(This is Part 2 of a 3 part piece around the 1000th No.1. Part 1 is here but you might also want to read about the 999th Number 1)

Dr Manhattan is on Mars, some time before he leaves our Universe at the end of Watchmen to become a meme. It is 1958. Elvis is at No.1. It is 1969. The Beatles are at No.1. It is 2005. Elvis is at No.1. It is 2023. The Beatles are at No.1. If you’re going to think something as foolish as “Number 1s matter”, surely who has the most No.1s must matter most of all.

At any rate, the charts endure. “Now And Then” is the 1,419th and current No.1, and in fairness to Paul McCartney it took a bit more effort than luring the fans in with collectable anniversary singles. (Anyway, The Beatles had already tried that). The 1,419th No.1 has also sold more than the 1,000th did. Literally, physically, sold more – 38,000 copies to “I Got Stung”’s 30,000. By this metric alone, the tip top pop charts are in rude health. Some of those Beatles singles cost twenty quid, too.

We’ll come back to those physical sales, but 1,000 posts and 20 years into writing Popular it’s probably worth asking – what actually are the charts now, in 2023? They’re a bit like the British monarchy – history furnishes us with a list (“Willy, Willy, Harry, Stee” &c.) but the list is a convenient fiction smoothing over major discontinuities. Charles III is not a king in precisely the sense Charles II was a king. “Now And Then” is not No.1 in precisely the sense “Hello Goodbye” was.

One of those discontinuities is happening in 2005, but it’s hardly the first. For one thing the charts before 1969 were a retcon. The multiverse of charts was replaced with a single consistent timeline, with only stray continuity errors like Dusty Springfield’s “Nothing Has Been Proved” remembering versions of history where the Beatles had different Number Ones. It was only after that that the charts could become The Charts, the thing which hooked kids in and led to some of them doing things like this.

What made The Charts exciting was their movement, their unpredictability, the sense of different audiences mingling and clashing (“who is even buying this?”), the tension of watching your favourites slowly climb, the thrill of seeing them surge, the wonder of hearing something you never had. The Charts in their heyday – the 70s and 80s, according to people who were kids in the 70s and 80s – had an exact, goldilocks level of volatility. Not too fast, not too slow.

The charts in 2023, under the solemn keeping of The Official Charts Company, are… not too different from this. Songs do rise and fall – the age of everything going in at No.1 is long over. Some records stay at No.1 for ages, some last only a precious week. There’s less breadth of audiences represented, but a new factor too: the chaos energy of TikTok will open up holes in time and drop old songs into the Top 40.

But like those king lists, apparent continuity masks wrenching change. The old Charts existed as part of a music business and entertainment ecosystem. A weekly radio and television showcase for the charts, turning an industry list into a public event. A largely nationalised, limited media landscape, guaranteeing those showcases an audience. A purely physical-media singles market, dependent on stores which wanted regular rotation of stock. A measurement system that was selective, partly trust-based and entirely based on buying not listening. An industry culture still firmly in the lunches and hunches era of decision making. The excitement of The Charts was an emergent property of a perfect storm of interlocking factors.

In 2023, that ecosystem barely exists. Top Of The Pops is long gone. There is a weekly chart show on Radio 1, a station whose audience is a third of its 20th century peak in a fragmented media landscape. Physical media is a niche, and the measurement of the charts has swung almost entirely to listeners over buyers. And across the 90s the industry wised up, worked out how to promote single releases to fans and stores, and ensured that the No.1 would be the biggest new release each week.

The charts in 2023 reflect that changed world, but only to a degree. The ecosystem that created a dynamic chart by happy accident has been replaced by a scaffolding of rules and fixes designed to do that on purpose. The charts is an accurate representation of what British people are listening to – except it’s not, exactly, because British people left to themselves listen to the same things over and over again and the chart slows to the point of total inertia. So they downweight plays once a track loses momentum. The charts reflect the most popular singles – except when an LP comes out, and all but the top 3 tracks are artificially excluded, because “singles” doesn’t exactly mean that anymore.

Each of these decisions are good ones! But collectively they reflect a vision of how the charts should work which is nostalgic, based on their 20th century heyday as The Charts, back when they were just exciting enough, back when (whisper it) they mattered. The charts in 2023 is a terrarium, a music industry biome designed to preserve a way of interacting with pop that was once very important to some people. But if the charts had never existed, would anyone bother to invent them now?

Of course, it could be worse. In 2005, it was worse. Physical sales had been slipping fast since the peak of the late 90s CD boom – “Jailhouse Rock” sold a then record-low of 21,000; Ja Rule’s “Wonderful” is, supposedly, the lowest selling UK No.1 ever. It became harder to deny that the Number 1 slot didn’t mean much. (When sales are higher overall, front-loading them in the first week isn’t such a problem – you still need to have some wider popularity to do it). Slipstream No.1s proliferated, reflecting marketers catching up on more genuine crossovers. Any biddable fanbase could secure a string of hits. The audiences for Reality TV shows were magnitudes larger than for any pop act, so TV could overwhelm the charts on a whim. The industry was reluctant to include downloads, where unit prices were even lower, but it was obvious they needed to. The 1000th number one could not have come at a worse time. “Darkness Falls On The Singles Era”, read the Guardian headline announcing “I Got Stung”’s success.

Where did Elvis fit into all this? From the 2002 JXL remix, through this reissue program, to the more recent set of orchestral remakes, the impression I have is that the keepers’ of Elvis’ post-death legacy are desperate to ensure his memory endures, and also desperate to make a lot of money from it. But they’re hamstrung by the fact that the currency of musical legacy tends to be the LP, and Elvis wasn’t really an LPs guy. Once past the luxurious, fascinating, decade-by-decade box sets which firmed up his musical reputation, they’ve had to get creative. And just as in the 50s, creative often means exploitative.

Meanwhile Elvis remained powerful as a cultural figure, a set of myths and hauntings – his death opened the doors on a series of excellent songs about Elvis Presley across the 80s and 90s and beyond. Kate Bush’s 2005 comeback “King Of The Mountain” – one recluse empathising with a legendary other – is a better tribute to Elvis At 70 than a limited edition 10” re-release of “Wooden Heart”.

The Elvis people obviously didn’t see it that way. For them the limited edition releases were beautiful, collectable objects – the Elvis forums at the time were full of tips on how to get particularly scarce ones. The fun was in acquisition: by the end all of them were 99p on eBay, but that wasn’t the point. This is one of two ways the Elvis campaign prefigures pop in 2023: the Franklin-Mint-ification of physical media, particularly vinyls. And it gets to the heart of the question I asked earlier – why did I feel so cheated by this as the 1000th No.1? Because at least Brian McFadden fans were buying a song to listen to – even if loyalty played a big role. At least Band Aid buyers were getting something they hadn’t heard and felt like they were helping someone. “I Got Stung” was aimed purely at people who owned it already – it might as well have been a souvenir thimble.

At the end of the 2005 reissue series an Elvis news site posted a moving tribute.

Some campaign facts:

1. Elvis has sold over 750,000+ singles in 4 months.

2. “One Night” was the UK’s 1000th UK #1

3. Elvis is the only artist to have hit the #1 spot 21 times.

4. No artist has ever had 3 different #1 singles in one month.

5. Elvis has now had more Top 3 singles in a year than other artist.

6. Presley has enjoyed more Top 10 entries than any other artist with 77.

7. The releases generated 28,000 column cm’s of PR with an advertising value of £2.3 million.

8. The PR campaign reached over 32 million consumers in the UK.

This gives a sense of priorities – pure street team pride at their guy’s unbeatable metrics. This is the other very contemporary thing about Elvis in 2005 – the metrics have changed, but anybody familiar with Army, or the Bey-Hive, or Swifties will recognise the tone.

The last two ‘facts’ on the press release are presumably taken raw from some marketing press pack. By 2005 I’d read plenty of those. Later I wrote a few. (Much later I sat on judging panels for marketing awards and recognised this stuff as fluff aimed to sucker people into handing out a prize.) Perhaps this capitalist candour – an advertising value of £2.3 million – was appropriate. The charts began in 1952 as a PR exercise, a wheeze by Percy Dickins to get more people buying the New Musical Express. We’ve come full circle. But it wasn’t why I’d loved the charts. It certainly wasn’t why I was writing about them. So maybe, when I got here, I’d stop. The wind it blows, the wind it blows the door closed.

Popular: The First 1000 Number Ones. It’s got a nice ring to it.