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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