Once the top 40 was the undisputed soundtrack of a nation. But in an era when you can have a platinum record that gets to No 81, does it even make sense any more?
Some enterprising soul has uploaded The Chart Busters to YouTube, a 1980 World in Action investigation into “hyping” singles that caused quite a commotion at the time. A saga of labels colluding with retailers to falsify sales figures, featuring palms greased with scotch and wine, it suggested three of the top five singles had, initially at least, been hyped into the charts: not to No 1, but just high enough to qualify for radio play and Top of the Pops. “The charts are in no way a guide to what’s accurately selling,” said one former label employee. “They’re a joke.”
The evidence was damning and there was fallout: shortly after the show was broadcast, the managing director of one major label resigned, supposedly “coincidentally”. But the really weird thing was the impact The Chart Busters had on the popularity of the chart. It had none. Audiences didn’t turn off Radio 1’s Sunday evening countdown in disgust. There was no dip in TOTP viewing figures. Kids continued to sneak radios into school, to hear the new No 1 revealed at Tuesday lunchtimes. It was as if the Top 40 was just an impregnable fact of British musical life, too important and longstanding to be shaken even by accusations that it was, at least partially, fixed.
The singles chart the BBC used established itself as market leader, triumphing over those compiled by the NME, Melody Maker and Record Retailer. (Actually, the BBC chart was initially just an aggregate of all the others, but from 1969 it was a separate entity – compiled, as Radio 1 DJs loftily reminded us, “by the British Market Research Bureau”.) From that moment on, the Top 40 more or less defined pop in Britain: “the single most important piece of promotion any record can get,” as one interviewee said.
It was omnipresent. Walk into a record shop and there it was – pages pinned to the wall, singles racked out on shelves. Even if you professed to hate it and all it stood for, the chart still seemed totemic: the Top 40 was the thing “serious” rock bands – most famously Led Zeppelin – defined themselves against by declining to release singles. You could mock it, ignore it or dismiss it as a corruption-filled joke, but nothing could affect its position: The Only Chart That Counts, in the words of the bullish Radio 1 jingle.
Until something – or some things – did affect it. This year, the UK Singles Chart is celebrating its 70th birthday in a noticeably different climate, one in which its grip on public imagination – and indeed the music industry – seems to have slackened completely. It no longer feels omnipresent. When was the last time you walked into a bricks-and-mortar record store and saw the Top 40, or read a news piece about a hotly contested “battle” for No 1? When was the last time you overheard music-mad teenagers talking about where a song was in the charts?
Even the Christmas No 1, once the most prestigious placing of all, barely musters any attention. Perhaps it lost its lustre in the era of The X Factor, cannily positioned in the TV schedules so that the winner’s debut single was released a week before Christmas, almost guaranteeing it topped the festive chart. This fabulously cynical piece of marketing resulted in some of the least memorable Christmas No 1s of all time. Say what you like about Bob the Builder or Mr Blobby, but they were at least striking in a way that Ben Haenow’s cover of OneRepublic’s Something I Need wasn’t. For the last four years, the Christmas No 1 has been a charity single by a YouTube vlogger about sausage rolls, which seems to have provoked little more than a collective shrug. The sense that no one cares is hard to avoid.
Part of the problem is that the traditional media outlets for the Top 40 have waned or vanished. TOTP was put out of its misery 16 years ago. Listener figures for Radio 1’s flagship Sunday countdown went into decline in the early 00s. In 2002, its audience had fallen by 300,000 to 2.6 million; by 2020, with the show relocated to the Friday evening drivetime slot, it was attracting only 1.4 million. By contrast, Radio 2’s Pick of the Pops – on which Paul Gambaccini runs down Top 20s from the 60s to the 00s – gets 2.5 million. A few years back, the Daily Mail reported this as evidence that “the old songs are the best”. It’s more likely that the only people listening to charts are those old enough to remember when they mattered.
In fairness, the Official Charts company, which took over compilation in 1990, has done its best to maintain interest in a changed landscape: it has a snazzy website that runs news features, lists new releases and has a searchable database. It also makes a point of handing out a physical award to any act that makes No 1, which makes for a useful photo opportunity. But it feels like it’s fighting a losing battle to attract the attention of the charts’ traditional audience of tweens and twentysomethings, whose listening habits have changed completely as a result of streaming.
The years since Spotify’s UK launch have given rise to an odd phenomenon, with artists being awarded gold and platinum sales certificates for singles that made hardly any impact on the charts. Alt-rockers Catfish and the Bottlemen have released three platinum-selling singles, the highest-charting reaching No 81; rapper Tyler, the Creator’s See You Again and singer-songwriter Rex Orange County’s Best Friend and Loving Is Easy managed to go gold without making the singles chart at all. It happens because these songs have been streamed an enormous amount over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the existence of Big Singles Artists who barely appear in the singles chart can’t help but make the singles chart look irrelevant.
Chart compilers have tried to keep up, endeavouring to pull off an impossible balancing act in which streaming is reflected – 100 paid-for streams or 600 ad-funded streams count as one sale – while also attempting to keep the appearance of the singles chart the same as ever: largely dominated by recent releases, featuring a wide range of artists and a high turnover of songs in weekly motion. After what we might as well call the Ed Sheeran Incident – when the release of his 2017 album ÷ led to nine slots in the Top 10 being occupied by its tracks – the number of songs allowed in the chart by a single artist was restricted to three.
That same year saw the introduction of Accelerated Chart Ratios, designed to ensure that certain songs don’t hang around for ever. After three weeks in the chart, the number of streams required to count as one sale doubles to 200 paid-for streams, or 1,200 ad-funded. It caused controversy earlier this year, when Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill only reached No 2, despite selling and streaming substantially more than the No 1, Harry Styles’s As It Was. It transpired that the ACR rule applied to all songs over three years old. Faced with the prospect of denying a beloved British musical institution the No 1 she’d clearly earned, the rule was waived the following week.
You can understand why these rules were instituted, but the result is an increasingly Byzantine system that clearly doesn’t offer an accurate picture of what’s popular: there’s a sense the singles chart resembles a piece of software that used to work but has been subject to so many updates, patches and bug fixes over the years that it’s now barely fit for purpose. Perhaps understandably, labels are far less interested in the charts than they were in the days when the Top 40 was deemed so important they were bribing shop owners to fiddle the figures.
Clearly, no label is going to turn its nose up at a No 1 single but, increasingly, the chart is less important as a metric of popularity than other measures of success, from analysing data about “rich engagement” (how streaming figures are spread across an artist’s entire catalogue) to the size and activity of fan communities on such websites as Discord. And then there is Spotify’s Global chart, which collates daily streaming figures from across the world.
It’s a situation that would once have seemed unimaginable, even to the World in Action interviewee who deemed the charts “a joke”. At 70, the singles chart finds itself largely unloved, ignored and dismissed as irrelevant: to paraphrase the gloomy first world war song, it seems to still be here because it’s always been here. Without wishing to spoil the birthday celebrations, it’s hard not to wonder if it will be around to celebrate its 80th.
The five greatest singles battles
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane v Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)
A chart battle that tells you a lot about the pace at which pop music moved in the mid-60s and the fault lines that opened up as a result. Every new Beatles single since 1963 had gone to No 1: their most experimental and arguably greatest didn’t, bested by a ballad designed to appeal to those left behind by pop’s relentless, chemically accelerated progress: a victory for the forces of reaction.
Sex Pistols – God Save the Queen v Rod Stewart – I Don’t Want to Talk About It (1977)
The outrage caused by the Sex Pistols’ second single now looks oddly quaint and hilariously counter-productive: the impact of radio, television and most major retailers banning a single is bound to be nullified by it receiving daily publicity in every tabloid. Skullduggery was alleged – but never proven – in Rod Stewart’s eventual triumph.
John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over v St Winifred’s School Choir – There’s No One Quite Like Grandma (1980)
There was a theory that the Christmas No 1 was the most accurate reflection of Britain’s music taste: people who didn’t ordinarily buy singles felt compelled to do so. Perhaps that accounts for how a Stockport primary school temporarily overwhelmed the mourning for a recently murdered Beatle: normal service was resumed the minute the tinsel came down.
Blur – Country House v Oasis – Roll With It (1996)
There is perhaps no greater example of the overheated madness of the 90s than the Blur v Oasis war: contemporary coverage had it wrecking marriages (at least if you believed the Sun) and reflecting everything from Britain’s obsession with class to the north-south divide. That neither single was particularly good appeared beside the point.
True Steppers feat Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers – Out of Your Mind v Spiller feat Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) (2000)
The point at which it became apparent the Spice Girls’ solo careers might not work out as expected: Posh’s diversion into UK garage upstaged by a disco-house track with a vocal by a then-minor indie artist. Beckham’s frantic attempts to ensure her single reached No 1 – including dragging husband David along to a signing in Woolworths in Oldham – were made more piquant by Ellis-Bextor’s apparent indifference (“I feel like saying if you want it, just have it”).
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