First published online by Bob Stanley.
For Britain, the modern pop era began in 1952. Not only were the first 7in singles released that year, but the first ever copy of the New Musical Express was published. And on 14 November 1952, exactly 60 years ago today, NME ran the first singles chart. All three creations would become cornerstones of the pop world until their simultaneous decline in the 1990s, as the digital era got into its stride.
But the singles chart – or the “hit parade” as it was called in the 50s, borrowing US terminology – has had a special appeal for the British sensibility. It has meant competition, excitement in league table form, pop music as a sport. It has pitted Frankie Laine against Guy Mitchell, Blur against Oasis, Brits against Yanks, Decca against EMI; it has been fuel for a nation obsessed with train numbers and cricket statistics. The charts dictated what you heard on the radio, what you saw on TV, how high your heroes’ stock had risen. For more than four decades, they were a national fixture in Britain, like the FA Cup and Christmas.
Looking back at the very first chart is an insight into a lost world; the early 50s are truly the dark age of pop, invisible and obscure. Al Martino’s Here in My Heart is often mentioned as being Britain’s first No 1, but I don’t ever remember hearing it played on the radio in its entirety. Elsewhere on that first chart are a mix of genres (country, ballads, instrumentals, film themes, exotic novelties, poster-boy pop) that have recurred in the following six decades. For today’s One Direction, there’s Johnnie Ray; for Gangnam Style see Sugarbush by Doris Day and Frankie Laine.
All of them were available on shellac 78s; only Mario Lanza’s Because You’re Mine was available as a 7in 45rpm (EMI had issued it as one of their first records in the new format a few weeks earlier). It’s also notable how dominated by the US the charts were, with only Vera Lynn, Max Bygraves and band leader Ray Martin from Britain. Given the standard Anglo-American rock era narrative, it’s easy to forget what a musical backwater Britain was before rock’n'roll.
A fair percentage of people in Britain will know what was No 1 the day they were born. I gave up asking friends from other countries a while ago, as they never knew the answer: Britain’s obsession with the charts has never been echoed abroad. In the 60s and 70s, the French had to rely on a monthly chart in teen magazine Salut les Copains, which excluded anything that wasn’t French. In fact, in most of Europe, the British charts had more credibility than the local ones, hence the number of European album sleeves emblazoned with a garish union flag sticker proclaiming: “Top hit in England!”
America only ever printed their Hot 100 chart in Billboard, a trade magazine too dry to appeal to even the swottiest pop fan. There was also no national pop chart TV show in the US, or possibly anywhere outside Britain, making Top of the Pops’ place in history almost unique. The only other examples of a national chart show have also tended to be British: the short-lived Disc a Dawn in Wales, and ITV’s long-running The Chart Show.
So it’s part of our heritage, and a badge of honour for the likes of Martino, Gerry & the Pacemakers (first act to score No 1s with their first three singles) and Girls Aloud (first girl group to score 19 top 10 hits) to have a place in UK chart history. Yet there is little doubt that the singles chart – like the FA Cup – has lost some of its prestige in recent years. When did this process begin?
Though it was compounded by the loss of Top of the Pops, I would suggest the chart’s significance started to shrink around 1994, when singles began to debut at their peak position and fall off the chart completely just three or four weeks later. Between 1952 and the mid-1990s, pop fans and DJs had kept a keen eye on highest new entries, biggest climbers and bizarre drops. Entering the chart at No 1 was an extraordinarily rare feat, the province of superstars like Elvis, the Beatles, Slade, the Jam and Adam & the Ants. By the late 90s, it was the norm, whether you were the Spice Girls or Wamdue Project. When the UK’s No 1 single became more a triumph of marketing than popular consensus, the public began to feel disenfranchised. When Westlife came within an ace of equalling Elvis and the Beatles’ record tally of No 1s (17 each, if you don’t count reissues), even Louis Walsh must have thought it a little rum.
This has been corrected in the age of the download, which once again allows records to build in popularity, meaning singles can sit around for months on end. Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company is used to people complaining that the charts aren’t as important as they used to be. “As far as the artists are concerned, they 100% are. Robbie [Williams] is No 1 this week – I know it meant a lot to him. And it has meant everything to new acts like Rita Ora or Cover Drive. It’s the only way they can match themselves against their peers in this multi-channel era.”
There’s no doubt singles sales have been reinvigorated in the digital era, with downloads helping to sell more new releases as well as back catalogue material: unlikely oldies such as Showaddywaddy’s Under the Moon of Love have become million-sellers thanks to download oomph. We are also beyond the awkward industry strategies of the 90s and noughties, when singles were played on the radio weeks before they were in the shops, a major reason why they charted so high in the first week: “on air, on sale” is a policy championed by Universal that means records are available to download as soon as they air on radio. It combats piracy while adding immediacy – and relevance – to the charts.
To the artists and the industry, at least, the UK singles chart is still No 1. A major reason for its continued authority is that it is entirely sales-based. As an eight-year-old, I bought a copy of a Wings single and expected it to climb one place in the following week’s chart; it didn’t, it dropped, and I was rather upset. My logic may have been awry, but I still understood that the record at No 1 sold more copies than the record at No 2. America, on the other hand, has always used a complex and potentially corruptible mix of sales, radio play and jukebox plays; when the more accurate and sales-orientated Nielsen Soundscan chart was introduced by Billboard in 1991, alternative and country records suddenly leapt up the charts at the expense of middle-of-the-road pop hits like Paula Abdul’s The Promise of a New Day and Roxette’s Fading Like a Flower.
For this reason, the Official Charts Company is hesitant to introduce streaming to the singles chart. Talbot currently thinks it’s unnecessary: “It would be a much bigger decision in the UK than other countries because our chart has always been totally transparent. Nobody questions it. Anything that makes the mechanism more opaque needs thorough consideration.”
They may have diminished from their TotP heyday, but the British charts still have cache and credibility, here and abroad. Radio 2′s Pick of the Pops has devoted two shows to playing the biggest-selling single from each year since 1952; last night, there was a parliamentary reception for acts who have scored million-sellers; and this Friday, BBC4 screens a 90-minute tribute called Pop Charts Britannia. Meanwhile, the Official Charts Company website is getting ever more hits, which suggests younger pop fans aren’t mourning TotP the way people over 30 are: they’ve just found a different way of divining and devouring chart statistics. We are still, it seems, a nation of trainspotters.
Listen to the first-ever singles chart on spotify
Welcome to the charts: The first NME Hit Parade, 14 November 1952
1. Al Martino Here in My Heart
2. Jo Stafford You Belong to Me
3. Nat King Cole Somewhere Along the Way
4. Bing Crosby The Isle of Innisfree
5. Guy Mitchell Feet Up
6. Rosemary Clooney Half As Much
7. Frankie Laine High Noon
7= Vera Lynn Forget Me Not
8. Doris Day & Frankie Laine Sugarbush
8= Ray Martin Blue Tango
9. Vera Lynn Homing Waltz
10. Vera Lynn Auf Wiedersehn
10= Mario Lanza Because You’re Mine
Music down the decades: November’s top singles
1. Lovesick Blues Frank Ifield
2. Let’s Dance Chris Montez
3. Telstar The Tornados
4. Swiss Maid Del Shannon
5. The Loco-Motion Little Eva
Yodelling Aussie Frank Ifield had the second of his four largely forgotten No 1s, although Let’s Dance and The Loco-Motion are still played at all good fairgrounds. Telstar, named after the communications satellite and featuring space-age noises, had previously been No 1, while Del Shannon’s track was much chirpier than his biggest hit, Runaway. Within months, this innocently enjoyable top 5 would sound antique: the Beatles revolution was imminent.
1. Clair Gilbert O’Sullivan
2. Mouldy Old Dough Lieutenant Pigeon
3. Donna 10CC
4. Elected Alice Cooper
5. Loop Di Love Shag
It’s hard to imagine Clair – in which a man sings of his fondness for the girl he babysits – being released now, let alone reaching No 1. Lieutenant Pigeon’s teary, beery kneesup and Alice Cooper’s snarky political comment were pretty representative of British and US mindsets in 1972. The other two are from Jonathan King’s UK label: 10CC’s doo-wop pastiche (their first hit) and Loop Di Love, King’s growly cover of a Greek holiday hit.
1. I Don’t Wanna Dance Eddy Grant
2. Heartbreaker Dionne Warwick
3. Mad World Tears for Fears
4. Do You Really Want to Hurt Me Culture Club
5. Sexual Healing Marvin Gaye
Eddy Grant’s previous No 1 had come 14 years earlier, as a singer on the Equals’ Baby Come Back. Below I Don’t Wanna Dance were a clutch of records that haven’t been off the radio in 30 years: the Bee Gees-penned Heartbreaker; Tears for Fears’ Mad World, which Gary Jules would take to No 1 two decades later. Culture Club’s soft reggae had been No 1, while Marvin Gaye scored his last major hit.
1. End of the Road Boyz II Men
2. Would I Lie to You Charles & Eddie
3. People Everyday Arrested Development
4. Boss Drum The Shamen
5. Run to You Rage
Boyz II Men’s snail-paced, whale-sized ballad had been No 1 for three weeks (it managed 13 in the US) but would be evicted by Charles & Eddie’s sweet 70s soul tribute a week later. Arrested Development gave conscious rap its biggest UK hit; the rave nation was represented by the Shamen and Rage, who gave an old Bryan Adams hit the full siren and airhorn treatment.
1. Heaven DJ Sammy
2. Dilemma Nelly ft. Kelly Rowland
3. Die Another Day Madonna
4. Ketchup Song Las Ketchup
5. Like I Love You Justin Timberlake
Do Bryan Adams records get recycled into floorfillers every 10 years? DJ Sammy’s Eurodance cover of his power ballad Heaven knocked Nelly and Kelly’s Grammy-winning Dilemma off the top. They were tailed by Las Ketchup’s daffy, post-summer holiday hit, Madonna’s forgettable Bond theme and the debut hit for solo Justin Timberlake, a Neptunes-produced modern pop classic.
1. Robbie Williams Candy
2. Labrinth feat. Emeli Sandé Beneath Your Beautiful
3. The Wanted I Found You
4. Adele Skyfall
5. Swedish House Mafia/Martin Don’t You Worry Child
This week’s top 5 is a pretty good cross-section of 2012 as a whole. Robbie Williams’ seventh No 1 – his first in eight years – is helped by the recent irksome craze for adapting nursery rhymes, Ring a Ring o’ Roses in this case. Labrinth and Emeli Sandé represent the “new earnest”; the Wanted revive the joys of falsetto boyband pop; Adele turns in the best Bond theme since, ooh, Licence to Kill; and Swedish House Mafia once again wring out the 90s Europop rag.
• This article was amended on 14 November 2012. In the original, Clair was described as a song in which a man sings about his desire to marry the girl he babysits. This has been corrected.