Nov 25

(Baring His) Soul Man

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It is fair to say that not every winner of X Factor has gone on to cover themselves in glory. For everyone Leona Lewis there is a Leon Jackson or James Arthur. Yet no matter how dire a position the discarded contestants find themselves in they can at least console themselves that they did not suffer the same fate as Steve Brookstein. The series’ debut winner in 2004, he released one single, one barely promoted album and was then (we are told) dropped unceremoniously by his label, not even afforded the honour of a return visit to the show when the second series began in late 2005. Hence his status as the show’s “biggest ever flop” according to the Google search illustrated above.

Or is he. For now, after a decade of holding his peace and maintaining a discreet silence Steve Brookstein has gone into print with a tell-all book Getting Over The X which was published earlier this week. For the first time he tells his side of the story, his progress through the X Factor itself, the often spiteful war between the judges which so blighted that first series, the real reason for Sharon Osbourne’s controversial outburst during the final show and just how Simon Cowell attempted to “relax” him prior to the final set of live performances.

The book also details just what happened next. How runners up G4 released their album first to much fanfare, how his own trickled out a few weeks later, topping the charts but unsupported by any further single releases. How his reluctance to produce another album full of covers led to him requesting and being granted a release from his deal and most crucially how the X Factor machine then went out of its way to ensure he became the forgotten man.

It is here that the story truly kicks into gear. Thanks to Max Clifford the media were all but commanded to view him in a negative light. Upbeat stories about his future plans were canned in favour of hatchet pieces about how he’d been such a disappointment, all of which shaped a perception which lasted a decade that the experienced and talented singer was nothing more than a no-hoper. High profile performances at major venues were spun by the press as gigs at Pizza Express or pig farms, with his actual achievements such as releasing two further albums or starring in a successful musical tour all but ignored by the mainstream mass media.

We are all guilty of it. Presuming the worst of a man because the press has conditioned us to do so. And the further you get into the more the more you realise just how heartbreakingly unjust that is.

Whilst the book isn’t quite the foundation-shaking revelation its pre-release hype suggested it aspired to be, with nothing contained inside that will do any real damage to the image of the TV series or the overall X Factor brand, it is still a fascinating insight into just what happens when you are plucked from semi-obscurity only to then be spat out and viewed as an embarrassment to those who were once promising you the world.

The greatest insult fired at the singer, both during the show and in the years that followed, is that he was nothing more than a “pub singer”. As if that was something to be ashamed of. Yet the history of popular music is populated with some of the biggest acts of all whose earliest work was done at pub performances, learning their trade at the sharp end, cutting their teeth in front of some of the hardest audiences of all, and performing to the peak of their abilities in the smallest of venues. Read Getting Over The X and you will gain a renewed appreciation for one pub singer in particular. And possibly think slightly less of Sharon Osbourne.

Recommended.

Nov 21

Tonight Thank God It’s Dido

It may not have escaped your attention that this week will see the release of what is no less than the fourth version of a rather famous charity record, and one which is inevitably going to become the fourth to charge straight to the top of the charts, raise the profile of a great many people and just as an aside raise money for charity.

Given the inevitable cynicism that has also greeted the release of the 2014 version of Do They Know It’s Christmas, it seemed an interesting exercise to dig out the piece I wrote for Yahoo! Music back in December 2004, on the occasion of the arrival of Band Aid 20 at the top of the charts.

~cue wavy lines of time travel~

How many times has it been said of a particular act or genre that “if it didn’t exist then someone would have to invent it”? Well, back in 1984 the concept of an all-star charity record as a mass market product didn’t exist – so Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof invented it. Just about everyone who was anyone in British pop was invited to the famous recording session in November 1984. Duran Duran, U2, The Police, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Wham – you name it they were there, all to record together a song which Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had written in a hurry two days beforehand (and for which they spent the next decade apologising, both feeling they could do a better job). They need not have worried. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ turned out to be an instant classic, a modern day seasonal anthem which still sounds as fresh 20 years later as it did back in 1984. Upon release the single shot straight to the top of the charts, selling an unprecedented 800,000 copies in its first week on sale. It remained there for five weeks, sweeping all competition aside to become Christmas Number One and of course kicked off a veritable fundraising juggernaut which over the course of the next year led directly to the USA For Africa single ‘We Are The World’, Live Aid and the following Christmas a re-release of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ with a new b-side which documented the work that had been done over the previous 12 months to aid famine relief. There were still people willing to buy it as well as the single hit Number 3 for Christmas 1985, pushing total sales of the track to well over 3.6 million, making it far and away the biggest selling single of all time – a record it would hold for over a decade and a half. In short, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ is quite justifiably one of pop’s proudest and most famous moments ever.

Five years on from the original and the single was re-recorded in response to new reports of African famine. With the blessing of Bob Geldof, hot producers of the moment Stock, Aitken and Waterman recruited a new band of acts to perform a new version of the track. The Band Aid II version is now pretty much derided for being filled with teenybop acts such as Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bros (these barbs overlooking the presence of the likes of Chris Rea and Cliff Richard on the track) but at the time everyone pretty much accepted that it was a good idea, sent the record to Number One and raised a few more pennies for charity.

Then last month came the news that a new Band Aid project was in the offing. Apparently the brainchild of a tabloid newspaper, Geldof and Ure were persuaded to assemble a new lineup of stars, one that by definition would be better than the 1989 version and which would hopefully be the equal of the 1984 original. As days wore on the hype increased dramatically as the likes of Coldplay, Dido and the Darkness all signed on for the project. Media interest in the recording session three weeks ago was intense and the world waited eagerly for the grand premiere of the track – now credited to Band Aid 20 as if to erase the memory of Band Aid II (now conveniently revised as an embarrassment). Yet in spite of this the response to the finish product was mixed and the debate ever since has raged over whether this is a record that lives up to the expectations we all had. We were told that the 2004 version would be every bit as good, every inch a classic as the original and the fact that in some ways it isn’t has led to a great deal of head scratching.

Here at Launch we would hate to be seen as anything but scrupulously fair, so let us try to reflect both sides of the argument. Why Band Aid 20 is so good, but first why it is such a disappointment.

– OK let’s start with the obvious. Isn’t the production naff and awful. Whereas the original version was a towering pop record in its own right, the thundering drums (stolen from a Tears For Fears track incidentally) giving way to moaning synths, bells and chimes and of course that rousing sing-along chorus which set the template for all other charity collaborations to come. In contrast the new version is the epitome of daytime radio naffness, a track with no bassline, a jarring clash of musical styles and a sing-along which descends into a second rate gospel jam during the seemingly endless two minute fade. We were asked to judge it alongside the original and as a result it has been found sadly lacking.

– Then there are the little tweaks that have been made to the song, most notably of course the rap break from Dizzee Rascal which smacks really of a desperate attempt to update the now 20 year old song. Leaving aside the fact that it sounds gratingly awful, why bother to re-record the song if it was felt it needed updating. Midge Ure has actually spent most of the last 20 years apologising for the song, claiming he could have made a better job given more time to write it. Indeed it seems strange that nobody thought to venture the idea that maybe an even greater impact would have been made by recording a brand new song with a superstar line-up. Why try (and indeed fail) to recapture lightning in a bottle when you could just cook up a whole new storm, so to speak.

– Finally there is the way the whole project seems so lacking in soul compared to 20 years ago. As I’ve said before, whereas the 84 vintage appeared to be born out of a genuine need to take immediate action to solve a crisis, in 2004 it almost seems like a publicity stunt, or at the very least a newspaper wheeze to get Justin Hawkins, Robbie Williams and Katie Melua on the same record together. If the old clichés about “everyone left their egos at the door of the studio” are true, then why was much publicity made of the spat between Bono and Hawkins over who got to sing the “tonight thank God it’s them..” line? Actually in fairness there were plenty of rows in 84, Geldof documenting with delight in his autobiography the primadonna behaviour of some of the stars, but back then we were less cynical and the concept of the ultimate supergroup had a magic to it. All anyone wants to do these days is read between the lines and look for scandal.

OK, so those are the negatives. What then of the positives.

– Needless to say there is the charity angle. Not that raising money for charity necessarily precludes the project from criticism but it has at the very least captured public imagination and given everyone an easy route to contribute money to a good cause and ease the suffering potentially of thousands thanks to just one seasonal purchase. The music business is notorious for making a lot of people astoundingly rich in a very short space of time. The fact that even its highest profile stars are prepared to spend time arranging to give something back should be enough to warm even the hardest of hearts.

– The single isn’t that awful anyway surely. Yes, you stand it side by side with the original and it doesn’t compare – but then again neither did the 89 version which didn’t even attract a fraction of the bile of Band Aid 20. Bland it may be but in an era where the likes of Coldplay, Dido and Keane are the biggest sellers of long players the production of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ can be said to be well in keeping with the spirit of the age. The Radio 2 audience just happens to be the biggest in the country so you can hardly fault a record aimed squarely at that market. Such is the polarising nature of much of pop music these days that it is probably the highest compliment possible that the Band Aid record is widely judged as “not as good as it might be”.

– Finally there is the potential the single has to give the market a bit of a shot in the arm. Regular readers will remember that earlier in the year I put forward the theory that the CD single has fallen out of favour as a mass market consumer item. People are out of the habit of buying them. All that was needed was a megahit, a track with such widespread appeal that people would go out of their way to pick it up, and maybe discover that they liked buying records again. What is so great here is that ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ has made headlines of its own thanks to a wrinkle over its availability on certain download services and the price to be charged for it. You never know this could well turn out to be the best selling download single to date – and with personal music players set to be one of the seasons must-have presents maybe the catalyst for digital downloads to become – yes, a mass market consumer product. With the singles chart set to merge with the d/l chart sometime in the new year, this could hardly have been timed better. Band Aid may have come along at just the right time.

So there you have it, an argument split right down the middle. When faced with the singles chart itself all argument becomes irrelevant really. After selling a reported 72,000 copies on its first day on sale, the record tops the singles chart with a total of 292,000 units shifted, some way short of the 800,000 copies of the original of course but enough to make it far and away the fastest selling single of the year and on course to easily be its biggest seller. Whether it hangs on to become Christmas Number One of course is another matter altogether, despite the fact that the bookmakers stopped taking bets on it a long time ago and have opened books instead on what will be Number 2 behind it.

Nov 10

Direct From Our Belfast Office

Strange though it may sound, the BBC complaints department is not run by the BBC. A friend in the know described it as “a soulless Capita office in Belfast, where people respond entirely based on stock answers and don’t understand the industry at all.”

Nonetheless when dealing with any public facing organisation and particularly a behemoth as large as the BBC, it is necessary to follow due process when making a formal complaint, starting at the bottom of the food chain and escalating accordingly until someone with any power starts paying you attention.

So it was that a couple of weeks ago I reluctantly joined the purple pen brigade and submitted a complaint to our favourite public service broadcaster using their online form. It was a good exercise in efficient writing, the form sensibly enough restricting the character length of each complaint to avoid essays from the likes of the mentally ill and people like me with an axe to grind. The text of my complaint about their unilateral refusal to reinstate Top Of The Pops repeats hosted by Dave Lee Travis ran as follows:

May I add my voice to those of others angered, baffled and disappointed by the arbitrary decision of the BBC not to restore vintage editions of Top Of The Pops hosted by Mr Dave Lee Travis following the end of legal proceedings against the presenter.

These programmes are shown as archive arts material, of interest to social and musical historians and yet the removal of weekly editions from the schedule means that entire pages are being torn out of the history book, all for the sake of what appears to be a fear of attracting tabloid ire.

I note the recent appearance of convicted violent abuser Mr George O’Dowd ("Boy George") on a recent edition of Strictly Come Dancing aired on BBC1. Clearly there are no legal, regulatory, ethical or editorial restrictions on convicted criminals appearing on prime time BBC television programmes, making the absence of Mr Travis from 35 year old programmes aired to a self-selecting audience on a minority arts channel all the more perverse and inexplicable.

The BBC may feel it is required to take into account the views of all its audience, but it is not clear to me why the voices of those demanding censorship should take precedence over those who wish their viewing untroubled by arbitrary restrictions.

Be advised I intend to escalate this complaint to the highest level possible if required. The nature of your reply to this initial query will inform the vigour with which I pursue this matter.

On November 4th I received the following reply which I quote in full:

Thanks for contacting the BBC.

We understand you feel we should continue to show ‘Top of the Pops’ episodes featuring Dave Lee Travis. We also note you felt Boy George was an inappropriate guest on a recent ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ episode.

We can confirm that we will not be showing TOTPs repeats fronted by Dave Lee Travis. We do acknowledge that some viewers will be disappointed not to see these episodes, but we must balance the views of all sections of our audience.We will consider any other archive appearances on a case by case basis according to their editorial merits.

In relation to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’; Boy George is a popular and much loved performer and after careful consideration we felt it was appropriate to invite him on to the programme. We do acknowledge that some viewers disagree and please be assured that this feedback has been noted.

I wasn’t expecting much and received rather less. You will note that there has been no attempt to address or counter the specific points I raised, despite my polite note at the end of my initial overture that this was a serious matter I intended to pursue until I was satisfied with the response. Theoretically they could have saved us all a great deal of time by engaging with me on that basis from the start. But maybe the Capita office in Belfast just don’t have that capacity.

Hopefully you will have spotted the one glaring error there. Either I’ve been sent the wrong stock response or they have completely misread me – assuming that I was complaining about the presence of Boy George on Strictly Come Dancing. As regular readers will be aware, I was not, and maybe I should have made that point clear. I only raised it to illustrate the inconsistency of the BBC’s approach to featuring convicted criminals in its programming. I support Boy George’s right to appear on television. But on that basis, so should DLT.

Perhaps I would not be the first person to contact the BBC with a contradictory point, but the fact that their interpretation of my complaint would mean I am being hypocritical seems to have escaped them. It would be unsustainable to argue against the presence of one convicted criminal on the television whilst pressing for the inclusion of another, yet by the same token in the text above the responder is attempting to do just that. How they imagined this would stand up to scrutiny is a matter of genuine bafflement.

It is interesting that they were prepared to offer up a substantive defence to those objecting to something they thought it was right to show. “We felt it was appropriate to invite him on the programme”. Well fair enough. Nothing about having to balance the views of all though. On the matter of their selective censorship however it is a different matter. No attempt is made to argue my points or defend their stance. “We are right, you are wrong, now go away you ghastly little pleb” is the tone taken. The fact that nobody thought there would be an issue with taking these two opposing stances SIDE BY SIDE in the same short email is utterly extraordinary.

Nonetheless, this was only ever going to be the first part of the process. The exact mechanism for escalating a complaint further is not specified either in their response mail or on the complaints website itself, but it is implied I should write back with the case reference expressing further dissatisfaction. This I have done. Meanwhile I’m also taking a different approach and will be submitting a Freedom Of Information request to the corporation asking for their paperwork on any discussions which took place over the Top Of The Pops scheduling.

Meanwhile episodes of Top Of The Pops on BBC continue to go missing. Including most recently the edition of October 18th 1979 which was the episode which one of the character witnesses in Dave Lee Travis’ second trial attended and where she testified as to his care, concern and above all gentlemanly conduct when her clothes ripped and how he had arranged for her to be assisted and her dignity preserved. So despite the exemplary conduct of the host of that exact show having been attested to under oath in open court it is somehow inappropriate for the BBC to screen it to an adult audience on a digital channel. That is utterly nonsensical. And someone needs to be held to account for this.

Nov 01

Just Pearson About

Funny the cards that fate sometimes deals you. Ask any child of the 1980s what the most iconic moment of Five Star’s career was and they will most likely hone in one on particular moment. It is unlikely to be any of their chart hits (12 straight Top 30 hits in an unbroken run between 1986 and 1988), their expertly choreographed dance routines nor their rags to riches tale of being a family group trained and mentored by their father who released their earliest material single-handedly on his own record label.

No, it was the moment in April 1989 when caller Eliot Fletcher asked them live on Saturday morning television why they were so “fucking crap”. On such moments do reputations pivot.

It is all the more surprising that the group were in a position to provoke such vitriol, as they were hardly around long enough to overstay their welcome. Indeed, despite their hit singles being spread out over a period of three years, their time at the time was confined to just one. Their debut album Luxury Of Life from 1985 had contained a series of minor hit singles, their true mainstream breakthrough not arriving until the release of its final track System Addict in early 1986. It was however their second long player Silk And Steel which contained their most famous singles. Between April 1986 and April 1987 they were hardly ever off the radio or out of the charts. Can’t Wait Another MinuteFind The Time, monster smash Rain Or ShineIf I Say Yes, Stay Out Of My Life and The Slightest Touch. All but one a Top 10 hit. Six perfectly crafted British pop classics all from one album.

It was this record that bankrolled the much-reported extravagance. The luxury mansion, the private recording studio, the fleet of Bentleys. The Pearson clan were a big deal and they revelled in it. Except then the wheels started to come off. Sales of third album Between The Lines and its attendant singles were limp in comparison to past glories. Hence the move in 1988 to a radical change in image. Out went the hooped earrings and multicoloured slacks. In came bleached hair, skintight leathers and a brand new Michael Jackson inspired attitude. Yet by this stage nobody cared. Made for the clubs track Another Weekend was merely a moderate Top 20 hit and when Rock My World, the de-facto title track of their fourth album Rock The World, barely scraped the Top 30 it passed almost without comment – little did anyone know that it was the last time Five Star would ever grace the Top 40 again despite repeated comeback attempts.

Looking back it is clear to see how they went wrong. A change of image and style was indeed called for, but both dad and siblings simply did not see which way the wind was blowing. R&B-led pop was out in 1988. House was in. Could a family group of seasoned performers, talented singers with an already strong pedigree of making hit records have effortlessly segued into the new world of breaks, beats and rhythm? Quite possibly yes. In an age when even Samantha Fox was making Acid House tracks with Bolland & Bolland and being danced to unironically, anyone was ripe for jumping aboard this bandwagon.

At the time though there was one record of theirs I was actually rather sad to see flop. Looking back now the third single from Rock The World has some rather gaping flaws. A little more money spent on production could have meant being able to use some proper musicians, adding real trumpets and strings to the record rather than the quite patently synthesised stuff on offer here. Yet There’s A Brand New World is actually a small gem of a pop record, the kind of cod-rock track that they and indeed their idol Michael Jackson were able to pull off rather well. For all its production flaws, it is up there with some of the best songs Denise Pearson ever wrote for her family, even if it went unrecognised at the time. Released in September 1988 the single was a resounding and quite spectacular flop, Number 61 their most miserable chart showing of their career.

It is worth noting that the single the group were on television to promote in April 1989 was an entirely new track, destined for a new album which never saw the light of day in its intended form (thanks largely to its own failure to reach the Top 40) and instead landed on the Greatest Hits album at the end of that year which marked the parting of the ways between the group and label RCA. Given they were on Going Live to promote a record which virtually nobody bought, in a sense that makes it all the odder that Eliot Fletcher should have dutifully phoned in, beat the queueing system, passed the call screening process, waited to be called back and then sat hopefully on the line to give the group a tongue lashing. Five Star had already slid from view regardless.

Oct 27

Victims We Know So Well

boygeorge

This is a screenshot of Boy George, lead singer of Culture Club, performing with his group on the Strictly Come Dancing results show on Sunday October 26th 2014.

Boy George was the man who in 2009 was sentenced to 15 months in prison for falsely imprisoning a male escort by handcuffing him to a wall and beating him with a metal chain. According to the judge, he had left his victim “shocked, degraded and traumatised” by the ordeal.

I’m delighted that he now appears to be a reformed character, has put the incident behind him and continues to pursue his career as a singer and performer. It was a pleasure to watch him perform in front of an audience of millions last night.

It also demonstrates clearly and unequivocally the point I made last week; that there is no legal, regulatory, ethical or editorial bar on a convicted criminal appearing as a performer on primetime BBC1 television, even one convicted at the time of offences so serious than an immediate custodial sentence was imposed by his trial judge.

It should therefore follow that there should similarly be no bar to 35 year old archive material featuring Dave Lee Travis being broadcast in a low level slot to a self-selecting audience on BBC4 television. The BBC continue to be pressed by myself and other interested parties to explain this unacceptable double standard.

Oct 21

Condemned To Revise It

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

My name is James, and I’m an historian.

Having studied the discipline for three years at Lancaster University, emerging at the end with an honours degree, in my wide ranging jack of many trades master of few existence, it is perhaps the one thing I can legitimately claim to be qualified to do.

Hence I’m in the process of writing publications which will form a history of popular music in modern times. In doing so I’m entirely reliant on the accuracy of my primary sources – the documented events of the time and interviews which have been published with the people making the music. I’m honour bound to be accurate. Maybe one day my writings will form part of someone else’s research, any errors or inaccuracies they contain will flow down to others, the mistakes only spotted if someone does what I did, and goes back to the primary source.

It is why the George Orwell quote above resonates so powerfully. We cannot and should not change history just to appease a contemporary view or to cast figures from the past in new light thanks to our own social revisionism. You will note that this never happens to what might be considered high art. Caravaggio was a notorious murderer yet his paintings still hang in galleries worldwide and his talent acclaimed at the highest level. Meanwhile the family of sculptor and designer Eric Gill have been open about his history deviant sexual behaviour and the incest he committed yet his work still adorns the walls of the BBC’s headquarters and their corporate logo is rendered in the font he designed. Their place in history is immovable, regardless of their own personal failings. And rightly so.

Yet where popular culture is concerned this tolerance does not seem to apply. According to the orthodoxy of our times if you are an entertainer or public figure who has been convicted, or even just accused in absentia, of a particular type of crime, you are to be wiped from the record. Your history removed, your contribution ignored. Unless of course you are a successful rock musician and still in a position to make people money. That goes without saying.

This should be self-evidently wrong. As Professor Jeffrey Richards noted when I studied under him in the 1990s, it is all too tempting to look down on the popular culture of the past and sneer at that which our forebears found entertaining. He further noted that he was saying those words in an age where Noel’s House Party, You’ve Been Framed and Blind Date represented the apotheosis of popular tastes and invited us to draw our own conclusions accordingly.

The first signs of a desire for society to start sanitising its past came a decade and a half ago. Famed 1970s pop star Gary Glitter suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the late 1990s when his more dubious recreational tastes online resulted in a period of incarceration and eternal tabloid vilification. As he was already an ageing figure of fun whose body of creative work had not yet been deemed ready for post-modern reappraisal his inevitable absence from the airwaves passed with little comment, his removal from a cameo role in the Spice Girls’ movie Spiceworld the only notably obvious public statement of his pariah status. Nonetheless back in 2005 I produced a radio show which aired Another Rock And Roll Christmas as part of a feature on the biggest hits of Christmas 1984. Mountains failed to crumble, tides remained turned and not one complaint resulted. Perhaps back then it was a more mature and sensible age, who knows.

Since 2011 however it has been the enormously popular 35 year old repeats of Top Of The Pops shows on BBC4 which have become a lightning rod for what appears to be the insane desire of some to purge popular culture from those of whom we No Longer Approve. Early in the repeat run it did not pass without comment that a performance by Jonathan King of his 1976 Top 10 remake of It Only Takes A Minute was hamfistedly edited out of the 35th anniversary repeat, its absence from the show only made more apparent thanks to the fact that the man himself had uploaded that very performance to YouTube some years earlier.

King to his credit took up cudgels immediately, writing directly to then Director-General Mark Thompson to protest about his removal from the repeat. To the joy of everyone interested, Mr Thompson took the matter up and wrote back noting:

We accept that [the editing] should not have happened and we would like to apologise for any upset this caused.

We can assure Mr King that there is no policy in place requiring any of his appearances, or those of any one else, to be removed from repeats we show on the channel. We can also assure Mr King that his performance will not be edited out of any future repeat of this particular episode of Top of the Pops.

It was almost certainly this policy which led to 1977 performances by Gary Glitter remaining intact in subsequent editions, thus shattering once and for all the unannounced de-facto ban on his work that had been in place since the Spice Girls movie. It is almost as if this comes from a different age, given what has transpired since.

Then in October 2012 came the broadcast of what have since turned out to be entirely spurious allegations surrounding the private life of Sir Jimmy Savile and the resultant hysterical trashing of his life’s work, achievements and popular legacy. This also regrettably included the removal from the schedules of any and all editions of Top Of The Pops which he hosted, ending forever the prospect of a complete and uninterrupted run of these valuable archive programmes. Yes, this is to be deeply regretted and is in itself a disgrace, but given the level of hysteria that seems to rise with even the mention of the legendary Yorkshireman’s name and the fact that even a parodying representation of him in an old show can result in Daily Mail front pages and craven apologies from the BBC for even suggesting that he once walked the earth it seems hardly surprising that the path of least resistance has been taken and his shows confined to the salt mines. Whilst I may personally regret and oppose this censorship, for the same reasons that I will articulate below, were I to be in charge of deciding what should and should not be broadcast on BBC4 I would almost certainly be taking the same decision. There are some battles which for now are just not winnable. It will be left instead to future generations to re-evaluate his work and put it in its proper context.

fixit

Sadly it would not be long before even more planned repeated editions of Top Of The Pops were removed from public view. The arrest of veteran radio presenter Dave Lee Travis on charges of sexual assault led to the editions that he hosted also being tossed from the schedules, a situation which seemed only set to persist as he was sent for trial on a number of charges dating back over several decades. In truth this was a prudent move, and indeed at his first trial at the start of this year it was revealed that one of the charges related to an alleged incident that took place at the taping of one of the shows removed from broadcast. Although he was acquitted of this (and indeed virtually all the charges laid against him) the workings of the law mean that one edition of Top Of The Pops in particular can theoretically never be viewed by the public again as the footage it contains would serve to identify the complainant in question and violate her eternal right to anonymity.

When DLT’s legal ordeal was finally over and he was formally cleared of any wrongdoing, save for one extremely shaky minor conviction over an incident which took place in the 1990s (and long after he had ceased any association with Top Of The Pops) it was fervently hoped that the moratorium on his appearances could be lifted and we could finally watch the show without the endlessly frustrating skips that resulted from the absence of his and Savile-hosted editions. Alas these hopes were in vain. Shortly after his sentencing, the BBC took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing that Dave Lee Travis editions of the show would not be returning to the airwaves, and that this was to be the end of the matter.

Just about everyone I have spoken to is utterly baffled by this. There is no possible regulatory reason why the work of a man sentenced to a brief and ultimately suspended prison term for an incident 20 years ago cannot be shown on national television. Nowhere in the Ofcom Programme Code does it debar any convicted criminal, regardless of the offence from appearing on television or radio. Nor are there any legal grounds to prevent them from doing so.

It should be further noted that the BBC themselves have no blanket ban in place on airing the work of convicted criminals –as the Glitter and King examples above illustrate only too clearly. The Corporation has been happy in the past to stand by the decision of Eastenders to feature actor Leslie Grantham (a convicted murderer), for Hustle to star Ashley Walters (imprisoned in the past for firearms offences) and will regularly feature the work of Boy George, despite his conviction for falsely imprisoning a visitor to his New York flat. Not to mention one notoriously convicted drug dealer who hosted his own chat show for the channel. Nobody would seriously suggest that these men should carry a permanent bar on their work for mistakes they made in the past. Yet Dave Lee Travis it seems is different. And that is hypocritical and wrong.

Furthermore the BBC are happy to defend the right of convicted criminals to feature in documentary material should they deem it “editorially relevant”. Hence an attempted furore about the appearance of comment from Jonathan King (yes, him again) in a recent documentary about the rock group Genesis came to nothing. The BBC ignored the naysayers and he appeared in the programme speaking about his work with the group on their very first album, unedited and as planned.

Objections to this policy might carry less weight if we were talking about a throwaway show on a lightweight filler channel buried deep in the EPG. Yet the Top Of The Pops archive repeats are being aired on BBC4, a serious heavyweight channel dedicated to the appreciation of arts and drama and with an image that is deliberately highbrow. The audience for these 35 year old repeats do indeed appear to approach them accordingly, articles and blogs and social media feeds buzzing as each edition airs, the shows held up as a fascinating cultural and social snapshot and a tangible reflection of how the musical era would have been presented to a mainstream contemporary audience. Even the BBC themselves are aware of this, preceding each annual ‘series’ of shows with an in-depth documentary that tells the story of each year in music, notes the prevailing social and creative trends of the age and demonstrates how Top Of The Pops reflected them. For example the most recent “Story Of 1979” contained the personal recollections of noted broadcaster Trevor Nelson and his memories of watching The Police perform Roxanne – the first time he and his family had seen a a white man singing reggae and the validation of his culture that this represented to him. Yet this edition of the show remained unaired. We were denied the use of the primary source to put this very personal recollection in its proper historical context.

So the arbitrary skipping of episodes doesn’t simply mean we are denied the opportunity to see a particular Squeeze or Nolan Sisters performance. Entire pages of the story are being discarded for what seems to be no other reason than to avoid the tedium of having another moaning write-up on Page 7 of the Daily Mail. As a consequence events which have been noted elsewhere as significant moments in the development of popular music are not being shown in their proper context. For example, the Story Of 1979 documentary spends several minutes waxing lyrical about the notorious “2-Tone” edition of November 8th 1979 which saw Madness, The Specials and The Selecter all feature on the same night  – all the while glossing over the fact that this edition of the show will almost certainly not be aired this year or it seems any time soon, due to the presence of a certain Jimmy Savile OBE on hosting duties that day. We are left to assume that this edition did indeed hold the significance attached to it, without the chance to inspect the primary source for ourselves. History is purged accordingly.

The censorship has been branded Stalinist in some quarters, although Stalin’s casual approach to history often extended to writing himself into moments with which he wished to be associated. As the quote from 1984 at the top of this article suggests, the BBC’s approach to both its own broadcast history and that of the era of popular music which Top Of The Pops portrays is almost Orwellian in tone. Wiped clean to preserve the sensibilities of those whom the broadcasts are not even aimed. And it is only right that this is resisted. It is not the place of the BBC to decide how history is to be presented, whom it should portray and which version is the most acceptable for public consumption. It is an abdication of their own principles of impartiality and a very deeply felt insult to the intelligence of we – the licence fee payers – to whom they are supposed to be in service to.

Happily there are plenty of others who share my view, and a relentless series of complaints have already been submitted to the BBC’s audience unit as the opening gambit in persuading them to reverse this ill-advised policy of sanitisation. Inevitably so far those who have written have received little more than blandly worded stock answers, albeit ones which which state that they must “balance the views of all sections of [the] audience”. Queries as to just who the people are who have expressed a view that archive material aired on a minority specialist channel is unacceptable to them, or indeed why the views of those demanding censorship should take precedence over those who wish to see their history unaltered have yet to be addressed.

To be clear however, submitting an online complaint is just the first part of the process. The BBC has an obligation to be transparent and accountable to those who fund it and there are several means of escalating a complaint, right the way up to Trust level if required. I fully intend to pursue mine to the fullest extent possible. The BBC does not control the past, nor indeed does it have any business attempting to do so, and I want the BBC Trust to explain to my face and in words of one syllable the grounds on which they disagree.

My name is James and I’m an historian. We are the true custodians of the past. And it is time to start standing up for it.

Sep 02

And We’re Live!

2013 Resized for web

“So when do you plan to release the next book, James?” ran the most common question I was asked this year.

“As soon as I can, and hopefully earlier in the year than the one last year” was my reply. Well I almost made it, given or take a week or so. Anyway, after what were often some interminable delays and time-poor frustrations I’m pleased to reveal that the Top 40 Annual 2013 is now live on the Kindle store and should be live on your favourite alternative online book store in very short order.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is intended to be the comprehensive document of every single to have peaked inside the Top 40 during the course of the last calendar year. Artist by artist and song by song, the book will explain when a single started selling, how much and for how long it did so, and crucially where possible just why it was as popular as it was – or not as the case may be.

2013 was a fun year in so many ways. Major smash hits from Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, Calvin Harris’ endless singles from his album, Avicii selling millions and Naughty Boy stepping out of the shadow of just being Emeli Sande’s producer. Then there was the fun stuff: the Harlem Shake, Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble, What Does The Fox Say and OK, if you must, Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead. Each song is in the book and every one has a story to be told.

Don’t forget the 2012 edition of the book is still available to buy, just check out the BOOKS section of this site for more details – and without wanting to commit to deadlines that I have no chance of meeting, the first of a more historical set should be good to go within the next few months.

Aug 11

One Giant Leap

When I first became a chart nerd in the 1980s, there was one stat above all else which was committed to memory – the biggest ever climb to Number One. Since 1982 the record had been held by Happy Talk by Captain Sensible which leaped 33-1 in June that year (breaking the 14 year old record set by Hey Jude which moved 27-1), due to circumstances which I’ve curiously never seen documented anywhere. Even Alan Jones’ Chartfile column in Record Mirror at the time offered no explanation, instead taking time to note the amusement of Peter Compton, manager of the singles section in HMV Oxford Street at the time, that many of those buying the record were middle-aged and above and that he was having to resist the temptation to sell them records by The Damned when they asked if the nice young man singing the song had recorded anything else. Comments welcomed if any veteran music fans remembers just why the single behaved in such an unusual manner.

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It was a stat which flashed back into the minds of many people this week when Am I Wrong by Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz jumped 52-1 after initially becoming the first ever single to reach the Top 75 on streaming sales alone, and thus not selling a single purchased copy.

For a single to make such a large and unusual jump to the top there has to be a particular reason for it, and indeed when you examine the chart history of all the records to have made such spectacular climbs there is always a explanation for just what that happened. I mentioned in this weeks about.com column that Nico & Vinz are only the fifth act ever to achieve a chart climb of over 40 places to reach Number One, so it seemed appropriate the document the others and their own unique stories why. In chronological order then, these are the 21st century singles which did the ultimate – climbing from outside the Top 40 right to the very top of the charts.

2001: DJ Otzi – Hey Baby

Once upon a time the scourge of record labels wanting to carefully manage release dates and delay the arrival of guaranteed hit singles as long as possible was not the copycat cover version but the imported copy. Frustrated by being unable to match high levels of customer demand for the song they had heard on the radio or danced to on holiday with actual official product, the buyers of large chains such as HMV or Our Price would occasionally resort to taking matters into their own hands. Batches of singles from mainland Europe would be sourced and delivered to shops, commanding a price premium of course due to their rarity but still available for people to buy when they wanted to. Such singles were also free to register for the charts and at the turn of the century there were numerous examples of records featuring on the singles chart a week or so before their official release. Number One hits Blue by Eiffel 65 and It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy were cases in point, their imported copies reaching the Top 40 and giving a sneak preview of what was to come.

The singles chart at the time being a ranking of product and not songs registered these imported singles as unique items with catalogue numbers distinct from those of the planned official releases. Thus when the UK issues of the tracks were finally made available (often dragged forward in a panic lest the import sales cannibalised the all-important first week chart position) they were rather improbably listed as new entries, regardless of whether an identical single had been charting a week before. Two different issues, two different products and two different chart entries. That was the way it worked.

DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby was a different matter. Already a smash hit across Europe in the summer of 2001, it had spread to clubs and bars in Britain during August, creating an enormous level of demand for what was destined to become an evergreen party classic. Unusually it was a single already available in the British Isles, the single having been released in Ireland in mid-July, at which point it lodged itself at the top of the IRMA charts where it remained for six weeks. It was therefore hardly surprising that many of the imported copies that found their way into British stores during the course of August and September were actually sourced from surplus stock in the Republic. Significantly these copies carried the very same catalogue number which would be used by the official UK release of the track, an event which finally took place on September 10th 2001. So it was that after reaching Number 45 the previous week as an import, Hey Baby shot straight to Number One in a form which meant the singles chart did not discriminate between sales of the two versions. The result? A then record-breaking 44 place climb as the first single ever to jump to Number One from outside the Top 40.

2009: Pixie Lott – Boys And Girls

DJ Otzi’s record stood for a full eight years, even during a period when large climbs to the top of the charts became a regular occurrence thanks to the early years of the digital download market. When chart rules were changed to allow singles to chart on digital only sales a week ahead of the still-important physical release. It meant chart moves such as the 21-1 leap of Beyonce’s Deja-Vu, 23-1 for Welcome To The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, 35-1 for About You Now by The Sugababes and 38-1 for So What by Pink.

Pixie Lott’s second single on the other hand came after the physical era was all but over and singles were selling predominantly in digital form. Her extraordinary chart leap came thanks to a rather odd release pattern, and one which I’ve never been able to establish whether it was by accident or design. Scheduled for release on Sunday September 6th, a four track bundle of the single appeared on the iTunes store mid-afternoon the day before, quickly spotted by eagle-eyed fans and snapped up with some joy. Half a day of sales wasn’t much, but it was enough for the single to chart at Number 73. One week later the combination of digital and physical sales was enough to propel the single to the top of the charts, an incredible 72 place climb to utterly shatter the record. Five years later, not one single has ever come close to this extraordinary bit of singles chart shenanigans.

2010: David Guetta and Chris Willis – Gettin’ Over You

Virtually all of these stories of major chart leaps are essentially strange circumstances, with this single being no exception. First heard as a track on the first version of David Guetta’s One Love album, the song originally called Gettin’ Over was prepared for release as its second official single in a brand new version, adding vocals from both LMFAO and Fergie to those of original singer Chris Willis for the occasion. Despite the video and the pre-release airplay for the hit featuring the new Gettin’ Over You recording, keen purchasers still snapped up the original album version in the weeks preceding its release, resulting in the album cut charting at Number 41 in early June 2010. By now the singles chart was no longer about product, just the songs and as far as the chart database was concerned a new mix of a track (regardless of added vocals) simply inherited the chart run of the original version. The result was a 41-1 leap to the top of the charts for the Frenchman and collaborators as the third single in chart history to climb from outside the Top 40.

2011: Adele – Someone Like You

Just for a change though, the Adele track was nothing to do with remixes, imports or release leaks. Just a sudden explosion of public demand. Her legendary album 21 was released in late January 2011, a week after its first single Rolling In The Deep had charted at Number 2. Clearly one of the standout tracks from the album, the heartbreaking ballad Someone Like You had already arrived for a chart wander of its own, cherrypicked sales leading it to land at Number 36, climb three places the following week and then subsequently drop to Number 47. It was there it sat during the week of the 2011 Brit Awards, at which Adele would be one of the featured performers. With tears in his eyes even before she started, James Corden introduced the performance as something guaranteed to be special and in front of a spellbound auditorium Adele made the first public performance of the track by which she would always be defined. For those watching at home the effect was almost as stunning. Within hours of the ceremony airing on television the track had shot up the iTunes chart and continued to sell in huge numbers for the rest of the week. Maybe it was always planned to be a single anyway, but spontaneously and with a great deal of goodwill and love, Someone Like You shoulderbarged its way to the top of the singles chart, in the process registering a 47-1 climb, at the time the second biggest jump to Number One in chart history.

Which all naturally enough brings us to the present day and this week’s 52-1 jump by Nico & Vinz with Am I Wrong. Their leap is due to an entirely new set of circumstances, a single available for streaming several weeks ahead of its for-purchase release and under the brand new chart rules eligible to chart even on those terms. These are very early days and record labels are understandably cautious about making songs available to legally stream on demand before anyone can buy them – after all, will people really buy songs in such numbers if they have already played it to death in the weeks before? Inevitably where Nico & Vinz lead, others will follow and whilst the streaming market continues to lag behind that of the download one it is inevitable we will see more and more big hits start their chart life as low level streaming hits before exploding into life when fully released. We could be about to repeat the flurry of giant leaps last seen in 2006-8 and who knows, maybe more additions to the list of extra-Top 40 fliers.

Jul 31

33 1/3

The album is dead.

My collection. yesterday.Not my words (although it echoes what I have been saying for some time), but those of a growing number of people connected with the industry. Sales of the venerable format have been falling through the floor for some time, largely because consumers have now cottoned on to the fact that they can pick and choose their own collections of tracks, no longer required to purchase seven fillers for the three golden eggs amongst a singer’s repertoire that they actually want, and of course with the advent of streaming services now able to curate their own playlists to fit a mood or a style.

Like so many other things in the history of the music industry, the idea of the album as an artform in itself came largely as a result of technological advances. Before the invention of the modern “long playing” disc, music could only be distributed on 78rpm discs, each with a limited running time. To purchase an entire classical symphony it was necessary to buy a series of records, all bound together in individual sleeves – hence the expression “album”. Although the need for discs with longer running times was most keenly felt by the film and broadcast industries who needed a more convenient method of storing film soundtracks and pre-recorded programming, it was reportedly an executive at Colombia records who tired of getting up every ten minutes to change discs whilst appreciating a classical piece and so drove the research to find a consumer product which would fit an entire work across two sides. It is not entirely by coincidence that the first ever 12-inch LP record issued was a recording of a Mendelsson concerto in June 1948.

As any music historian will tell you, the elevation of the long playing album from a mere showcase to came in the mid-1960s and particularly later in the decade with the emergence of the concept album as an artistic statement. No longer an excuse to bundle together a collection of new songs and cover versions, the album was a work of art in itself, to be appreciated as a body of work as a whole. Just look how long it took Pink Floyd to agree to list their back catalogue online for digital download – the idea of people buying just single tracks bereft of their context was horrific to them.

The era of the compact disc may have caused that kind of preciousness to wobble, part of its marketing after all was the way tracks could be skipped and rearranged in personal programs at will, but it was also embraced by many acts to free themselves from the time strictures of the 12-inch vinyl record. CD albums emerged with more tracks than their vinyl or cassette equivalent, or indeed entire discs of extra material denied to the purchasers of alternate formats. Technology enhanced the album and it was embraced with enthusiasm.

Which brings us to the present day and music’s latest technological advances this time conspiring to consign the album apparently to history. I’d suggest though that this isn’t the whole of the story. Almost six years ago I was bemoaning the ever-growing habit of re-releasing already established albums in new extended or “Deluxe” special editions, usually to coincide with the Christmas holidays and the peak period for present buying. You can see a brief quote from me in this piece on the BBC website from November 2008 where I am bemoaning the trend as a rip-off of loyal fans whilst label representatives insist it is just their way of offering people a premium product at a special time of year. Even at the time I was fond of reminding people of the Gold Mother incident of 1991 when Fontana records reissued the James album they had first put out a year earlier with brand new tracks in the wake of their unexpected chart success with the single Sit Down. Today this would have been branded as “Version 2.0″ or a “Deluxe Edition” but back then it was seen as the decent thing to offer a new for old swap deal to anyone with a copy of the original release who now wanted to replace it.

But here is the thing. For a great many acts (particularly urban, dance and R&B) the ‘album’ is no longer a defined set of tracks whose sequence is set in stone from the day you unveil it. Your latest collection is now a set of songs which you can adjust, remix, add to and rework to your hearts content until you or your label decide the well has run dry. In an age when David Guetta can add almost an entire album’s worth of new songs to the set entitled Nothing But The Beat and call it “Version 2.0″ without anyone batting an eyelid or when Ed Sheeran can release as many as four different versions of his new collection, including a track on the physical edition which isn’t even available on the digital versions it is clear that the idea of a modern day album is meaningless. To put it another way, if in 20 years time you wanted to appraise Ellie Goulding’s second album and its status as one of the greatest of its era, which set of tracks would you judge? It is the initial Halcyon release from which its first singles came, or is it the expanded Haylcon Days which added an additional ten tracks to the collection? And who is to say which one is right or wrong?

I remember the first album I ever bought in the week of its release. Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys in October 1988. I slipped out of school on the Friday lunchtime to spend my pocket money on the cassette before carrying it home on the school bus, safe in the knowledge that I would spend the half term listening to it. Today’s teenagers simply sit up at midnight waiting for their pre-order of the latest track from their heart throbs to finally hit their digital devices on the day of release. They don’t need albums.

 

Jul 13

The Final Gang’s All Here

Having spent the past four weeks (and then some) in some kind of football-related bubble, on the evening of the 2014 World Cup final it seemed only appropriate to gather together those of us who have spent afternoons and evenings confined to the office broadcasting a seemingly endless amount of live football. Presenting then the talkSPORT World Cup Live production team. In all our hideous glory.

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