From Mezzoforte to Propellerheads

The phrase “end of an era” is perhaps sometimes overused by writers like myself, groping for the correct way to describe a change being made to something with a history and a legacy, but it is hard to escape the feeling that this weekend marks the final chapter of a decades old broadcasting tradition.

The Radio One chart show isn’t ending of course, merely moving to a new place in the schedules, but at 7pm tomorrow (Sunday) Clara Amfo will for the very last time play the best selling single of the week at the climax of the weekend. It is actually the direct descendant of a show which bounded around the schedules for the first few years of its existence The first edition of “Pick Of The Pops” listed by the Radio Times went out at 9pm on Tuesday October 4th 1955 on the Light Programme, a show where we were told host Franklin Engelmann would “make a selection from the top shelf of current gramophone records”. By the time David Jacobs became established as host of a show which was now “a review of the current best-selling popular records” a few years later the show was a Saturday night fixture, although sometimes relegated to the very end of the day by sporting coverage. It was not until 1962 when Alan Freeman took over the show with which he is synonymous that it moved to its now traditional Sunday evening slot – the place it has remained ever since.

I first became aware of the existence of this show around 1981. With the house’s newly-acquired radio cassette player I was encouraged to compile a series of tapes for car journeys during the summer holidays. Tony Blackburn’s “Junior Choice” was the most obvious place to start, the tape paused and unpaused for spins of the Wonder Woman theme and other such delights, but I was also directed towards the Sunday night Top 40 show (also with Blackburn in control) where I collected a suitable set of the latest hits for play on hot afternoons hurtling down a French autoroute.

I finally became properly hooked five years later by which time Bruno Brookes was the incumbent of the show. Plugging in to my newly-discovered keenness of for the wealth of facts and statistics that the school library’s copy of British Hit Singles had inspired, I swiftly fell in love with the pace and the rhythm of the show. The singers who chanted the position of each song, the breathless countdown of each set of ten singles (all set to Mezzoforte’s Rockall) but most especially Bruno’s opening speech where he welcomed us to “Europe’s most listened-to radio show”, a script which I soon learned by heart and chanted along with him each week.

The announcement in 1987 that the show was to change format was another watershed in my teenage years, the Sunday night Top 40 show now gifted the chance to reveal the brand new singles chart live on air, rather than just reciting a five day old countdown as had previously been the case. The tape of that show from October 4th 1987 remains an oddly compelling listen to this day, featuring as it did the short-lived conceit that the positions were being decided one by one as they happened with songs having “moved around in the last 20 minutes” to finally settle on their official places. A few years ago I wrote a song by song recap of that particular historic broadcast which can be found in a series of posts starting here.

Teenage exuberance aside, the Top 40 show was the one radio programme it almost hurt to miss each week. Over the years I have offered up many suggestions to friends and family as to why I wanted to work on the radio, but I’m convinced that at the heart of it was the thrill of the chart show and the feeling that more than anything else in the world I wanted the chance to do it too. As a lover of pop music how could I not want the chance to tell people just what the biggest and the best songs of the week were? Plus of course I knew the opening script by heart. I’d be perfect for the job.

I’m sure I’m far from unique, the ritual of the Sunday chart show one that stretches across generations and into the lives of countless thousands. Everyone grew up with “their” favourite presenter or used it as the soundtrack to their last minute dashing off of weekend homework essays. So of course it will be hard not to shed a tear when Radio One signs off on Sunday afternoons for the last time ever. A 53 year radio tradition will soon be no more.

Then again in five days time we’ll start all over again, the Official Chart Show now in a Friday afternoon slot to coincide with the launch of Global Release Day, the catalyst for this whole change. Indeed the Official Charts Company themselves are hyping this up as a move to an increased number of chart shows across the Radio One schedules, the ‘midweek’ update now moving to Monday and the Friday afternoon chart show now paired with the brand new 60 minute show on Sunday evenings which will recap the Number One hits across a range of genre charts. And so too will another generation fall in love with the routine. Only this time one which will mark the start of the weekend, not the end.

Back in 2008 (almost six years ago now – how scary) I was less than impressed with the way the programme was being presented and produced a special one-off podcast examining the various styles of chart show presentation in an attempt to work out how the show had evolved from a straightforward countdown of records to a more general entertainment show that just so happened to have the chart reveal as its climax. I interviewed several hosts, both former and present and the show remains to this day one of the few times presenters such as Stephanie Hirst, Lucio and Joel Ross have gone on the record about what radio chart shows meant to them. Copies of it still circulate today although the production values on the original were not quite up to the standards I set for myself today.

So here for the sheer hell of it is a slightly remixed version of the original show – Counting Down The Hits – pending a full reworking coming soon where I’ll re-record the narration and try to bring its conclusions up to date.

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  1. Will the full upgrade be posted in this very entry? Or will you repost the updated version on a forthcoming one, where you’ll let us know the job is completed?

  2. Another thing: any chance on a Chart Rewind for the Battle of Britpop week, as it’s its 20th anniversary this year? Or is that one of those which didn’t get recorded?

  3. Coincidentally, 1981 was the year I first embraced the Sunday R1 Top Forty. No tape player in the house yet (my Dad bought a big silver Sanyo stack system in the October, the first recording starting with ‘soppy’ Endless Love at #17) but I started writing the chart down, starting with the week REO Speedwagon first entered the Forty around Easter time (IIRC I wrote it down as something like ‘Areeo Speedwagon’, but I was only 7 years old). I soon graduated to writing down the chart on a Tuesday evening when Peter Powell counted up, and listening again on a Sunday. Peter Powell definitely said the full title of the Dead Kennedy’s #36 hit too, as I wrote it down and in all innocence had no idea what the title meant or that it was *that* rude a word.

    I drifted over to the Network for a short while circa 1986 after dabbling a bit in 84/85, but returned to R1 by Christmas ’86.
    Circa 89/90/91, charts on R1 would dominate my Sunday – Fluff & POTP from 12:30 for a couple of hours and then back for the chart at 4. Sunday working & the lure of socialising were such that I drifted away from the Sunday Chart circa 1996. The last time I can remember tuning in was late 2002 – Missy Elliot was in the chart with ‘Work It’, the bits I’ve heard since haven’t been my bag – the magazine format as alien to me as the (un)culture of the current ‘yout’….

    Re: Junior Choice – I used to eargerly tune in for 7:55, as prior to the show they would play a medley of old R1 jingles, fascinating me even then.

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