(This is part 1 of a 3-part piece designed to fit around the 999th and 1000th Popular entries, which will go up on the Popular site.)

Almost my first memory of the charts is of the charts being broken. Broken hearted; collapsed by shock and grief in the Winter of 1980 into a series of Number 1s for John Lennon, first his then-current single, then an old classic rushed back into shops to meet grieving demand, then what would have been his next one.

But also just broken. As I wrote here when we reached those songs, I was 7 and I was annoyed. I wanted – though how did I know what to want? – the Number One to be something that felt new – though how did I know what that felt? I had, already, a sense of what the charts were for, and mourning, which I barely understood even as an abstract, wasn’t it.

It didn’t take the death of John Lennon for me to realise the charts could be gamed. It would have become obvious soon enough. A perfect charts, reflecting what the fans truly liked and listened to, would have been far less exciting, as we found much later when we got close to having one. I would probably not have cared as much about a charts like that.

“The singles people buy each week” is a weird, flawed, proxy for “the music people like”, but it introduced a jolt of crass, commercial democracy into proceedings, a random element where the passions of some fans could triumph and the passions of others could be disrupted. Where a public wake for one of Britain’s finest songwriters could be suddenly interrupted by an army of 9 year olds buying a record for their dear old grannies. The chart was a pony-and-trap whose reins were there for the grabbing.

Which isn’t to say you’d want the charts to be hijacked all the time, any more than you’d want to see a handballed goal in every football match. But the possibility of those things happening sometimes, the bittersweet tang of outrage you might feel when they did, its persistence as a shared memory, these were part of what might get a kid hooked on the charts.

A month or so after John Lennon died, a song reached Number 1 I liked considerably better – a funny man with a foreign accent telling people to shut up. For people a few years older than me, this became a great wickedness, one of those handballed goals – this crap novelty song keeping Ultravox’s “Vienna” from Number 1. The charts were exciting not just because there was a winner, but because that winner was sometimes outrageous. You listened each week not knowing if you’d be hearing a victory march or witnessing a crime scene.

The 999th, 1000th, and 1002nd Number 1s were one or the other. Unless they were both. Unless it didn’t matter at all.

The Elvis reissue campaign of 2005 was timed for the King’s 70th birthday, had he lived. It was also, explicitly, timed to coincide with the 1000th Number 1, and the birthday element was a figleaf for that. At one point the estate planned a weekly release of 30 Elvis singles; in the end, they contented themselves with simply 18. His Number 1 hits, in fact, after an initial release of “All Shook Up”. This came with a presentation box and space for all 18 other records, something for collectors to fill, week on week, like a DeAgostini partwork about horses or racing cars. The free box meant “All Shook Up” was not eligible for the charts. Everything else was.

A lost Popular 10

All 18 releases reached the Top 5. The first, second and fourth reached Number 1. The 1000th Number 1 was “I Got Stung/One Night” by Elvis Presley, the King Of Rock And Roll. In the words of an ancient saying passed down to us from the Time Of Elvis: Ever get the feeling you’ve got stung?

Yes. Yes, actually, I did have that feeling. I was surprised, in fact, by how much I felt stung. But why?

Is it because the records are bad? Hardly. “Jailhouse Rock” is a masterpiece. “I Got Stung” is deceptively casual quality. “One Night” vamps and winks. “It’s Now Or Never” at least makes me fancy an ice cream.

Is it because Elvis – or Elvis’ People, those heirs to Colonel Tom managing the man’s commercial ghost – had somehow cheated? No – there were plenty of precedents. Very old records reached the top of the chart in the late 80s. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a repeat Number 1. Elvis himself had a 00s chart-topper.

Is it because I felt like the 1000th Number One should be something remarkable? I mean, it would have been nice. By the time of the 500th Number 1, I was enough of a follower of The Charts to understand the excitement the Top Of The Pops presenters felt – or pretended to feel – about that idea, but there was no getting around the fact that the actual song was “A Little Peace” by Nicole. No reason for this to turn out better.

Is it because by this point I had committed myself to writing about every No.1 hit? Now we’re getting a little closer, though this specific future chore didn’t bother me. The Popular entries for the 1950s were deliberately hurried, sketchy affairs, written with no research about music I had no background with or feel for. Elvis had suffered more than most for this – why not revisit them properly? If nothing else it was a chance to re-score “Jailhouse Rock”.

Still, doing Popular had made me quixotically invested in the charts. The success of the Elvis campaign hurt, not because the reissues won but because they’d barely had to try. The 1000th Number One sold around 30,000 copies – a risible number, but standard for 2005. The message could hardly have been clearer: this shit doesn’t matter any more. It’s over. Go home.