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:

1 thought on “History of the UK Charts – Singles (Part 1)

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

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