936. Initially published irregularly, and in alphabetical order, the Top Tunes list finally settled down as a formal chart in July 1946.

Sheet music had been a key source of revenue as the music business started to take shape in the late 19th century, and while phonographs and gramophones rose quickly in popularity, the speed of 78 rpm for records was only formally set around 1925, and electrical recording only started in 1926. Then the Great Depression hit, and the nascent record industry went into rapid decline, but jukeboxes appear to have continued to grow in popularity.

Shellac gave way to vinyl as the record material of choice during the 1930s, and after the end of the Second World War, the familiar 33 1⁄3 and 45 rpm formats appeared, and consumption of music on record started to take over.

But in fact, the Top Tunes list survived into the 1980s, and some later sources have even used its early years as a guide to what music was popular before the charts formally launched, but this seems a little misguided to me.

The Billboard Chart

Billboard was the US entertainment industry’s trade magazine, launching in 1896, and by the 1930s had shifted its focus to primarily cover music. Billboard had, of course, published a much earlier sheet music chart, starting around 1913 with the catchily named Last Week’s Best Sellers Among The Popular Songs, renamed to Sheet Music Leaders in March 1936.

They were also responsible for the first chart chronicling the popularity of music consumption, starting with the Songs Heard in Vaudeville Last Week chart, also launched around 1913. In 1936, Billboard launched what appears to be the world’s first hit parade, published in January 1936. In July 1940, this became the Music Popularity Chart, which was replaced in 1958 by the Hot 100, celebrating its sixtieth anniversary just a couple of months ago. Here’s that first chart.

The Missing Charts

One of the most intriguing developments in the history of the early UK charts only occurred in 2013, which was the publication of a book called The Missing Charts 1940-1952. It is, naturally, of niche interest, since no charts were actually published during this period, but the book’s claim is that actual sales figures were being collected and catalogued – they just weren’t being published anywhere.

The individual responsible was Colin Brown, a music business professional who had passed away in 2012. Apparently some time around 1948, he asked an arcade owner to add a record of his own by Nat Gonella to their jukebox, and noticed that this record quickly became the most played on the jukebox. The operator of the jukeboxes was compiling a weekly “Most Played” list from their entire system, and this gave him the idea of compiling a chart based on sales. He started gathering and cataloguing order sheets from record companies, who gave him access to historical data, enabling him to work his way back to 1940. When the NME chart started in 1952, he saw no reason to continue his own records, and stopped.

If The Missing Charts 1940-1952 is to be believed, these charts, based on lists of shop orders rather than sales had been languishing in storage for nearly sixty years, awaiting publication. The only slight problem is that with no empirical evidence, a cheap looking website, and a book that no longer seems to be available, it all seems too good to be true.

On the Radio

Radio Luxembourg, groundbreaking as always, started the UK’s first sheet music chart show on 1st October 1948, when Teddy Johnson would play a randomly selected version of each song on the chart. This continued for eleven years, before finally switching to the NME Top 20, before switching sources a number of times over the following years. The first number one was Galway Bay, sung at the time by Josef Locke in this clip.

Just a couple of months later, the BBC Light Programme started their Hit Parade show, launching on Tuesday nights from 4th January 1949. A selection of artists would perform the top selling sheet music hits. This ran until 1957, when it was replaced by Pick of the Pops.

Next time: the birth of the UK Single Chart.

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


2 thoughts on “History of the UK Charts – The Early Years

  1. Pingback: History of the UK Charts – The Lower Reaches | Music for stowaways

  2. Pingback: History of the UK Charts – Midweeks and Artists | Music for stowaways

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