Back Catalogue

Zack Evans is one of my oldest friends, a man I have known for almost 25 years now – back in the days of university bulletin boards when he was RAVE CHILD and thus in the best position to pull me up on my ignorance of dance music. To this day he will still pull me up on things, just like he did on Twitter last week when upon reading my last post he noted:

Yes, strong words, although in truth probably more a case of both lazy writing on my part or at very best use of some dramatic hyperbole to emphasise the point I was trying to make. Nonetheless for any long time music fan, the availability of vast catalogues of recorded music all of which can be heard at the press of a screen or the click of a mouse can be a rollercoaster experience. For every moment of joy at discovering the presence of songs you had long thought were confined only to your memory (hence the Elaine Paige piece last week) there are indeed some glaring omissions which make you go scuttling back to your physical collections for reassurance.

The most notable digital absentees remain Def Leppard. At one point legitimately the biggest rock group on the planet, you will search the Spotify or indeed iTunes catalogues in vain for albums such as HysteriaAdrenalize or indeed most of their lesser starred recording released either side. The reason for this is apparently because the group long ago inked a deal which means all rights to their music revert to them 20 years after release. They choose to exploit this ownership of their catalogue by crafting deluxe editions of the old records, making them physical collectors items. They appear to have no interest in moving into the digital age and in the process perhaps facilitating discovery of their work by new generations. Super-serving the long term fans is their aim, and in truth they are rich enough not to care about losing out on any other revenue streams. All they have on Spotify then is a live album and the handful of reworked tracks they did for the Rock Of Ages musical soundtrack. However the presence there of their most recent deluxe repackaging, 1996s Slang suggests that possibly all it takes is time and remastered versions of their most famous albums will eventually appear.

Some artists are just wilfully unavailable in all forms. The chances of Spotify and the like ever containing “every last bit of popular music ever recorded” are minimal when there are acts such as the KLF whose entire catalogue has been deleted for over two decades. Virtually everything Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have ever done can be interpreted as a carefully thought out piece of performance art. Their refusal to allow anyone to buy or legitimately listen to any of the work which made them famous in the early 1990s is probably best viewed in those terms rather than being a case of the pair being miserable bastards.

For my part I remain continually annoyed at the gaps in the catalogue which means I cannot revisit my appreciation of the second album from Material Issue. The power pop trio’s 1991 debut International Pop Overthrow is present and correct on Spotify, but the follow-up Destination Universe is missing, this despite being released by the same label and under the terms of the same record deal. Until someone chooses to throw up a dodgy rip on YouTube it means I can’t hear What Girls Want or forgotten classic single When I Get This Way (Over You) and either appreciate it anew or discover that my memory of it is playing tricks.

But that said, for all the above frustrations, Spotify contains the kind of gems which I never dreamed I’d either hear again or be able to get my hands on easily. Elaine Paige’s 1991 comeback attempt we’ve already covered, but there is other stuff as well. For many years the Michael Jackson oddity Farewell My Summer Love was something of a holy grail for collectors. The cash-in 1984 release featured ten year old Motown material newly reworked with overdubs to make the songs sound halfway relevant in the post-Thriller era. It had fallen off the catalogue shortly after release. When the singer died in 2009 his entire musical output poured back onto the charts. Yet Farewell My Summer Love remained missing, despite its title track becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK in the summer of 1984. A cassette of the album was presented to me on my 11th birthday to accompany my first ever walkman. I must have played it a hundred times before donating it to my sister (busily building up her own Michael Jackson collection) who promptly lost it.

Yet not only is the album now online in its entirety but there are complete sets of Motown recordings featuring the original untouched 1970s tracks allowing side by side comparison. That’s utterly phenomenal.

I also love the esoterica you can stumble across. Many years ago my friend Louis played for me an old Bernard Cribbins LP of novelty songs he had uncovered from one of the many second hand record shops he would spend his weekends wallowing in. It was the kind of collectable which made searching racks of records such a joy, an all but forgotten gem from the past. Only now his entire recorded catalogue is up on Spotify. And I can play it any time I want.

Every “last bit of popular music ever recorded”? No not quite. But there is more than enough to satisfy for now.

Dumb Enough

Elaine Paige had never truly been a pop star.

For sure, during the 1980s she had made more than her fair share of forays into the pop singles charts, but these were by and large as an adjunct to her primary career as a star of musical theatre. It just so happened she was for a while the favourite muse of the composers of some of the most famous theatrical productions of the decade and was therefore gifted the chance to sing on some of their most iconic works.

Thus when we think of Memory it is not in terms of the show-stopping first act closer in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Cats but more as Elaine Paige’s signature rendition of the song, and one which she took to Number 6 in the charts in the summer of 1981. The same goes for the musical Chess which is not defined by Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok (although that would be no bad thing) but instead by I Know Him So Well which as performed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson was a memorable Number One hit single in early 1985 and was appreciated on its own level by people who were ignorant of its true context in the libretto of the musical.

This interplay between stage show and chart success had however resulted in the singer recording a handful of albums, although her most successful ones had been TV-advertised collections of songs from stage and screen: 1983 release Stages and its 1984 follow-up Cinema both released through K-Tel records, the former reaching the dizzy heights of Number 2 upon release. Then in 1988 came the rather notorious Queen Album which saw Elaine Paige croon her way through selected highlights of the Queen back catalogue accompanied by a Philharmonic Orchestra. It is as extraordinary as it sounds and in truth deserves an entire blog devoted to it. But that is for another time.

However in 1991 she signed a new deal with RCA records, the label convinced that they had the secret to turning the then 43 year old star into a mainstream pop performer in her own right. To that end she travelled to California to record with renowned producer Dennis Lambert. The result was Love Can Do That, an album crammed with contemporary songs from some very big names indeed. Diane Warren was in there, as were Steinberg and Kelly (via a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours). The album was hailed as a very big deal indeed and was promoted as a huge priority – including extensive coverage for what was hoped would be its major hit single.

Well Almost had a pedigree all of its own, composed by one man hit factory Mike Chapman alongside his favourite protege Holly Knight. It was also very Diane Warren-like, a made for FM radio mid-tempo soft rock anthem which in truth barely stretched the powerful talents of its appointed singer but whose highly polished vocal tones somehow made it exude a classiness which made it stand out from the crowd. The song had a huge fan in the shape of Radio One mid-morning host Simon Bates who played it virtually every day for a fortnight in March 1991, proclaiming “this is the single which will send Elaine Paige back to the top of the charts”.


History records that didn’t quite go as plan. Well Almost failed to chart at all as stockists and indeed purchasers appeared singularly uninterested in Elaine Paige’s pop star reinvention. It is a shame because the song is at the end of the day a rather classy and well constructed pop record. It was just that it was possibly a record out of time, a production steeped in the musical shorthand of the late-80s with its chiming synths and squealing guitar figures. It wasn’t that the charts of the time weren’t host to such soft-rock balladry. The One And Only by Chesney Hawkes was at Number One at around the same time after all, but by and large such records were outliers. Novelties harking back to what was by then a bygone musical era. If it had been backed by being the soundtrack to a hit film or the theme to a TV series then Well Almost might have stood a chance. As a major pop hit it never truly stood a chance.

The Love Can Do That album fared slightly better, limping to Number 36 in the charts and spending a month with respectable levels of sales. It would turn out to be her final dalliance with pop music. Her stage career would hit new heights with her acclaimed portrayal of Edith Piaf in 1993 and she would spend the rest of the decade in her comfort zone, releasing albums of songs from stage musicals – heralding in a way her later career as a radio presenter dealing with the very same material.

Yet despite its failure I’ve still a soft spot for Well Almost. For years it was for me one of the great lost pop records and indeed a track which for a long time I had a yearning to hear again, having never picked up a copy when it was released. I genuinely hadn’t heard it since that ill-starred release until I started working in full time radio three years later and spent one Saturday evening browsing the hidden depths of the record library at The Pulse in Bradford. There to my delight on the shelf I found a copy of the Love Can Do That CD and so was thrilled to be able to play Well Almost to myself. Then the song became a long buried memory once more, that was until 2001 and the heyday of the fantastic (and illegal) Audiogalaxy file sharing app which miraculously seemed to contain a copy of every song ever recorded. I spent one long evening queuing up a download of all manner of hard to find tracks – amongst them Well Almost a copy of which I was finally able to own after ten years of searching.

I note with some amusement that anecdotes such as the above will themselves one day become long buried memories. Despite sometimes annoying gaps in their coverage (still no sign of Material Issue’s second album even after all this time) services such as Spotify are close to containing every last bit of popular music ever recorded. It means that buried in their database as you can see above is indeed Elaine Paige’s long-lost “pop” album from 1991 and the song which was supposed to take her to the very summit once more but which now relies upon people like me to call attention to it a generation later.

Hang Cool Pensioner Bear

It is a terrible thing for a man to have to admit to himself, but sometimes you just have to come clean and confront the issue head on.

I’m incredibly ageist. I just don’t like hearing old people sing.

As we move into what might be termed the post-revolution era of Rock, this becomes an ever growing issue. It is becoming clearer by the year that old rockers never retire. Where once upon a time bands split up and musical careers lasted a blink of an eye, the modern trend is for the past to be celebrated and embraced. Groups and performers can simply return from a break, re-cast themselves as veterans and continue to make music into their dotage. Admit it, could anyone in 1962 have predicted that Paul McCartney would still be performing in 2016, or said the same about Rod Stewart in 1971?

Yet here lies the problem for at times although the spirit is willing the flesh grows ever weaker. And the human voice, the singer’s ultimate tool, is a muscle which can waste just like any other. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen overnight. Most singers only improve with age. You cannot compare a U2 record of recent years with recordings of theirs from 1983 and deny that the Bono of today possesses a richer, deeper and more soulful set of pipes. But there comes a point where that improvement goes into sharp reverse. The range isn’t what it was, the power starts to die, the tone becomes raspier and even your vocal diction itself takes a turn for the worse.

Some singers take that on board and embrace it. Artists such as Johnny Cash and David Bowie took full advantage of their advancing years and towards the end of their lives re-cast themselves as older men in their dotage. It meant they rode the change in their vocal abilities and made no attempt to overreach. If only others could use that as a template.

So I’m unabashedly prejudiced against old men (and it is always the male stars) who fight the ravages of age and still try to howl like teenagers. And this is a prejudice I’ve been forced to confront head on this week because Meat Loaf has a new album that I really, really wanted to like.

I’ve not touched an album of his for a decade now. The failure of Bat Out Of Hell III to deliver on the promise of the title, its failure to actually be any bloody good, its inability to live up to the legacy of its title soured things for me slightly. Truth is I’ve never been a proper Meat Loaf fan – I’m only here for Jim Steinman. For the songs he writes and sometimes produces. Meat is the vessel into which that genius is primarily poured. With the honourable exception of albums such as Welcome To The Neighbourhood in 1995, I can take or leave his non-Steinman work.

But then along came brand new album Braver Than We Are, his first completely Steinman-penned album since the second Bat album in 1993. A collection of songs penned by the celebrated producer over many decades, it is clearly designed to be his final valedictory musical statement. In what is reported to be less than robust health, Steinman isn’t in the producer’s chair for the album but we are told oversaw the whole creative process. These are mostly new songs from the one modern day songwriter whose turn of phrase can evoke angels painting in primary colours, the urgency and drive of youth and the wild passions that lie beneath the surface of every romantic soul. Truly I could drink in his poetry forever.

All I can say is thank heavens for Spotify, giving me the chance to ‘audition’ the album before contemplating shelling out cash for it. Because it is bloody awful. And the problem is Meat Loaf himself. Never the most technically adept singer, his appeal came from the sheer power of his voice and his urgent need to live through every song he performed. Yet he’s now 68 years old, lurching himself from one health crisis to another, his body showing the ravages of a life lived on stage. The voice that used to tear at your soul, the one which is indelibly associated with some of the most famous rock records of modern times, is now husky and pained. Limited in range beyond anything that has gone before, his attempts to bellow out Steinman songs which require bombast and vigour to do them true justice are almost painful to listen to. Meat Loaf has lost the ability to sing in the way he could before, and it is almost as if everyone is scared to point that out to him.

It breaks my heart to even have to think this way. Because, as I noted above, really I’m here for Jim and not Meat. The songs themselves are immaculate. The soundtrack to the Broadway musical of your dreams, intense widescreen dramas of sex and emotion set in a Peter Pan world where everyone is a horny teenager forever. 11 minute epics such as Going All The Way Is Just A Start invite you to live an entire life with the characters within, running through five different melodies yet leaving you with the feeling that you’ve been singing along throughout. I can tolerate a Steinman song even when it is performed badly, his own Bad For Good album somehow all the more charming thanks to his own barely adequate yelping. But Braver Than We Are is a step too far. Meat Loaf singing songs about a fantasy life whilst sounding like his is about to expire before the end of the next line. He’s still trying to sing like he did 40 years ago. And he simply cannot.

So I’m an ageist. And I surely cannot be alone.

Keep Left, No Right

There are few aspects of the process of air travel which are anything approaching a pleasure to endure. The check-in queue, security clearance, the scrum at the gate, immigration, baggage reclaim. They all involve rather more standing around and in unpleasant surroundings than one would ordinarily be prepared to tolerate. But we are a captive market at airports and so we endure it. Or face arrest I guess.

I’d be tempted to now add “going to the car rental office” to that list, my first ever experience of paying to drive someone else’s car as part of a holiday trip began as so many of them do, standing in the queue at the Europcar offices whilst the people in front acted as if having to produce identification, documentation, licences and sign their name on insurance agreements was something that only happened in films. Meanwhile I’d planned ahead and clicked the “speedy rental” option on the website when booking, the net result being the entire process once I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue took no longer than about 6-7 minutes.

“It’s that one just over there”, stated the lady at the car park office, tossing me the key over the counter and gesturing over her shoulder to the row of gleaming vehicles lined up through the glass behind her. I climbed inside the Toyota Pulsar which detected my key, lit up in welcome and invited me to PRESS START.

The location was Toulouse-Blagnac airport and the next two hours were to be a succession of interesting firsts. I won’t lie, I was nervous. I’ve been driving for over 25 years now but the prospect of taking a rented car on unfamiliar roads through an unfamiliar country had been causing me a small number of sleepless nights. In the end I was glad of the nervous energy, for this would turn out to be a exceptionally stiff learning curve. The issues, I discovered, were threefold:

1) Left Hand Drive

We’ve all had foreign guests over who spend the first 48 hours attempting to get in the wrong side of the car to occupy the passenger seat. But nothing can prepare you for the first time you sit on the ‘wrong’ side of the car to drive. Changing gears with the ‘wrong hand’, groping fruitlessly for the handbrake which too is on a different side. Window controls, even the indicator stick, all of them not where you expect them to be. And once you exit the airport car park and are spat out onto the public highway there is no ‘training level’. You have to get it right as quickly as possible.

The hardest part for me however was repositioning myself on the road. Because when you’ve spent your entire life sat on the right hand side of a car, your spatial awareness senses assume the rest of the car is to the left of you. Only now it isn’t. I discovered that within minutes, ramming the kerb as I wound my way of of the car park exit. Because I was just too far right. Most of the first part of the journey consisted of Mrs Masterton shrieking DISTANCE every time I overtook a lorry on the autoroute, passing within inches of the wheels of the other vehicle as I occupied the middle of the adjoining lane, rather than its extreme left. Even towards the end I was self consciously checking my position on the road each time I made a turn or changed lane. Because my mind never quite dealt with the change.

2) Drive On The Right

Yeah yeah, this is an obvious one surely. Everyone who has never done it before worries about just how they will cope motoring down the roads in reverse, and everyone who has done it reassures you that it is easier than you might think. Which is correct. Once you’ve cautiously approached a few junctions and noted exactly where you are supposed to be pointing the nose it all seems to come naturally. And after all you are for the most part just following everyone else. Roundabouts take some getting used to, naturally. Driving around them clockwise and in particular overcoming the muscle memory which means you have the urge to check your left mirror just before peeling off. When naturally this time it should be the right. Over the course of the five days of driving around I became very glad that the French are not as enamoured of major multi-lane gyratories as the British authorities seem to be. Roundabouts (outside of major cities) are single lane entities. Pop on, pop out. Job done. Just go the right way round.

3) Change Up, Change Down

Oh now this was the really fun part. Because the car had a manual gearbox. And I’ve just spent the past four and a half years driving an automatic car. “Are you sure you will be OK with that” was the question asked when we first booked the transport. I assured the master of the house that all would be and in any event I noted that to hire an automatic adds about £100 to the cost. So that was out of the question. And how hard could it be really? Until I bought the current family car (it was a damn good deal) I’d never contemplated doing anything other than changing my own gears. Yet I still forgot to tell myself to do it. To drag back to the front of my mind the silky smooth clutch action I had developed ever since the age of 17. I proudly eased the car forward with the family on board, approached the junction, indicated and lurched forward in a stall. Because the “change down” muscle memory had vanished completely. In fact I spent the first hour of the journey almost totally disoriented. This wasn’t any old stick shift car, this was an ultra modern model with a flash six speed gearbox of a kind I’d never stumbled across before. I swear if engines could talk mine would have been screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU FOOL” as I wrestled with the stick, missed gears, all but made the engine jump out the bonnet when losing track of where I was and shifting 5-2 without warning. It wasn’t until three days in that I noticed the onboard computer had a display telling me which gear to change into at the appropriate moment. Although as Mrs Masterton noted “if it is intelligent enough to know what gear it is supposed to be in, why can’t it just do it anyway”.

The really run part though? Handing the car back in immaculate condition *proud* and climbing back into the comfort zone of my own which had sat waiting at Gatwick airport for a week. Only it wasn’t such a comfort zone, as I’d now forgotten how to drive an automatic again. So I approached roundabouts groping for the invisible gear stick and doing sharper brakes than planned at traffic lights as my left foot went for a non-existent clutch pedal.

We men define ourselves by many strange things. Our ability to cook meat over fires (pass the meths), the potency of our genitalia (mustn’t brag) for example. But most of all it is our ability to handle a finely tuned piece of machinery. We’ve been back from holiday for a week and I’m still ironing out the kinks in my manhood. Never again (until next time).

I Feel It In My Fingers

Theoretically this is the stuff that we chart nerds dream of. For the first time in quite some time discussion of the UK music charts has gone properly mainstream. Except this isn’t in such a good way. The presence of the same song at the top of the singles chart week in week out, and a song which thanks to streaming hasn’t actually been the top seller of the day for a full 11 weeks at the time of writing to boot, has prompted many a furrowed brow and questions asked in some quite surprising places.

First off the blocks was a rare bit of editorialising from the always entertaining Into The Popvoid blog with a polemic about the whole nature of streaming changing the charts and naturally using the ‘R’ word in relation to it – ruining. Alas this is one of the few pieces on the site which doesn’t have comments enabled so it wasn’t possible for anyone to refute any of the points made should they desire to do so.

Then a few weeks later came an NME feature “Why Is The Singles Chart So Stagnant” which for the first time saw the Head Of Music at Radio One wondering out loud whether they might be about to do something which in the modern age was unthinkable and drop the current Number One single from their playlist. This piece will have almost certainly informed the production of a similarly themed article from the BBC themselves, this time asking “Has Streaming Broken The UK Singles Chart“. Then most extraordinarily of all came a short “and finally” feature in Newsnight on Wednesday 20th July on very much the same topic. You cannot embed iPlayer streams sadly, but if you are reading this before August 19th 2016 then you can watch the report here from the 33:41 mark in the show.

The highlight of the latter incidentally has to be the Official Charts Company’s Chief Executive Martin Talbot all but bellowing STOP LIVING IN THE PAST down the camera.

One take on the whole “are streams responsible for Drake knackering things up and are the charts broken beyond repair” debate that you may not have seen however has come from digital consultant Sammy Andrews who wrote her own well considered view on the topic on Medium. Her argument is that the pop charts have historically served two purposes. The first is to be a reflection of the popularity of a piece of recorded music, something which is still the case in the new era of streaming – more so than ever in fact given that (as I am so fond of pointing out) we are seeing in the charts for the first time ever how the public as a whole respond and interact with their favourite songs. Over and over again as it turns out.

The other role, she notes, is that the charts have historically tracked how people discovered and engaged with product rather than consumed it. After all as a general rule you only buy a piece of music once. That’s how the chart life of most records was defined, as a piece of music grew momentum and so more and more people interacted with it for the first time, so it was propelled up the sales charts. Then once saturation point had been reached and everyone who wanted to own the record did so, the track died away. To be replaced by the latest new thing. That is what is no longer happening. The charts aren’t tracking discovery as a reflection of popularity, they are now tracking engagement almost exclusively. And that’s why everything has ground to a halt.

I’ve spent weeks trying not to have an opinion. But go me, now I do:

For those hoping that “something must be done”, have faith, I’m fairly sure it will be. But it won’t be because of Drake. One Dance as I’ve repeatedly said in podcasts is a genuine freak of nature. Its chart domination isn’t confined to this country and it has been played so much online that it wouldn’t matter how you adjusted the formula or ratio of streams:sales used to compile the charts. He’d still have been Number One forever or at the very least a near permanent resident near the top of the charts. Sometimes these tracks come along and you just have to deal with them. To make knee-jerk changes or to tweak the rules to get rid of of one long-running Number One record would be foolhardy. And nobody is suggesting doing so.

I’d note that the very early years of the digital download market also had its fair share of hardy perennials. Whilst they were never in danger of clogging up the Number One position for months on end, tracks such as Gold Digger by Kanye West, Numb/Encore by Jay-Z and Linkin Park and of course Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol took up near permanent chart residency around ten years ago. For some reason everyone who opened an online account felt compelled to purchase these tracks in particular and so they set the benchmarks for the occasional long-lived chart single. But eventually people became bored of them and moved on. So too it will happen with the Drake track.

There has been much talk of the perhaps malign influence of the professionally curated playlists, both those run by the streaming services themselves and those by major labels (albeit cunningly disguised). One Dance is on all of them, so the theory goes, so it has an inbuilt advantage. Well yes and no. Being a high profile part of a much-subscribed playlist certainly gives you an opportunity to be played, but that’s no different from being stocked in an old fashioned record shop gave you the opportunity to be bought. People forget that a song you love rather than one you hate is just one press of a button or screen away. I called it the “shit-click” factor on an old podcast and the advantage One Dance seems to have had is that nobody hates it quite enough to skip past it. So it gets the plays.

Needless to say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fear of the shit-click could lead to an increasing blandness and homogenisation of pop music as labels are scared to push boundaries and innovate for fear of not getting the plays. But that’s an argument for another day.

No, if a change is going to come it will be because the Powers That Be in the music industry will have woken up to the fact that the streaming market has now matured and is a very different beast to what it was two years ago. Back in the summer of 2014 we all held our breath as the data was incorporated into what had hitherto been a sales only chart, only to discover that very little changed. The streaming ratio had been so carefully balanced that no great chart revolution took place. At least not immediately.

But two years ago I’d argue that online streams were still largely the preserve of the core body of music fans who were just gently transitioning from always buying to sampling online first of all. They are still around but have now been swamped by a much larger body, the casual listener, the safe as houses type. The kind of ‘music fan’ that I spent years in commercial radio being told we were catering to. Those who want the familiarity of their current favourites and little more.

That’s why the UK singles chart has all the thrill of a Heart FM playlist. Because it is being shaped by the very same people radio stations are crafted for. And if they want One Dance day in day out, that is what they get.

That’s why a rethink may well be in order. I don’t think 100 streams is equivalent to 1 sale any more, regardless of the economic argument that the revenue for each is more or less the same. As Sammy Andrews notes, they have been added to the singles chart as a blunt instrument rather than a carefully constructed accessory. Two years ago that was valid. I don’t believe it is any more.

It is not that the singles chart methodology hasn’t evolved in the recent past either. A decade ago the digital download was effectively phased in over two years, first of all in 2005 only permitted alongside a physical equivalent then from 2006 what I always called the curate’s egg era of digital sales being permitted one week ahead of physical release and then for either one year or two weeks after physical deletion depending which came first. It wasn’t until 2007 that the plunge was fully taken and digital sales of any kind could count regardless. And so it remained for the next seven years.

We are in an era of transition, both for the music business and for the average consumer in the living room. By adding streams in 2014 the Official Charts were for once ahead of the curve in reacting to this change. We are fast approaching the point when the nettle has to be grasped again. Watch this space.

Home Of The Hits

CaptureNow technically this launched several weeks ago, but I’ve been neglecting my webmaster duties and failed to properly announce it here.

I promised that Chart Watch UK would move to a new permanent home, and so here it is. is entirely owned and created by me, my chance for the first time in 20 years to put up columns on my own terms, to my own preferred format and to my own schedule. Other than that everything is exactly as it always has been, a week by week account of what is taking place (or as the current situation would have it what is not taking place) on the Official UK Singles and Albums charts.

The other big draw I hope is the fact that eventually it will be home to the complete archive, the full set of James Masterton chart columns dating back to 1992. I’ve wrestled for a long time with just how to exploit that archive, whether to just stick the files up for download, whether to turn them into E-Books for people to buy or whether to continue to deny their existence (which I used to do in the past). This however seems to be the most elegant way of exploiting them, feed them into the database that powers the site that hosts the very latest ones.

I warn the casual reader however, this is no small task. Each one has to be checked and re-formatted and out of a sense of professional pride checked for errors and occasionally annotated to put things I’ve said into their correct context. So it remains a work in progress, although for now I’ve posted up all the original ones from 1992, a handful of pieces from the summer of 1996 relating to the birth of the Spice Girls and am almost halfway through adding the 2010 columns with the aim of bringing the present decade up to date.

Perhaps more than anything else I’ve worked on lately this is a true labour of love, earns me no money and is essentially something I swore I’d never do – give away my content for nothing. But the original motivation for starting to write in the first place two and a half decades ago was a desire to contribute to the sum total of human knowledge that the nascent internet was able to offer. I’d say that principle still holds true now deep into the 21st century.

Hope you enjoy it. Meanwhile I’ve got a book on 1989 to finish.

Blink Tags Are Deprecated

I remember the first time I tried to create a web page. It was back in the dark days of 1994 and the University had just installed its very first web server. If you asked nicely they would give you some space to play with and you were allowed to link yourself to the list of internal sites on the front page. Back then there were no WYSIWYG editors. Men were men, and you coded everything by hand in a text editor, saved it out, pointed a browser at your creation and debugged from there. I don’t think I ever finished mine. It was rubbish and probably nothing more than a list of your own favourite bookmarks, as most personal sites were at the time.

It wasn’t until six years later that I finally succeeded in publishing a site. The occasion was the purchase of this very domain and it seemed wrong to have it sat there without a page to direct people to. It helped that I was mostly unemployed at the time, but it still was a herculean effort to get the five or six pages that the very first version of this site presented to the world online. Designing logos and menus, scanning in the photos one by one, writing the text. I recall vividly the final push to get everything written. I sat down at the computer in my attic room at 2pm and genuinely did not look at the clock again, or even move to eat or pee until 11 that night.

That site lasted until 2004 when I gave up ever having the time to revamp it properly and switched to blogging systems. I’ve never attempted to build a website from scratch since.

Until this month. The need to craft a new home for the Chart Watch columns, and to finally give the full archive the kind of presentation it has deserved, has led to my spending the past few weeks flexing the craft fingers once again. Even in this modern age it is no less of a task. Picking the hosting platform, choosing the CMS, trialling templates, adjusting parameters and then finally populating it with starter content.

But it is almost done. Things need to stay under wraps for just a couple more days to iron out the kinks, but I think it is safe to say that this Friday the Chart Watch column will no longer be in its temporary home on this site, but instead on its own dedicated platform for the first time ever. Watch this space as they say.


Second Cut Is The Deepest

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

When Yahoo! Music UK closed in September 2011 it was the first time since the 1990s that my weekly commentaries on the British charts had no permanent home on the web. The interregnum was happily temporary, Bill Lamb the editor of the Top40 section of offering to pay for the weekly updates to be posted on his pages. And so it has been for the past four and a half years.

For various reasons that arrangement now has to come to an end as the site re-focuses on the American market. Hence my rather oblique note at the end of this week’s piece that it is to be the last one to appear on that site. And understandably I’ve been flooded with people asking via email and social media just what happens next.

For now I don’t have a straight answer to that question. Naturally in an ideal world I’d make a flying leap to another high profile music website and be the core part of their weekly offering just as I always have. But such outlets are few and far between and even the ones that exist are struggling. Online readers have an insatiable demand for content, there are an infinite number of ways to present that content and yet the people who can adequately monetise this and make it worthwhile to even produce in the first place are minimal in number. I can pitch until I am blue in the face, but most of the time the answers will be along the lines of “sorry, I’ve just got no budget to pay for contributors”. But they can’t have me for free. I’m the only person for whom I’ll write for nothing.

I also have to question exactly what relevance I have. Once upon a time I was practically the only person offering up a weekly summary of British music movements and its impact on national culture, explaining who was heading up the charts and why. But now I’m just a secondary voice. After years of my complaining that they were not doing so, the Official Charts Company themselves engage fully with the public, running a website packed with archives, trivia and news. Plus their own weekly summary of who made Number One and why.  Yes, it is a brief headline summary only, but for the casual reader that is all that is needed.

The days when I could say I was truly influential, when columns would receive visitor numbers in the tens of thousands, dwarfing most other pages on their host site, are long gone. To jump to another commercial outlet would risk succumbing to what I once branded Depeche Mode syndrome. A legacy act playing to wide acclaim to an ever-diminishing choir without ever necessarily adding new followers.

But on the other hand I’d be foolish to stop, particularly when the passion for the material and the drive to communicate that led to me popping up on usenet all those years ago. A weekly chart column is core to my own personal brand, if you will, and I’ve got a near quarter of a century legacy propping that up. I want people to buy the books I write, to consider me an authority on the history of popular music. It is the reason I’m still invited on TV and radio shows to talk after all. I have no desire any time soon to throw that away.

So the good news is I’m going nowhere, even if for the moment I have nowhere to go. There are plans in place to give James Masterton’s Chart Watch UK a brand new home and a proper showcase for both the latest chart news and perhaps 23 and a half years of archives that sit like hidden jewels on several cloud backup services.

Watch this space as they say. For now there is at least a ready made page on this site, so as of Friday 20th May you can read the latest column on the Chart Watch UK page at the top of this site. Even if I won’t receive a penny for it.

Showbiz Buddies

Plus OneI’ve a new podcast to tell you about.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. That’s something of an undertaking given I struggle at times to get the existing one out the door on a weekly basis. This however is something different.

James Masterton: Plus One is my opportunity to spend time with some of the most interesting people I know, getting them to tell me their stories and perhaps make the kind of revelations that you would not expect them to under more formal circumstances.

At the time of writing, the first two editions are online featuring the first parts of an extended interview I persuaded my friend and colleague Danny Kelly to participate in. We’ve already heard about his early life growing up in Islington, the moments that defined his love of both music and football as well as some early brushes with celebrity in “civilian” jobs. Part 2 moves on to his years at the New Musical Express, starting as a contributing writer and ending with a turbulent tenure as editor during the course of which a famous newsroom discussion over a notorious set of pictures was captured for Radio 5 documentary. There is even more to come, but that would be to surely spoil the surprise.

Full details on how to subscribe can be found on the Plus One page hovering at the top of the site, but for those for whom that is just too much effort, here is Episode 2 for your listening pleasure. Hope you enjoy it.

Concealed Wood

It has quite correctly dominated the current affairs agenda since the news broke on Wednesday afternoon. The death at the tragically young age of 62 of the comedienne and actor Victoria Wood has prompted a wave of heartfelt tributes, eulogising both the person and her talent in the manner which naturally we never quite manage to do when they are around to appreciate it.

Victoria Wood’s comic abilities were most commonly expressed through prose, be it stand up routines or longer form acting performances in shows such as “Dinnerladies” but for a long time a core part of her act consisted of musical performances. She was a female Steve Allen, capable of sitting down at a piano and knocking out a piece of comic doggerel, most of her songs along similar themes to her standup routines, dealing with the perils of being a bright yet tragically all too human British female of a certain age.

This once led her to one of the few commercial deals of her life, a series of TV adverts for the short-lived One-Cal umbrella branding for diet soft drinks. For a generation of children like mine, too young to stay up for her adult comedy series, this was our first proper introduction to the witty Lancashire lass. Singing at a piano on a floating island, attended to by swimming waiters.

Her songs were however just one tiny part of her act, and perhaps for that reason few attempts were ever made to either compile them together or have her turn her talents to the record business. The only records she released during her first flush of fame were the occasional live album (1983 release Lucky Bag or 1988 issue Live the most well known ones) and it was not until 1997 that a proper collection of Victoria Wood musical compositions was released, Ovation Records putting out Real Life – The Songs although the collection never registered on the music charts and it remains something of a sought-after rarity to this day.

So it may surprise many people to learn that Victoria Wood once performed a Number One hit single. But that is because it has all but lost to history.

March 1991 saw the broadcast the third of what has now become a biannual series of Comic Relief charity telethons. The event also established once and for all the tradition of releasing a tie-in pop record to coincide with the event. The previous Comic Relief tracks had seen comic talent team up with ‘proper’ pop acts along for the ride, The Young Ones joining Cliff Richard, Mel Smith teaming with Kim Wilde and “Lananeeneenoonoo” (French and Saunders along with a pre-fame Kathy Burke) teaming with Bananarama. For 1991 however the comedians were to go it alone for the very first time.

Everyone remembers the 1991 Comic Relief single The Stonk by Hale and Pace. For a start it formed the theme of the night: Comic Relief 1991 was officially subtitled “The Stonker”. Secondly the track still had some superstar input with no less a musical giant than Brian May of Queen producing the single and supplying a suitably epic guitar solo in the middle. Still for all that the song wasn’t particularly good, lacking much in the way of jokes or wit and reliant on some surprise celebrity cameos to give it even something approaching novelty value. No matter, it flew to Number One in short order in its third week on sale, topping the charts with immaculate timing in the aftermath of the telethon. For sure though nothing approaching a classic.

Yet on what was ostensibly the single’s b-side was a much better track. It was called The Smile Song. Its performer? One Victoria Wood. A rare foray into not only long-form songwriting but also mainstream pop for the star, the track was actually rather brilliantly done. During the course of the record she parodied a dizzying array of musical styles, performing in turn as The Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue, a hair metal band who are most probably Poison, the Turbo B era of Snap!, Janet Jackson, Vera Lynn and finally herself. It even had a video, one which was rarely aired and was truly only seen by most on the night of the event itself.

Now technically the two tracks were each one half of a double-sided release. As demonstrated by the sleeve which portrays both acts and both songs as equal partners in the release:


So why has The Smile Song been largely confined to the dustbin of history? Well the problem is that the singles chart ignored it completely. There is no reason why it shouldn’t have been listed, plenty of double-sided singles with a different artist on each side had charted in the past – eg the Wet Wet Wet/Billy Bragg pairing on With A Little Help From My Friends/She’s Leaving Home in 1988, or the 1993 release Puss/Oh The Guilt which featured The Jesus Lizard on one side and Nirvana on the other. But the dual billing had to be at the explicit request of the label and London Records who released the Comic Relief track omitted to do so.

So this is how the single appeared in the printed listings in Music Week:

music week

And (in its dying weeks *sob*) Record Mirror:

record mirror

Needless to say the chart record books, and indeed the Official Charts Company’s own archive follow suit and list Hale and Pace alone. I confess I was surprised to discover this earlier today. My own memories of the time, and indeed the lists of Number One singles that I was lovingly compiling even as a teenager regarded the Comic Relief single as a true double-sided hit and with Victoria Wood given the equal billing she was surely entitled to.

Victoria Wood, the modern day comic genius, the female star who forced her way onto television and into the hearts and minds of fans the nation over not through dogma, tokenism or quotas but simply because of her own unique talent, did indeed once record and release a Number One hit single. But one which circumstances dictate has been all but forgotten. There seems to be no better tribute to her than to acknowledge it here today.

STOP PRESS: earlier on Thursday I received this communication:


Leaving aside the extraordinary news that the commercial radio network chart of the time did at least have some use after all, it is worth noting too that the listing here also acknowledges the presence on the b-side of the re-released Clash single of Rush by B.A.D. II (which was also unacknowledged by the CIN chart). Leaving aside the Mick Jones connection to both, this actually means that in the week the Comic Relief single was topping the charts the first and second best selling singles in the country were double-sided hits featuring four different acts in total. Which surely has to be unique.