I can remember turning 15 quite vividly. September 1988 was the occasion. The headlines were dominated by a post-strike which halted all mail deliveries for a week and a half. I was still receiving birthday presents and cards in early October. Steffi Graf was winning the Grand Slam, the film The Last Temptation Of Christ was upsetting nutters everywhere, interest rates rose to an amazing 12% and a rise in youth violence was blamed in a report on the rise of junk food consumption.
Back in 1988, the year of my birth seemed another age away with three day weeks and Slade and Suzi Quatro dominating the charts. When you are fifteen years old, fifteen years is quite literally a lifetime.
I bring the subject up because almost without me noticing, it has now been 15 years to the week since the very first James Masterton Chart Commentary appeared on the net. In October 1992 I’d just started my second year at Lancaster University and in computer terms was swiftly expanding my horizons beyond the campus network to the wide and unfamiliar world of the internet as a whole. Joining the computer society meant I had access their own personal machine – lucs2 – which meant we could play with things that were verboten on the main campus machines and perhaps more interestingly had access to a Usenet feed for the very first time.
I selected my favourite groups and would spend hours each day wading through the postings, fascinated by the way each group had its own personalities and experts who were often the fount of all knowledge on whichever topic was under discussion. I dreamed of being able to make my own contribution in some small way and it was while reading rec.music.misc I realised what that could be. Believe it or not, I still remember the exact message that snapped the lightbulb on in my head:
Although his question was answered, it was clear that there was mileage in someone explaining week by week just why each new hit had become so, putting it in context for an unfamiliar audience in the process. Without realising it I’d actually dreamed up the idea five years earlier in a school music lesson. Asked to prepare an end of term project on any music topic of our choice, I elected to reproduce three weeks worth of Top 40 charts and wrote an accompanying commentary on each one. I haven’t seen the document in years but I’m convinced it is buried in my parents’ loft somewhere.
Thus the chart commentary was born, the first one typed up at a terminal in the Faraday Computer Lab at the university on the morning of November 9th, 1992. As mere undergraduates we weren’t actually allowed to post directly to the JANET newsfeed so the only way for me to contribute was to use one of a handful of email-to-news gateways that existed at a time, firing the message off to deepest USA and then waiting for anything up to two days for it to appear on the feed back in Britain.
Oddly enough Google Groups doesn’t have an archive of that first post, despite their having inherited the old Dejanews archive which did. The earliest example they have is the second week posting:
After that, I was off and running, growing from a weekly Usenet posting to having a 3,000 strong mailing list of direct subscribers and with various friends with web space volunteering to host a copy too. Since then there have only ever been two notable gaps, one in the summer of 1994 when I graduated and took a step back from writing the articles, resuming six weeks later when I found I couldn’t keep away. There was a further two week hiatus in June 1995 when I was forced off the net by the copyright police and in short order hired by Music Week to start contributing to their new online presence, the direct descendant of which is Yahoo! UK Music.
To think that this has been going on for 15 years is quite a sobering thought. There will be people reading my ego-blown opinions who either weren’t born or were just toddlers on that cold November morning when I sat in front of the computer terminal on the South Spine of campus and typed up the notes I’d made whilst listening to Radio One the previous night. It seems quite apt that ‘End Of The Road’ by Boyz II Men has made a chart reappearance this week. What was Number One for my very first commentary?