Nowhere and Back Again

Time for a little once-annual self-promotion. You may recall that over the last couple of years, I had been remastering the two instrumental albums that I released between 2002 and 2003, as well as their accompanying singles. From Roots to Branches was finally reissued in 2017, and the follow-up Shadowsphere turned out never actually to have seen a wide release, so finally saw its first full release in 2018.

Sonically, as you will no doubt quickly realise, neither album is exactly a great accomplishment, but the second album was also a technical disaster, with masters failing and numerous pieces being lost. In the end, the second single from that album, the Fading Synthesis EP, was abandoned, unfinished and lost. One of the first things I did in 2019 was to retrieve the pieces, leading to this brand new version:

There were then just a couple of things left to do – one of the new tracks on that EP was in fairly good shape, so I finished that off, and called it Time Honoured, and then there was a very old demo to finish off, called Glen of Tranquility. Having tightened those up with new mixes, I moved back to From Roots to Branches. There were a couple of tracks that I wanted to try remixing, starting with Leaving Home:

Finally, it was time to try something new – I pulled all the pieces of Landscape #1, Landscape #2, and Landscape #3, together with a more recent song idea, and built this, Landscape #4, as a bit of a modern tribute to the first album:

Which meant it was clearly time for a tribute to the second album, so I turned to the other b-side demo for Fading Synthesis, which was going to be a continuation of Noise Gate. So I pulled together elements from that, plus the three shorter tracks on Shadowsphere, and built this, Voices in the Shadows (Part 2):

Self-indulgent? Definitely. But it was fun to finally find closure for those early albums. I’m sure it won’t excite too many people other than me, but I hope it won’t offend them either. There’s even a CD available on Amazon now, too, including some of the extra tracks from the singles. You’ll find the album on some of the regular streaming services, such as Spotify, Deezer, and others, and as always, everything is completely free on Bandcamp.

Of course, now, it’s hard to stop – there’s plenty of unfinished business from after 2004, so a series of EPs will follow in 2020, and possibly even the fourth album.

History of the UK Charts – Format-Specific Charts

The UK has, as we discussed previously, a proud history of delivering a confusing range of genre-specific charts, but perhaps more intriguing are the format-specific ones. They’re nothing new, either – there are numerous today, but there were also several back in the 1980s.

Vinyl-Only Charts

The earliest UK charts, back in the 1950s, were, of course, format-specific, as there really was only one back then – 78s ruled until 7″ 45s took over. Although DJs had been cutting their own 10″ and 12″ acetates as early as the 1950s, the first commercial 12″ single appears to have been Buddy Fite‘s For Once in My Life, in 1970, and five years later, Donna Summer‘s Love to Love You Baby kick started an explosion of Jamaican 12″ releases, spreading back to the US and UK over subsequent years.

But the 12″ single was, of course, of special interest to disco and dance music fans, and so it seems logical that it would have had its own chart. Sure enough, from September 1985 to February 1991, early chart innovators Record Mirror carried the UK Twelve Inch Top 20, which in many ways remains one of the more interesting charts of the period. Apart from the obvious domination by New Order‘s Blue Monday, it sees some incursions by obscure releases that didn’t make as much of an impact on the main chart. Unfortunately, as with many of Record Mirror’s 1980s charts, there isn’t an official archive online now, but there are plenty of scans at the links below.

In the years after the death of Record Mirror in 1991, vinyl fell out of favour, with sales falling to practically zero by the late 1980s, and many major artists ceasing regular releases, so while the gap in the vinyl chart archive from 1991 to 2015 is a shame, we aren’t really missing a lot.

But with the revival of vinyl sales, there was a need for something similar again, and hence the launch in April 2015 of the official UK Vinyl Singles chart – followed, a year later, by the Vinyl Albums chart. Obviously the focus has changed again, with 12″ singles being joined by 7″s, 10″s, and all the other obscure shapes and sizes of vinyl. These are, of course, niche charts, dominated by reissues and collector’s editions, and the best illustration of this is the month or so every year after Record Store Day, when both charts get seriously clogged with random collector’s releases. But the Vinyl charts are a nice addition to the list of official UK charts, nonetheless.

Compact Disc and Cassette Charts

For pretty much the same period as the Twelve Inch Top 20 (1985-1991), Record Mirror also ran a Compact Disc Top 20, an album chart highlighting the best sellers in the new format. As with the Twelve Inch chart, it is appropriate that it was put to bed when it was, as a CD-only chart after 1991 would have showed very little unique when compared against the main chart. While it lasted, it was interesting – dominated in its early years by reissues and Dire StraitsBrothers in Arms, it subsequently came to echo the main album chart but with important differences – for instance in 1986, when Pet Shop Boys‘ debut Please was released only on LP and cassette, before climbing back up the main chart thanks primarily to its CD sales, several months later.

More intriguing, in a way, is the short-lived Cassette Top 20, which appears to have been published by Record Mirror for a matter of weeks in 1983 (here’s the page showing the chart from 29th January 1983, in which Men at Work can be seen climbing impressively to the top spot). While cassettes had been commercially available since 1963, and albums had been released directly on them for almost as long, it’s possible that they may not have made the chart until the 1980s. Perhaps this shows us a brief glimpse of cassette sales before they actually got added to the main chart – or perhaps it was only ever intended as an indicator of sales for a new-ish format? History doesn’t really give much information on this, unfortunately, so we can only guess now.

Airplay Charts

The US charts had always attempted to model what people were listening to, rather than what they were buying, and so had long incorporated airplay, but this was resisted in the UK, with claims that it would be too easy to manipulate the charts (as though somehow it was difficult to manipulate the sales-based charts). This is fair, but in the modern age, where streaming makes up most of the chart, it seems absurd (to me, anyway) to try to argue that airplay shouldn’t be included.

Either way, the ERA, and subsequently RadioMonitor, have been compiling a UK Radio Airplay Chart since at least 1993, supplemented by a TV Airplay Chart from 2010 onwards. These also have their own niche interest charts, with the Commercial Radio Airplay Chart also being compiled and carried today. It was also these charts that formed the basis of the often-confusing Hit 40 UK chart, the competitor to BBC Radio 1’s UK Top 40 countdown that was broadcast on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s. Hit 40 UK was carried by all the major commercial stations, and boasted a larger listenership, but also had the mind-boggling novelty of carrying the official Top 10 Singles, merged with the remaining 30 places of a combined airplay and sales chart.

Going Digital

We will cover downloads, streaming, and the niche charts of the digital age in a separate post next time, so for now,, vinyl sales are combined in the modern Vinyl Singles and Vinyl Albums charts, and CD sales can be inferred by comparing that with the modern Physical Singles and Physical Albums charts. And as we’ll explore, sales are jaw-droppingly low. But for now, this concludes our exploration of the format-specific charts.

Next time: the digital age

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

Chart for stowaways – Christmas 2019

This is the exciting Christmas chart for stowaways for 2019:

  1. Pet Shop Boys feat. Years & Years – Dreamland
  2. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Almost
  3. Sparks – Let’s Go Surfing
  4. Pet Shop Boys – Burning the heather
  5. The Beloved – For Your Love
  6. Hot Chip – Hungry Child
  7. Jean-Michel Jarre – Remix EP (I)
  8. Röyksopp – I Had This Thing
  9. Frances Barber & Pet Shop Boys – Musik (Original Cast Recording) – EP
  10. Boards Of Canada – Aquarius

A Brief Europop Excursion

I found this by accident a few days ago, and it made me laugh. Turns out it’s actually a couple of years ago, and you’ll probably be as disturbed as I was to find out that you haven’t heard it before now (or maybe you have, and just forgot to tell me about it?)

So, this is an actual bona fide collaboration between Haddaway and The Mad Stuntman, from off of the 1990s. It’s called Up and Up, and actually includes a particularly good rap from The Mad Stuntman about how he gets up in the morning and does his washing and drying up. Which seems dangerous, given the mad stunts he’s probably pulling – maybe we should all club together and buy him a dishwasher?

History of the UK Charts – Specialist Charts

These days, there are no shortage of official UK charts. As long as you aren’t trying to do anything too obscure or mainstream, and you can fit your work into a particular bucket, there is probably a specialist, or genre-specific chart for you – from R&B to rock, classical, dance, and even Americana.

Soul, Northern Soul, R&B, and Urban Music

For all the obscure modern genre-specific charts that we’ll meet later in this post, the concept is, surprisingly, nothing new – they were already well established as far back as the 1970s. It fell to our old friend Record Mirror, which had been publishing a singles chart since 1955, and had adopted the new official chart on its launch in 1969.

This is not a well documented history, but its first specialist chart seems to have been the Body ‘n’ Soul Record Mirror Chart, which looks as though it was an occasional guest chart compiled with help from another magazine. More established at this time was a chart dedicated to Northern Soul music, named after the legendary Wigan Casino All-Nighter which ran from 1973 to 1981. The Wigan Casino All-Nighter Top 20 was a regularly published piece in mid-1975, which we can only assume was an opinion-based chart, was supplemented by the UK Soul Chart from September 1975.

The first official UK R&B Singles chart launched in October 1994, followed in 2003 by the R&B Albums chart. Related, but not quite the same, the UK’s Official Charts Company also started compiling the MTV Urban Chart in early 2011.

Disco, Dance, Hi-NRG, and… Futurism?

In June 1975, Record Mirror had launched what appears to be the UK’s first chart dedicated to disco music. Starting as a top 20, the UK Disco Chart gradually grow to become a top 90, and ran all the way through the 1980s until it was finally replaced by the Black Dance Top 100, which gave way the following year to The Club Chart, which continues to this day.

In December 1980, they launched one of their most fun charts, the Futurist chart, which lasted a couple of years and allowed early new wave and the likes of David Bowie and Kraftwerk to dominate for a little while.

From 1982, they launched the Pop-Oriented Dance Top 75. This evolved, confusingly, into the Nightclub chart, which lasted until 1985, but shouldn’t be confused with the more recent Club Chart. Alongside it, the Gay chart, which evolved into the Boys Town Disco chart, then the Boys Town / Hi-NRG chart, the Hi-NRG Disco chart, and eventually the Eurobeat chart. This survived until 1989, after changing its name several times.

By 1988, there was also a Pop Dance chart, which, as with some of Record Mirror’s more obscure chart offerings was retired in 1989. Some of the others ran right up until Record Mirror’s untimely (and apparently unexpected) demise in 1991.

The UK’s official Dance Singles and Dance Albums charts launched in January 2003, but inclusion criteria appear to be a bit of a mystery. Accurate as ever, Wikipedia’s entry on the subject talks about “sales of songs in the dance music genre (e.g. house, trance, drum and bass, garage, synthpop),” but synthpop act Pet Shop Boys are an interesting case study, having had exactly four hits since 1994: Yesterday, When I Was Mad (#16), Paninaro 95 (#29), A Red Letter Day (#5), and Miracles (#1). Their hit albums are similarly confusing: Fundamental (#1), Disco 4 (#3), and the recent reissue of Introspective (#10).

Rock ‘n’ Roll and Heavy Metal

Record Mirror carried a Heavy Metal chart from December 1980 onwards, with a separate Rock ‘n’ Roll chart following five years later. Meanwhile, Kerrang launched their own charts, which continue to this day. Then, like the R&B Charts, the Rock & Metal Singles chart also started in 1994, and the Rock & Metal Albums chart followed in 2003. Inclusion criteria are similarly confusing and enigmatic.

Classical

Classic FM had broadcast its own chart since its launch in 1992, which subsequently and perhaps somewhat unpredictably boasted Mark Goodier as its presenter. As a competitor, not one but two official classical charts launched in October 1999, the Classical Artist Albums chart, and the Classical Compilation Albums chart.

If there’s a theme emerging here, it’s that inclusion criteria for the specialist charts tend to be arbitrary at best. Back in 2000, William Orbit famously caused something of a furore with his album of updated, electronic covers of classical music Pieces in a Modern Style. Exactly what they were talking about with this talk of a “ban,” I don’t know, as its chart run was still going strong months later, but

The Specialist Classical Albums chart followed in 2010. I don’t honestly understand the criteria for what makes them so special, but suffice to say, William Orbit would not be welcome here.

Finally, the Classical Singles chart was added in May 2012, but only lasted three years before being ignominiously retired. Four years later, the Official Charts Company started carrying another classical singles chart, the Scala Singles Chart, although its remit is rather broader, talking in the description about “classically inspired music,” and including Thom Yorke, among others.

Asian Music

For the benefit of non-UK readers, the UK is home to a substantial population of people of Indian, Pakistani, Baangladeshi, and Sri Lankan origin, with a strong culture and vibrant music scene. In recognition of this, the Asian Download chart launched in early 2010, later renaming itself the Asian Music Chart. This has a strong following, broadcast weekly on the BBC Asian Network digital radio station.

Other Specialist Charts

Record Mirror carried two other regular charts that I could find, plus a whole load of one-off personal charts. The Reggae chart launched in December 1980, but was sadly retired by 1987.

The Official Charts Company website now carries official Country Artists Albums, Country Compilations, and Jazz & Blues Albums charts going right back to January 1994. They then took things in new directions with Soundtrack Albums chart, which launched in early 2002, and then the official UK Christian & Gospel Album Chart kicked off in March 2013.

Perhaps the oddest is the official Progressive Albums chart, which launched in October 2015, an oddity for the Official Charts Company because it was only published once a month. This led to them forgetting to publish it a lot of the time, and it hasn’t now been updated since the start of 2017.

The most recent addition to the UK’s ever-growing list of official charts was the Americana Albums chart, launched in January 2016

So, all in all, there is a long list of historic and current UK specialist genre-specific charts, and, perhaps inevitably, just one thing is common to all of them – all rely on somewhat spurious rules to decide whether a release does or doesn’t fit. Sometimes, if a release underperforms on a regular chart, they can be a handy way to find out how it is performing. At other times, they can be confusing and more than a little disappointing.

Next time: format-specific charts

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

Chart for stowaways – 9 November 2019

Here are the top albums this week:

  1. Hot Chip – A Bath Full Of Ecstasy
  2. Underworld – Drift Series 1
  3. Armin Van Buuren – Balance
  4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
  5. Zero 7 – Record
  6. Röyksopp – Melody am
  7. Gary Numan/Tubeway Army – Replicas
  8. Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle
  9. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Souvenir
  10. The Beloved – Single File

The Human League – Tell Me When

Billy, we are told, was an inspiration, positive and kind. And while history doesn’t necessarily explain who Billy was, The Human League‘s late 1994 comeback Tell Me When is still pretty fantastic.

A little over four years after the broadly misguided and largely digitally-driven Romantic?, Tell Me When was the first single from The League’s brilliant 1995 comeback Octopus. This was the album where they regained control for the first time in over a decade – Crash (1986) had famously descended into fine, but often dull, American soul, and its 1990 follow-up had been the sound of a group who had fundamentally lost their way. It wasn’t until Octopus that they found it again.

The lead track is fantastic, and got plenty of airplay. It was not, perhaps, as big a hit as it should have been, but it was undisputedly the Sheffield group’s best hit since at least Human, if not earlier. The lyrics are typically daft, and the vocal delivery typically imperfect, but the melody is catchy, and the soft analogue sounds are refreshing and uplifting.

This was, of course, the mid-1990s, and so a slew of remixes were inevitable. First up on this single was Utah Saints, with their Mix 1. It’s a catchy dance-pop crossover remix of a kind that just wouldn’t turn up now, with heavy beats and rippling synth arpeggios. It’s dated, and here’s a particularly fun bit half way through, where Utah Saints do their normal chord change-heavy bit, which is almost hilarious, but the mix as a whole is still great for what it is.

We then get not one but two b-sides, the first of which is the 1993 collaboration with YMO, Kimi Ni Mune Kyun. With two great groups collaborating, I’d have had high hopes, but this is honestly pretty dreadful. It must be at least 20 bpm too fast, and just seems to be a bit of a mess of beats. It’s a shame, but it really isn’t great.

But then we get the delightful instrumental The Bus to Crookes, a delightfully Sheffield-oriented take on the now-traditional transport mode-based electronic music track. This was not, let’s face it, ever going to break any particular boundaries, but it’s a nice instrumental piece, nonetheless.

Disc two opens with Utah Saints‘ other contribution to this release, Mix 2. This one seems more fully developed, somehow – the sounds are all the same, but the attempt at a full vocal mix has gone, replaced instead by repeated vocal snippets and broken down sections. Both mixes are great, but this is the one that really hits its mark.

Red Jerry is next, one of the people who would record one of the less offensive remixes of Don’t You Want Me a year or so later. His take on Tell Me When isn’t great – it’s a little better than the manic happy hardcore that was floating around during this period, but not a lot. The mid-1990s seem to have been a period where it was acceptable for remixers to take other people’s songs and just put the same riff on every one of them, and Red Jerry does seem to have been a part of that crowd – it worked for other songs, but not so much for this one.

Next is the Strictly Blind Dub, a dull house mix from Development Corporation. It’s a bit faster than some house tracks, so doesn’t quite do the relentless plodding thing that a lot of unimaginative house seems to, but it isn’t particularly elevating either, and lasts at least two or three minutes longer than it should (it isn’t even six minutes long in total). The fact that one of the remix duo was in Urban Cookie Collective should probably have been a sign. The same duo were responsible for the Overworld Mix that follows, and that’s a little better, with a bass line that nods to Blue Monday and a lot of acid squelching, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere more interesting in the end.

Inexplicably, the second disc also closes with Utah SaintsMix 1, so there’s little more to say here. It started off so well, but as was often the case in the mid-1990s, this single gave us a great lead track, a couple of interesting b-sides, and then a bunch of largely lacklustre remixes. But as a comeback release, this was pretty promising, and served well to herald Octopus.

The first CD of Tell Me When is still available here.

Chart for stowaways – 12 October 2019

Here are the top singles for October:

  1. Pet Shop Boys feat. Years & Years – Dreamland
  2. The Beloved – For Your Love
  3. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Almost
  4. Frances Barber & Pet Shop Boys – Musik (Original Cast Recording) – EP
  5. Hot Chip – Hungry Child
  6. Tiësto & Mabel – God Is A Dancer
  7. The Future Sound of London – Floating into Focus and then Moving Away
  8. Hot Chip – Positive
  9. New Order feat. Elly Jackson (La Roux) – Tutti Frutti
  10. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Electricity

Preview – Ace of Base

Who were Ace of Base, exactly? One of the first acts of the 1990s Europop movement, and yet much more pop than most of the others. One of the earliest acts of the second huge Swedish pop wave. Were they a bit naff, or an inventive and influential pop act? Or were they a bit of a sad case, a family (plus one) pulled apart by fame and fortune?

Well, anyway – here’s Happy Nation, from Gold, out now: