1975’s ‘The Goodies Rule O.K.’ was the undoubted masterpiece to emanate from the most popular TV comedy team of their day, an hour-long mini-movie in which they satirised both pop and politics with surreal expertise. In one sequence, the chart dominance of their fictitious band is reflected via a fake ‘Top of the Pops’ top ten rundown of the kind the programme used as an introduction at the time, with all ten places occupied by Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Nothing of that nature had ever happened in the real world; there had been the odd occasion when one act had held the top two positions in the singles charts, but the UK Top 40 hadn’t seen anything comparable to the landmark occasion one week in 1964 when The Beatles owned the entire top five best-selling singles on America’s Billboard Hot 100.
Sorry to get all Paul Gambaccini, but even when one takes into account that the US charts were traditionally a mix of sales and airplay whereas the British equivalent was solely based on records sold, to occupy all top five places was one hell of an achievement. It was only made possible due to Capitol Records exploiting the atom bomb of American Beatlemania by re-releasing all the band’s previous stateside flops along with their current material. Singles releases in the UK were more measured during those heady days, usually separated by three or four months, so it was rare for an act to have more than one single on the charts at the same time.
By the 1990s, the rules of the game had changed a little. In order to reverse falling singles sales, record companies hit on the idea of giving radio and TV stations exclusive previews of new releases upwards of four weeks in advance of anyone being able to buy them in the shops. On the eve of actual release, record-buyers’ ears were ringing with the tune in question to such a degree that it was a dead cert said single would debut at No.1 and would inevitably plummet down the charts in the weeks after due to the majority of its sales coming in the first few days.
This practice devalued the previous kudos of crashing in at the top spot, which had been something only a small number of acts had managed before; indeed, when going straight in at No.1 required something approaching half-a-million sales, it was such a rare occurrence that after Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ entered at the top spot in 1973, no other single did likewise until The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ in 1980. But the moving of the chart goalposts in the 90s also meant that fewer records were climbing up to No.1 anymore and fewer still could hold onto No.1 for more than that solitary week they debuted there. For ten consecutive weeks from December 1998 to February 1999, there was a different chart-topper every single week.
Other gimmicks during this era included Indie band The Wedding Present releasing a single for every month of 1992, meaning they enjoyed twelve Top 40 ‘hits’ that year – even though none spent more than a fortnight on the charts. The Manic Street Preachers, on the other hand, released two new singles on the same day in 2001, though neither entered higher than No.8. By the end of the twentieth century, downloads (mostly illegal) were affecting singles sales anew, and though it took some time, the ailing music industry eventually embraced the changes.
This week, Ed Sheeran – that guitar-playing Cabbage Patch Doll seemingly manufactured by a Formica focus group – holds nine of the top ten places in what passes for today’s singles chart. You heard that right. None of those nine songs are there due to physical sales; they’re ‘virtual’ singles whose presence there is down to legal streaming sites such as Spotify. Had the technology existed in the 60s, no doubt The Beatles would have done likewise, for many of their album tracks received as much airplay as their singles; but what the Top 40 does now is reflect album listening habits, with every song on a popular album eligible for inclusion in the singles chart if enough people pay to listen to it on their iPods. Is it really worth even having a singles chart when this is the case?
The single as a specialised art-form in itself could once condense the entire breadth and depth of emotions and musical melodrama that most acts spread over an entire album into three and-a-half minutes; and while the likes of ‘Virginia Plain’, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ or ‘Party Fears Two’ came from artists with more than one ace up their sleeves, had that trio of 45s belonged to one-hit wonders, it’d be fair to speculate that everything they might ever have to say had been crammed onto that solitary seven-inch artefact – just like ‘Sugar Sugar’; and saying everything in three and-a-half minutes is something few can master anymore because the single is effectively dead.
Due to the manner in which big-selling albums can slow burn over a calendar year, the inclusion of tracks from them that haven’t even been released as singles via streaming sales means the singles chart has ground to a halt compared to the frenzied pace of the late 90s. If ‘Top of the Pops’ still existed, the viewer wouldn’t notice much action in the Top 40 unless the programme was only transmitted on a monthly basis; apparently, last year we even had a Bryan Adams moment when a record called ‘One Dance’ sat atop the chart for fifteen weeks. And can you imagine a current edition of TOTP as the presenter links between Ed Sheeran at No.9 and Ed Sheeran at No.3?
The continuation of the so-called singles chart when it’s essentially an album tracks chart seems quite a pointless exercise, an irrelevance that is of no real interest to anyone who doesn’t work for the music industry. ‘The Kids’ couldn’t care less from what I can gather, so who else is it really for? When that monolith corporation known as UMG owns all but a tiny handful of all the old record labels, when TOTP is now simply a selective archive show over on BBC4, and when the music press – traditional breaker of new bands – more or less no longer exists, it’s evident the framework that worked in tandem with the singles chart has gone. Maybe it’s time for what remains of the singles chart to follow suit.
© The Editor