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:

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Richard X – Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1

I’ve very probably mused about the nature of time here before, but the fifteenth anniversary of Richard X‘sPresents His X-Factor Vol. 1 is a pretty strange one to celebrate. He’s still producing artists, but has never bothered to follow this up, but as a collection of great retro soundclashes, it’s really pretty good. What blows my mind now is that some of the things he samples were as old then as the whole album is now.

It opens with the brief Start, in which a voice says “x” a few times, before Liberty X (remember them? They lost The X Factor, or something) turn up to introduce themselves over the introduction to Being Nobody, a soundclash between Ain’t Nobody and The Human League‘s Being Boiled. It’s brilliant in a way that pop seemed to stop being after Richard X‘s brief reign on the charts.

The Human League are probably the omnipresent force on this album, turning up briefly on Rock Jacket alongside a number of other influences and samples. This one’s a filler, though, carrying us along until another guest vocalist turns up.

This is really a who’s who of early 2000s British pop music in some ways, but I had no memory of who Javine was. Apparently she represented the UK at the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest, finishing, unsurprisingly, excruciatingly close to the bottom of the table. You Used To is a decent pop song, and who knows, maybe it could have been a huge hit too. Pop music is unpredictable sometimes.

Annie is next, pretty much right at the beginning of her career with the brilliant Just Friends, which is brilliant, and then for IX, a German computer repeatedly spells out Richard X‘s name, which makes a nice little interlude. Then the huge voice of Caron Wheeler, of Soul II Soul fame, turns up for the dull but worthy Lonely.

Deborah Evans-Strickland delivers vocals on the next two tracks, an eccentric posh version of Walk on By, and then Lemon/Lime. Pleasant, but there isn’t a lot of point in these unfortunately. Although some of the lyrics on the second track are pretty funny.

Finest Dreams brings Kelis, and was the third single from this album, peaking at number 8 in the UK. It marries another Human League track The Things That Dreams Are Made Of with The S.O.S. Band‘s 1986 hit The Finest (then fifteen years old), and works very well indeed. In fact, it performed better on the charts than either of the tracks it samples, which is impressive.

The unexpected vocalist on the next track is Tiga, who performs You (Better Let Me Love You X4) Tonight. It’s brilliant, but then most of Tiga‘s work seems to be of an extremely high calibre. It’s just a bit too repetitive though, and as with several of the tracks on here, it drags a little towards the end.

The next track, Mark One, is a moment that anyone who grew up in the 1990s will appreciate, as Mark Goodier turns up to do a very meta in-album advert for this album. It’s a brilliant transition to Sugababes‘ Freak Like Me, sampling Gary Numan and Tubeway Army‘s Are “Friends” Electric? for the backing track. I suspect this might be how the album started out, as Richard X‘s original bootleg version had been a near-hit a couple of years earlier.

Into U is lovely, bringing together a new vocal by Jarvis Cocker with a sample of Hope Sandoval, and some unusually underplayed backing. It makes a great final track, closing out a pretty good album. The actual closing track is the brief End, which is one of the nicer interludes, and then the album is over already.

So in summary, despite a strong cast of extras, Richard X‘s debut may not be the best album ever produced, but it’s pretty good, and it did bring us some of the best pop hits of 2002 and 2003. In short, it’s definitely worth a listen.

You can still find Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1 on wide release.

Anthology Season

Logically, I should probably own a few anthologies – I’m the kind of person who would. But, despite having listened to New Order‘s Retro a few times, I remain decidedly underwhelmed by the concept. So this year’s influx of anthologies in our line of music comes as something of a shock to the system, and it’s worth taking a moment to consider what’s actually in them.

Marc Almond – Trials of Eyeliner – The Anthology 1979-2016

Marc Almond announced his first, and it finally enters the shops on 4th November. Here are some quick statistics:

  • Number of discs: 10
  • Number of tracks: 189
  • Retail price: £120

Discs 1-4 are History, a collection of Marc’s favourite album tracks over his impressively long career.

Then Discs 5-7 are Singles, a complete collection of the Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas, solo, and collaborative hits.

Discs 8-10 are Gems, a set of fanclub releases, collaborations, tracks from soundtracks, demos, and previously unreleased recordings.

You also get a 64-page hardcover book full of photos and images from Marc Almond‘s personal collection.

More details here.

The verdict, for me: you probably need to be a bigger fan than I am.

Erasure – From Moscow to Mars – An Erasure Anthology

Erasure are currently still busy celebrating their thirtieth birthday with some lovely vinyl editions, and also this, released on 21st October:

  • Number of discs: 13
  • Number of tracks: 200
  • Retail price: £80

Discs 1-3 are Erasure – The Singles, another collection of all the Erasure singles. Since we only got Total Pop! in 2009 and another collection just last year, this seems a bit unnecessary.

Discs 4-5 are Erasure by Vince Clarke and Andy Bell, with one disc compiled by each. There are some interesting inclusions, and it would definitely be worth hearing, but probably not one that even the most devoted fan would pick up too often.

Discs 6-7 are Erasure – The B-Sides, an incomplete selection of Erasure‘s b-sides. There are a lot of gems on here actually, and it’s good to see so many of them in the same place at once. Probably worth a listen.

Discs 8-9 are just called Remixes, and are yet another selection of new and old Erasure remixes. There are some interesting looking new ones, such as Little Boots taking on Blue Savannah, but I think you would need to be a completist for this.

Disc 10 has been done before as well – Erasure – Live! is another edited selection of live highlights throughout the years.

Disc 11 is Rarities, some of which haven’t actually been released before, so might be worth the odd listen now and then.

Disc 12 is a nice inclusion, an audio documentary called A Little Respect – 30 Years of Erasure, presented by Mark Goodier from off of the olden days, and with contributions from various contemporaries.

Finally Disc 13 is a DVD release of The Wild! Tour, previously only released on VHS, so probably a nice addition for completists.

Pre-orders also get six unreleased bonus downloads, although it’s difficult to believe there’s anything to write home about among them.

More details here.

The verdict: despite the bargain price, I can’t see a strong reason to buy this one except for the b-sides collection. Hopefully that will come out separately one day.

The Human League – A Very British Synthesizer Group 1977-2016

The smallest of all the anthologies, and probably the one with the oddest artwork (see link below). Released on 18th November, the vital statistics look like this:

  • Number of discs: 4
  • Number of tracks: 92
  • Retail price: £80

There are just four discs on this one, although you do get a 58-page book too. Discs 1 and 2 are the complete collected singles from 1978 to the present, collected for the first time without any omissions.

The rest of the tracks are really just bonus material on a glorified best of. Disc 3 contains early versions of a lot of tracks, although many of them aren’t singles, so this is probably one for fans only.

Disc 4 is a DVD, containing every single one of their promotional videos and a collection of their BBC appearances.

There’s also a triple LP and double CD version containing just the singles, and they’re also touring the whole thing this Autumn.

More details here and here.

The verdict: very tempting, if the price decides to drop to something much more reasonable.

The best of the rest

Also coming out this Autumn are:

Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI, an enormous 19-disc box set from Dead or Alive, including all the albums as two or three-disc sets, some of which have never actually been released in the UK before, as well as some DVDs and impressive packaging, all for just £118. Definitely one for bigger fans than me, but worth investigating if you’re into that kind of thing.

The Early Years 1965-1972, an astonishing 27-disc set from Pink Floyd, collecting albums, singles, unreleased tracks, singles, videos, and memorabilia from their early years, costing several months’ salary but possibly worth it if you’re an über-fan. More details here.

Depeche Mode take advantage of one of their many years off with a complete collection of videos, Video Singles Collection. This is a three-disc set containing the videos from 1981-2013, including a whole load of material that has never been released on DVD before, plus commentaries. Details here.