Let This Message Reach You

Sometimes fate can derail even the most promising of musical careers.

Just ask Propaganda, the Dusseldorf electronic four-piece who were personally scouted by Paul Morley to become a core part of the artist roster of ZTT records, the label he had founded alongside producer Trevor Horn and Horn’s partner Jill Sinclair. The group specialised at the time in bombastic, grandiose sonic constructions, the sound of heavy industry mixed with the lyrical depth of Edgar Allen Poe (literally in the case of Dream Within A Dream, the opening track from their debut album).

The beneficiaries of Horn’s increasingly genius-like wizardry, Propaganda were unleashed upon the British charts in the spring of 1984 with the bold statement of intent Dr Mabuse. A thundering neo-gothic disco track which in typical Horn style of the time de-emphasised the lead vocals in favour of making them but one part of the wall of sound effect his studio toys enabled him to construct. A breathtakingly bold way to unleash a new act upon the world, the single was received with praise and is rightly regarded as a classic of its age, but commercially failed to take off, its place in history a Number 27 peak and a part of the tracklisting of one of the very first Now That’s What I Call Music albums.

A swift follow-up may have served them well but none was forthcoming. Their presence on ZTT turned out to be as much of a curse as it was a gift, the all-encompassing success of labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood meant that the talismanic producer was too preoccupied with the inadvertent funk superstars to perform any further work with Propaganda. Morley and Sinclair scouted for alternatives, reportedly at one stage engaging the then nascent Stock-Aitken-Waterman production team in a discussion about working with the German group. Eventually however the task of completing the group’s debut album A Secret Wish fell to engineer Steve Lipson who essentially made his own producing reputation overnight with the completed work.

The album was heralded by the second and in many ways equally famous Propaganda single. Released after a delay of over a year, Duel was one of those pop hits which essentially defines its era and the chart sound of the time. The story of warring lovers played out as if in a sporting arena was blessed with a breezy, cheery tune (belying the dark nature of the lyric), the clear and distinctive vocals of Claudia Brucken pushed to the front of the mix for the first time and of course that chorus and its thudding, nagging bassline which meant that the extended introduction from the 12-inch mix saw the track soundtrack all manner of different sporting broadcasts. Radio One listeners of the time will remember it as the jingle which heralded the sports news in the network’s extended news bulletins at the start of the following decade. It really was that evocative. But also another oddly small hit, peaking at Number 21 to at the very least become the highest charting Propaganda hit ever. And perhaps more extraordinarily a Sophie Ellis-Bextor b-side in 2007. But that’s a story for another time.

Famous as these two singles were, however, they are not the focus of this article. Propaganda then endured a five year break in their career, a delay necessitated by the extended legal wrangles needed to extricate the group from their ZTT contract after a more savvy media lawyer noted that their requirement to fund most of the costs of any of their rather expensive recordings meant their chances of royalties were limited. The group and label eventually settled out of court, but not before shedding talismanic lead singer Brucken who elected to go solo and extraordinarily remain signed to their original label.

Now sporting essentially a totally revamped lineup with only founder member Ralph Dorper remaining from their Dusseldorf roots, Propaganda signed a new deal with Virgin and recorded an album 1234 produced by Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes. Its release in the spring of 1990 was heralded by a carefully crafted lead single Heaven Give Me Words.

The 16 year old me heard it once and was captivated. A track as exquisitely crafted as anything from the group’s previous incarnation, the song was a thing of almost fragile beauty. The cascading clockwork rhythm that tickles away throughout, giving the impressive the track is being performed on multiple layers of machinery, the Hammond organ which rises to meet the voice of new lead singer Betsi Miller and the lyric which like all the best pop records deals simply and directly with the moment of needing to tell the person in front of you just how they make you feel. It remains for me one of the best pop singles ever.

Yet once more the public disagreed and although the single appeared to have momentum on its side, bounding 73-39 in a single week it then hiccuped and stalled, limping to Number 36 and fading away. In a sense this is the worst of all worlds, to big to be regarded as a true lost classic (how many Top 40 singles are ever considered truly “lost” after all) yet so small as to be an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things, a footnote in the history of the year and one of those records which came and went without anyone ever noticing it had appeared.

The album 1234 came and went in the summer with little fanfare, so little regarded that it is not uncommon to see the ZTT album mistakenly signposted as Propaganda’s only album proper. A second single Only One Word was released in August 1990 but when the dreary ballad sounding like a bad Eurovision entry stalled at Number 71 it signed the death-knell for the group’s mainstream career.

Still, they gave us their fair share of classics. Even if the one I remember most fondly is the one many others don’t.

Martin’s Marvellous Multiples

The death, reported today, of celebrated music producer Sir George Martin at the age of 90 has quite rightly prompted a rash of glowing tributes to the man whose work in popular music and entertainment quite literally spanned a generation.

My own personal tribute was to note his status as the most successful record producer in British charts history, being at the console for more Number One hit singles than anyone else ever. Precisely how many that is however is something that over the years appears to have become victim to some slight embellishment.

The official total appears to be 30 Number One hit singles, a fact boldly trumpeted at the top of his Wikipedia entry. Only further down the page is this total properly cited, in his official biography on buried on the now ghost website of the William Morris talent agency who represented the producer towards the end of his life. Yet this total isn’t completely truthful, because based on official records there are actually only 28.

For the record, George Martin’s Number One hits in chronological order are:

You’re Driving Me Crazy (The Temperance Seven), 1961
How Do You Do It (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963
From Me To You (The Beatles), 1963
I Like It (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963
Bad To Me (Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas), 1963
She Loves You (The Beatles), 1963
You’ll Never Walk Alone (Gerry and the Pacemakers), 1963
I Want To Hold Your Hand (The Beatles), 1963
Anyone Who Had A Heart (Cilla Black), 1964
Little Children (Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas), 1964
Can’t Buy Me Love (The Beatles), 1964
You’re My World (Cilla Black), 1964
A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles), 1964
I Feel Fine (The Beatles), 1964
Ticket To Ride (The Beatles), 1965
Help! (The Beatles), 1965
We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper (The Beatles), 1965
Paperback Writer (The Beatles), 1966
Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine (The Beatles), 1966
All You Need Is Love (The Beatles), 1967
Hello Goodbye (The Beatles), 1967
Lady Madonna (The Beatles), 1968
Hey Jude (The Beatles), 1968
Get Back (The Beatles with Billy Preston), 1969
The Ballad of John and Yoko (The Beatles), 1969
Ebony and Ivory (Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder), 1982
Pipes Of Peace (Paul McCartney), 1984
Candle In The Wind ’97 (Elton John), 1997

28 of them in total. The only way you get to 30 based on this list is to count the two double-sided Beatles singles as two recordings which I maintain is cheating. The one other possible explanation is that this total also takes into account the two bits of historical revisionism that the original Guinness chart books undertook in the 1970s when establishing the singles chart canon. In 1963 the NME charts listed both Please Please Me by The Beatles and Do You Want To Know A Secret by Billy J Kramer as Number One hits. The Record Retailer listings of the time demurred, as indeed now do the ‘official’ records. However if we overlook that detail and do indeed count them as Number One hits this duly takes Sir George Martin up to his historic total of 30.

Looking at the full list of chart-toppers it is only too apparent how mutually beneficial the relationship was between Martin and Brian Epstein. The svengali brought a hungry new star from Merseyside to London and George Martin put them on top of the charts. It really was that simple. Once Epstein scaled back his scouting activities to focus on his two biggest money spinners – Cilla and The Beatles – so too did the flow of George Martin Number One hits reduce to a steady drip of Beatles releases.

Nonetheless it is a record which stood the test of time and which was destined to outlive him. The competitive world of modern music means that whilst just once in a while there are producers whose flame burns white hot and whose work starts to guarantee their acts hits, they often fade away fast as the talent seeks to expand their horizons. Not even 21st century wonders such as Dr Luke or Calvin Harris have come close to matching Sir George Martin’s phenomenal singles chart track record. Whichever way you count them.

Tonsil Hockey

The most extraordinary dance hit of 1989, possibly even the decade, was all thanks to the twisted genius of one man from Chicago. As a club DJ Marvin Burns was one of the original core of nightclub hosts who specialised in spinning the exciting new style of dance music for which his home city was rapidly becoming famous. Branching out as a house music producer and creator in his own right he became Lil’ Louis and by early 1989 had made the US club charts with tracks such as War Games and Jupiter.

His place in music history was however assured by the creation of a track he called French Kiss. Running a full ten and a half minutes in its uncut and unedited form, the track was in essence as simple a musical creation as you can get. Just one note – F-natural – repeated over and over again in a hypnotic rhythm with what at first appear to be nothing more than the occasional electronic effect and some acid house beats to accompany it. Except that after five and a half minutes the track does something that no club track at the time did. It slows down. And keeps getting slower. As the pace drops, something new enters the mix. The sound of a woman moaning softly. Then louder and more intensely in a manner reminiscent of something we are not supposed to mention in front of the children. As she reaches a noisy and erotic climax French Kiss grinds to a dead halt, pauses for breath and then starts back up again, the beats and repetitive chord gaining quickly in tempo before ending at double speed and itself spiralling off into oblivion.

Put simply, French Kiss is an aural document of the pace, rhythm, structure and sounds of a a satisfyingly sticky romp between the bedsheets. All at once it is the rudest and most provocative record ever made. And it was a massive British hit single to boot.

All it took was a handful of spins on some of Radio One’s specialist music shows, although John Peel only aired the first five minutes before noting his disappointment that a track that sounded so good “deteriorates into the usual tedious sound of a woman having an orgasm” as if this was something that happened every day in acid house records. Granted Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus and Love To Love You Baby had also featured the sounds of female orgasms they were a subtle and integral part of the melody. French Kiss just belted the listener in the face with it. Released commercially by FFRR records, the single crashed into the singles chart at Number 10 in its first week on sale and began a steady rise still further.

Naturally this caused Radio One a few headaches, although not for the reasons you’d expect. Given that at the time it was only five years since the furore over Relax and just two since George Michael’s I Want Your Sex had been banned from daytime airplay it was perhaps surprising that it wasn’t the literal mid-song climax of French Kiss which caused an issue, merely the fact that track was only available in its full 10 minute version as a 12-inch single and for that reason alone impossible to schedule on the Sunday afternoon chart show. So for the first time ever Radio One arranged their own shorter edit of the track, cutting it down to four minutes but keeping the moans and groans of Mrs Lil’ Louis intact. Although as the focal point of the track they could hardly avoid it surely. As the single climbed the chart even the label became persuaded of the need to make the single more accessible and by mid-August had themselves issued the four minute radio edit on 7-inch, just in time for the instrumental track to rise to the dizzy heights of Number 2 – only denied the chance to be one of the more astounding Number One hits of all time by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers.

Around the same time the track became one of the few records in chart history to appear on both the singles and albums chart simultaneously, a budget priced collection of five remixes entitled French Kisses hitting Number 35 on the long players chart. It was the first chart album ever to consist of nothing more than remixes of the same track – although Grace Jones had previously charted with an album made up of differing recordings of Slave To The Rhythm.

Off the back of this British success the track became a hit in many other territories too, albeit in a radically different form. Persuaded that a ten minute instrumental was unlikely to fluke its way into the charts in any other country, Lil Louis’ allowed a vocal version to be made, featuring singer Shawn Christopher performing a rather banal song over the track whilst the impact of the orgasm is dulled somewhat by the addition of a squealing saxophone to try to distract from the naughty bits. It comes as something of a shock to hear the “Short But Sweet Radio Vocal Mix” treated as the standard version of the track (without the orgasm to boot!) across Europe given the way it was first time around a British hit in quite literally untouched form.

The legacy of French Kiss helped Lil’ Louis to one further hit single in early 1990, his philosophical musings on the fragility of relationships on I Called U becoming a Top 20 hit in the first weeks of the new year. The closest we’ve come since to a revival came in the summer of 2000 when Josh Wink incorporated elements of French Kiss in his track How’s Your Evening So Far.

Lil’ Louis continues to tour and perform to this day, although his most recent headlines were rather negative ones thanks to a legal dispute which blew up when he sacked off a planned Australian tour in 2012 and left his promoters severely out of pocket. In early 2015 he suffered permanent hearing loss when an air horn was activated near him whilst soundchecking for a performance in Manchester. Rightly remembered in his home country as one of the founding godfathers of house music, in Britain he is the man whose musical representation of sweet music between the sheets became a blush-inducing smash hit and yet somehow never once managed to trouble the censors.

Text adapted from The Top 40 Annual 1989 – Coming Soon!

Turn The Pages Of Time My Lad

 

 Last Wednesday I spent the day at the British Library as I immersed myself in research for a special project I’m currently working on, the fruits of which I’ll hopefully be able to share soon. Such research was more of a joy than a chore given that it allowed me to spend the afternoon immersed in back issues of the venerable NME, the turn of every page a nostalgic trip back in time, the contemporary accounts of an age I was too young to properly appreciate at the time. Yet at the same time this was bittersweet as I was also wading through the legacy of a publishing culture that simply doesn’t exist any more and sadly never will again.

It hardly needs an expert insight to see the slow and steady decline of the magazines industry. Titles, many of them with a legacy of years if not decades of publication, seem to fold every week. There is no more telling sight of the shrinkage of the market than being a regular visitor to a branch of WH Smith. At Waterloo, the one I pass every day going to and from work, every few months the shelf space devoted to periodicals shrinks a little more. Racks of magazines replaced by earphones, mobile power packs and bags of sweets. Those brands that still live on are the survivors, the very fittest of bunch. Yet even they seem to forever be under threat of closure as the advertising revenue shrinks, the page count declines and the circulations continue to fall. The “news” part of the newsagents business retreats ever further to an unloved corner at the back of the store.

Reading an old edition of a weekly publication such as the New Musical Express serves not just as a reminder of why it used to be so important but also why it has become no longer so. To open a back issue is to be whisked back in time to an era when music writing was but the jumping off point for an entire culture. In between the long form interviews, record reviews and gig guides are adverts for penpals, flatmates and bands wanting singers, better management or simply just the chance to perform. Billboards for forthcoming tours jostle for space with splashes for record catalogues, for stockists of music and assorted memorabilia and those dealing with imported rarities for collectors. The newspaper is a hub around which the whole business of making and appreciating music revolves, a mutually dependent relationship which sustained the industry through good times and bad.

For all the good that the internet has enabled, our now permanently connected world has now done away with the need for much of the above to exist. There are sites and forums for the exchange of plans and ideas, every venue in every town has its own website or is part of a ticketing hub to enable discovery of live shows and with Spotify et al it is possible to access a near complete history of recorded popular music – including the rarities and imports. I don’t need a newspaper to curate this or to be the heart of the ecosystem. What the internet has created and enabled it has also served to kill.

That is why what is left of the music press is now just a pale shadow of itself. The attendant culture has dissipated. All is left is the writing, but even an interview with a famously elusive megastar is not necessarily a selling point now given that the words can be scraped and disseminated online within a minute of the exclusive appearing. Closing those bound volumes of back issues genuinely feels like closing the door on the past

You Know I’m Going To Lose

Finally it was over. The final sales tallies were in, the numbers had been crunched and the news could be announced to the world. The bold attempt to pay suitable tribute to the dearly departed Lemmy by sending his most famous work to Number One on the UK Singles Chart ended with the track resting at what some would regard as a suitably ironic Number 13.

To repeat what I stated before, it is certainly no bad thing to have the music charts reflect the sad passing of a true icon of rock music and indeed it must be noted that the social media pile on was enough to give Ace Of Spades its highest ever chart placing. lifting it two places higher than the Number 15 its original issue scaled first time around in November 1980. We’ll ignore the minor elephant in the room that this actually still isn’t sufficient to make it the highest charting Motorhead single ever and that in their heyday the group managed three Top 10 hit singles with a collection of EP releases, noting instead that a social media campaign aiming to push the track to its best placing ever would have been considered a roaring success. Instead the inevitable happened, those who had bought into the fun of buying 20 copies of the record at once and setting up farms of devices to stream the song 24 hours a day in the forlorn hope that it would fly to the top of the charts and prove, SOMETHING, had to deal with the fact that it was all in vain.

But that doesn’t mean the fun had to end for we casual observers, not a bit of it. We can instead play a game of “it is all rigged anyway” bingo:

rigged1

rigged2

rigged3

rigged4

rigged5

These last two are my particular favourites, putting forward the hypothesis that the “top record companies” went out and bought a few thousand copies of a record just to push it up the charts. Or to put it another way, the exact thing that you spent the last week doing. I’ll spell out the irony for anyone still struggling: buying multiple copies of a track and encouraging others to do the same is, whilst within the rules and part and parcel of the game, chart-fixing. Attempting to have the best sellers list reflect a false picture of the true popularity of a piece of music. If it is all rigged, it is because you yourselves have rigged it.

Any more?

rigged6

Yes, the thing that stopped your favourite topping the charts was nothing more than people buying ALL THE OTHER RECORDS above it. The bastards.

There are those who are just angry that not everyone has the same music tastes as they do:

mrangry

Yes, if you prefer X Factor to flying Spitfires or Shakespere (sic) (unsure emoticon) then shame on you forever!

And finally just for a special bonus we’ve even got a token retelling of the “Sex Pistols were robbed too” myth:

pistols

Damn those BBC. They just ruin everything.

In a strange, sad, coincidence as I write the music industry has moved on to mourning the unexpected passing of another legend, the media awash with tributes to the life and work of David Bowie. As I write his new album Blackstar (which was heading for the top anyway) is more or less a lock for Number One this weekend, and meanwhile his individual greatest hits have experienced a sales surge comparable only to that which followed Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. It is more or less inevitable that the singles chart this Friday will quite justly be populated with any number of David Bowie songs. All of which will have landed there as part of the natural, organic process of increased interest in the work of a now deceased musician. And not because some chap has hectored people on Facebook to prove a point which probably didn’t need proving to begin with.

The Return Of The Chart Chumps

Now, if we are all being honest with each other the build up to the Christmas chart was more than a little disappointing, at least for those of us looking for a chance to gently mock those attempting to propel random track X to the top of the charts. Yes, the whole party was gatecrashed by that rather weird NHS Choir single, but this was in the end more as a result of some clever PR work rather than crowdsourced surge purchasing. They had a Facebook group but it was largely a placeholder – a dedicated website instead the hub of much of the public push. Even those hoping to see the Star Wars theme head chartwards were to be disappointed, the whole event going off rather half cocked and the track itself landing nowhere near the Top 100. An abundance of chart chumps (as documented in the last post on this site) there were not

Part of the problem was actually the absence of a suitable bogeyman to focus on. Cries of “we must stop X Factor topping the charts this Christmas” rang slightly hollow given that the X Factor winner’s single by Louisa Johnson was spending the holiday selling the sum total of knack all and indeed dropped out of the Top 10 completely in Christmas week itself. Instead the focus had to switch to a need to “stop Justin Bieber from being Number One at all costs”, a rather odd aim given that he was already Number One anyway, would continue to be so after Christmas and indeed it was never quite clear why it was so important that he should not be again. Like in all the best heroic romances, you need a proper dragon to slay. Without one you just don’t have a story.

But then salvation arrived, in the shape of what is in truth rather a sad story. On the morning of December 28th the world woke up to the news that Ian “Lemmy” Kilminster, one of the most notorious, celebrated, admired, scary and yet at the same time funniest and most affable heavy metal stars of his era had passed away suddenly at the age of 70. The tributes to him were fulsome, genuine and rightly drenched with hero worship. Inevitably the call went out: wouldn’t it be grand to see his masterpiece, his most famous composition and the piece of music with which he will forever be associated back in the charts. Can we see Ace Of Spades by Motorhead at Number One?

Over the years it has been so inevitable that the death, premature or otherwise, of a famous musician will see them return to the singles or albums chart in some form. So much so that it has almost become a cliche. When My Sweet Lord was re-released in January 2002 following the death of George Harrison it was almost a matter of routine that it shot to the top of the charts for a second time. Nobody paid it that much attention, it was just something that was pre-destined to happen, so it did. With the advent of the download era these chart returns tend to happen rather more organically, as evidenced by the flood of Michael Jackson singles that reached the sales charts in the aftermath of his 2009 demise, and to a lesser extent those of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston in the years that followed. It would indeed be no bad thing to see Ace Of Spades back for one last chart run – particularly given that its last journey into the mainstream was thanks to a famously hated (at least by metal die-hards) club remix which hit the charts in the summer of 1993. I bought the 12-inch of that just so I could own the copy of the original version which was on the b-side.

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But no, these are the 2010s and we have to have a Facebook group to push for the great man’s inclusion in next week’s singles chart. And I’m pleased to say that it and indeed its followers are falling into every single one of the traps I warned of before Christmas. Quite entertainingly so as it happens.

First there are the mixed motives:

motive

It is not just about Lemmy it seems. It is for some reason really, really important that Justin Bieber should be knocked of the top of the charts. No matter that with a variety of singles he’s been Number One for 11 of the past 18 weeks. He must not be there this week and Lemmy is the man to make this happen. Because he’s dead.

You will notice the unwavering belief in the cause too. This CAN be done we’re told. Repeatedly. The followers and supporters of the group only become more enthused when they check the status of the single on the live charts across the various retailers:googleplay

Yes Andy indeed it is. But the problem is Google Play is first and foremost a streaming service. They do have a click to buy store and those sales do indeed contribute to the charts, but their volumes in comparison to other services are to say the least minimal. You could record five minutes of sneezing, get your entire office to buy it, and make the Google Play live charts. The only live tables that truly reflect what is probably the current state of the market overall are the iTunes ones. Although dying a slow death, this remains the pre-eminent download store. So let’s look at where Ace Of Spades is on there shall we:

kworbOh.

Now, to be fair this was late on Monday evening and the main version of the track available has rallied a little during the course of today (Tuesday) to be just inside the Top 20 of the live tables. But it is still selling a little under 18% of the copies of the market leader – one Justin Bieber – and isn’t making further progress. People are being encouraged to buy multiple copies of the various different versions of the track available, but none are selling enough to register on the Top 100. Combined at the end they may be, but with just over two days to go to the end of the chart week this record is nowhere near in contention.

Still, the news of the midweek chart position only served to reinforce the hope that this all hasn’t been in vain:

midweek

Bieber is WITHIN SIGHT it seems. Well yes, yes he is in the sense that he’s at the end of the pit straight and you’ve just turned onto it. But as I noted before Christmas, in order to actually overtake him you’ve got to sell harder and faster than he is. For several days. And there’s absolutely no indication that you are going to come close to doing so.

But still, there’s always streams isn’t there? And despite the administrators of the Facebook page having muttered a few times about how “only the first 100 (70 actually) count”, there are still those determined to use up their spare processor cycles to attempt to game the system.

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Of all the dedicated souls however, this one has to be my favourite:

multiphones

Yes, that’s this chap’s very own streaming farm. Resurrecting old telephone handsets to run side by side and stream the track into oblivion 24 hours a day. Or if you like, the exact same thing people assumed that the record labels themselves would try to do and for which there were rules put in place to stop this happening. Quite why you’d imagine this would be regarded as a legitimate streaming ‘sale’ to qualify for the charts is a tiny bit of a mystery. Full marks for effort though, even if it will do nothing more than add a few pence to his next electricity bill.

What is funny about metal fans is that they often have some deeply-held principles which even the carrot of a chart return for their favourite veterans is unable to shift. Back in 2013 when the aim was to propel AC/DC to the business end of the singles chart there were any number of people on the relevant Facebook group rather grumpy about the fact that the only way to download the single was to sign up to iTunes, a piece of corporate teat-sucking that they just could not bring themselves to perform. No such problems here of course with Motorhead available for purchase on just about every platform you could name, but that didn’t stop one man throwing up his own obstacles:

madbarry

That’s Barry there, not prepared to register his personal details and hand them over to someone who might do nefarious things with the information. And who is choosing to use his Facebook account to tell us this.

I mock with the best of intentions. As I stated at the top, to see Lemmy’s musical masterpiece enter the singles chart even for a brief moment to commemorate his passing is nothing less than his memory and legacy deserves. If it is good enough for Cilla then it is good enough for him. But you do have to remember the first and most important rule of chart chumpery – be realistic. The record won’t be Number One in his or indeed our lifetimes. Top 30 come Friday is a reasonable aim. Top 20 will be a job well done. The owners of the page will be magnanimous enough to hail that at least as an achievement, even if many of the followers and commenters will of course be convinced that a fix was in. Watch this space.

UPDATE: as of close of play Tuesday, Ace Of Spades has slipped to 12 on the latest unofficial set of midweek figures I’ve seen. Meanwhile Justin Bieber appears set for a unique singles chart first, commanding the entire Top 3 of the singles chart for himself. There’s going to be carnage on Facebook.

Don’t Be A Chart Chump

It is the time of the season. One week before Christmas we approach the start of the sales week that will determine the UK’s Christmas Number One single, the annual game in which people who profess to neither know nor care what popular music tastes run to all year round suddenly become extremely engaged in the idea of what the biggest selling single for the Christmas holiday is. At least for a few hours after it is announced anyway.

As regular readers of these pages and followers of the music charts will attest, recent years have seen this turn into a game as social media is leveraged for mendacious or virtuous reasons to persuade interested parties to “lump on” the purchase of a particular record which it is presumed will signal… er, let me get back to you on that one.

I’m on the record as being rather snobbish about the whole thing, being of the old school mentality that you buy or listen to a piece of music because you happen to like it, not because some chap with a knocked together logo on a Facebook page has told you to or because it demonstrates how much you really, really like going to the doctor. But it happens, all conspiring to turn the last but one sales week of the year rather beserk and random. This year it seemed entirely appropriate to offer some kind of public service and a guide to the pitfalls and pratfalls that may lie ahead of anyone attempting to propel their favoured piece of noise to what they hope is the higher reaches of the singles chart. Presenting then:

Masterton’s Five Point Guide To Gaming The Christmas Chart

i) Be Realistic. It Probably Isn’t Going To Work.

Harsh but true. Only once, be it at Christmas or any other time of year, has a social media inspired campaign managed to gatecrash the very top of the charts. The now iconic Rage Against The Machine race of 2009 only occurred because the chart regulations had never anticipated it. The rules at the time were there to prevent unscrupulous record labels and their management from attempting to hype records into the charts. The idea that the general public would gang up en-masse and buy 50 copies each of a 16 year old record at the busiest time of the year was a totally new one. So there was indeed nothing to stop you buying 50 copies at a time. Or a day. Or twice a day. As some people claimed to have done.

Specifically the Singles Chart Rules forbid “purchasing records or causing records to be purchased or streamed other than as a genuine consumer transaction”. For online stores this amounts to allowing no more than three copies of any one version of a track per purchase. One for you, and two to be “gifted” to a friend. Any extras that you buy at the time will simply not count for chart compilation. Whilst you can get round this by buying multiple versions (remixes, live recordings etc.) of the same song to bolster your total, by and large it means that the only way to storm the singles charts for real is by sheer volume of numbers. And at Christmas that means you need a heck of a lot.

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The solution is simple. Although “Christmas Number One” is a sexy sounding aim, you end up looking stupid come the final tallies going “yeah but we got Random Track x into the Top 30 and that’s a MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT”. Yes it is, but not the one you set out for. Campaigning to bombard the Top 10 or even Top 5 at a push is by no means beyond the reach of a well motivated set of Facebookers. Number One just isn’t going to happen.

ii) Don’t Forget Streams. In Fact No, Forget About Streams

Since the summer of 2014 a large spanner has been thrown in the works of potential chart hypers. It is no longer just about sales, it is about people streaming your song online. In the last year this market has grown to phenomenal levels, with a full 50% of logged chart data now coming thanks to digital streams and not purchases. The most played songs of the week have in the last couple of months routinely clocked up 3 million plays or more. And your potential Number One song will need to do the same.

Yet that is phenomenally difficult to engineer. Because the chart rules committee were wise to the prospect of people setting up farms of machines to endlessly play the same song over and over. So for chart purposes you are restricted to 10 plays per IP address per day of any song. Over the course of the week it is not possible for any one individual to log more than 70 streams for a particular song. Or to put it another way, for chart compilation purposes 0.7 of a download, based on the current sales:streams ratio of 1:100. It means that for people like this user:stream1

It was indeed a waste of their time. And processor cycles. And electricity.

iii) The Live Charts Are Helpful But Deceptive

Midway through chart campaigns the generals at the front bring back breathless reports of the progress of their chosen song up the live tables issued by the major retailers. “We’re the Number 3 song on Amazon’s Nose Flute Music chart” they holler. “UP TO 12 on iTUNES COME ON WE CAN DO THIS” they triumphantly cry. Then everyone acts baffled when the song in question is listed at 34 on the midweek update. Or lower on the finished chart.

First you should understand that Amazon live charts are meaningless. They may be the biggest retail brand online to the dismay of some and almost certainly the go-to place for any keen book buyer. But their share of the digital music market is tiny. A dot in comparison to others. Being the most downloaded song in your genre category on Amazon may look impressive, but it probably only takes 50 or so people in the last day to get there.

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Oh, and here’s the other thing that confuses people. The retailer’s live charts are not cumulative, they are reactive. The precise methodology of the iTunes live tables still remains known only to a select few but it is generally presumed to be a rolling average of sales over the last 24 hours. Rising to “Number 6” on iTunes is meaningless unless you have a) been there or higher earlier in the week or b) remain there or go higher for the rest of it.

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iTunes is a wonderful medium for noting what is selling right now, at this precise moment. As a barometer for what has taken place during the course of a full sales week it is surprisingly flaky.

iv) You Are Not The Only Dog In The Race

During the course of Christmas Chart week the Official Charts Company are more forthcoming than normal about the numbers involved and the exact difference between the chart contenders. This inevitably leads to people getting very excited at the midweek stage noting “We are just 8,000 copies off the top. This is do-able, come on people”.

Well yes and no. You may well be able to rustle up another 8,000 copies from your legions of supporters in a couple of days. The only problem is this will only take your tally up to where the chart leader was two days ago. Because it is pretty unlikely they are not going to sell any further copies that week. To put it another way, it is like arguing that since Car 2 in a race is only 7 seconds behind Car 1 it will inevitably be in the lead in 8 seconds time if it keeps driving at the same pace. That’s only actually possible if Car 1’s engine has exploded.

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v) Finally, Be Wary Of Breaking The Irony Meter

As noted in point i) above. Your DJ Trepan For Xmas No.1 2015 campaign probably won’t work the way you planned it. The odds are stacked against you. And despite your apparently comfortable lead at the top of Amazon’s Armpit Squelching Music daily chart and your inexorable progress towards the Top 20 on ITunes, the final reckoning may well see you fall short of the Top 40 altogether.

In the aftermath of this disappointment it is vitally important that neither you nor any of your followers survey the wreckage of your attempt to promote mass purchases of 15 different versions of the same song, to stream it non-stop across five devices in your household for 24 hours a day for a week and indeed to generally contrive a level of demand for a four minute pop record that doesn’t accurately portray its true level of popularity with the general public at large –  and then complain that your failure to rig the singles chart is itself proof that the charts are “fixed”.

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Oops, too late.

Double Top

There’s a fun moment in the middle of Jonathan King’s musical film “Me Me Me” where the characters very nearly anticipate what is about to take place on the British charts. Detailing his plans to turn graffiti artist Johnny Bambino into the next big music sensation, impressario Ben Volio has a bold and daring release strategy:

This plan to make the Number One position “exclusive” to the singer works a charm until… well, that’s for the interested to watch and see.

I reference this because according to all sales figures available at this point, tomorrow afternoon Justin Bieber will make a small piece of singles chart history, knocking himself off the top of the Official UK Singles chart with Love Yourself. He will by no means be the first to have back to back Number One singles, but as history shows he will be unique in the modern era simply by being alive when he does so.

The early years of British chart history saw all manner of strange and rather unusual things take place at the top of the charts – joint Number One singles, dual versions of the same song taking turns at the top and even on one occasion two different versions of the same song being considered the joint chart-topper of the week. But nobody ever managed what appeared to be the ultimate trick of replacing themselves at the top of what was then termed the Hit Parade.

The first act to achieve this were, who else, The Beatles. In late 1963 at the height of the first wave of Beatlemania their third single She Loves You had already had an extended run at the top of the charts, spending four weeks at the top from mid-September. A full seven weeks then elapsed with the single bouncing between the second and third slot whilst first Do You Love Me by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and then You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers had spells at the top of the charts. In late November however both singles fell away and the path was left clear for She Loves You to have a further fortnight at the top of the charts. As it turned out the single was simply keeping the slot warm, long enough for the next Beatles single I Want To Hold Your Hand to climb from its Number 10 debut position to the very top. The four lads from Merseyside had just made chart history and replaced themselves at the summit.

It would be another 17 years before anyone else did the same – and it just so happened that one of the same men was involved. The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 prompted a tidal wave of emotion at the passing of one of the greatest musicians and songwriters of his generation. The most immediate impact was an immediate reversal of fortune for his then-current single (Just Like) Starting Over which had seemingly peaked at Number 8 in late November and was at the time of the singer’s death making its way gently down the charts. The week ending December 20th however saw the single make what was at the time one the biggest ever jumps to the top of the charts as it rocketed 21-1 to give Lennon the first of what would turn out to be several posthumous Number One singles.

Then Christmas intervened and the St Winifred’s School Choir broke the reverie as There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma topped the charts for the season. Said record is credited with two weeks at Number One but it was actually only top of one published chart – at the time no music charts were published over the new year and the record books simply duplicate the Christmas countdown for the sake of continuity.

In the meantime the Lennon tribute industry had kicked into life in earnest. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) shot into the charts and peaked at Number 2 for the holiday, to be swiftly followed by his 1975 masterpiece Imagine. On the first chart of the new year, the latter installed itself at Number One where it remained for a month. This was just long enough to coincide with the release of a brand new Lennon track, the second single from the now iconic Double Fantasy album which he had come out of retirement to promote. On February 2nd 1981 Woman climbed to the top of the charts, deposing Imagine and depending on your point of view making John Lennon either the second artist to replace himself at the top, or simply doing it for the second time in his career.

The third and final incidence of back to back Number One hits would arrive in the first weeks of 2005. This was during the dying weeks of the physical-only singles market, which by that time was itself in terminal decline. The singles chart at the time was essentially circling the drain, its methodology having utterly failed to keep pace with the sea-change in consumer behaviour and with the long overdue introduction of digital sales still three months away. The ideal time then for some opportunistic and highly targeted re-issues.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the artists’s birth, Elvis Presley’s record label RCA/BMG embarked on a unique first, a weekly programme of re-issues of each of the King’s 18 UK Number One singles in chronological order. In actual fact two were released in the first week, All Shook Up landing in the shops simultaneously with Jailhouse Rock. The former was chart ineligible, coming as it did in a special cardboard sleeve in which all the other discs could be housed. It still sold 17,000 copies and would actually have placed at Number 2 had any of them counted. Jailhouse Rock on the other hand was free to chart and the 21,000 copies it duly sold were enough to ensure it deposed début X Factor winner Steve Brookstein from the top of the charts and in the process become the 999th Number One and only the third single in chart history to top the charts twice.

One week later and with no other new releases able to command anywhere near even that miserable level of sales, Elvis’ third chart-topper One Night duly became his 20th as well. 18 years after he had died Elvis Presley had become the third act to have two successive Number One hits on the British charts. Needless to say the following week there was immense speculation as to whether he could manage a unique treble, hopes for which were dashed when Goodies by Ciara just sneaked ahead of the re-released A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight. ‘Normal’ service was resumed the following week as Elvis was back on top with It’s Now Or Never, the last of the 70th anniversary re-releases to land at the top of the charts to widespread relief. Nonetheless three different Number One hits in the space of four weeks is the closest anyone has ever come to the ultimate chart triple – although I refer you once more back to the small detail of John Lennon’s fortnight away from the top in 1980/81 being only due to the second of those being a dark week for the British charts.

Which brings us neatly back to the present day. Assuming nothing changes in the next 24 hours, Justin Bieber will this week become only the second ever living artist to replace himself at the top of the charts and the first to do so in almost 11 years. You will note that the previous occasions have all been during very specific circumstances – at the height of the first ever wave of fan devotion for a pop group, the aftermath of the murder of a musical hero and a weekly re-issue programme at the precise moment when the sales market was on the verge of collapse. Bieber has to all intents and purposes pulled off the trick without any such mitigation.

Except that times are different and indeed it is perhaps surprising that this hasn’t happened before now. Given that the music market is no longer beholden to the release plans of artists and labels, hits can happen spontaneously out of nowhere and the cross-pollination of acts means that everyone performs on everyone else’s records. Side by side chart hits for the same act are nothing new or particularly notable these days. It was inevitable that at some point someone would be in the perfect position to replace themselves at the top.

Now, this wouldn’t be a chart fact without a “yeahbut” creeping in here, because technically there is a fifth act who have swapped places with themselves at the top and indeed did so three times. I refer to The Shadows who in the early 1960s were unique in being both Cliff Richard’s fully credited backing group as well as having their own parallel ‘solo’ career. So it was in August 1960 that Please Don’t Tease by Cliff Richard and The Shadows gave way to Apache by The Shadows. Then in January 1963 The Next Time/Bachelor Boy by Cliff and the Shads was replaced by Dance On by the Shadows alone, and two months later it happened again as Cliff’s Summer Holiday was deposed by their own Foot Tapper.

You can decide for yourself if this counts or whether it is technicality, although it is worth noting that by and large the Official Charts Company don’t regard Cliff’s early hits or albums as counting towards the chart tallies of The Shadows themselves (although their singles database hasn’t quite caught up in that respect).

If we overlook technicalities such as “being a guest on someone else’s record) then replacing oneself at the top of the charts has nearly been achieved by two other acts in recent years. In June 2010 Dizzee Rascal topped the charts with his own track Dirtee Disco, his reign as chart king sadly lasting just a week before David Guetta and Chris Willis’ Gettin’ Over You stormed to the top instead. Had he clung on he would have been perfectly placed to surrender the top slot instead to his own Shout, the World Cup anthem he performed alongside James Corden.

Three years later Pharrell Williams was very nearly the guest singer on two back to back Number One hits – only Naughty Boy’s La La La got in the way of Get Lucky being succeeded at the top of the charts by Blurred Lines.

So yes, technically both Rascal and Williams were mere guest stars on at least one of their Number One records in the same way The Shadows were just “guests” on Cliff Richard’s hits. Justin Bieber’s chart feat will go down as extraordinary – he’s the sole lead act on both singles and perhaps more pertinently he’s still alive to see it happen.

Collect(ing) Call

“That’s quite a good collection isn’t it, some amazing songs on there” said my mother a few weeks ago. Walking past the shelves that house my LP collection she had pulled out one boxed set of albums and peered at its contents.IMG_20151111_213207800

This was the set in question, a boxed pack of eight discs, dating from the days when the mighty Readers Digest empire specialised in lovingly curated themed collections, all sold in special presentation packs and designed with the aim of being something to treasure and appreciate for some considerable time. It is in marked contrast to today when the themed compilation market now consists of “100 Best Songs About Farting” 3-CD sets sold for a fiver at supermarket kiosks.

My mother was the person who had actually bought it for me, at my special request as a Christmas present in 1987, this after I’d picked up the leaflet breathlessly advertising its contents after it had been left lying on the living room table having clearly been bundled with a prize draw mailing or inserted into a Sunday supplement somewhere.

A collection of old Number One hit singles made my eyes gleam, for it was advertised in the exact week that Radio One had gone to town on the fact that China In Your Hand by T’Pau had just become the 600th Number One single. To commemorate, they announced that over the coming weeks they would make a point of airing every single one of those chart-toppers at some point during daytime programming. It is hard to imagine now that the network would contemplate drip feeding records that were some 35 years old into their programming, but back then the station was at the forefront of noting and celebrating popular music history.

I’d always had an appreciation of older hits and the songs of the days before I was born. Years of listening avidly to Jimmy Savile’s Old Record Club shows on a Sunday lunchtime and studying the history of each artist he played in the pages of British Hit Singles had helped to ensure that. But suddenly here was the chance for me to start collecting older hits for myself, a selection of the very same famous hits that Radio One was airing in full was but a polite request away. It was one of my favourite presents that year.

I tell this tale simply because I’m kind of sad that the joy of building a music collection is one that the next generation may never experience. Quite simply why should they, given that just about every piece of mainstream recorded music is now available with just one click of a mouse or one tap of a screen. Yet unless you stumble across an old song, how will you ever know of its existence? That’s part of my motivation for writing the Top 40 Annual series of books, just so for the benefit of someone, somewhere the significance of every pop hit is written down for reference and future discovery.

Meanwhile the past belongs to the 14 year old me, who thanks to the combined efforts of Radio One and Readers Digest spent the Christmas holidays 28 years ago cultivating a proper appreciation of Number One hits from 1955 through to 1985, from Adam Faith and Buddy Holly through ABBA and Dr Hook and ending up at The Police, Bucks Fizz and Jim Diamond (RIP). And I’m glad you pulled it off the shelf to remind me of this, Mum.

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