Jul 13

A Lover Not A Dancer

Even the most ardent aficionado of the whole Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman body of work will admit that the 1981 album Bad For Good is one that is hard to love. The cycle of songs that was reportedly supposed to form the second Meat Loaf album, the follow-up to global smash hit Bat Out Of Hell but the project had been beset by so many delays that its writer and producer despaired of the singer ever finding the time to actually make the record. More pertinently the label were becoming restless.

So Steinman recorded the album himself. A prospect that strayed on the wrong side of tantalising thanks to the simple truth that though a writer and musician of some considerable merit, as a singer he could do little more than yowl with all the soul of a recently trodden on cat. In all fairness he knew that himself, pitching the arrangements on many of the tracks on Bad For Good carefully so he never quite has to stretch his reedy tones into the realms of ludicrousness. For those tracks when the tune was clearly beyond him he enlisted long time backing singer Rory Dodd (he of “turn around, bright eyes” fame on a certain 1983 Number One hit) to supply the vocals instead. Even this was however very much a case of making do and on the album’s most famous cut, the original version of Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through, Dodd too demonstrates just why he plied his trade for years as the bloke in the background singing “oooh” and “aaah” in the most dramatic fashion he can muster.

Yet for all its vocal flaws Bad For Good remains an oddly compelling listen, an important step along the musical journey that would spawn both the 1989 Pandora’s Box album Original Sin and Meat Loaf’s own triumphant 1993 behemoth Bat Out Of Hell II. These are still ludicrous, bombastic yet oddly moving and romantic rock songs, all taking place in a universe where everyone is a horny teenager forever and where music and sex are intertwined as part of the same spiritual goal. All part of a package which was ultimately only let down by its final presentation.

One of those songs however is one which I’ve come to regard as something of a forgotten classic. A bold, breathless and insanely entertaining epic which unlike many of the album’s other songs has never been reworked or re-appropriated by any other act. Conventional wisdom (and WIkipedia) has it that the only official single lifted from Bad For Good was the aforementioned Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through. But there was actually a second, one which had a lavishly staged video filmed for it and which YouTube has preserved for us in full.

Dance In My Pants was singled out by reviewers of the album in rather negative terms for it was essentially a reworking of Paradise By The Dashboard Light on Bat Out Of Hell: a battle of the sexes male and female duet, dressed up in a rock and roll romp and long enough to be divided into several movements as if a core part of the libretto of a musical. Yet it is actually one of the better tracks from the album as it is by and large driven by someone who can actually sing the melody put in front of her.

karla1

Karla DeVito had begun her career working in musical theatre in Chicago, performing as part of the casts of Godspell and Hair. She joined the Steinman circus during the early promotion for Bat Out Of Hell, singing backing vocals and indeed she appears in the promotional videos for many of the songs, lip syncing (not always to great success) to the vocals performed by Ellen Foley on the record. DeVito was also at Meat’s side for the famous set he performed live on BBC Television for the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. She was therefore the perfect choice to step into Ellen Foley’s shoes for the only female lead vocal on the follow-up.

For Dance In My Pants Karla is the protagonist. A chirpy, enthusiastic character so enchanted by music and dancing that she simply has no time for lovers of any kind.

There’s a drummer going at it,
Way down in the core of my soul,
There’s no escaping the music,
And I’m psyching up my feet
And they’re telling me we’re ready to roll.

Quintessential Steinman in the opening lines of the song, working his common theme that music is a deep, primal and all-enveloping passion which can move you on a spiritual as well as a physical level.

karla2

Karla explains how she started the day feeling depressed and blue, but the music lifted her and now there is just no stopping the feeling inside.

I got dance in my pants,
Every time I feel the power of a radio wave,
I turn it up all the way

We continue in this vein for three minutes and all is well with the world. Apart from in Jim’s world. Because at this point he enters the song and makes it plain he has other things on his mind.

I’m a lover not a dancer,
Don’t want to be on my feet when I can be on my back,
Don’t want to be on the floor when I can be in the sack,
I’m a lover not a dancer, baby,
And baby let me prove it to you,

jim1

The pair proceed to dance around each other, both lyrically and physically as Karla suggests the ways they can be together in dance and Jim returns to his blunt attempts at seduction.

It is at this point in the song that the parallels to Paradise By The Dashboard Light kick in as it enters an extended instrumental break punctuated by a back and forth narrative between the pair as Karla persuades Jim that all he needs is a little practice whilst embarking on what we are left to presume is a blizzard of dance moves which finally brings him round to her way of thinking. We emerge, breathless into another rendition of he chorus, performed by both together this time as the seduction – her of him – is complete.

karlajim

The song appears to be starting to wind down at this point as Karla returns to the melody (unused since) of the opening lines:

When they decide that I’m gone,
I know they’ll try to put me to rest,
But I won’t be afraid,
Because I know that there’s dance after dance,

This is the cue then for the song’s euphoric coda as Steinman turns to another of his favourite lyrical themes and sticks two fingers in the face of death. Both boy and girl pledge to each other that they will end their days dancing.

I don’t ever wanna be rescued,
And I don’t ever wanna be saved,
I got a feeling that I’m gonna be alive forever,
Dancing on the edge of the grave.

jim2

Paradise By The Dashboard Light ended with the protagonists stranded together forever in loveless torment. Dance In My Pants ends in euphoric joy as they race together into the sunset filled with a love of music, dancing and we presume each other. It goes almost unnoticed that early in the song Karla acknowledges “sooner or later, we’ll get around to the love” – so in truth there was never any doubt that randy old Jim was going to get what he was after. He just needed to earn it first.

The single of Dance In My Pants was only ever issued in Britain and The Netherlands at the tail end of 1981 but failed to chart in either, hence you suspect its status as being forgotten by history – although it has been known to appear in Meat Loaf live sets over the years, despite the star never having recorded his own version on any of his own albums. Jim Steinman subsequently retreated from the microphone, reuniting with Meat Loaf that same year for the Dead Ringer album which was released almost contemporaneously with the final unsuccessful single from his own work. Karla DeVito also released her own solo album in 1981 before returning to the stage. She succeeded Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates Of Penzance on Broadway where she was cast opposite her future husband Robby Benson. After impressing Sarah Brightman she screen tested for the lead role in a then mooted film version of Evita and would have indeed played the part had the film not taken another 15 years to be made. After becoming a mother she took a step back from performing but has been active again in recording and producing since the turn of the century.

One of the best things about the new social media age is that it is possible to reach out to the stars and your idols and tell them how much you appreciate the parts of their work that others might have forgotten. So it was that last year I was inspired to contact DeVito herself and tell her:

To which she joyfully replied:

The best music is that which somehow reaches deep into your soul, lifts you into joy out of even the bleakest darkness and makes you yearn to sing or dance yourself or even just to perform and express that joy physically and vocally. Karla DeVito and Jim Steinman made such a record once, one which is now buried deep in the grooves of a half-forgotten and hard to love album. I’m glad to have the chance to shine a light on it just a little here.

Jul 04

From Mezzoforte to Propellerheads

The phrase “end of an era” is perhaps sometimes overused by writers like myself, groping for the correct way to describe a change being made to something with a history and a legacy, but it is hard to escape the feeling that this weekend marks the final chapter of a decades old broadcasting tradition.

The Radio One chart show isn’t ending of course, merely moving to a new place in the schedules, but at 7pm tomorrow (Sunday) Clara Amfo will for the very last time play the best selling single of the week at the climax of the weekend. It is actually the direct descendant of a show which bounded around the schedules for the first few years of its existence The first edition of “Pick Of The Pops” listed by the Radio Times went out at 9pm on Tuesday October 4th 1955 on the Light Programme, a show where we were told host Franklin Engelmann would “make a selection from the top shelf of current gramophone records”. By the time David Jacobs became established as host of a show which was now “a review of the current best-selling popular records” a few years later the show was a Saturday night fixture, although sometimes relegated to the very end of the day by sporting coverage. It was not until 1962 when Alan Freeman took over the show with which he is synonymous that it moved to its now traditional Sunday evening slot – the place it has remained ever since.

I first became aware of the existence of this show around 1981. With the house’s newly-acquired radio cassette player I was encouraged to compile a series of tapes for car journeys during the summer holidays. Tony Blackburn’s “Junior Choice” was the most obvious place to start, the tape paused and unpaused for spins of the Wonder Woman theme and other such delights, but I was also directed towards the Sunday night Top 40 show (also with Blackburn in control) where I collected a suitable set of the latest hits for play on hot afternoons hurtling down a French autoroute.

I finally became properly hooked five years later by which time Bruno Brookes was the incumbent of the show. Plugging in to my newly-discovered keenness of for the wealth of facts and statistics that the school library’s copy of British Hit Singles had inspired, I swiftly fell in love with the pace and the rhythm of the show. The singers who chanted the position of each song, the breathless countdown of each set of ten singles (all set to Mezzoforte’s Rockall) but most especially Bruno’s opening speech where he welcomed us to “Europe’s most listened-to radio show”, a script which I soon learned by heart and chanted along with him each week.

The announcement in 1987 that the show was to change format was another watershed in my teenage years, the Sunday night Top 40 show now gifted the chance to reveal the brand new singles chart live on air, rather than just reciting a five day old countdown as had previously been the case. The tape of that show from October 4th 1987 remains an oddly compelling listen to this day, featuring as it did the short-lived conceit that the positions were being decided one by one as they happened with songs having “moved around in the last 20 minutes” to finally settle on their official places. A few years ago I wrote a song by song recap of that particular historic broadcast which can be found in a series of posts starting here.

Teenage exuberance aside, the Top 40 show was the one radio programme it almost hurt to miss each week. Over the years I have offered up many suggestions to friends and family as to why I wanted to work on the radio, but I’m convinced that at the heart of it was the thrill of the chart show and the feeling that more than anything else in the world I wanted the chance to do it too. As a lover of pop music how could I not want the chance to tell people just what the biggest and the best songs of the week were? Plus of course I knew the opening script by heart. I’d be perfect for the job.

I’m sure I’m far from unique, the ritual of the Sunday chart show one that stretches across generations and into the lives of countless thousands. Everyone grew up with “their” favourite presenter or used it as the soundtrack to their last minute dashing off of weekend homework essays. So of course it will be hard not to shed a tear when Radio One signs off on Sunday afternoons for the last time ever. A 53 year radio tradition will soon be no more.

Then again in five days time we’ll start all over again, the Official Chart Show now in a Friday afternoon slot to coincide with the launch of Global Release Day, the catalyst for this whole change. Indeed the Official Charts Company themselves are hyping this up as a move to an increased number of chart shows across the Radio One schedules, the ‘midweek’ update now moving to Monday and the Friday afternoon chart show now paired with the brand new 60 minute show on Sunday evenings which will recap the Number One hits across a range of genre charts. And so too will another generation fall in love with the routine. Only this time one which will mark the start of the weekend, not the end.

Back in 2008 (almost six years ago now – how scary) I was less than impressed with the way the programme was being presented and produced a special one-off podcast examining the various styles of chart show presentation in an attempt to work out how the show had evolved from a straightforward countdown of records to a more general entertainment show that just so happened to have the chart reveal as its climax. I interviewed several hosts, both former and present and the show remains to this day one of the few times presenters such as Stephanie Hirst, Lucio and Joel Ross have gone on the record about what radio chart shows meant to them. Copies of it still circulate today although the production values on the original were not quite up to the standards I set for myself today.

So here for the sheer hell of it is a slightly remixed version of the original show – Counting Down The Hits – pending a full reworking coming soon where I’ll re-record the narration and try to bring its conclusions up to date.

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Jun 16

Food For Thought

In sync with the contemporary broadcasts for once, on December 13th last year BBC4 re-ran the edition of Top Of The Pops originally broadcast 35 years ago that day –  December 13th 1979. Although edited for a 30 minute slot for its prime time airing, the show was rebroadcast later that evening in what was as usual billed as the “uncut” form.

Only it wasn’t. Missing from all editions of the show was a performance by Midlands parodists The Barron Knights of what at the time they hoped would be their third straight Christmas hit single Food For Thought, a romp through some comedic reworkings of some of the more memorable pop moments of the year. Their performance had been completely excised. It was not hard to work out why.

The problem was a show which had been broadcast a month earlier by Channel 4 -“It Was Alright In the 70s”. The premise of the show was to cherry pick some of the more esoteric cultural moments of this bygone decade and replay them to a procession of comedy performers, all of whom required to play up to the camera and express how shocked they were by representations of bygone attitudes towards women and racial sensitivities. In truth the show did end with the subtle note of the dangers, as I’ve so often noted myself in the past, of looking at the past through the prism of modern day prudery and morality, but this was done in such a throwaway nature at the end of the narration that most will not have spotted it. For the most part the programme was simply an excuse to sneer at the Black And White Minstrel Show and feel smug about it.

One of the “outrages” highlighted therein was indeed the Barron Knights performance of Food For Thought and in particular a section which re-imagines Pop Music by M as Chop Suey and featuring the group putting on exaggerated Chinese accents to sing a song about what was at the time the exotic world of the Chinese Takeaway. The clip was presented devoid of context, its origins as a comic rewrite of another record either ignored by the commentators or deemed irrelevant to their shock and outrage. But the mere fact that it had featured naturally presented the BBC with a dilemma when they realised they were due to air that self same performance just a few weeks later. Should they respect the artistic and historical integrity of their archive, be bold and show the performance in full context and to a loyal and self-selecting audience on a minority digital channel – or should they just take the path of least resistance and snip it out, hoping that not too many people notice. Regardless of the fact that but for the Channel 4 programme the song would almost certainly have passed without comment, they naturally chose the latter.

 

Now in the grand scheme of things this is a minor wrinkle. Food For Thought stalled at Number 46 that year and brought to a shuddering halt the group’s run of Top 10 seasonal singles. It has genuinely remained unheard by the mainstream since and was destined to sink once more into the abyss of history once the performance had been repeated. Its loss to the show wasn’t something I was going to get particularly worked up about. However one or two people of my acquaintance felt strongly enough to request an explanation from the BBC for this unannounced edit. The reply they received was actually rather telling:

…when airing archive content we must think carefully about how the material is likely to be viewed by a modern audience … as the Top Of The Pops repeats are positioned primarily as entertainment rather than as a historical account, the decision was made not to air this particular song…

Confirmation then that the BBC genuinely, truly, do not understand their audience. Leaving aside the nonsense of claiming to be presenting a show on an arts and documentary channel “primarily as entertainment” they are clearly clueless of the way people are engaging with this show. The repeats are followed, pored over and analysed both on live social media and on a variety of web forums as a fascinating historical snapshot, one which not only brings back memories for those there at the time but which presents the student of popular culture with a fascinating document of both popular music and social fashions. Yes, even when that involves putting on a comedy Chinese accent to talk about noodle based dishes. The BBC sees fit to cut out songs or skip entire editions altogether if they fear nobody will get the joke or they no longer approve of the personal life of the presenter because after all, it is only entertainment.

I bring this up simply to close the saga of my journey through the BBC complaints process as I attempted to escalate my dispute over the continual absence from the repeat schedules of Dave Lee Travis hosted editions of the show given he is no longer the subject of criminal proceedings or even penal sanction. Having failed to wrestle a satisfactory explanation from the standard complaints department I attempted to escalate the issue to the BBC Trust.

All credit to them, this stage of the process is done with care, respect and careful scrutiny. The considered reply to my submission took careful note of my now well-trodden arguments, ones which had clearly been noted and considered. It noted:

  • The archive was significant and relevant, both historically and musically.
  • Audience enjoyment was spoiled by withholding some editions.
  • The only justifiable reason for not airing those editions would be if there was any legal or regulatory barrier to doing so, which did not apply in this case.
  • He queried why a convicted criminal could appear on a prime time family show on BBC One but 35 year old editions of a music programme featuring Dave Lee Travis on BBC Four could not be shown.
  • He believed this amounted to an extra-judicial punishment for the presenter and the BBC had no business acting in that manner.

The advisor assigned to my case:

noted that the selection of BBC programmes from the archive for repeat broadcast was a matter of editorial choice. The Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in the Charter (Article 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards which did not apply in this case. Decisions relating to the choice of programme content for broadcast on any BBC channel fell within the “editorial and creative output” of the BBC. The Adviser believed that Trustees would consider that the responsibility for such decisions rested with the BBC Executive rather than the Trust.

And there the matter rested. I could theoretically have pursued this further, have pressed the Trust to consider the serious issues this raised and the deep concern I and many other licence fee payers felt that archive programming was being withheld without good reason, but it seemed clear that all we would do was run into brick walls. The notion that the BBC Trust is not there to intervene in editorial matters sits alongside the ability of the BBC to avoid Freedom Of Information requests about its programming. As far as the shows it chooses to broadcast, the BBC is as unaccountable as any commercial broadcaster.

My good friend Steve Williams, editor of the funny and essential weekly TV Cream Creamguide mailout has noted a number of times that complaints about the skipping of editions of the show are irrelevant. “They don’t have to show anything they don’t want to,” he reasons, “and they never showed them before. Just be glad they are showing anything now.”

It is a fair point, but an incorrect one. Back in 2011 the BBC’s commitment to the repeat run of Top Of The Pops shows was such that it was determined to air as complete a run as possible. Hence the decision to start airing the series from 1976, the point at which it was nearly complete in the archives. This commitment even extended to inserting into the schedules a previously “lost” edition which had been supplied to them on a VHS tape owned by its host David Hamilton just a few weeks beforehand. When a performance by Jonathan King was excised from one edition the Director General personally intervened after a complaint to ensure that “history would no longer be rewritten” and that all remaining shows should be aired in full.

My desire for a detailed explanation as to why shows were being skipped was a genuine one, but I always knew I would never receive a straight answer – the true reason for the scheduling. The BBC has gone from being an organisation proud of its history and a defender of its output to one which is scared of its own shadow and utterly petrified of being the subject of negative gutter press attention. Creativity in both television and radio is being choked by an obsession with compliance and a fear that the Daily Mail will write something nasty about them. That’s an utter disgrace and an insult to every reasonable-minded licence fee payer. The corporation which once stood by its production of The Monocled Mutineer and faced down the government of the day when it attempted to suppress reports on matters which would embarrass them is now reduced to a pale shadow of itself, basing scheduling decisions on “will anyone be upset by this at all?”

Meanwhile logic fails to come into it. A few weeks before writing this piece the Graham Norton Show worshiped the talent of special guest Snoop Dogg. I like the rap star and am a big fan of his music. Yet his colourful past includes once being accused of accessory to murder after driving a car from which a man was shot and killed, producing pornographic video tapes in which he rapped to the scenes of explicit sexual intercourse, banned from Britain for several years following a disturbance at Heathrow Airport in 2006 during which seven police officers were injured and with long history of criminal convictions for drug and firearm possession. In spite of this he is a welcome guest on prime time entertainment shows. Meanwhile decades old performances of men from Birmingham putting on comedy Chinese accents and shows hosted by a man convicted of a minor misdemeanor which took place when he was not under contract to the corporation are banned for fear of upsetting our delicate sensibilities. No, I don’t get it either.

The only positive to take away is that the censors can never win. If you know where to look and whom to ask, bootleg versions of the “banned” Top Of The Pops shows circulate freely online. Some sourced from old satellite repeats, others directly from master tape copies as obtained by dedicated overseas collectors and which now surface via torrents and forums as if they were illicit contraband. But they aren’t. They are a silly pop music show, one whose legacy and historical importance is celebrated by people of taste, sense and above all the intelligence to judge everything in its proper context.

A typical BBC 4 audience you might say.

Jun 12

“No It’s Not, It’s A Piece Of Kitchen Towel”

A large breasted Italian model singing an astonishingly cheesy Europop hit about how wonderful Boys are. Would never ever work in Britain would it? Yet extraordinarily in the summer of 1988 it happened. Here’s the full story of Sabrina Salerno, as taken from The Top 40 Annual 1988, links to which are festooned around this very site.


SABRINA

A former model and TV hostess, statuesque Italian Sabrina Salerno began her singing career whilst still a teenager, landing herself hit singles in both Germany and her home country. Realising that she could command a far larger audience by singing in a more universal language, she recorded her self-titled debut album entirely in English, one which was released to a positive reaction on the continent at the end of 1987.

BOYS (SUMMERTIME LOVE)
First charted: 11/6/1988 –  Chart peak: 3 –  Peak reached: 25/6/1988

Having topped the charts in France, Switzerland and Spain at the end of 1987, there seemed no harm in attempting to sell the bubbly Europop hit Boys (Summertime Love) to a British audience as well. London Records picked up the UK licence for the track and released it as Sabrina’s first British single in January 1988. The release date itself was a pretty bold step. Previous wisdom had it that Europop hits worked best in Britain at the end of the summer, when people returning from continental trips were more than happy to snap up the sounds they had been dancing to on holiday. But with the single sitting at the top of charts all over Europe it appeared to make sense to strike whilst the iron was hot. As it turned out the concept of “summertime love” failed to catch on with record buyers shivering under wintry conditions and so despite a reasonable amount of airplay for a singer who fitted nicely in with the whole “teenage invasion” swamping the charts at the time, Boys (Summertime Love) stalled at Number 60 and seemed set to be just another statistic in a long line of European hits that Britain just didn’t get.

However four months later, and almost certainly buoyed by the success of French language continental hits from the likes of Vanessa Paradis and Desireless, the record company re-activated the Sabrina record and this time hit paydirt. Aided by the availability of the singer for promotional work, the re-released track charged into the charts at Number 24 and was a Top 5 hit a week later. Helping no end too was the song’s rather racy video, actually filmed as a promotional clip for an Italian magazine show and which featured the singer cavorting in a Venetian hotel swimming pool. The cavorting itself wasn’t the issue, more the fact that her bikini top resembled what Jonathan Ross described on TV show The Last Resort as “a piece of kitchen towel” and repeatedly failed in its role of completely concealing the singer’s nippular area. This all meant that the version screened on mainstream TV shows such as Top Of The Pops was a hasty re-edit featuring re-framed shots and scrolling text, all designed to draw attention away from the Italian singer’s embonpoint. Boys (Summertime Love) would spend a fortnight at Number 3 in late June and had only just exited the singles chart when the summer holidays began for real.

ALL OF ME
First charted: 1/10/1988 –  Chart peak: 25 –  Peak reached: 22/10/1988

The delay in Sabrina’s arrival in the UK charts meant it was necessary to skip over the rest of her debut album, meaning Euro hits such as Hot Girl were never released here. Instead her label moved along to the first release from her second album Super Sabrina and a track which had made the Top 20 across Europe at the same time that Boys was finally achieving British success. Demonstrating just what a priority she had become for her continental label, Sabrina was dispatched to work with the hottest British pop producers of the moment and thus becoming a small footnote in the story of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Written especially for the Italian star, All Of Me was almost by the numbers PWL production but oddly enough only of passing interest to British buyers. Number 25 was enough to ensure she was no one hit wonder but the single fell some way short of the lofty expectations created by her debut hit. It also turned out to be Sabrina’s last brush with major British chart success, her next release Like A Yo-Yo stalling at Number 72 later in 1989. The singer would continue to be a major success in Europe and particularly in her home country with a long career in singing, acting and presenting to her name, with a reported career total sale of over 20 million records.


Enjoyed that and want to read more? Then why not buy The Top 40 Annual 1988, available in paperback and Kindle versions as well as in all other major e-book stores.

Jun 11

Happy Rebecca Black Day

The last time the UK singles and album charts switched their date of publication was in October 1987. In what was hailed as a revolution in computer technology (but which in actual fact was simply due to all shops now reporting sales via the Epson terminals installed in chart return outlets) it was no longer necessary to wait until Tuesday lunchtime to hear the new singles chart. The Radio One Top 40 show on Sunday evenings was now the place to be, the latest sales information available less than 12 hours after the shops had closed. At the time it was pretty revolutionary stuff.

It should be noted however that this was merely a change in publication date, moving it up two days. The actual survey itself remained Monday through Saturday (Sunday trading laws at the time meant few if any outlets could sell music on that day). The only noticeable consequence was that the Radio One show, traditionally the broadcast outlet of record, skipped a week so the show on October 4th 1987 instead of counting down the singles chart first revealed on Tuesday September 29th ended up revealing the brand new countdown for Week Ending October 10th. It meant that Pump Up The Volume‘s first week at the top was never to be broadcast.

The last time the survey period was changed was actually just prior to that, for a brief period at the start of 1982 when then compilers BMRB changed from Monday-Saturday to Friday-Thursday to sidestep the problem of the manually compiled shop diaries from the weekend being delayed in the post. The only problem was the labels hated it as it meant that the impact of Top Of The Pops appearances was delayed for a full week. The arrival of Gallup and their computer terminals at the start of 1983 put an end to postal issues forever.

Next month however there is to be a genuine change. As previously documented the British charts are to move their date of publication to coincide with the introduction of Global Release Day, or as it is now rather clunkily being branded New Music Friday which will see music released in key markets on the same day globally. Until now it has been a matter of guesswork as to how and when this change will be made, although listeners to this week’s podcast will have heard me speculating wildly about what is to take place.

Now all can be revealed, and this is how it will work:

Week 27 will be the final Sunday-Saturday chart survey. It will run from June 28th to July 4th. The last ever Sunday afternoon Radio One chart show will announce this countdown on Sunday July 5th.

Week 28 will be a truncated five day survey, gathering sales from Sunday July 5th to Thursday July 9th. It will be the subject of the first ever Friday afternoon chart rundown on Radio One, broadcast on July 10th.

That just so happens to be the first ever Global Rele New Music Friday and handily the UK charts are now nicely in sync with this. Week 29 will therefore survey Friday July 10th to Thursday July 16th ready for broadcast on Friday 17th. And all will be well with the world.

Finally you will note this impacts the publication of Music Week which has been delivered to subscribers on Thursdays and hits the streets on Fridays since 2011. They are to revert back to Monday publication to remain the journal of record for the music charts, the first such issue landing on Monday July 13th.

Indeed the only question left unanswered is that of the dating convention for each music chart. For consistency, starting with the original British Hit Singles book back in 1977, chart reference books have used the Saturday cover date of the corresponding issue of Music Week. It is a convention I follow, hence all my columns, podcasts and books refer to charts of Week Ending xxx – ie the end of the week that the chart is announced. Technically that link between Music Week and the date of the chart ended in August 2011 when the new owners of the magazine began branding it with the street date, a Friday rather than a Saturday, but the convention has stuck.

Now that will indeed have to change. A Week Ending date of Saturday will actually mean the chart is ‘dated’ after its successor is unveiled. I’ve asked the Official Charts Company if they have an official view on the subject but am still awaiting a formal reply. That does imply nobody has actually thought it through yet.

My personal view is that it is probably now appropriate to switch to referring to singles charts from the date they become valid, and for consistencies sake this can still be a Saturday. It will simply mean there will be two charts for July 11th, the Week Ending chart first revealed the previous Sunday and the new Week Commencing chart unveiled the previous day. This would actually align it with the historical archive on the Official Charts Company website which currently presents archive charts as being dated from their Sunday of publication – even though this is not the case for those tables pre-October 1987. I get more grumpy emails from people about that issue than anything else at present.

Jun 08

Major Miscarriage

I’ve met Charles Ingram, the infamous “coughing major” on two occasions when he’s come into the office to be interviewed. The first was on a Sunday afternoon not long after he was convicted of cheating to try to win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the second as a guest on an evening show when he was plugging an espionage novel he had just published. He was friendly, affable but as you might expect continually bewildered at the hand that fate had dealt him.

On both occasions he was asked on air by James Whale the (if you’ll pardon the pun) million dollar question. Did you actually do it? Did you really conspire to have someone in the audience coughing to hint at the correct answers?

His response each time was to shake his head. Noting that he had lost absolutely everything: his career, his reputation, his prospects and was now a figure of ridicule, the target for abuse in the street and to all intents and purposes an utterly ruined man he simply asked “what would I have to gain by continuing to lie about it? I didn’t do it. That’s all I can say.”

Now there is a book, written by an investigative journalist and which seeks to uncover the truth about what took place in that TV studio back in September 2001. Bad Show –  The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett takes an in-depth look at not just the alleged conspiracy but the origins and the culture of the show itself. It demonstrates the way the multiple choice quiz show invaded popular culture at the end of the 20th century, the tactics people employed to try to increase their chances of getting on the show and winning through to the hot seat and how this fed through to dedicated clubs of competitors who swapped tips and insider information to attempt to gain a competitive edge.

Rather cleverly the book also takes time to talk the reader through some of the more famous questions, illustrating along the way how a process of logic and deduction can often point the way to the correct answer in a question that might otherwise have stumped a contestant. It is a game after all, and to win you just had to know how to play it.

This point becomes crucial when discussing the case of Charles Ingram and his alleged co-conspirator Tecwyn Whittock (the two men had never met or even spoke to each other before the show). It casts doubt not just on the evidence put forward by the Crown at trial of the coughs and signals that were allegedly in use but also demolishes the notion put forward at trial that Ingram was a bumbling fool who could not have begun to know the answers to some of the questions put to him. In fact the former army major was a MENSA member and a well read and literate individual. He was also very good at quizzes, better in fact than Whittock who took the chair immediately after Ingram at the original recording and performed startlingly poorly.

It hardly needs saying that the parallels between Slumdog Millionaire and this real life case are actually quite startling.

A picture is painted in the book of a man and his wife still struggling to come to terms with what happend to them. More than ten years later they are just about scraping a living, fighting the endless failed attempts by Charles to rebuild his life and career, the memories of his conviction still counting against him no matter where he applies. Yet it also paints a picture of a massive injustice, a failure of the legal system and the sheer impossibility of an individual fighting against a process which is determined to bring him down at all costs. A jury who were expected to decide if someone was coughing in code to provide quiz answers were not even shown the set of the programme to judge for themselves the sheer implausibility of it and who were played only an enhanced and doctored soundtrack of the show and did not hear the true ambient soundtrack of the evening in question. No wonder they came to the wrong decision.

My opinion of our legal system is currently the lowest it has ever been, and reading this book only serves to add to that sense of outrage. It will also make you angry at the conduct of ITV and Celador who withheld a major prize from a member of the public based on little more than a hunch and who then colluded to manipulate the available evidence to back up their suspicions. By the end you too will come to the same conclusion as the authors. Somebody somewhere owes Charles Ingram one million pounds. And an apology.

May 05

Nourishing Mother

It is generally only Americans who are obsessed with the idea of continually paying homage to the educational establishments which shaped you. Their culture and literature is replete with references to the alma mater and how one is forever deined by where you went to school or college and what you did there.

It isn’t always the most advisable thing to revisit the past, but this bank holiday weekend I did just that, travelling back to Lancaster and in particular Lancaster University where I was a student from 1991 to 1994, all to speak at a conference for students aspiring to a career in the media. And it will probably turn out to be one of the best things I do all year.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been back to the compact little city on the banks of the River Lune since graduation, but the previous ones were either too soon afterwards or far too fleeting, be it the “class reunion” of friends who assembled to celebrate the birthday of the campus radio station in February 2001 or taking my future wife on a flying visit to the campus en route to the Lake District a year or so before we were married. No, this time it was for both a more extended visit but most crucially one which wasn’t just confined to the university campus. And this time I was going there as some kind of success story. To tell people that if I did what I wanted to do, then so could they with ease.

So it was that on Friday afternoon I stumbled off an inevitably delayed train to check into the Travelodge, noting with some regret that it stood on the site where the local cinema used to stand and that I was wheeling my case along the same pavement that I’d queued along to see Wayne’s World and The Naked Gun 33 1/3. Indeed both during Friday night carousing with similarly returning friends and during a nostalgic hangover clearing walk around the city centre the following morning this would become a common theme. I’d lived there for just three years, but of course they just happened to be some of the most formative three years of my life. At the time I was never a great one for pub crawls and yet it seemed that every hostelry we visited brought back a memory of a particular conversation. a specific late night incident or nostalgia for the people I used to consider my companions.

Some things had changed and others were still the same. The pizza restaurant where I frequently took the girls I was failing to seduce, the branch of William Hill where I developed a reputation as the man with the extensive computer printouts that told him how to bet. the Chinese takeaway where I bought the meal to celebrate finally finishing the “extended essay” I wrote on the office of the Prime Minister for a major part of my history course, the radio station studios where I first presented for a full time professional radio station, the car park where I sat contemplaing the rest of my life the week after graduation, the McDonald’s where I’d stood and ate a cheeseburger in front of the animal rights protesters who howled at me in impotent fury and even the hairdressers where I had my early 90s student tresses tamed into something approaching manageable once a month. They were all there as I remembered. More sorely missed were the other memories, the electronics shop where I bought the ghetto blaster I’d worked the whole summer of ’92 to afford, the local independent record shop which was the destination of choice for concert tickets and new releases, the Tardis-like caverns of the Blue Anchor pub (now a tapas bar) and strange though it may sound the Kwik-fit garage where I’d limped with my ancient Talbot Alpine after its exhaust fell off almost 21 years ago this week. But I still remembered where they (and I) once stood and had the memories flood back.

Then it was onto the campus itself where parts of it had changed beyond all recognition since my time, all thanks to some extensive investment in revelopment by the university. My old college residences had been subsumed by another neighbouring body and had subsequently relocated to another part of the campus altogether. New buildings had sprung up and it was at times hard to work out what was the old part and what was new. My intense studying of a map led one passer by to enquire if I needed assistance. I just assured them I was orienting myself.

Campus Map

Spotting that the campus bars were in the places I remembered them was reassuring. Furness bar had always been called Trevor for some reason and indeed still was. More curious was the a-board outside proclaiming “HAVE YOU TRIED OUR RANGE OF 11 WINES” which made me wonder if I had stepped into another dimension. In my day you chose between brown ale and bitter and that was that. Our host for the day, the student union campaigns president Ronnie Rowlands later told me that it was worse than that, as that bar in particular had a nice line in milkshakes which often led to frustration when you were getting a round in and waiting for the dweeb in front of you to choose which sprinkles they wanted on their banana float.

Tower Selfie

That’s Ron there by the way, assisting with my Bowland Tower selfie that I took to mark a celebrated return to what used to Alexandra Square -what used be the centre of campus and the focal point for many a noisy lunchtime protest but which is apparently now just a little-regarded throroughfare and which was actually closed for two years whilst it was refurbished.

Then it was on to the real meat of the day, the afternoon conference which saw five of us, most former graduates of the University, give a series of seminars on our lives and careers and imparted advice for those seeking to follow in our footsteps. In truth this was the biggest thrill of all. I know when I was a student and dreaming madly of a career as a hotshot celebrity presenter it would have been a dream to have someone turn up and explain what to do, how to do it and above all encourage and enthuse about the possibilities their career had and the opportunities that could come my way. So that is precisely what I tried to do for the small crowd who elected to follow my to Lecture Theatre 2. I played them clips and packages, talked of triumphs and disasters and above all how I ended up there and where it could go. Whilst at the same time noting that my sector of the business, commercial speech radio, had a voracious appetite for staff and that most people who really wanted to work there could easily end up doing so.

Perhaps better still were the drinks in the bar afterwards (noting as well that this college bar also served snacks and food, unheard of in my day). I told people living near London to come and find me online to spend the summer working and advised one aspiring radio playwright from Huddersfield (who may well have listened to me on the radio as a child) how to track down the production companies who needed the material with which to pitch for slots in the BBC schedule. I gave help and advice and encouragement of the kind I’d have thrilled to receive as a callow youth. I just hope it serves them all well. Oh yes, and of course there was a chance to visit the relocated studios of the campus radio station, say hello to the curent crop of hopefuls and note that although much slimmed down from my day, the old record library still contained singles in paper sleeves that were adorned with catalogue numbers in my handwriting.

With that it was time to head for home after a 48 hour whirlwind of beer, pasta, vomit (someone else’s), memories, speeches, Wibbly Wobbly Burgers, the Graduate College bar and its famous pork pies, rain (this was Lancaster after all) and a late night curry restaurant with the slowest service in the North West. As the train pulled slowly away one thought dominated. I knew in an instant that one day I’d be back again.

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Apr 25

The Perfect Anniversary

The start of May means that in 1988 terms it is the anniversary of one of the most memorable Number One hits of its era. Perfect by Fairground Attraction, a curious blend of skiffle and rockabilly which had the inbuilt advantage of sounding like nothing else in the charts at the time. The irresistible track made short work of a journey to Number One and it was only its misfortune to coincide with the release of an all-conquering charity record which meant it did not stay there for longer.

So to mark the occasion, here is the full text of the entry for Fairground Attraction, as taken from my lastest book: The Top 40 Annual 1988.


FAIRGROUND ATTRACTION

Sadenia “Eddi” Reader had studied at Glasgow Art School before becoming a busker, touring Europe with a circus before finally settling in London. She had started earning a living as a backing singer, appearing on recordings by Alison Moyet and Eurythmics before meeting guitarist Mark Nevin and forming Fairground Attraction. Combining folk, jazz and country elements in their music, the four piece group were a refreshing antidote to the sophisticated soul-pop on offer from just about every other group with Scottish roots at the time. It is doubtful whether they were necessarily viewed as a mainstream commercial prospect, only for their debut single to charm the socks off the entire country anyway.

PERFECT
First charted: 16/4/1988 – Chart peak: 1 – Peak reached: 14/5/1988

Noting that their live set was full of some rather intense, angst-ridden tracks, Mark Nevin wrote a short ditty to serve as a more upbeat show-closer. It was as much a surprise to him as it was the rest of the group that it turned out to be a life-changing and career-defining release. One of those classic singles which sounded instantly and comfortingly familiar, even when hearing it for the first time, Perfect was as close to three minutes of magic as the charts would see in 1988. A jaunty track that meshed jazz and rockabilly elements with ease, the simple love song was all at once delightfully retro and utterly timeless, a piece of music that stopped you in your tracks when it came on the radio and was enough to prompt mass singalongs of its infectious chorus when played in shops and bars. Three minutes of magic that it would be hard to engineer from scratch but which fell into the lap of Fairground Attraction and turned them into stars almost overnight. After a slow start the single bounded up the charts as if its destiny was all but assured, grabbing a week at Number One in early May and becoming one of the most ubiquitous popular soundtracks of the spring. Perfect would go on to have a life far beyond its initial success, worming its way into popular culture a decade later when used for TV commercials for Asda supermarkets although several re-issues failed to return the single to the charts and this original 1988 run remains its one and only singles chart appearance. Fairground Attraction’s album First Of A Million Kisses was naturally much in demand following the success of its lead single and made the Top 10 with ease when released at the end of May.

FIND MY LOVE
First charted: 30/7/1988 – Chart peak: 7 – Peak reached: 20/8/1988

It would have been all too easy for Fairground Attraction to have wound up as novelty one hit wonders thanks to the quirky nature of their first hit single, but they pleasingly landed a second Top 10 hit single during the summer with its follow-up. Find My Love was a slower and more reflective track but its gentle bossa-nova charms and the band’s existing momentum were enough to give it the legs to reach Number 7 for a fortnight during August. Alas follow-up singles from First Of A Million Kisses fared less well although Clare was unlucky to just miss a place on the Top 40 in January 1989, just prior to Fairground Attraction becoming double Brit Award winners, picking up gongs for best single and best album during the now notorious awards ceremony. Sessions for a planned second album saw the band fall apart acrimoniously the following year leaving Eddi Reader to strike out on her own instead in a search for solo success.


Enjoyed that and want to read more? Then why not buy The Top 40 Annual 1988, available in paperback and Kindle versions and in all major E-book stores. 

Apr 13

Annually Retentive

Does anyone pay attention to blog categories any more? Well, if you are one of those people then you may possibly have noticed a theme developing here over the past year or so. A collection of posts under the 1988 category have been steadily teasing the work I’ve been doing researching the hits and stories of that year. Now the fruits of those labours have er, ripened so to speak. Because my new book is now available:

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Using the same format as my previous e-books for the years of 2012 and 2013, the Top 40 Annual 1988 is a comprehensive guide to the hit singles of that year. Every artist and every record to make the Top 40 charts during the course of the year is documented in what I hope is loving and accurate detail.

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The book is, as you can see, available in paperback (priced £15.99 although Amazon do keep discounting it) and there is still a Kindle version as well as E-book editions in all the usual online stores. For full details as where as the links to buy the various editions, head on over to the BOOKS page on this site, or just click on the rotating adverts at the very top of this page.

One question I have been asked though is why I chose 1988 in particular for this first truly historical account. Well as well as being the first year in pop music that I truly lived and breathed from beginning to end and so am familiar first hand with the stories of many of the hits, it seems to me as well that this is essentially the starting point of modern day popular music history. Think about it. You had in this year the first ever home-produced house music hits as British producers added their own twist to what had until now been a distinctly American sound. The year saw the rise of the bedroom DJ, the producers who made their own records on a limited budget and landed themselves huge smashes. The whole concept of producer as performer sprang from here. In artistic terms we of course had the first ever hit singles from Kylie Minogue as the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound headed towards its commercial peak. Early 90s mainstays such as The Wonder Stuff and Deacon Blue had their breakthrough hits, as did the KLF (at least after a fashion) and thanks to Iron Maiden we saw the first examples of what would one day become the industry’s standard marketing practice – leveraging the power of the dedicated fan base to pop a strong first week sale. Plus William Orbit produced his first hit single, even if it was a comedy record featuring Harry Enfield.

So 1988 was seminal in so many ways. And if you are going to write the definitive history of modern day popular music, it seemed a perfectly natural place to start. Hope you enjoy the book, however you choose to consume it. Be assured there are plenty more volumes to come. Although I’d better start cracking on the 1989 tag.

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Mar 23

Gotta Get Down On Friday

Back in my formative years the only way to hear the brand new singles chart ‘live’ was to break the rules. Smuggling a Walkman or transistor radio into school to catch the moment at 1pm each Tuesday when the brand new singles chart was unveiled on Radio One. Yes, there was always the more detailed recap by Peter Powell or Bruno Brookes later that evening, but you already knew who was at the top of the charts. It was a recap, not a reveal.

All that changed in October 1987 when the march of technology finally meant that the weekly sales tabulations could actually be produced within 24 hours of the last shop closing. The Sunday afternoon chart show on Radio One was all of a sudden transformed from the laid-back recounting of a Top 40 list that was already five days old and which had featured on Top Of The Pops three days earlier into a dramatic, vibrant broadcast of record. As the hype breathlessly explained, both the public and the stars themselves were about to find out live just where their favourite records were. That very first “live” chart show was a significant and exciting moment in my own upbringing, and you can read my memories of that particular broadcast here.

Now for the first time in almost 28 years the publication date of the British charts is set to change once more. As a direct consequence of the decision by the music industry to move towards a global release date for music and most importantly for that date to be a Friday rather than a Sunday or a Monday, the scope of the chart week and thus the publication date has to move with it.

So it is now official. As of this summer it will be farewell to the long-standing tradition of a Sunday afternoon chart show on the radio. Instead the new countdown will be compiled based on sales stretching from Friday through to Thursday with the new countdown unveiled by Radio One between 4pm and 6pm every Friday evening as part of what is currently Greg James’ show. Instead of beginning the week with a new singles and albums chart, we start the weekend with a brand new countdown.

Now inevitably there will be the cries of “shame” from those stuck in a mental rut, reluctant to embrace change and wedded to the idea that things should always remain the way they remember them no matter what. This is however something very exciting for a number of reasons:

  • The Radio One chart show is now moved from what had increasingly become a graveyard slot into a high profile prime time place on the schedule. Five million people listen to Radio One in the afternoons, that’s almost three times the audience the “old” Top 40 show was pulling in. Suddenly the brand chart becomes part of the entertainment for people travelling home from school and from work. That’s a massive, profile-lifting boost.
  • The chart show is also freed from the head to head battle it has been locked in for the past 30 years, moved out of the way of commercial radio’s Big Top 40 show against which it has increasingly proved to be wilting. Whilst there does exist the possibility that the radio groups could move their chart show to match, it seems unlikely at least in the short term. Sunday evening suits them nicely for a syndicated show, with most stations in weekend networking at that time already. Friday afternoons are still one of the few times radio stations have local live programming and they will be very reluctant (not to mention in many cases prohibited by Ofcom) to scale those back in favour of yet more syndicated network broadcasts.
  • High profile music slots on big ticket entertainment shows suddenly become even more important than before. Whilst an appearance on Graham Norton or Strictly or X Factor was always a guarantee of a sales boost, there was a delay in this registering on the published charts. Whilst we’ll still have to wait a week to see just how much of a sales boost a single received from a TV slot, it will show up on the very next chart to be published – rather than the next but one as happens at present.

There will be other consequences too, not least for publications like Music Week which currently hit the streets and inboxes on Thursday. We’ll almost certainly see the music industry’s publication of record shift back to a Monday street date, given that it will be pointless the magazine printing a music chart the moment it is set to go out of date. Or maybe they will abandon charts in the print version altogether now that the Official Charts Company’s own site appears to have taken on the mantle of being the source of record for the data.

Either way this is the latest step in what over the past few years has been a dramatic transformation to the way the music industry calculates, produces and presents its favourite self-fulfilling marketing tool. For the second summer running the British music charts are about to get a whole new look and feel.

Full details can be found on the Official Charts Company website.