I remember the first time I tried to create a web page. It was back in the dark days of 1994 and the University had just installed its very first web server. If you asked nicely they would give you some space to play with and you were allowed to link yourself to the list of internal sites on the front page. Back then there were no WYSIWYG editors. Men were men, and you coded everything by hand in a text editor, saved it out, pointed a browser at your creation and debugged from there. I don’t think I ever finished mine. It was rubbish and probably nothing more than a list of your own favourite bookmarks, as most personal sites were at the time.
It wasn’t until six years later that I finally succeeded in publishing a site. The occasion was the purchase of this very domain and it seemed wrong to have it sat there without a page to direct people to. It helped that I was mostly unemployed at the time, but it still was a herculean effort to get the five or six pages that the very first version of this site presented to the world online. Designing logos and menus, scanning in the photos one by one, writing the text. I recall vividly the final push to get everything written. I sat down at the computer in my attic room at 2pm and genuinely did not look at the clock again, or even move to eat or pee until 11 that night.
That site lasted until 2004 when I gave up ever having the time to revamp it properly and switched to blogging systems. I’ve never attempted to build a website from scratch since.
Until this month. The need to craft a new home for the Chart Watch columns, and to finally give the full archive the kind of presentation it has deserved, has led to my spending the past few weeks flexing the craft fingers once again. Even in this modern age it is no less of a task. Picking the hosting platform, choosing the CMS, trialling templates, adjusting parameters and then finally populating it with starter content.
But it is almost done. Things need to stay under wraps for just a couple more days to iron out the kinks, but I think it is safe to say that this Friday the Chart Watch column will no longer be in its temporary home on this site, but instead on its own dedicated platform for the first time ever. Watch this space as they say.
When Yahoo! Music UK closed in September 2011 it was the first time since the 1990s that my weekly commentaries on the British charts had no permanent home on the web. The interregnum was happily temporary, Bill Lamb the editor of the Top40 section of about.com offering to pay for the weekly updates to be posted on his pages. And so it has been for the past four and a half years.
For various reasons that arrangement now has to come to an end as the site re-focuses on the American market. Hence my rather oblique note at the end of this week’s piece that it is to be the last one to appear on that site. And understandably I’ve been flooded with people asking via email and social media just what happens next.
For now I don’t have a straight answer to that question. Naturally in an ideal world I’d make a flying leap to another high profile music website and be the core part of their weekly offering just as I always have. But such outlets are few and far between and even the ones that exist are struggling. Online readers have an insatiable demand for content, there are an infinite number of ways to present that content and yet the people who can adequately monetise this and make it worthwhile to even produce in the first place are minimal in number. I can pitch until I am blue in the face, but most of the time the answers will be along the lines of “sorry, I’ve just got no budget to pay for contributors”. But they can’t have me for free. I’m the only person for whom I’ll write for nothing.
I also have to question exactly what relevance I have. Once upon a time I was practically the only person offering up a weekly summary of British music movements and its impact on national culture, explaining who was heading up the charts and why. But now I’m just a secondary voice. After years of my complaining that they were not doing so, the Official Charts Company themselves engage fully with the public, running a website packed with archives, trivia and news. Plus their own weekly summary of who made Number One and why. Yes, it is a brief headline summary only, but for the casual reader that is all that is needed.
The days when I could say I was truly influential, when columns would receive visitor numbers in the tens of thousands, dwarfing most other pages on their host site, are long gone. To jump to another commercial outlet would risk succumbing to what I once branded Depeche Mode syndrome. A legacy act playing to wide acclaim to an ever-diminishing choir without ever necessarily adding new followers.
But on the other hand I’d be foolish to stop, particularly when the passion for the material and the drive to communicate that led to me popping up on usenet all those years ago. A weekly chart column is core to my own personal brand, if you will, and I’ve got a near quarter of a century legacy propping that up. I want people to buy the books I write, to consider me an authority on the history of popular music. It is the reason I’m still invited on TV and radio shows to talk after all. I have no desire any time soon to throw that away.
So the good news is I’m going nowhere, even if for the moment I have nowhere to go. There are plans in place to give James Masterton’s Chart Watch UK a brand new home and a proper showcase for both the latest chart news and perhaps 23 and a half years of archives that sit like hidden jewels on several cloud backup services.
Watch this space as they say. For now there is at least a ready made page on this site, so as of Friday 20th May you can read the latest column on the Chart Watch UK page at the top of this site. Even if I won’t receive a penny for it.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. That’s something of an undertaking given I struggle at times to get the existing one out the door on a weekly basis. This however is something different.
James Masterton: Plus One is my opportunity to spend time with some of the most interesting people I know, getting them to tell me their stories and perhaps make the kind of revelations that you would not expect them to under more formal circumstances.
At the time of writing, the first two editions are online featuring the first parts of an extended interview I persuaded my friend and colleague Danny Kelly to participate in. We’ve already heard about his early life growing up in Islington, the moments that defined his love of both music and football as well as some early brushes with celebrity in “civilian” jobs. Part 2 moves on to his years at the New Musical Express, starting as a contributing writer and ending with a turbulent tenure as editor during the course of which a famous newsroom discussion over a notorious set of pictures was captured for Radio 5 documentary. There is even more to come, but that would be to surely spoil the surprise.
Full details on how to subscribe can be found on the Plus One page hovering at the top of the site, but for those for whom that is just too much effort, here is Episode 2 for your listening pleasure. Hope you enjoy it.
It has quite correctly dominated the current affairs agenda since the news broke on Wednesday afternoon. The death at the tragically young age of 62 of the comedienne and actor Victoria Wood has prompted a wave of heartfelt tributes, eulogising both the person and her talent in the manner which naturally we never quite manage to do when they are around to appreciate it.
Victoria Wood’s comic abilities were most commonly expressed through prose, be it stand up routines or longer form acting performances in shows such as “Dinnerladies” but for a long time a core part of her act consisted of musical performances. She was a female Steve Allen, capable of sitting down at a piano and knocking out a piece of comic doggerel, most of her songs along similar themes to her standup routines, dealing with the perils of being a bright yet tragically all too human British female of a certain age.
This once led her to one of the few commercial deals of her life, a series of TV adverts for the short-lived One-Cal umbrella branding for diet soft drinks. For a generation of children like mine, too young to stay up for her adult comedy series, this was our first proper introduction to the witty Lancashire lass. Singing at a piano on a floating island, attended to by swimming waiters.
Her songs were however just one tiny part of her act, and perhaps for that reason few attempts were ever made to either compile them together or have her turn her talents to the record business. The only records she released during her first flush of fame were the occasional live album (1983 release Lucky Bag or 1988 issue Live the most well known ones) and it was not until 1997 that a proper collection of Victoria Wood musical compositions was released, Ovation Records putting out Real Life – The Songs although the collection never registered on the music charts and it remains something of a sought-after rarity to this day.
So it may surprise many people to learn that Victoria Wood once performed a Number One hit single. But that is because it has all but lost to history.
March 1991 saw the broadcast the third of what has now become a biannual series of Comic Relief charity telethons. The event also established once and for all the tradition of releasing a tie-in pop record to coincide with the event. The previous Comic Relief tracks had seen comic talent team up with ‘proper’ pop acts along for the ride, The Young Ones joining Cliff Richard, Mel Smith teaming with Kim Wilde and “Lananeeneenoonoo” (French and Saunders along with a pre-fame Kathy Burke) teaming with Bananarama. For 1991 however the comedians were to go it alone for the very first time.
Everyone remembers the 1991 Comic Relief single The Stonk by Hale and Pace. For a start it formed the theme of the night: Comic Relief 1991 was officially subtitled “The Stonker”. Secondly the track still had some superstar input with no less a musical giant than Brian May of Queen producing the single and supplying a suitably epic guitar solo in the middle. Still for all that the song wasn’t particularly good, lacking much in the way of jokes or wit and reliant on some surprise celebrity cameos to give it even something approaching novelty value. No matter, it flew to Number One in short order in its third week on sale, topping the charts with immaculate timing in the aftermath of the telethon. For sure though nothing approaching a classic.
Yet on what was ostensibly the single’s b-side was a much better track. It was called The Smile Song. Its performer? One Victoria Wood. A rare foray into not only long-form songwriting but also mainstream pop for the star, the track was actually rather brilliantly done. During the course of the record she parodied a dizzying array of musical styles, performing in turn as The Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue, a hair metal band who are most probably Poison, the Turbo B era of Snap!, Janet Jackson, Vera Lynn and finally herself. It even had a video, one which was rarely aired and was truly only seen by most on the night of the event itself.
Now technically the two tracks were each one half of a double-sided release. As demonstrated by the sleeve which portrays both acts and both songs as equal partners in the release:
So why has The Smile Song been largely confined to the dustbin of history? Well the problem is that the singles chart ignored it completely. There is no reason why it shouldn’t have been listed, plenty of double-sided singles with a different artist on each side had charted in the past – eg the Wet Wet Wet/Billy Bragg pairing on With A Little Help From My Friends/She’s Leaving Home in 1988, or the 1993 release Puss/Oh The Guilt which featured The Jesus Lizard on one side and Nirvana on the other. But the dual billing had to be at the explicit request of the label and London Records who released the Comic Relief track omitted to do so.
So this is how the single appeared in the printed listings in Music Week:
And (in its dying weeks *sob*) Record Mirror:
Needless to say the chart record books, and indeed the Official Charts Company’s own archive follow suit and list Hale and Pace alone. I confess I was surprised to discover this earlier today. My own memories of the time, and indeed the lists of Number One singles that I was lovingly compiling even as a teenager regarded the Comic Relief single as a true double-sided hit and with Victoria Wood given the equal billing she was surely entitled to.
Victoria Wood, the modern day comic genius, the female star who forced her way onto television and into the hearts and minds of fans the nation over not through dogma, tokenism or quotas but simply because of her own unique talent, did indeed once record and release a Number One hit single. But one which circumstances dictate has been all but forgotten. There seems to be no better tribute to her than to acknowledge it here today.
STOP PRESS: earlier on Thursday I received this communication:
Leaving aside the extraordinary news that the commercial radio network chart of the time did at least have some use after all, it is worth noting too that the listing here also acknowledges the presence on the b-side of the re-released Clash single of Rush by B.A.D. II (which was also unacknowledged by the CIN chart). Leaving aside the Mick Jones connection to both, this actually means that in the week the Comic Relief single was topping the charts the first and second best selling singles in the country were double-sided hits featuring four different acts in total. Which surely has to be unique.
Right from the very dawn of the medium, television has had a comfortingly symbiotic relationship with professional wrestling. This was particularly so in America when from the 1950s onwards even the smallest stations found that their local grappling promotion provided them an easy way to fill broadcast hours on a Saturday morning. It was very cheap to produce, all that was required was a single camera and a man to announce and commentate on the bouts. That it also rated impressively and consistently was an added bonus.
The wrestling promoters themselves quickly cottoned on that the television exposure was a gift to their businesses. The television shows became little more than extended adverts, filled with exhibition bouts of varying quality, teasing the carrot that the most exciting contests, the championship matches and those that pitted star versus star could be found on the non-televised evening events. Crowds would flock to the sports halls and larger arenas, not only to see in person the characters, heroes and villains depicted on their screens, but also to see if the star would exact the revenge he had promised over the enemy who had left him lying prone on the last episode.
This “shop window” concept extends into the present day. Of course modern day wrestling television shows are a step up from the parade of one-sided squash matches of the past, but each one still has time set aside to promote the next event for local audiences, specially filmed inserts promoting the next time the travelling circus comes to town. This is especially true for British audiences. The twice-yearly visits to these shores by the traveling WWE circus are all inevitable sell-outs – but this is helped no end by the opportunities the company takes to promote the dates and arenas they will be visiting and the potential attractions they contain. You can more or less guarantee that the TV deal the company has with Sky Sports explicitly states that the live events will receive an appropriate level of exposure.
Yet this is actually something of a balancing act, particularly when it comes to the regulatory regime. British television is subject to strict regulations on the separation of programming and advertising. Consumers and the general public, it is believed, are in need of protection from their own ignorance. Their inability to differentiate themselves between promotions and spectacle. Producers and broadcasters alike must exercise caution and make sure there is no ambiguity between when audiences are being sold to and when they are simply being entertained.
This means a degree of subtlety is required when tying commercial events to television programmes. You will notice that the X Factor TV shows don’t explicitly promote the live arena tours of the finalists which follow each series. To do so would risk breaching Ofcom rules. Hence the regular competitions that offer VIP tickets to the shows as prizes. That’s permitted you see, and it helps of course that even if the viewer doesn’t win or even doesn’t bother to enter in the first place they are at least aware that the live shows are taking place. Method in the madness.
So the question has to be asked. How does promotion of live WWE events embedded within their weekly programming as show on Sky Sports comply with these restrictions? Well a few weeks ago the broadcaster had the “opportunity” to explore this issue with the regulators. Because someone submitted a complaint.
The outcome of this is contained within the latest Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin. Issue 302 published on April 11th 2016. The complaint concerned three promotional sequences contained within the edition of WWE Smackdown broadcast on November 7th 2015, all advertising various shows on the upcoming tour later that month. It was enough to raise Ofcom’s hackles.
Sky’s argument was that the sequences were actually Programme Related Material, something which is explicitly provided for in the various codes on television advertising. Material consisting of products or services both directly derived from the programme and specifically intended to allow viewers to benefit fully from, or to interact with, that programme.
On the “undue prominence” matter, they noted that the sequences were of 3o seconds in duration, spread out during a two hour programme and contained little in the way of calls to action with no reference made to ticket prices or providing links that would lead directly to purchasing sites.
Be under no illusion that this was a high stakes matter. As we’ve seen, this idea that a wrestling TV show is part entertainment, part promotional spectacle is ingrained into the very heart of what wrestling promoters do. Would the live events in this country continue to be viable if they no longer had a free ‘shop window’ in which to promote them? More importantly in this always-connected 360-degree media world, were the broadcast regulators about to ban all potential promotional tie-ins surrounding TV programming?
To what was certainly general relief all round, Ofcom swallowed Sky’s argument wholesale.
Accepting that the promotions were PRM, Programme Related Material, Rule 9.4 did not apply. That aspect of the complaint was not upheld.
The “undue prominence” aspect was a little trickier however, the regulator eventually coming to the conclusion that notwithstanding the lack of sales information and the short duration of the inserts, the fact that as many as five different promotions were broadcast during the course of the show was pushing matters slightly. Too many they said, too much of it. So in that respect the broadcast was in breach. But that is fixable. The line in the sand has now been neatly drawn. The promotions are allowed, just not so many of them.
This section of the Broadcast Bulletin received no headlines and will have gone unnoticed by all but those obsessives like me who scour the fortnightly publications for nuggets like this. A point of technicality it may have been, but it is a fascinating illustration of what a balancing act broadcast compliance can be. Things you’ve always done, programming techniques you have used for years can be stood on their head in an instant. All because one person didn’t like an advert for a live wrestling event.
Now technically I’m a little later with this than normal, but who is counting the weeks really? The ticking over of one calendar year into another puts the full stop on one set of music statistics and allows the space for some proper analysis. As is rapidly becoming an annual tradition on this blog, I take the opportunity to pull the numbers apart and answer the odd question that always seems to pop up amongst casual observers of the pop music charts – just how many copies do you “need” to sell to have a Number One record. Particularly as everyone assumes that “these days” it isn’t actually all that many.
This will be the fourth year running I’ve conducted this particular analysis. For those interested you can find the analyses for 2012 and 2013 on this site whilst the piece dealing with 2014 was published in Popbitch magazine a year ago, but is available online.
For those who have read the past instalments, what follows for the sales statistics of 2015 may be a little formulaic but it still helps to make the point.
How many copies do you need to sell to top the singles chart? The answer is simple: at least one more than the Number 2 selling record of the week. Whilst this answer may sound unenlightening it does become important later, so bear it in mind.
For dull calendar reasons there were actually 53 chart weeks during 2015 and the precise sale of each Number One single is readily available, Alan Jones having carefully documented them in Music Week each time. Very often for these pieces I disregard the sales for weeks in which there was a particularly large spike which deviated from the average by a large amount. Just for a change this didn’t happen at Christmas but in fact a few weeks earlier when the debut of Adele’s Hello saw it shift 332,599 copies in a single week. That’s far and away the highest sale of the year but also a dramatic outlier in comparison with the market the rest of the year. By way of comparison not one other single managed to break the 200,000 copies barrier, never mind 300,000. So I’ll ignore it. I’m also going to ignore the singles chart dated w/e July 16th as this was the unique five day survey, necessitated by the adjustment of the chart week to run Friday-Thursday rather than Sunday-Saturday to coincide with the introduction of global release day. Whilst the Number One record that week (House Every Weekend) by David Zowie wasn’t actually the lowest selling Number One single of the year, its tally of around 54,000 was nonetheless based on five rather than seven days of sales. For the sake of the integrity of this sample we’ll disregard that one too.
That leaves 51 weeks of Number One singles to play with. Sales of Number One singles ranged from a high of 193,018 (See You Again by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth on April 25th) to a low of 46,533 (What Do You Mean by Justin Bieber on October 22nd). Thus the arithmetic mean sale of a Number One single in 2015 was a shade under 98,714 copies. The median sale isn’t far off that total either – 98,167 copies.
Intriguingly that’s actually slightly lower than it has been for some time. The 2014 mean was 100,056 whilst in 2013 it was 109,113. There is actually a slight but still significant downward trend ongoing here, make of that what you will, although these are all higher than the 89,000 mean average for 2012 despite that year representing the all-time peak of the era of the digital download. It is worth noting here that technically we are not comparing like with like, the numbers for 2015 being the first full calendar year of the revised chart methodology that takes into account audio streams as well as actual paid for sales. That said, the fact that the average numbers are broadly in line with those of recent years does actually indicate that the balance between sales and streams and in particular the 1:100 ratio chosen is exactly as it should be. Sales have collapsed and streams have exploded in exact proportion to each other as far as the singles chart is concerned. Which either miraculous or an illustration of just how carefully the change was managed.
As always this is the point where I note that these numbers reflect how many copies the Number One single each week actually sold, not how many they needed to sell to guarantee to top the charts, which as I noted above is actually just one copy more than the second biggest seller.
Fortunately we have those numbers too. In 2015 the highest selling unlucky loser was Cheerleader by OMI which sold 129,257 copies on April 25th, the very same week that Wiz Khalifa landed the (Adele aside) biggest selling chart-topper of the year. In contrast the lowest selling Number 2 single of the year was on October 1st when Easy Love by Sigala sold just 41,426 copies (bested that week by that Bieber bloke who was at the top with a 60,000 units sale). The mid-point of those two numbers is 85,336 which as a rough guide is thus the number of copies you would need to sell to top the charts 50% of the time. Interestingly that is higher than last year when the figure worked out at 77,000 copies.
The average Number One hit single may have become slightly smaller of late, but it has actually become harder to win out in a more competitive market – as neatly illustrated only this week when the Number 1 and Number 2 singles were separated by the small matter of a few hundred copies. As ever, all I can do is note that hitting the top of the charts is to actually hit a constantly moving target, your job being to beat the highest point of the rest of the market which can itself vary wildly according to circumstances. A more sensible and easier to answer question remains “how many copies do you have to sell to reach the Top 10” which in 2015 was on average a shade over 30,000 copies with very little deviation either side of that figure. And well within the grasp of your average social media army.
Sometimes fate can derail even the most promising of musical careers.
Just ask Propaganda, the Dusseldorf electronic four-piece who were personally scouted by Paul Morley to become a core part of the artist roster of ZTT records, the label he had founded alongside producer Trevor Horn and Horn’s partner Jill Sinclair. The group specialised at the time in bombastic, grandiose sonic constructions, the sound of heavy industry mixed with the lyrical depth of Edgar Allen Poe (literally in the case of Dream Within A Dream, the opening track from their debut album).
The beneficiaries of Horn’s increasingly genius-like wizardry, Propaganda were unleashed upon the British charts in the spring of 1984 with the bold statement of intent Dr Mabuse. A thundering neo-gothic disco track which in typical Horn style of the time de-emphasised the lead vocals in favour of making them but one part of the wall of sound effect his studio toys enabled him to construct. A breathtakingly bold way to unleash a new act upon the world, the single was received with praise and is rightly regarded as a classic of its age, but commercially failed to take off, its place in history a Number 27 peak and a part of the tracklisting of one of the very first Now That’s What I Call Music albums.
A swift follow-up may have served them well but none was forthcoming. Their presence on ZTT turned out to be as much of a curse as it was a gift, the all-encompassing success of labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood meant that the talismanic producer was too preoccupied with the inadvertent funk superstars to perform any further work with Propaganda. Morley and Sinclair scouted for alternatives, reportedly at one stage engaging the then nascent Stock-Aitken-Waterman production team in a discussion about working with the German group. Eventually however the task of completing the group’s debut album A Secret Wish fell to engineer Steve Lipson who essentially made his own producing reputation overnight with the completed work.
The album was heralded by the second and in many ways equally famous Propaganda single. Released after a delay of over a year, Duel was one of those pop hits which essentially defines its era and the chart sound of the time. The story of warring lovers played out as if in a sporting arena was blessed with a breezy, cheery tune (belying the dark nature of the lyric), the clear and distinctive vocals of Claudia Brucken pushed to the front of the mix for the first time and of course that chorus and its thudding, nagging bassline which meant that the extended introduction from the 12-inch mix saw the track soundtrack all manner of different sporting broadcasts. Radio One listeners of the time will remember it as the jingle which heralded the sports news in the network’s extended news bulletins at the start of the following decade. It really was that evocative. But also another oddly small hit, peaking at Number 21 to at the very least become the highest charting Propaganda hit ever. And perhaps more extraordinarily a Sophie Ellis-Bextor b-side in 2007. But that’s a story for another time.
Famous as these two singles were, however, they are not the focus of this article. Propaganda then endured a five year break in their career, a delay necessitated by the extended legal wrangles needed to extricate the group from their ZTT contract after a more savvy media lawyer noted that their requirement to fund most of the costs of any of their rather expensive recordings meant their chances of royalties were limited. The group and label eventually settled out of court, but not before shedding talismanic lead singer Brucken who elected to go solo and extraordinarily remain signed to their original label.
Now sporting essentially a totally revamped lineup with only founder member Ralph Dorper remaining from their Dusseldorf roots, Propaganda signed a new deal with Virgin and recorded an album 1234 produced by Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes. Its release in the spring of 1990 was heralded by a carefully crafted lead single Heaven Give Me Words.
The 16 year old me heard it once and was captivated. A track as exquisitely crafted as anything from the group’s previous incarnation, the song was a thing of almost fragile beauty. The cascading clockwork rhythm that tickles away throughout, giving the impressive the track is being performed on multiple layers of machinery, the Hammond organ which rises to meet the voice of new lead singer Betsi Miller and the lyric which like all the best pop records deals simply and directly with the moment of needing to tell the person in front of you just how they make you feel. It remains for me one of the best pop singles ever.
Yet once more the public disagreed and although the single appeared to have momentum on its side, bounding 73-39 in a single week it then hiccuped and stalled, limping to Number 36 and fading away. In a sense this is the worst of all worlds, to big to be regarded as a true lost classic (how many Top 40 singles are ever considered truly “lost” after all) yet so small as to be an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things, a footnote in the history of the year and one of those records which came and went without anyone ever noticing it had appeared.
The album 1234 came and went in the summer with little fanfare, so little regarded that it is not uncommon to see the ZTT album mistakenly signposted as Propaganda’s only album proper. A second single Only One Word was released in August 1990 but when the dreary ballad sounding like a bad Eurovision entry stalled at Number 71 it signed the death-knell for the group’s mainstream career.
Still, they gave us their fair share of classics. Even if the one I remember most fondly is the one many others don’t.
The death, reported today, of celebrated music producer Sir George Martin at the age of 90 has quite rightly prompted a rash of glowing tributes to the man whose work in popular music and entertainment quite literally spanned a generation.
My own personal tribute was to note his status as the most successful record producer in British charts history, being at the console for more Number One hit singles than anyone else ever. Precisely how many that is however is something that over the years appears to have become victim to some slight embellishment.
The official total appears to be 30 Number One hit singles, a fact boldly trumpeted at the top of his Wikipedia entry. Only further down the page is this total properly cited, in his official biography on buried on the now ghost website of the William Morris talent agency who represented the producer towards the end of his life. Yet this total isn’t completely truthful, because based on official records there are actually only 28.
For the record, George Martin’s Number One hits in chronological order are:
You’re Driving Me Crazy (The Temperance Seven), 1961 How Do You Do It (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963 From Me To You (The Beatles), 1963 I Like It (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963 Bad To Me (Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas), 1963 She Loves You (The Beatles), 1963 You’ll Never Walk Alone (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963 I Want To Hold Your Hand (The Beatles), 1963 Anyone Who Had A Heart (Cilla Black), 1964 Little Children (Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas), 1964 Can’t Buy Me Love (The Beatles), 1964 You’re My World (Cilla Black), 1964 A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles), 1964 I Feel Fine (The Beatles), 1964 Ticket To Ride (The Beatles), 1965 Help! (The Beatles), 1965 We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper (The Beatles), 1965 Paperback Writer (The Beatles), 1966 Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine (The Beatles), 1966 All You Need Is Love (The Beatles), 1967 Hello Goodbye (The Beatles), 1967 Lady Madonna (The Beatles), 1968 Hey Jude (The Beatles), 1968 Get Back (The Beatles with Billy Preston), 1969 The Ballad of John and Yoko (The Beatles), 1969 Ebony and Ivory (Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder), 1982 Pipes Of Peace (Paul McCartney), 1984 Candle In The Wind ’97 (Elton John), 1997
28 of them in total. The only way you get to 30 based on this list is to count the two double-sided Beatles singles as two recordings which I maintain is cheating. The one other possible explanation is that this total also takes into account the two bits of historical revisionism that the original Guinness chart books undertook in the 1970s when establishing the singles chart canon. In 1963 the NME charts listed both Please Please Me by The Beatles and Do You Want To Know A Secret by Billy J Kramer as Number One hits. The Record Retailer listings of the time demurred, as indeed now do the ‘official’ records. However if we overlook that detail and do indeed count them as Number One hits this duly takes Sir George Martin up to his historic total of 30.
Looking at the full list of chart-toppers it is only too apparent how mutually beneficial the relationship was between Martin and Brian Epstein. The svengali brought a hungry new star from Merseyside to London and George Martin put them on top of the charts. It really was that simple. Once Epstein scaled back his scouting activities to focus on his two biggest money spinners – Cilla and The Beatles – so too did the flow of George Martin Number One hits reduce to a steady drip of Beatles releases.
Nonetheless it is a record which stood the test of time and which was destined to outlive him. The competitive world of modern music means that whilst just once in a while there are producers whose flame burns white hot and whose work starts to guarantee their acts hits, they often fade away fast as the talent seeks to expand their horizons. Not even 21st century wonders such as Dr Luke or Calvin Harris have come close to matching Sir George Martin’s phenomenal singles chart track record. Whichever way you count them.
The most extraordinary dance hit of 1989, possibly even the decade, was all thanks to the twisted genius of one man from Chicago. As a club DJ Marvin Burns was one of the original core of nightclub hosts who specialised in spinning the exciting new style of dance music for which his home city was rapidly becoming famous. Branching out as a house music producer and creator in his own right he became Lil’ Louis and by early 1989 had made the US club charts with tracks such as War Games and Jupiter.
His place in music history was however assured by the creation of a track he called French Kiss. Running a full ten and a half minutes in its uncut and unedited form, the track was in essence as simple a musical creation as you can get. Just one note – F-natural – repeated over and over again in a hypnotic rhythm with what at first appear to be nothing more than the occasional electronic effect and some acid house beats to accompany it. Except that after five and a half minutes the track does something that no club track at the time did. It slows down. And keeps getting slower. As the pace drops, something new enters the mix. The sound of a woman moaning softly. Then louder and more intensely in a manner reminiscent of something we are not supposed to mention in front of the children. As she reaches a noisy and erotic climax French Kiss grinds to a dead halt, pauses for breath and then starts back up again, the beats and repetitive chord gaining quickly in tempo before ending at double speed and itself spiralling off into oblivion.
Put simply, French Kiss is an aural document of the pace, rhythm, structure and sounds of a a satisfyingly sticky romp between the bedsheets. All at once it is the rudest and most provocative record ever made. And it was a massive British hit single to boot.
All it took was a handful of spins on some of Radio One’s specialist music shows, although John Peel only aired the first five minutes before noting his disappointment that a track that sounded so good “deteriorates into the usual tedious sound of a woman having an orgasm” as if this was something that happened every day in acid house records. Granted Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus and Love To Love You Baby had also featured the sounds of female orgasms they were a subtle and integral part of the melody. French Kiss just belted the listener in the face with it. Released commercially by FFRR records, the single crashed into the singles chart at Number 10 in its first week on sale and began a steady rise still further.
Naturally this caused Radio One a few headaches, although not for the reasons you’d expect. Given that at the time it was only five years since the furore over Relax and just two since George Michael’s I Want Your Sex had been banned from daytime airplay it was perhaps surprising that it wasn’t the literal mid-song climax of French Kiss which caused an issue, merely the fact that track was only available in its full 10 minute version as a 12-inch single and for that reason alone impossible to schedule on the Sunday afternoon chart show. So for the first time ever Radio One arranged their own shorter edit of the track, cutting it down to four minutes but keeping the moans and groans of Mrs Lil’ Louis intact. Although as the focal point of the track they could hardly avoid it surely. As the single climbed the chart even the label became persuaded of the need to make the single more accessible and by mid-August had themselves issued the four minute radio edit on 7-inch, just in time for the instrumental track to rise to the dizzy heights of Number 2 – only denied the chance to be one of the more astounding Number One hits of all time by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers.
Around the same time the track became one of the few records in chart history to appear on both the singles and albums chart simultaneously, a budget priced collection of five remixes entitled French Kisses hitting Number 35 on the long players chart. It was the first chart album ever to consist of nothing more than remixes of the same track – although Grace Jones had previously charted with an album made up of differing recordings of Slave To The Rhythm.
Off the back of this British success the track became a hit in many other territories too, albeit in a radically different form. Persuaded that a ten minute instrumental was unlikely to fluke its way into the charts in any other country, Lil Louis’ allowed a vocal version to be made, featuring singer Shawn Christopher performing a rather banal song over the track whilst the impact of the orgasm is dulled somewhat by the addition of a squealing saxophone to try to distract from the naughty bits. It comes as something of a shock to hear the “Short But Sweet Radio Vocal Mix” treated as the standard version of the track (without the orgasm to boot!) across Europe given the way it was first time around a British hit in quite literally untouched form.
The legacy of French Kiss helped Lil’ Louis to one further hit single in early 1990, his philosophical musings on the fragility of relationships on I Called U becoming a Top 20 hit in the first weeks of the new year. The closest we’ve come since to a revival came in the summer of 2000 when Josh Wink incorporated elements of French Kiss in his track How’s Your Evening So Far.
Lil’ Louis continues to tour and perform to this day, although his most recent headlines were rather negative ones thanks to a legal dispute which blew up when he sacked off a planned Australian tour in 2012 and left his promoters severely out of pocket. In early 2015 he suffered permanent hearing loss when an air horn was activated near him whilst soundchecking for a performance in Manchester. Rightly remembered in his home country as one of the founding godfathers of house music, in Britain he is the man whose musical representation of sweet music between the sheets became a blush-inducing smash hit and yet somehow never once managed to trouble the censors.
Text adapted from The Top 40 Annual 1989 – Coming Soon!
Last Wednesday I spent the day at the British Library as I immersed myself in research for a special project I’m currently working on, the fruits of which I’ll hopefully be able to share soon. Such research was more of a joy than a chore given that it allowed me to spend the afternoon immersed in back issues of the venerable NME, the turn of every page a nostalgic trip back in time, the contemporary accounts of an age I was too young to properly appreciate at the time. Yet at the same time this was bittersweet as I was also wading through the legacy of a publishing culture that simply doesn’t exist any more and sadly never will again.
It hardly needs an expert insight to see the slow and steady decline of the magazines industry. Titles, many of them with a legacy of years if not decades of publication, seem to fold every week. There is no more telling sight of the shrinkage of the market than being a regular visitor to a branch of WH Smith. At Waterloo, the one I pass every day going to and from work, every few months the shelf space devoted to periodicals shrinks a little more. Racks of magazines replaced by earphones, mobile power packs and bags of sweets. Those brands that still live on are the survivors, the very fittest of bunch. Yet even they seem to forever be under threat of closure as the advertising revenue shrinks, the page count declines and the circulations continue to fall. The “news” part of the newsagents business retreats ever further to an unloved corner at the back of the store.
Reading an old edition of a weekly publication such as the New Musical Express serves not just as a reminder of why it used to be so important but also why it has become no longer so. To open a back issue is to be whisked back in time to an era when music writing was but the jumping off point for an entire culture. In between the long form interviews, record reviews and gig guides are adverts for penpals, flatmates and bands wanting singers, better management or simply just the chance to perform. Billboards for forthcoming tours jostle for space with splashes for record catalogues, for stockists of music and assorted memorabilia and those dealing with imported rarities for collectors. The newspaper is a hub around which the whole business of making and appreciating music revolves, a mutually dependent relationship which sustained the industry through good times and bad.
For all the good that the internet has enabled, our now permanently connected world has now done away with the need for much of the above to exist. There are sites and forums for the exchange of plans and ideas, every venue in every town has its own website or is part of a ticketing hub to enable discovery of live shows and with Spotify et al it is possible to access a near complete history of recorded popular music – including the rarities and imports. I don’t need a newspaper to curate this or to be the heart of the ecosystem. What the internet has created and enabled it has also served to kill.
That is why what is left of the music press is now just a pale shadow of itself. The attendant culture has dissipated. All is left is the writing, but even an interview with a famously elusive megastar is not necessarily a selling point now given that the words can be scraped and disseminated online within a minute of the exclusive appearing. Closing those bound volumes of back issues genuinely feels like closing the door on the past