Why No.1s? asked Steve M when I started Popular. ‘They’ve lost their power’. He suggested I write about all the records that had got to No.2 instead – a less familiar and, maybe, better selection of songs.
It’s a common and odd perception, this, that the UK charts regularly cheat brilliant songs of their rightful pop-topping due. The same examples tend to be given. First up is ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’, the Beatles’ era-defining double A-Side that was kept off No.1 by Englebert Humperdinck. Earlier and later Beatles singles hit the top with thumping regularity, so this unfortunate quirk should be seen as bad luck: the UK charts have always been the broadest of churches, and ‘Release Me’ spoke to its audience quite as clearly as the Beatles did to theirs.
In fact this is one of the ways in which a project like Popular can provide a ‘truer’ story of pop music than a more analytical history might. Most pop books see the history of pop as one of fairly smooth progress (and then often a bumpy decline): looking at chart-topping singles gives a different perspective. Raymond Williams’ theory of cultural change labels trends as emergent, dominant, or residual. The emergent trend is the new, marginal, or innovative; a dominant trend is accepted and expected as part of the mainstream; a residual trend is one that has mostly fallen from mainstream favour and now exists as a declining, minor tradition.
You might expect the pop charts to reflect the dominant trends entirely: in fact they are a mix of all three. The charts, antennae trained always on sales, are a testbed for wildfire novelty that then often becomes the dominant part of the mix – ‘Rock Around The Clock’ for instance. But what you also realise, as you look more closely at a list of number 1s, is that once a trend has emerged it very rarely vanishes entirely. Fifties-style orchestrated hits spluttered into chart life in the 00s courtesy of Pop Idol; rock and roll re-emerges continually through the 70s and 80s; the pop-art sixties find a conscious echo in Britpop; and these are only the most obvious examples. Englebert vs Beatles was an instance of a residual culture beating out an emergent one, but this is not at all a general rule.
The second example of ‘lost’ No.2 records is ‘God Save The Queen’, selling like crazy in Jubilee Week but kept off the top by a Rod Stewart song. The consensus view now is that the Top 40 was rigged that week – somebody, at researchers BMRB or at the BBC or even higher up the establishment ladder, tweaked the charts to avoid Royal embarrassment. Nobody has ever admitted to this, as far as I know: it’s not impossible that the Rod song just sold more copies. But assuming the story is true it’s an argument in favour of the idea that the No.1 slot is important, is a reflection of something in pop, or national, consciousness.
(The Sex Pistols incident is also held up as proof that the charts in general have lost their importance and bite. It’s impossible to imagine a record being prevented from getting to No.1 in 2003. But it’s also impossible to imagine it happening in 1978, or 1976, or 1966, or ever apart from that one remarkable week. As for the importance of the chart, I switched on daytime TV in January 2003 to find people calling for the No.1 single to be banned. ‘Number One’ has only ever been a metaphor for the general value and state of pop music in British life; it remains so.)
A third example of pop injustice is more typical and more recent: Pulp’s ‘Common People’ hit number two in Summer 1995, prevented from climbing higher by two TV actors singing old ballads. A symbol of the chart’s failings? Possibly, but it works just as well as a symbol of Britpop’s failings that its keynote moment was Oasis vs Blur, not Pulp at the top of the charts. Jarvis Cocker’s class-revenge anthem would have made for a happier climax to the flash and play-acting of Britpop, but ‘Country House’ is somehow more appropriate. And besides, if we’re consistent in looking at those nearly-made-its, a couple of months later we’d have to throw over ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ in favour of Meat Loaf’s ‘I’d Lie To You (And That’s The Truth)’.
Only the truly vast-selling No.1 hits have been bought by more than a tiny fraction – a percentile or two at most – of the British population. Summer holidays and Christmasses aside, it’s only in freak instances that the No.1 record has had any relation to a ‘national mood’ or to events outside pop’s preposterous fiefdoms. But as a mirror to the way pop music has developed, the list of No.1s seems to me more revealing than a lot of rock historians would admit or like.