Liveblog: Christmas Number One 2017 (antepost)

November 24th, 12pm

Ed Sheeran just announced something significant.

Contacts within the industry had in the past few days passed on chatter that “something big” was planned in relation to his current hit single Perfect. Whilst its presence near the top end of the singles charts at present always made it a possible contender, it seemed a tough ask to expect it to climb to the top for Christmas. This is a track which has already peaked at Number 4 back in March when it was an album cut, was reactivated as a single two months ago and has spent three straight weeks locked at Number 6. It was going to need a hell of a kick to propel it close to the top of the charts.

Well, now it looks like it has one. The Official Charts Company are quoting an interview he has given to Channel 4 Radio in the UAE where he has revealed that next Friday (1st) will see the release of a new “remix” of the track. “It’s a really fucking big deal. And I’ll drop who I’m doing it with next Thursday. The vibe is that it’s a remix to Perfect. I’m just basically going to ‘Despacito’ Perfect.”

Best odds you could get on Perfect being Christmas Number One on Friday lunchtime were 5-1 at Ladbrokes. I’ve a feeling that won’t last. Sheeran’s just delivered a brand new reason for even those who are bored of a track which hasn’t been off the radio since the summer a new reason to buy and listen to it.

November 23rd, 7pm

I know, I know. It seems early. But it really is that time of year again. That one time when even the most long-lapsed pop music fans suddenly start to take a keen interest in what is at the top of the UK charts. When everyone is suddenly a self-professed expert on something they pay absolutely no attention to the vast majority of the time. It is time for everyone to speculate just what will be Number One in time for Christmas. This also is the only time of year you can place bets directly on the pop charts, the bookmakers are also hoping to profit from this speculation along the way.

Well here is the good news. Because I’m a self-professed expert who happens to pay attention to the charts all year round. So on these pages over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to steer you through the minefield of speculation. Hopefully documenting along the way the market changes as the sales position becomes clearer.

It seems prudent to point out that much of the speculation you may read elsewhere will be wrong. The continuing exponential growth of the online music streaming market over the past year has changed the way the market for music operates forever. Assumptions based on the way things used to work (release big single the week before, watch everyone download it, profit) will inevitably be wrong. Whilst this year has seen its fair share of singles make instant chart impacts and fly straight to the top of the charts, there have equally been plenty which have traced a graceful upwards path and then once established at Number One sit there for an extended period.

Last year should have given you a clue as to the extent that the old rules no longer apply. Last year’s favourites failed. The parade of specially released singles with either a charitable or mischevious aim had simply faded away to nothing in Christmas week. Instead, the Christmas Number One was a proper pop record, Rockabye by Clean Bandit. It was one which had actually begun its life at the top of the charts at the end of November. Nobody in the mainstream media predicted this. Those of us who backed it at 66-1 in early December did, however.

So welcome along to this liveblog. Over the next few weeks I’ll explain just why some of the earliest assumptions as to the destiny of this year’s prize are wrong, keep a close eye on the betting markets and note where the smart money is going, and as the next few weeks progress shill blatantly for the Chart Watch UK site which will have the week by week analysis of each new singles chart.

The 2017 Christmas Number One will be announced on Friday, December 22nd at 6pm. It will be based on sales and streams (mostly streams) tallied between Friday 15th and Thursday 21st. Which is bad news for one single which is the early favourite in the bookmakers’ markets.

Now We Are 25

For someone who celebrates his birthday with something approaching extreme reluctance, one which grows with every passing year, I seem to have spent a great deal of time celebrating my own anniversaries. Hence if you care to look deeply enough through the archives of this page, you will find the occasions when I noted the 15th anniversary of the weekly Chart Watch columns with a full account of how it all began (complete with a link to the Usenet post by longtime fanzine editor Bob Gajarsky which inspired the idea in the first place), along with the series of pieces I wrote to mark my 20th anniversary, which included dips into the archive of old posts for the very first time.

So here we are five more years down the line. This week marks 25 years since my first attempt to shed some light into the dark corners of the net. Explaining just why Simple Minds had an old hit from seven years earlier floating around the Top 10. Sky Sports, if you need to ask.

This time around I’ve no need to go into detail about origin stories. Instead, I get to note the climax of what has at times been a herculean effort. I’ve clicked New Item nearly 1300 times in a content management system to make available the full archive of every single column I’ve ever written. I’m sure most people reading this have seen it already, but it never hurts to plug these things once again. Head over to Chart Watch UK and enjoy some rather compelling bursts of nostalgia. Or discover that you have a brand new online timesink to waste time on. Your choice.

There’s a podcast due later this week to commemorate this. As well as an overdue brand new look for the whole site. Past anniversaries have seen me writing from the position of someone who was paid and commissioned to write. The online economy and changing landscape being what it is, that is no longer the case. What Chart Watch remains is a genuine labour of love. One which I don’t even pepper with adverts in a faint effort to bring in money from it. The only revenue comes from sales of the associated books and the odd hardy soul who clicks on the donation button on the right-hand side.

But on that basis, it means the reason I do this remains the same as it was back in November 1992. It was clear the internet had the power to collate the sum total of human knowledge. On that basis, I wanted to find a way to contribute. In an era when everyone shares, but few have the urge to create, this is my contribution to the online world. I am able to spend a part of each week communicating about the things I am passionate about. All thanks to the power of the internet. And I’ve now done so for 25 years.

No More Silent Voices

As the decade turned, as 1989 begat 1990, so the most innovative sounds of the previous year began to inspire others. Chief amongst these was what became known as the “Soul II Soul” shuffle, the languid beats and laid back tone which had defined the early work of Jazzi B’s chart-topping group and which had become one of the defining sounds of that summer. If you were making a club record at the end of the 1980s and Italia House wasn’t your thing, you were unashamedly plugged into the Shuffle and reaping the rewards.

Such was the influence of the groove that by the spring of 1990 the dance pages of Record Mirror were noting with wry amusement that the overall effect had been to slow the average bpm (beats per minute) of the nation’s dancefloors virtually to a crawl. Hi tempo, hi energy was for the moment out the door. Clubbers wanted to do nothing more than sway.

Riding this wave, in particular, were four-piece Innocence. The production trio of Anna Jolley, Brian Harris and Mark Jolley had made waves individually with the odd remix over the preceding 2-3 years but hit commercial paydirt of their own with the recruitment of singer Gee Morris and the creation of an elegant new concept. Innocence were at the forefront of what would become the chill-out, their tracks an alluring mix of Balearic beats, ambient soundscapes and the crystal clear tones of Morris. Soul music you could dance to, fall asleep to and fall in love with all at the same time. Cooltempo Records snapped them up in an instant.

The first Innocence single was a critical sensation. In its full version Natural Thing ran almost ten minutes long, the main body of the song (with its “coming on, keep coming on” refrain) all but vanishing after three minutes. Instead it gave way to an extended ambient breakdown which cheekily mixed in what was almost the entirety of Dave Gilmour’s guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The fact that this never attracted any legal issue suggested either that the group had full permission to do or that the star tacitly approved of the work. The concept was taken a stage further with the No One Gets Out Of Here Alive mix which stirred in elements of Riders On The Storm by The Doors. A full blown cover of the song would later appear on international editions of the group’s debut album.

Natural Thing was one of the more rapturously greeted club hits of the first few months of 1990, its destiny was to end up Innocence’s highest charting single when it peaked at Number 16 in late March, its reputation and regard possibly outstripping its overall commercial performance.

Following this early success, however, subsequent singles from the group’s debut album Belief struggled to match even that mid-table peak. Silent Voice barely scraped the Top 40 in the summer and Let’s Push It barely improved on that with a visit to the Top 30 in the autumn.

Yet it is their fourth single which concerns us here. Despite being lavished with the kind of attention which suggested it was being pitched as a major seasonal smash hit, it barely tickled the charts at all.

The tale of heartbreak A Matter Of Fact was not at first listen one of the standout tracks from the debut Innocence release. Following on from the full ten minute version of Natural Thing on the tracklisting, it in its original form it was a sparsely produced track. Beats, bass and voice. This gave it a haunting and elegant simplicity. The song was one of the more unabashedly ambient cuts from the album and as far removed from a pop hit as you could imagine. Hence a transformation for single release. A Matter Of Fact had several gallons of fairy dust sprinkled on it – more beats, a melancholy piano riff and perhaps most crucially of all a full string arrangement. The chilled-out cut was now an epic soulful pop masterpiece. More than anything they had released before, this was surely destined for the Top 10.

The timing of its release as a single was no coincidence. It appeared in the shops at the end of November. This was Innocence’s pitch for a Christmas time smash and a much needed boost for the album which by that time had sunk out of sight. Yet to widespread shock it just didn’t work. Charting just outside the Top 40 in its first week on release, the newly enhanced A Matter Of Fact simply refused to take off. Over the next few weeks it would move 46-37-38-39 before dropping out of the Top 40 by Christmas. Perhaps a Top Of The Pops appearance would have helped to propel the single further into public consciousness but the failure of the single to move up, as opposed to down, the charts put paid to that idea.

So the song remains something of a lost classic. I bought the single anyway, and to hear it again transports me back to the tinsel-clad sixth form common room and my starring role in the Christmas revue that year. Back to memories of my parents’ house being a building site, and of failing to land Christmas kisses with the girl who first screamed across the common room how much she loved the song.

The Innocence project was good for one more album, their second album Build spawning two more minor Top 40 hits in 1992, but none had quite the impact or indeed the cultural significance of anything on their debut. Singer Gee would later attempt a solo career, her only album landing to little attention in 1994.

Backtiming Back In Time

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Radio studios are quite glamorous places to earn a living, all things considered. If you are even halfway technically minded, there is something quite thrilling about your working environment being a LED-drenched palace of glowing buttons, dancing meters and multiple busy viewscreens. Clocks tick away, dials move, and people sit there with their faces gently illuminated by some very expensive technology.

A studio, yesterday

That said, I also like to consider myself lucky that my career began in the mid-1990s during the crossover from an entirely different era. A more earthy, direct, analogue era where things were magnetic, plastic rather than solid state and had plenty of moving parts to go wrong. Because just like driving a stick shift car as opposed to an automatic, where you somehow feel much closer to the engine and at one with your vehicle, back then it was far more of an art to create things live rather than just pushing a button and waiting for the computer to do all the work.

This is particularly resonant when I sit and play out pre-recorded shows (all on a computer these days naturally). Because my first ever job in radio was to deal with a weekly recorded programme back in the analogue era. Along with all the heavy lifting that entailed.

Dees Sleaze

It is a shame I never kept one of the old rotas which listed me as being in charge of “taking Rick Dees” which was certainly not as violent as it may sound at first glance. This was preparing for the weekly Saturday night broadcast of the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40, an American chart show which was syndicated around the world from Los Angeles where it was produced, and which was taken by a handful of British stations in the UK.

As I would only learn in later years, what we broadcast was a heavily condensed version of what at source was a four-hour marathon, shipped to broadcasting stations on a bundle of CDs which contained both the full produced show and the dry elements should they want to stitch it together themselves. Somewhere in the bowels of Metro Radio in Newcastle, it was the job of a producer to take this show and wrestle it together for British consumption. And perhaps most importantly reduce it to three hours and ensure the countdown all still made sense. Once this task was complete, the show was dubbed onto reels of tape and couriered to the offices of Satellite Media Services for onward distribution.

Until the late 1990s SMS had an effective monopoly on audio distribution to the UK radio industry. Everything, from news bulletins through to adverts and networked shows, came via their studios and over the dedicated satellite link that connected stations had installed. Every Thursday at midday their stereo “Programmes Channel” would carry the weekly feed of Rick Dees to the network, and it was my job to be in place in the studio at that time to effect the recording.

Because yes, we were only set up to do this by hand. I’d haul the huge 12-inch reels of tape (three in total – one for each hour) out of the drawer where they were kept and lug them into the off-air studio. The first would be carefully laced up onto the reel to reel player which occupied more than its fair share of studio space, ready for the feed to begin. A couple of minutes before the hour the SMS channel would broadcast a tone, against which I’d set the studio levels and a portion of which I’d record onto the start of the tape for reference before waiting for the clock to tick around.

Midday on the dot, the feed of the show would begin. I’d hit record, watch the spools gently turn (7.5 inches per second speed) and then basically sit there for the next 45 minutes and hope nothing would jam. I’d eat lunch, or pop next door into the on-air studio to chat to the presenter and generally try to look busy. Once the hour had finished it was time to hit stop, rewind the tape and lace up the next one ready for the next hour.

The feed of the third hour would also end with the weekly programme trail in which Rick himself would extol the virtues of whatever special guests he would feature. I’d have to hope that the SMS engineers would leave the tape at their end running long enough for there to be enough music at the end to allow me to edit in one of the “Saturday night – only on The Pulse!” lines that Dees had recorded years before. I’d record this trail onto a handy Sonifex cart and deliver it to the racks in the on-air studio before stowing the tapes back in the drawer in the office ready for the weekend.

Just Can’t Wait ‘Til Saturday

That was really only part of the fun. It wasn’t generally my job, but sometimes I’d be invited to cover the Saturday evening shift. A large part of which involved actually broadcasting my carefully recorded show. And this was a whole new part of the operation.

One of the first things I was ever taught to do as a “professional” broadcaster was to successfully back time the recorded show. If you owned a calculator which did hours, minutes and seconds – great! If like me, you were a poor recent graduate, you just had to do it all by hand.

Each hour of the programme had to finish on time to take the national news (for reasons which will become apparent). How you managed that was often the result of some on the fly creativity and what would hopefully be a happy coincidence between the length of each hour of the show (which differed week by week) and the number of adverts and trails that were scheduled. So for each hour of the show, you would carefully count back from the top of the hour… take off 12 seconds for the news jingle, 90 seconds for the last break, 12 minutes for Part 4 of the show etc. to eventually arrive at the ideal start time for each third of the programme.

Hour 1 was always straightforward, as there was no need to take the news at the start. You knew when the previous live show needed to finish, what time to start the final ad break and when the top of the hour “Legal ID” would play to start the Weekly Top 40 on time. You would press Play on the carefully laced up and cued up tape, stopping it every 10 minutes to play the ad break, during the course of which you would manually cue up the next band of the programme. If all went well and you hadn’t messed up the calculations, the tape would end a little over 90 seconds before the top of the hour and the final ad break would play.

Then the fun would begin because the next few minutes were a genuine race against the clock. Stopping the tape and hitting ‘rewind’ and watching the spools spin round at speed. You knew you had until the end of the news bulletin to rewind the tape, lift it off the machine, locate the tape for the second hour, lace it up (under this pin, over that one, past the heads and onto the take-up spool) and cue the first part of the next hour, all before the two minute IRN bulletin had finished. And that, my friends, is why you always had the news during these taped shows on a Saturday night. Because that was your window to swap the tapes over.

This is where the back times (as they were called) never quite worked. Because the start of Hours 2 and 3 was fixed in time at 2 minutes past the hour. And if your total running time of programmes and commercials didn’t come to 58 minutes you had to get creative. Of all the lessons I learned during the first weeks of my career, this was the most important. How to get Rick Dees back running to time.

If you were under that was easy. You could insert another programme trail into proceedings, or if it was just 10-15 seconds or so which needed to be accounted for, be relaxed about how tight the broadcast was. Let a second elapse between adverts, be slow off the mark starting the show back up after the station jingle. Straightforward. More often, however, you were over time. Without adjustments, the programme would crash through the next news bulletin.

Fixing this was actually easier than it sounded. As long as the show had not been produced with a lengthy spoken link at the end of each part, it was possible to just fade it out early mid-song. 45 seconds over time? Not an issue, have a station jingle standing by (or better yet a whispered ID) and use it to mask your fade out and cut to the ads. In one move you were now running to time (and could relax a bit) and the audience was none the wiser. Ideally you’d do this at the end of Part 1 and be back on schedule as soon as possible. But sometimes the last song would end too soon and Rick would spend the last two minutes of the part being wacky or doing something that Steve Wright would copy six months later. So you would move on to Part 2 and attempt the same again, praying that this time it would work. Because if you were still behind by the time Part 3 began you could be forgiven for getting nervous.

Hence my manual gearbox comparison above. None of this was rocket science really, and once you’d learned the tricks of the trade it was like riding a bike, but it somehow felt like real broadcasting. You were in hands-on control, your timing skills the difference between the station sounding superb and missing the start of the news. Or worse still, having to yank the show off air mid-link. And I was lucky enough to start my career learning how to do this. Because in the old analogue world you had to. This was how you made radio.

These days I line up a recorded radio show by dragging and dropping files into a computerized schedule. A piece of software shows me how long it will run, at a glance how many seconds I am over or under and if needed will time stretch things on the fly to make it all fit. It is liberating, slick and has fewer moving parts to go wrong. But for those new to the industry, it is all they will ever know. They will thrill at the sight of flat screens, glowing buttons and computer programmes with exotic names like Myriad, Zetta or Burli. But they will never know the adrenaline rush and blind panic of realising you’ve laced the tape up with a kink in it, 30 seconds before IRN is due to finish.

Radio Rewind ’98

My on-air radio career is, let’s be honest now, a vanishingly long time in the past which is why I rarely hark back to it these days. What doesn’t help is that I have vanishingly few good examples of it, most of the tapes I have dating from a period when I was frantic about where my career was going and with a note of panic sounding in my voice.

Hence it was a nice bonus to the other day stumble across a tape from a period when I was sounding happy, confident and above all something approaching good. Havin digitised it, it seemed a shame not to share, not just for the benefit of those friends who begged to hear it but the world in general. If only as an example of how local radio sounded almost 20 years ago.

Here then is 100 minutes or so of an off-air recording of a show I presented on a Saturday afternoon in October 1998. When listening to it the following should be borne in mind:

  1. It was a football results show, so precious little room for many so-called personality links. But this does also date from a period when in my one claim to fame this was the most-listened to show in the area on a Saturday afternoon. I was literally Number One in the ratings.
  2. My style was very much of its time, and a reflection on that of the people I had worked with and learned from. The cheery and sometimes strident tone I’d adopted is far from what would work on air now, when the emphasis is on being slightly calmer and more friendly.
  3. I’ve left in one particular link that makes me cringe to hear it now, but again it was very much a part of the whole notion of “share something of yourself with each broadcast”.

You can hear the show in two versions:

First, a telescoped version featuring just the links. 17 minutes or so of non-stop me, you lucky people.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Or alternatively, here is the full uncut tape. Music, adverts and Masterton all combined. Hope you enjoy. You’re on The Pulse.

The Great 2017 Chart Shake Up

So now it can be revealed. Rumours have swirled, talk has circulated and speculation has mounted. At least if you knew where to look. The Official UK Singles chart is to get a tweak to the rules used in its compilation. It is a change that will send certain purists into a frenzy, and have others nodding in agreement that it all makes sense. And will probably baffle many members of the general public when they need to have it explained to them.

So let me here try to explain how and perhaps most importantly of all why.

The singles chart matters. Far more than many people outside the music industry realise. It is the driver of radio programming, TV production, the promotion of albums and much, much more than I can articulate here. So when it stops working it creates enormous problems for everyone.

Those problems should be fairly obvious to most watching, even if I’ve been one of those stridently insisting that we should wait and see how things shake out. Because those with more influence and less patience than I have called for them to be fixed. They are:

  • The slowing down of the singles market. The charts ‘clogged up’ with long-running popular hits that have entered a slow burn decline as streams. Great for longevity records. Hard work for those trying to break new music.
  • The single artist dominations. Ed Sheeran’s 9 out of 10 in the Top 10 may have been a genuine freak one-off, but with artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamarr and Stormzy demonstrating that their fans will consume new product en-masse and once again clog up the singles chart, it has now become necessary to mitigate the problem.

So as of next week (for the singles chart published on Friday, July 7th) two crucial new rules will apply:

Three Is Tops

This was the one that everyone seemed to know about in advance. The three-track cap as it will be known. No more than the three most popular tracks (based on sales and streams) by any one lead artist will be permitted to feature in the Top 100. This will raise hackles, the first time in over 10 years that there has been any kind of forced removal rule in effect, disqualifying certain tracks altogether.

The logic here is straightforward. It will prevent album tracks from popular artists taking up multiple positions in the singles chart, and thus barging potential hits from other, less insanely popular acts, out of the way. It will also address a common criticism I’ve seen of the present rules, that a stream of a track will essentially be double-counted – adding both to the singles chart position of the track and contributing to the total streams attributed to an album. The streams of the two most popular tracks on an album will continue to be downplayed by the album chart compilation process and whilst this remains for the moment an imperfect mix, you can be at least reassured that streaming a random album track will only register that track for the album.

There are two important points to note here. This doesn’t restrict artists or labels from releasing more than three singles from an album. Just that they cannot have them charting all at once. And if Hit 1 has burned out and fallen away, then Hit 4 is free to join 2 and 3 in the upper reaches. Plus it does not rule out acts still managing more than 3 hits at a time. If someone does a Justin Bieber and is the featured guest on multiple singles by other people, they will all chart at once. There is still no restriction here.

Downplay The Long Tail

Prior to 2007 the ‘official’ bit of the singles chart only went down to Number 75. Below that point, there was a ‘starring-out’ rule in place. Omitting older hits which were in steep decline from the rankings to thus benefit newer releases and other upwardly mobile arrivals. We aren’t about to go back to those days, but the growing presence of the long tail of streaming, the fact that the singles chart now registers long-term engagement as much as it does discovery means there has to be an elegant way of moving ‘legacy’ hits out of the way.

So this is how it will work. A new streaming ratio will be introduced for hits that are in steep, prolonged decline.

Once a track is at least 10 weeks old, AND has registered 3 consecutive weeks of chart sales decline then its streams switch to a 300:1 ratio as opposed to the 150:1 of others. This will punish long-running hits such as One Dance or even Castle On The Hill, moving them gently out of the way following the peak of their commercial appeal but whilst some die-hards still insist on listening to them over and over again.

I’m told from test charts that this effect will be subtle but significant. We won’t see tracks vanish abruptly from the Top 20 as they did back in the “curate’s egg” days of 2006. Instead older singles should actually behave like they did in the old days when they were reliant on shops continuing to stock them. They will reach a low point and then start to sink fast. And once again clear the path for fresher, newer material. Just to keep everything vibrant.

Irk The Purists

Any rule changes of this nature, particularly ones which change the very fundamentals of singles qualification tend to attract an instantly negative response from a small core of music fans. It is meddling, they say. Messing with what used to be the simple purity of a chart which tracked what people bought without favour or bias.

Yet the UK charts have for decades been beholden to rules, and ones which are revised and updated as circumstances require. It seems to jar now because we spent over seven years from 2007 with precious little change and only minor tweaks to admit songs that might have fallen down the cracks. But behind it all is a strict structure of rules, regulations, strictures and eligibility criteria. Most of which arrived into being with the aim of fixing a problem which was threatening to undermine the credibility of the survey.

Really what has been announced today is no different. And on the face of it the impact will be less radical than it might at first appear. The second half of the year should, however, start to see a singles chart that becomes just that bit more vibrant, just a shade more interesting week in week out and in the process the perfect platform for the next exciting new trend in British music to emerge.

You cannot innovate or contend by standing still. The Billboard Hot 100, the gold standard of music charts and one of the most powerful brands in the world, has since 1958 been an odd hybrid of sales metrics, data sources and ever-changing rules. It adapts, evolves and adjusts according to trends in the market and to embrace new formats and technology. To suggest the Official UK Charts should not follow suit would be to invite Britain to stagnate in comparison.

I see the stats for myself. When major chart news breaks the interest in goes through the roof. When little happens only the hardcore come along to take a look. And as a lover of pop music, a passionate fan of the pop charts and as writer who loves a story no matter what the source, I want as many people as possible to come along for the ride.

When You Touch Me Like This

Bat Out Of Hell - The MusicalTo the always magnificent surroundings of the London Coliseum to see what has (with good reason) been hailed as one of the theatrical events of the summer. The traditional home of the English National Opera, it presently plays host to the ultimate in rock operas – the West End premiere of Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical.

Now I stress I’m no theatre critic, and I have friends who run their own theatre blogs who are far better at this than I, so I cannot sit here and offer an expert critique of the staging, plotting or set design. And what I’m about to write will show that I’m far from impartial where the subject matter is concerned. So I cannot offer an expert review.

Every music fan has their core act. The one whose work you know backwards. The one whose work you will collect obsessively, knowing that life will be incomplete without the complete set. And you’ve probably purchased it several times over on multiple formats. Well for me that act is the writer/producer and sometime reluctant performer Jim Steinman. I can recite lyrics, know the release dates of the songs and even to a certain extent name the musicians playing on the records he produces and just who is singing backing vocals where. I can get lost for hours in the poetry of his lyrics and like no other songwriter he speaks to the depths of my soul and peels back emotions I never knew I had buried. These are songs, productions, performances that are guaranteed to make my heart fly and to transport me in an instant into the near-mythical world they inhabit.

So I struggle to begin to explain how it felt to sit in a theatre to watch a musical production of all of his most famous songs bundled together for the very first time. Finally telling a coherent tale of everlasting teenage passion in a dystopian future. These were songs I fell in love with at the age of 16 and then spent the rest of my life falling in love to. In my head they had always played out on a grand stage, one filled with performers and chorus lines. And now it was all happening for real. I was transfixed from the very first bars. Because this was something that was at once very special to me.

By the end of Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire) I realised I was crying. I’ve never sat in a theatre with tears of joy running down my face before. But that is what happened to me.  I was in the middle of what was surely a deep and everlasting emotional experience.

In countless interviews, Jim Steinman had long spoken of how songs from Bat Out Of Hell and associated projects were always parts of a musical story he was never able to stage. So they became mini-concept albums instead. Peter Pan on motorcycles, all set in an age where you are 18 forever and love and lust never grow old. And finally, this has happened. A large part of the joy was hearing songs that had always seemed like fragments of a story you never heard the start of, suddenly slot into place and become a core part of the plot. Never before had it been explained who the protagonist in the song Bat Out Of Hell was with and just who they were running from. And we finally get to find out.

The Peter Pan references are writ large across the plot. The Lost (boys), we are told, never grow up. Lacking a mother to look after them. There’s even a jealous and ultimately tragic character called Tink.

There were other lovely subtle touches too. The constant tease as the lead character Strat is constantly frustrated that nobody knows the correct response to “on a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses”, the fun thrill when Raven finally does so, only for the pair to be interrupted, leading the audience on the night I was there to erupt into laughter. But when You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth is finally delivered it is inevitably a treat. The casting of Andrew Polec as Strat is also an inspired choice, the singer and actor has perfected the exact New York drawl that Jim Steinman himself uses. So he gets to deliver the famous Love And Death And An American Guitar monologue which opens the show in the exact same voice as used on the records, and throughout the show, you find yourself almost believing the writer and composer is there on the stage himself.

In a summer where my life seems to be filled with emotionally transformative and moving experiences, this was up there with the greatest one of them all. And of course, modern technology means that on the train home you can connect with the cast directly and tell them just what it meant to you.


The musical is on for a strictly limited run before it moves abroad. But if you happen to be in London before July, trade a body part for a ticket. I truly can offer it no greater praise.


Everything Stops At Four O’Clock

knobs radio clockThe last time I wrote about radio and the art of performing it in any kind of detail, it turned out to be one of the more popular pieces on this site for some time. I was quoted in newsletters, contacted by some big names and even invited onto Radio 4 to discuss it (an invitation I had to decline due to half term holidays getting in the way, alas). All because I saw nothing wrong with presenters on a quasi-national network being given a style guide.

Radio you see is actually quite hard. To do it well at least. It is all too easy to imagine that any idiot can sit down in front of a microphone with a few records and introduce them. But if you haven’t prepared properly or even learned the best way to do it, that is precisely how you sound. An idiot.

In an age when developing a career from the ground up is old hat, or when being a celebrity name in other walks of life is the best qualification for a high-profile radio slot you can always tell the ones who have been thrown in with little or no advanced guidance. They are the ones who commit the cardinal sin of ceasing to speak like human beings but instead say the kinds of things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say. Telling the time seems a particular challenge for nascent broadcasters. Because to hand someone a microphone and an audience and is apparently to make it impossible for them to stop themselves from descending into cheery cheese mode and start saying dated rubbish like “twelve minutes to the hour of one o’clock”.

The first man ever to give me any kind of coaching in the art of radio was a man called Kenni James who was particularly keen on the correct way to tell the time. Even once people had moved past the urge to be Noel Edmonds circa 1976, the temptation to read the time straight off the studio clock was also to be resisted. “Three fourty-eight?” he mocked, “Who actually speaks like that in real life? You look at the clock and go ‘ooh, almost ten to four’. Just speak like a normal person”.

Time (as in the passing of years) has moved on since but the lesson still holds true. And there is one other strange verbal crutch which for some reason always raises my hackles when I hear radio presenters doing it. Now I’m about to call attention to it, you will notice it as well:

“This is me, Tommy Trebleknob, with you through ’til six”.

I’ve genuinely heard presenters do that as their opening link of a four-hour show. Telling people how long it is before they knock off.

So why is this bad? Well for a start, it introduces a stop point for the audience. Creating for them a reason to cease listening and go off and do something else. In radio, commercial radio, in particular, that is a huge no-no. Forget the ego for a moment, no matter how good you think you are or how much of an appointment to listen you dream of being, precious few people are tuning in specifically for you. Your “show” as it were is merely one part of a large and lovingly constructed schedule. Your only thought should be persuading people to consume as much of it as possible, to appreciate not only your hard work but those of your colleagues. Plus you are also there to give value for money to the advertisers whose money is paying your daily fee and who want as many people as possible to hear their message. So don’t tell people when they should be turning off. Tell them why they should be sticking around all day long and into the night if possible.

Why do presenters do it? Well, once again it is one of those things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say without ever considering why. It is a sign of someone who in their head is “on the radio” rather than “communicating with the audience”. At the end of the day, it comes down to one simple point. Nobody cares what time you finish work for the day. So why beat them around the head with it?

Sheeran, Drake et al – How They Rescued The Album

The argument appears to have been raging for close to two months now and shows little sign of dying down any time soon. The ability of entire albums to sweep en-masse into the singles chart was thrust to the fore of the news by the near-total domination of the Top 10 achieved by Ed Sheran’s Divide album back in March. It has prompted an extended debate as to whether things are now “broken” regarding the way charts are compiled, and the popularity of songs is measured. From my point of view it has resulted in the most-read Chart Watch piece since I migrated the column to its own site almost a year ago, and this previous posting where I refuted suggestions made by the BBC as to how things might be “fixed”.

However, for a few weeks now I’ve become convinced that there is one thing that is indeed broken. What Ed Sheeran (and other streaming Kings such as Drake and The Weeknd) have actually done is rescued the album from near-oblivion. And that was actually the last thing that anyone expected to happen.

The idea of the album as a complete body of work, as opposed to a random collection of songs assembled for convenience, only truly dates back from the late-1960s with the invention by the likes of The Moody Blues and The Beatles of the ‘concept album’ with all tracks being bound by a single theme or narrative. By the 1970s the LP was seen by some acts as an artform in itself, elevated above the level of the mere pop record and the mark which distinguished the average performers from the truly great. Rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd released famous bodies of work and by and large declined to lower themselves by promoting them with single cuts. You didn’t cut pieces from your masterpiece, the argument went, you sat back and appreciated it as a whole. And people cheerfully bought into that idea. If nothing else, the technology of the time meant that the only ‘proper’ way to listen to a long playing record was to put the needle at the start and let it run until the end. Anything else was too much of a faff and involved getting out of your seat to move the needle along. So why bother?

The slow death of this concept actually came far earlier than anyone realised, with the invention and subsequent adoption by the mass market of the Compact Disc player. For the first time music was available by random access. As much as the marketing of the early players focused on the crystal-clear sound of the reproduction (so good you could hear the singer breathing), the system was also sold on the idea you could program or even randomise the available tracks. I remember as a teenager visiting friends whose parents had indulged them with hi-fi systems that played the wondrous silver discs in order to hear the latest album by our favourite groups. This would normally consist of programming in tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 on the basis that “you don’t need to hear the rest, they are a bit rubbish”. People had started to enthusiastically cherrypick the killer cuts from a long playing record. It was just that nobody really noticed – you still had to buy the complete disc regardless of how much of it you wanted to hear.

Hence when the digital era arrived, the iTunes store and the concept that every individual track was effectively a ‘single’ you could buy was less of a revolution than it might have first appeared. In 2007 when the gloves finally came off, and any track was free to chart, I and many other chart-watchers were anticipating mass invasions of the singles chart by the complete set of tracks from the biggest names in pop. Except it never really happened that way. What we saw instead was a savvy music buying audience homing in on the most popular tracks from an album and cherry-picking those ones alone. Two or three, or at the most four, tracks from a hot new long playing collection would make brief chart appearances before fading away to perhaps await the day they were properly elevated to ‘singles’.

It was this break-up of albums into their constituent parts which not only frustrated the veterans (Pink Floyd albums were notoriously slow in appearing online, Roger Waters refusing to countenance Apple’s wish that tracks could be purchased individually and insisted that his masterpieces were designed to be appreciated as a whole) but also the music industry as a whole. While singles buyers enthusiastically embraced this new musical form, album purchases remained stubbornly locked to their physical past – a market that was slowly but steadily dying. Many attempts were made to fix this problem and migrate people to the idea of purchasing full albums digitally, whether it was the iTunes “complete this album” button which allowed you to snap up the rest of a collection you had partially bought for a discount, or the “instant grat” tactic whereby a pre-release purchase of a big name album allowed you immediate access to one or more of its tracks.

None were particularly effective, and the near-calamitous collapse of the album market over the past few years can be directly attributed to the decline of the physical-buying audience who simply were not replaced in sufficient numbers by those who wanted complete digital sets.

It seemed safe to assume that this trend would continue, that (freaks of nature like Adele aside) the album was largely dead and the future lay in the cumulative sales and streams of particular tracks. When the Official Charts Company made the move to fold streaming data into the albums chart they rejected counting plays of entire albums, or certain percentages thereof, in favour of counting the total listens for individual tracks from a set, weighting down the biggest singles and adding them in on a 1:1000 ratio. It was a way of continuing to measure the overall popularity of artist collections in an age when all the evidence was that nobody actually listened to albums any more. This is why there was no need to put in place any kind of rule to stop entire albums swamping the singles chart – because let’s face it how likely was it that this would ever happen?

Except that of late, we’ve seen a significant social change. For far too long, appreciation of recorded music has been a solitary activity. We’ve all become used to vanishing into our own musical world via a pair of earphones and a portable player. Your musical choice was nobody’s business – unless perhaps you were 13 years old and riding on the back seat of a bus. Yet slowly but surely music has become a collective activity again. All thanks to social media. Twitter and Facebook mean we can band together with like-minded individuals, congregate on a hashtag and enjoy the shared experience of the appreciation of a work of art. “Second screening” started with television fans and has now spread enthusiastically to music lovers.

Gathering for an online listening party is now the done thing in the wake of a big name release. Fans will co-ordinate their efforts to listen to the work of their idols track by track, commenting and interacting along the way. Radio has picked up on this too. Once upon a time, a major album release by a priority act might be marked by Radio 1 making it a weekly feature and sprinkling tracks from it across dayparts. Now they will devote entire programmes to their own listening parties, playing a release in full, one song at a time. For the first time since the 1970s people aren’t skipping, randomising or programming. They are listening. Albums have become an important part of the narrative again.

That then is why Ed Sheeran, and to a lesser extent acts such as The Weeknd and Drake managed to “break” the singles chart. Because their fans played the new music in full, en masse, and repeatedly over a short period of time. There was little discrimination. Every track was effectively just as popular as the next, and in they shot to the singles chart side by side with each other. It isn’t the charts that are broken, just that the public have started to behave in ways that were never anticipated.

Don’t panic. I’ve not quite come over to the dark side and believe in making rule changes to stop this. This tendency for new releases to create floods is also a consequence of what is still an immature streaming market, one which is still effectively dominated by the early adopters – and in particular those newly-minded music fans who have never bought a record in their lives and probably never will.  Those who have embraced this new means of consumption are overwhelmingly young and their tastes lean almost entirely towards acts of a more urban nature. Because nobody else is doing this in such numbers, they have the ability to swamp the market when they put their minds to it. Or when there is an exciting new release to hashtag listening party. As the market grows and matures and listeners with more diverse tastes arrive online and start to bend the charts to their will, the ability of one act or sound to completely dominate will be greatly diminished, simply because the weight of numbers are against them.

For now, however, we are in what should be a brief period where things do indeed appear to be broken. At least I assume it will be brief. As reports of the premature death of the album have proved, even the smallest of assumptions can be a very dangerous thing.

Sheeran: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

If you are reading this post around the same time it is published, in the middle of March 2017, you will scarcely require the topic of this post explaining. Ever since Ed Sheeran released his album Divide and duly planted all 16 of its tracks inside the Top 20 (9 of them in the Top 10) the media coverage has been enormous. Although not always on the positive side. To read some of the articles which have been printed in the press, or to hear features on some radio stations, you would think that an artist landing a large amount of very big hits all at once was akin to the end of days, a civilisation-cracking event. Or at the very least proving that the pop charts in this country are broken.

Last night I posted a new podcast dealing with this issue and put forward a theory I developed whilst talking to friends over the past few days. I’ve been studying and writing about the British charts for virtually the whole of my adult life, but I do so for the benefit of what is inevitably a transient audience. Everyone has a certain period in their life when pop music matters a great deal, when the study of the charts week by week is what defines your life and gives your memories the accompanying musical snapshot. But for most that lasts just 2-3 years and you move on, the charts now something to glance at occasionally and marvel at the “rubbish the kids are listening to” whilst safe in the knowledge it was better in your day.

The consequence of that is that virtually all of us have connected to them in some way and have an internal view on the way things should look and how they should behave, regardless of which particular era this happens to be in. This week we have a situation where an artist has done something so totally without precedent that it violates everyone’s internalised view. Hence the large numbers of people expressing unhappiness and hence my amused reaction of noting the number of people with only a passing interest in pop music who nonetheless have very strident views on the singles chart and how it should be constructed.

Some opinion pieces have taken the argument further and explored ways things can be “fixed” to stop evil bastards like Ed Sheeran in their tracks. One such piece which caught my eye this week was on the BBC’s own entertainment news website, penned by their main entertainment guru Mark Savage. BBC news items don’t allow for direct comment, but it seemed appropriate to present here my own rebuttal of all the main points in Mark Savage’s Five Ways The Singles Chart Can Be Fixed.

Redefine What A Single Is

The problem, so the argument goes, is that there is no dividing line any more, no restriction on what counts as a ‘single’. So any old album track can invade the charts. Therefore there should be some rule in place to ensure only specific tracks by an artist which qualify can register on the singles chart.

But that would be pretty much unworkable. How do you do this? I’ve seen it suggested that chart places are reserved for only the most popular 4 or 5 tracks from an album. Which is fine, until the 5th and 6th most popular tracks are more or less neck and neck and swap places each week. Why would you exclude the track which was just outside the Top 50 one week just because it has sold 5 fewer copies this week than the track it sold 5 copies more of last week. Chaos would ensue.

If you simply insist that labels designate specific tracks from an album as the chartable “singles” you also run into complications when the public decides otherwise and starts buying or streaming ‘unauthorised’ album cuts in large numbers. We are seeing this happen this week with Ed Sheeran. Far and away the most popular of all the Divide tracks is Galway Girl and all indications are that if it continues in the manner in which it has been doing it stands the best chance of any current hit of removing Shape Of You from the top of the charts. So an album track will be the Number One single. And you cannot argue that it would not make a joke of the singles chart if the best selling or most streamed track of the moment was not at the top or even on the charts at all, just because the record label didn’t make it one of the nominated few.

Fix The Formula

‘Fix’ is once more a very leading word, presuming by definition that there is something broken. This refers to the current ratio of 150 streams : 1 purchased sale, adjusted down from 100:1 at the start of this year. It has been changed once and almost certainly will be changed again as the streaming market continues to grow and evolve. Nobody is suggesting changing it just because of Ed Sheeran, and indeed you could have a 200:1 streaming ratio and Ed Sheeran would still have dominated this week. But if he is the thing which causes a jump in the market, causing custom to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al to notch up dramatically then I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us move to a 200: 1 ratio by the end of the year. But by no means before then.

Eliminate Passive Listening

This is the notion that much of the perceived stagnation of the market is down to people blindly listening to the various “today’s hot hits” playlists, to the extent that it swamps the true investigators, those who go on journeys of discovery and actively choose which tracks to listen to, or build their own playlists based on personal tastes. So the argument goes that the charts should not be tracking passive playlisted streams, those that follow on automatically from a user selection. The downside here is that strange though it may sound it will actually just play into people’s conservatism. The number of users who take time to explore the catalogues under their own steam is tiny compared to those who immediately go to the songs of their favourite acts time and time again. Not all playlists are bad, and Spotify’s heaviest users are unanimous in their praise for the famed “discover weekly” playlist – your own customised batch of both songs the system knows you like and other stuff (old and new) which it thinks you will like. Playlists are actually how labels get new music in front of ears and potentially into the charts. Take that away and you will find new music has more of an uphill struggle than ever before.

Include Airplay In The Charts

Radio One would love this, as the BBC article notes. But it also notes that relying on the programmers of commercial radio to positively influence the pop charts is a hiding to nothing, given the way their own research constantly insists that they should play the songs that people know and love to increase audiences. And right now the stuff that people know and love is indeed Ed Sheeran. Calls for the UK charts to incorporate airplay have been made for as long as I’ve been a music fan, and it has always been rejected by those with the power to make these choices. The Billboard chart for all its historical worth is seen as constantly in hock to the small handful of radio programmers. Say what you like about the UK charts, but it has always been the public who has shaped them. And long should that continue.

Ban Ed Sheeran

The final, tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mark Savage isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Back in the spring of 1976, a mass re-issue programme of old Beatles singles resulted in a phenomenal chart invasion, the like of which had genuinely never been seen before. The Top 50 singles chart of April 10th saw no less than six of the places occupied by tracks by the famous Liverpudlians and there were genuine calls from those whose releases were now stuck outside the published chart for Beatles tracks to be relegated to a listing of their own, almost as if there was the assumption they would hang around forever. Which of course they didn’t.

Fifteen years later it was the album chart which was causing headaches for some. Just before Christmas 1991 a plethora of TV-advertised hits collections had made the chart rather collection-heavy. As the following clipping from Music Week shows, there were rumblings in some quarters that the album chart should be the preserve of new studio recordings. Hits compilations should be binned off to their own table, much as compilations had a year or two earlier.

We won’t see a Sheeran-only chart, any more than we saw a Beatles-only or Hits-only chart. Because the issue is this week’s issue alone. By the end of April we’ll all be wondering just what the fuss was all about, you wait and see.

Once upon a time it was thought Hits albums should be excluded.