Jul 13

Number Ones vs History

FT//17 comments • 1,788 views

Commenter Nixon, on another thread, asked this: “we’re now past the 40-year mark, long enough for trends to emerge… do you think that the list of UK number ones, taken as a weird at-a-glance sweep of British music history, very broadly accurately reflects that history?“. I gave a long reply, and writing it, it struck me that my answer was fairly central to the Popular project and that the question deserved more exposure than being Comment #44 on an Outhere Brothers thread was likely to give it. So here we are, slightly edited from its original form.

Number Ones? They mean nothing to me...

Number Ones? They mean nothing to me…

This is sort of the central question Popular wanted to answer – it reflects *a* history, but which one? I don’t think “accurately reflects that history” is meaningful though – there isn’t an accurate pop history to reflect, there’s a sense of ‘what happened’ and ‘what mattered’ which is a mix of personal memories, received wisdom, critical takes and commercial realities, which themselves may not be realities given the distortions of sales data methodologies.

When pop history is written – literally written, in books or articles or lists, the version of pop history that is PLAYED is different again – it’s usually written by the critical winners, not the commercial ones. So if the question is – how well do Number Ones map onto that? – the answer varies. If you look at it by genre, then for some things – Merseybeat, glam, new wave, the house music revolution, 00s R&B – it does very well. For others – metal, punk, Britpop, progressive rock, hip-hop up to a point – it seems to do quite poorly.

Looked at as a more material history: of technology, format changes, sales channels, etc. – the Number One lists work better but have disastrous gaps because methodologies and definitions can’t or won’t always keep pace with realities.

Looked at as a history of British cultural interests – the chart as a seismograph of wider trends – they are an interesting if incomplete fossil record: Robson And Jerome is a case in point.

And they’re best understood as half a picture – adding the LP charts makes things much fuller.

You can definitely see broad trends. The overall history of the No.1 spot – I worked this out with graphs once and should again – is broadly speaking a history of increasing diversity: the more you go on, the fewer white men (with guitars or otherwise) you tend to see. (There’s some evidence in the US that increasing digitalisation of music may be reversing this a bit – not sure that’s true of the UK). Depressingly, it seems to me that this process runs parallel to decreased critical respect for the charts and number ones, accusations of irrelevance, the rise of the dread adjective “manufactured” etc. (Having raised this spectre I really do need to do the statistical work, so expect more on this another time).

Another trend that comes out – relevant to Britpop, which sparked this whole discussion – is that, since the early 80s, “indie” music in its fuzzy wide cultural sense has rarely if ever sold well enough on singles to dominate the charts. Britpop is its high watermark – I think it’s fair to say that some bands and singles were unlucky not to reach number one, but that’s also how pop works and it does seem it couldn’t quite mobilise the buyers. Before and after that, indie music has been an important part of pop but, from a singles sales perspective, not THAT important.

Obviously this doesn’t match up to the attention paid to it critically and culturally – it’s easy to buy into a version of the mid-90s where Britpop DOMINATES the charts and the music scene, despite plenty of opposition to that idea at the time and since. There’s also – as the relatively massive excitement on Twitter over a silly poll suggests – a lot of warm feeling towards the idea of Britpop as a movement and a moment. Other styles have enjoyed far more dominant periods in the chart but haven’t been lavished with attention by the music press, let alone the mainstream news.

In other words I think in this instance the number ones list gets Britpop right representationally, though the actual selections leave a bit to be desired. And the number ones list is a vastly imperfect version of history, but anyone dismissing it as irrelevant is still revealing their own biases as much as the charts’.


  1. 1
    flahr on 2 Jul 2013 #

    “Other styles have enjoyed far more dominant periods in the chart but haven’t been lavished with attention by the music press, let alone the mainstream news.”

    -Britpop was to a large extent a creation of the music press, and since it was their baby they felt naturally proud and protective of it
    -Britpop was a thing teenagers liked about twenty years ago and so is now fondly regarded by the thirty-somethings who write about music on the Internet and in the papers
    -If Britpop HAD dominated the charts there would be relatively little need to talk about it, because that conversation would already have been had (who needs to write articles about what’s good about “Umbrella” or “Crazy” when every bugger already knows?)

  2. 2
    Tom on 2 Jul 2013 #

    (who needs to write articles about what’s good about “Umbrella” or “Crazy” when every bugger already knows?)

    Me, apparently ;)

  3. 3
    Tom on 2 Jul 2013 #

    Well, whenever I get to them.

  4. 4
    flahr on 2 Jul 2013 #

    I assumed you were going to stop once you reached Nizlopi, on grounds of them forever rendering anything following artistically irrelevant by comparison. Sorry, I’ll stop bunny-baiting now.

  5. 5
    punctum on 2 Jul 2013 #

    There you go with that “artistically irrelevant” again. See whatever comment I made to the other doughnut who said that.

  6. 6
    punctum on 2 Jul 2013 #

    I can show you whole Giraffe World Cafe-filling groups of people for whom The JCB Song is like the Magna Carta. Not that Jay-Z is doing a cover version.

  7. 7
    flahr on 2 Jul 2013 #

    “Did The JCB Song die in vain?” doesn’t work quite so well though.

  8. 8
    Nixon on 2 Jul 2013 #

    “I know there’s a lot I don’t know / I like questions / That lead to questions.”

    Anyway, yes, I agree with most of that, and there are many superb tangents to explore going from there.

    Of course these things are enormously subjective – the emphasis in my original question was meant to be on the “you” at the beginning, rather than the “accurately” at the end. This is a great piece – I particularly like the bit about written history (of which more in a moment), when you talk about how well Number Ones map onto that history, I’m just as interested in the reverse, i.e. how well does each of our personal conceptions of musical history, what was important and what was a passing whim (or whatever Marcello said in the other thread), fit with the cold hard facts of the permanent, unchangeable, matter-of-record list of Number Ones?

    The written vs played thing is fascinating – stick on any of the 30-odd different music channels clogging up a whole range of the Sky EPG at the weekend and you’re bound to come across a “Top (NUMBER) (ADJECTIVE) Songs of (TIMEFRAME)” package, sometimes presented by some rent-a-talkinghead, sometimes just loads of videos glued together and only stopping for frequent ads. One of them I saw a few months ago was “Every #1 of the 1990s”, and so that provoked a very similar series of questions, but you get more subjective things like “Best 80s Love Songs” or something; another kind of popularity contest (which may or may not jibe with one’s own ideas), as measured by a different metric to numbers of 45s sold in chart return shops. The process of canonization, and the propagation and acceptance (or not) of the resulting canons, and the resulting rejections and inevitable overreactions that then brings… I find this stuff absolutely fascinating.

    I like that Smash Hits cover, particularly the splash of “PRETENDERS / U2 / IN COLOUR”, which seems far more dated than Midge’s tache. (Ultravox, meh, they might not have made it to the summit, but plenty of New Wave acts had their time in the sun, so what they were doing is represented on that map. For my money, anyway. Your mileage may vary, obv. Etc.)

  9. 9
    Tom on 2 Jul 2013 #

    #8 Yes, I definitely prefer the personal map of pop history too – I love finding out about other people’s.

    (In the ideal hyperlinked version of Popular which exists in my brain, my reviews and marks would be the default choice, not the only one – if you found an interesting commenter you could sort the whole site by THEIR perspectives.)

  10. 10
    Ed on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Not a history, but definitely a map: this 100 Greatest Albums list is a good one, I think. Especially the #2:


    I’ve never knowingly seen a copy of Entertainment Weekly, but by the sound of it it’s not a place you’d look for excitement.

    Maybe being a mass market general interest magazine has the beneficial effect of making its perspective less inclined to venerate all the usual rock-crit favourites. Lots of them are there, of course, but not all of them. And not always where you might expect.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 3 Jul 2013 #

    @10, Ed. Why oh why do I look at such lists? Madonna’s (really fun; I’m a fan) first album ranked immediately ahead of Rubber Soul, OK Computer, and Off The Wall (and 25 places ahead of It Takes A Nation Of Millions). That’s bleeeping retarded. And Daft Punk’s Discovery (a record I bought first day, loved its highs but was unimpressed with its filler/general aimlessness so it was definitely flawed/a slight disappointment/must-try-harder record overall) at #21, esp. while Kraftwerk, Massive Attack, Magnetic Fields, Abba, Curtis Mayfield, Sinatra etc. (absolute cornerstones of my pop listening) go unrepresented; grrrrr. No arguments about Revolver and Purple Rain from me, but each of Exile On Main Street (< Sticky Fingers), Blood on The Tracks (< Blonde on Blonde, Freewheelin') and Thriller (< Off The Wall) seems perverse to me (see also White Album in the top 20 – seriously?). Note to self: stop stoopidly looking at stoopid lists.
    P.S. Adele's 21's not my thing (didn't buy it) so I can't really judge it myself, but I hadn't gathered that anyone thought it was a truly superb album (I recall lots of 'good but no Back To Black' reviews) so was genuinely surprised to see it in the top 20.

  12. 12
    mintness on 3 Jul 2013 #

    [put on hold until fingers regain sobriety]

  13. 13
    Tom on 3 Jul 2013 #

    #11 One of your perversities seems perverse to me ;) Blood On The Tracks always places very high in polls – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it lower than Freewheelin’! There’s perceptual bias because it’s my favourite Dylan LP too – well, that or Highway 61 Revisited. But it’s a Canonical Dylan Classic just as much as Blonde On Blonde is (and IMO has the virtue of being better). Now, if they’d placed DESIRE that high…

  14. 14
    swanstep on 3 Jul 2013 #

    @Tom 13, heh – well your Dylanology accords well with the EW list then since Highway 61 Rev was the other Dylan album they mentioned, whereas my two faves missed out completely. I should confess that I don’t know as much about Dylan as the other cases I mention (I’ve given him a good listen but I don’t know his stuff back to front as it were), so I should probably just retract my ‘perversity’ remark in that case. Deep down though, I do find it hard to believe that anyone really likes even the best post-’60s Dylan better than peak ’60s Dylan.

  15. 15
    Tom on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Well, BOTT is streets ahead of other post-60s Dylan so it’s a special case (I love “Love And Theft” too but I wouldn’t put it above the 60s records or Blood).

    I find Dylan’s allusive/poetic lyrics mesmerising but on Blood he’s balancing that streak in his writing with some pretty brutal/rueful self-knowledge and experience and the combination makes for probably his most directly emotional record. In more upbeat moods I’d go for H61 Revisited, where he’s in troll-the-world mode, magnificently fiery. Neither record puts a foot wrong musically or vocally, IMO. Blonde On Blonde is great, but there are songs I always skip – a brilliant single LP nearly always beats a double. The early folk/protest stuff has never appealed as much. The post-motorcycle crash records I like but that backwoodsy vibe doesn’t do as much for me as the “wild mercury” sound – on the other hand that’s sort of what he’s perfecting on Blood, that rueful storytelling mode. Oh, and a while back there was a great “Christian Dylan is the best Dylan” line of argument – Nick Cave pushed it IIRC – which is A+++ rhetoric but I can’t actually buy for a second.

  16. 16
    tm on 3 Jul 2013 #

    Personally I’d go for Blonde on Blonde over H61…H61 has more stand-out highlights (Rolling Stone, Thin Man, Desolation Row) but also too many tracks that feel like speedy 12-bars thrown together to back Dylan’s lyrics rather than complete songs where he cared about the music as well as the words. The only thing I’d really call filler on Blonde… is Pledging My Time, which feels like a pretty good count for a double album.

    I love BOTT too; for a brutally raw breakup album, there’s a surprisingly light and airy feel to it: the gunslinger riding off on his hoss into the sunset: lonely, hurt but ultimately free.

  17. 17
    Ed on 4 Jul 2013 #

    I always think there’s a generation of critics who love BOTT in particular because it vindicated their Dylan worship after some tough years.

    For him to have a second coming more than a decade after he first emerged, and almost a decade after his last great music, must have felt like a miracle, and a triumph.

    It’s as if, say, Daft Punk were to release a really great album in 2013.

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