Sep 03

On Number Ones

FT16 comments • 5,697 views

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.


  1. 1
    Dave on 29 Dec 2007 #

    I have only discovered this site recently and just read this article.. Blah blah blah.. Pop charts arent an indicator of how good a song is, think of all those unsigned bands that will never be heard by the masses because some fat cat sitting on his sweaty arse didnt like what he heard on the demo, not that it wasnt great music but because he knew it wouldnt appeal to the highest demographic.
    The music industry like any other industry is run by accountants, soulless slaves to the folding stuff, they dont care what is being produced as long as it gets sold in huge amounts. Mr Blobby comes to mind..
    since the preceding article was written we have seen the birth of You tube and it’s competitors, The unsigned can be heard by masses day and night and it is a very interesting time for popular music.

  2. 2
    Kat on 29 Dec 2007 #

    Hi Dave, welcome to FT! What sort of music do you like?

  3. 3
    Geir H on 30 Dec 2007 #

    The pop charts decide what kind of unsigned bands will get the chance to have some exposure tomorrow. The better music is there in the charts, the better music you by bands who used to be unsigned you will have the chance to discover.

  4. 4
    Dave on 30 Dec 2007 #

    Hi Kat and thanks for the welcome, my musical taste is broad, i grew up listening to so many different types of music, classical, rock, blues, pop, rock n roll, jazz, swing, soul, r n b to name a few.
    Music to me is about a feeling, emotion, if i hear something that grabs my soul i love it, depending on the mood i am in.
    I love it when i hear a new band or artist and their music is a fusion of influences creating a new sound, brit pop is the product of kids listening to the stones, small faces, beatles, kinks and their peers, thats what gave it the kick. If i listen to an album and dont feel the need to skip a track i am happy.

  5. 5
    Cumbrian on 26 Feb 2015 #

    Anyone know what this means for the charts:


    Will they now run Friday to Thursday instead of Monday to Sunday? If so, presumably there’s going to be a “short” week at some point.

  6. 7
    Cumbrian on 26 Feb 2015 #

    Doh! I should have gone to the obvious source. Sorry.

  7. 8
    Tom on 26 Feb 2015 #

    Two things I don’t totally follow in the Guardian piece, though thinking about it the first explains the second.

    First is the idea that the level playing field will help acts compete worldwide on Twitter etc. Yes, but a global logjam of Friday releases will also mean an incredible concentration of promo noise at one point of the week. Presumably anyone breaking the Friday convention and releasing elsewhere in the week will have a massive advantage in terms of getting their signal out. So how is the global release day even enforceable?

    Second is the comment from the Mute guy about how this will hurt the little players – I suspect that promo concentration is what he’s talking about: an attention economy is also one where cumulative advantage have a massive impact and smaller voices get drowned out. But it’s a bit unclear.

  8. 9
    Cumbrian on 26 Feb 2015 #

    I guess this rather depends on what you want the public to do. If Friday is a day of action, where people are simply to buy the music, then I suppose you could argue that the marketing of the music, the increase in the awareness of the release dates, etc, is all done prior to the Friday, so the weight of promotion will still be spread out over the course of the preceding days and weeks, which, in theory, ameliorates the problem. If Friday is just the day you want people to pay attention, you could well get drowned out.

    I’d agree that this seems somewhat unenforceable though. Are iTunes really going to tell Kanye or Taylor Swift to get bent if they want to release their album or latest single on a Monday? I am going to wager not. And wither the artists that just put their stuff out on their own websites or what have you – they’re going to continue doing what works best for them aren’t they? This seems like a solution in need of a problem, if you ask me.

  9. 10
    Tom on 26 Feb 2015 #

    One of the annoying things is that there’s no chance of a global release date for TV and films, two areas where there’s a genuine consumer benefit (avoiding spoilers) to everyone getting access at the same time.

    (Comics have one, and there seems to be no advantage in breaking it, but digital isn’t as critical for comics yet as it is for music.)

  10. 11
    Mark M on 26 Feb 2015 #

    Re10: In the digital era, with number of prints no longer an issue, blockbuster films are increasingly released near-simultaneously around the world. Not exactly on the same day, but within a couple of weeks. Here’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, which I count as having been out in 42 countries (including the UK, which is now tends to be at the head of the queue) its first week. The losers seem to be non-German speaking Swiss people, who had to wait a fortnight (French speakers) or almost three months (Italian speakers).

  11. 12
    enitharmon on 26 Feb 2015 #

    And here’s me thinking Friday was always release day…

  12. 13
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Feb 2015 #

    And also of course speed of pirating and ease of distributing the copies…

    Ireland used to get particularly shafted – many a year that we saw the Oscars before the chance to see any of the nominees.

  13. 14
    Mark M on 26 Feb 2015 #

    Re13: Ah, but there’s a separate issue with films that don’t have a pre-established or anticipated audience – with the number of cinemas being finite, local distributors often want to wait for a film to have picked up a buzz elsewhere before taking a punt on them. Films that played at Sundance (in January) and Cannes (in May) creep out around the world all that year and often the one after.

    Julianne Moore picked up a Bafta (as well as her Oscar) for Still Alice, a film that isn’t out in the UK until 6 March, which I feel is not on.

  14. 15
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Feb 2015 #

    The US also, I believe, still has late December releases just in a few places (usually NY/LA) purely in order to get the film into the frame for the next Oscars (as opposed to the one after, where any film that the Academy hasn’t seen since the previous January (one of the ‘dump months’) is generally considered dead in the water)

  15. 16
    Tommy Mack on 26 Feb 2015 #

    I think all records and films should be released on 1st January to give you the rest of the year to catch up. If something happens during the year like a war or a new type of hat and someone wants to write a song about it, they can put it on bandcamp or YouTube if they make a video.

    The charts can be done at the end of the year which means every #1 will be a Christmas #1. Obviously this will truncate the latter years of Popular but then that makes up for the 99/00 era when the top 10 changed so rapidly that DJs often couldn’t play the whole song before people had got bored of it and were all like ‘why are you still playing this granddad?’. Possibly.

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