Jun 16

Food For Thought

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

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

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

One of the “outrages” highlighted therein was indeed the Barron Knights performance of Food For Thought and in particular a section which re-imagines Pop Music by M as Chop Suey and featuring the group putting on exaggerated Chinese accents to sing songs about what was at the time the exotic world of the Chinese Takeaway. The clip was presented devoid of context, its origins as a comic rewrite of another record either ignored by the commentators or deemed irrelevant to their shock and outrage. But the mere fact that it featured naturally presented the BBC with a dilemma. Should they respect the artistic and historical integrity of their archive, be bold and show the performance in full context and to a loyal and self-selecting audience on a minority digital channel – or should they just take the path of least resistance and snip it out, hoping that not too many people notice. They naturally chose the latter.

 

Now in the grand scheme of things this is a minor wrinkle. Food For Thought stalled at Number 46 that year and brought to a shuddering halt the group’s run of Top 10 seasonal singles. Its loss to the show wasn’t something I was going to get particularly worked up about. However one or two people of my acquaintance felt strongly enough to request an explanation from the BBC for this unannounced edit. The reply they received was actually rather telling:

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

Confirmation then that the BBC genuinely, truly, do not understand their audience. Leaving aside the nonsense of claiming to be presenting a show on an arts and documentary channel “primarily as entertainment” they are clearly clueless of the way people are engaging with this show. The repeats are followed, pored over and analysed both on live social media and on a variety of web forums as a fascinating historical snapshot, one which not only brings back memories for those there at the time but which presents the student of popular culture with a fascinating document of both popular music culture and social fashions. Yes, even when that involves putting on a comedy Chinese accent to talk about noodle based dishes. The BBC sees fit to cut out songs or skip entire editions altogether if they no longer approve of the personal life of the presenter because after all, it is only entertainment.

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

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

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

The advisor assigned to my case:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical BBC 4 audience you might say.

Jun 12

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

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


SABRINA

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jun 11

Happy Rebecca Black Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 08

Major Miscarriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 05

Nourishing Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campus Map

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

Tower Selfie

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

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

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

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

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Apr 25

The Perfect Anniversary

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

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


FAIRGROUND ATTRACTION

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

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

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

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

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


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

Apr 13

Annually Retentive

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar 23

Gotta Get Down On Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 14

Viva La Difference

Anyone who is even the tiniest bit interested in the British charts cannot fail to have noticed the dramatic transformation that the Official Charts Company website has undergone of late. Having listened carefully to what chart fans truly wanted they have undertaken a dramatic transformation not only of their corporate presence but also their entire approach to their archive. Finally we have, officially, a near complete set of singles and albums charts, dating right the way back to the 1950s and all online for browsing. Complete chart histories for each song are just a click away, a comprehensive entry for each artist can be pulled up (except for those with non-alphanumeric characters in their name, a bug which has been flagged but remains uncorrected) and it is possible to jump to any chart in history just by typing in a date. I’ve a groaning shelf of printed books that has been instantly rendered obsolete.

Behind the scenes they have been careful to make sure things are as accurate as possible. Those of us who beta tested the site prior to launch were asked among other things to double check that particular chart listings were correct, and I made a special point of browsing those countdowns which for one reason or another were tweaked and corrected in between broadcast and publication. However it is this very desire for completeness which has had one extraordinary and possibly unforeseen consequence. A hitherto unpublished chart which has for 16 years lain unnoticed in the database is now live for the record – and in the process has rewritten some small parts of singles chart history.

Specifically it is the chart for the week ending July 10th 1999, first broadcast by Radio One on July 4th and which, as this BBC news story from the time recounts, was based on incomplete data.

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As the story goes on to note, missing the data for an entire chain for the whole week was unprecedented and to re-calculate the chart would cause a huge problem, allowing business rivals to compare the two figures side by side and work out the market share of Virgin and Our Price, the protection of which was enshrined in the confidentiality clauses of the agreements that led to sales data being supplied to them in the first place.

Several weeks later the clamour to correct the error became too great. As I noted in my own column of August 7th that year:

It seems like the done thing to demand chart re-runs at the moment. Both the music and the mainstream press gave much coverage to the row that erupted a few weeks ago when it emerged that a chart published earlier in the month was lacking data from some of the larger record chains, resulting in the data for some singles being badly skewed. Both Blur and Semisonic felt aggrieved by this as both Coffee + TV and Secret Smile were expected to land inside the Top 10 but instead were listed as falling some way short. After much behind the scenes muttering their pleas were heard and the relevant chart (the one for the first week of July) is to be recalculated with the missing data the benefit of the record books (and indeed overseas marketing).

Except that as usual I was only partially correct. The 10/7 chart was indeed recompiled with the missing shop data added and the results added to the master chart database. But it remained hidden and unpublished, with the result that every reference book ever since has remained true to the broadcast version and which was printed in Music Week that week. As a consequence several tracks went down in history with what should now be noted as the “wrong” chart peak.

The most high profile single to be affected was Viva La Radio by Lolly. Here is the relevant section of the singles chart that week as published in Music Week:

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Here is the relevant section of the chart, as taken from the Virgin Book of Top 40 charts:

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And here is Lolly’s entry from the third edition of the Complete Book Of The British Charts:

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The record has until now gone down in history as a Number 6 hit, having entered the chart that week, diving down to Number 12 seven days later. But not so according the data now to be found on the Official Charts company website. As of now Viva La Radio goes down in history as a Number 7 hit:

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In actual fact there are no less than 10 singles on that week’s Top 40 which have their chart peaks revised up or down. For example: Word Up by Melanie G is now a Number 13 hit, not Number 14; No Pigeons by Sporty Thievz is a Number 16 hit rather than Number 21; and The Animal Song by Savage Garden is demoted from Number 16 to Number 18.

The ultimate irony however has to be the fate of the two singles whose labels originally kicked up such a fuss and who forced the hand of both Millward Brown and CIN (as they were back then) in re-compiling to hopefully give both the Top 10 berths they appeared to be heading for as of midweek. Coffee + TV by Blur does not move on the revised countdown and remains a Number 11 hit. Secret Smile by Semisonic did indeed benefit, but only to the tune of one place, revised upwards from Number 13 to Number 12.

However perhaps the most significant change is much lower down and which concerns one single whose sales appeared to be entirely concentrated in branches of either Virgin or Our Price who were clearly the only chains who had chosen to stock it in any numbers. Five years ago I told the story of Australian hit Buses And Trains by Bachelor Girl and how it had been released and promoted here thanks to the urging of the managers of one particular group of radio stations. The original chart of July 10th 1999 had listed the track as a Number 84 hit, thus killing off any prospects of the single becoming a UK hit. Maybe that would never have been the case anyway, but as the revised chart now shows the single was slightly more popular than anyone has ever realised.

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Feb 22

Way Too Fast

Now if you want to be picky about these things then technically Coventry indie-pop band The Primitives are not one hit wonders. They can boast a grand total of four Top 40 hits and a chart history that extended into the 1990s, although if their September 1989 near miss Secrets is a core part of the soundtrack of your life, you can at least relax in the knowledge that it is a moment that doesn’t belong to too many others.

No, their destiny is to be forever defined by one single in particular. A single which peaked at Number 5 in March 1988 and which has resonated with surprising consistency across the generations since. It is also rather surprisingly hard to track down on YouTube, with no video available (if indeed it ever had one to begin with – I confess I cannot actually recall) so instead you’ll have to make do with this needledrop by a helpful fan:

Just what is it that makes the barely two and a half minute Crash so utterly memorable and a joy still to hear? My own theory is that it has three distinctive musical hooks which make it the ultimate earworm. To get all onomatopoeic for a moment the single has a guitar melody which goes jangle-jangle, a rhythm track which goes chugga-chugga and a chorus vocal which goes na-na-na. This is essentially a record which grasps spectacularly at every base musical instinct a human being has. And it is glorious.

Even in 1988 though Crash was just another hit single, mentioned in dispatches as one of the moments of the year but little regarded thereafter. Its place in popular culture was largely only cemented almost seven years later when the producers of hit film “Dumb and Dumber” chose it for use on the film’s soundtrack. Yet here lay the problem. The Farelly brothers liked the song but felt it lacked just a little something and requested the track be reworked to better fit the scene they intended it for. By then the Primitives had split up and crucially had lost control of their catalogue of recordings. There was therefore little they could do about the transformation of their song into the version heard on the film soundtrack. The new “remix” overdubbed extra guitars, organs and even new backing vocals, extended the song to include an instrumental break and arguably in the process shattered completely the elegant simplicity of the original production. It should be noted that none of the original members of the band participated in the re-recording. Crash ’95 was a Primitives track in name only.

Yet such was the profile of the film that the ’95 arrangement has unwittingly become the default rendering of the song. Many cover versions since have been based on the re-recording rather than the song as originally published – most notably the one performed by Matt Willis for another film soundtrack (“Mr Bean’s Holiday”) in 2007 and which reached Number 31 in the British charts when released as a single that year.

There is just one place you can be sure of hearing the Primitives’ version of Crash with regularity on the airwaves, and that is if you listen to Absolute Radio. Yet gratingly and jarringly and to my own obsessive annoyance they have until recently insisted on spinning is the ’95 remake rather than the original. I was always baffled as to why. This was after all never released as a single. Not one person who took time out to buy a copy of Crash will have paid money for the remake – one which we must remember featured none of the group themselves and which was made without their consent. For a radio station which is more or less unique amongst commercial operators in Britain in selling itself on the respect it has for the music and the variety of its playlist it always seemed a strange oversight that it had one classic single in rotation in what was effectively the ‘wrong’ version.

Various attempts to point this out on social media and through industry contacts met with no response, so eventually I sent an email directly to James Curran their head of music querying the use of the song. As it turned out they were indeed aware of the issue and he explained the background why:

I think it was effectively a hereditary issue in that was always the version that had been played on Absolute and on Virgin Radio before it ( from which we inherited the database!) . We did get the very odd complaint about playing the 90s version but it was hardly a flood and it was clear it was no great issue for the vast majority of listeners . To be honest unless you know your music inside out , as you obviously do James , I really don’t think most listeners knew the difference between the two versions or were even aware that two versions existed – daft as that may seem most people have a different relationship with music from the one that ‘musos’ like you and I have ! But then you and I love the detail ! In a way the 90s version , perhaps because of those overdubs, has a slightly fuller radio sound but on reflection we came to the decision to revert to the original because this was the original hit version after all.

You can actually understand why in the dim and distant past someone did make the decision to go with the wrong version. The overdubbed version of the song is indeed a better “radio” track in the sense it is beefier, has a proper guitar break and perhaps most crucially of all runs around three and a half miniutes rather than the two and a half of the original. A radio clock hour that presumes 12 tracks averaging four minutes can indeed be thrown out of whack by two many tracks much shorter. Proof if ever you needed it that the choice of what to play on the radio is based far too often on what “works” rather than what sounds correct.

But fair play to them, they considered it and switched to the original. Does one have to be a “muso”, as James puts it, to understand why the two versions are different, or just someone who understands what made the song so good in the first place?