The most famous singles chart battle of the 1990s very nearly ended before it had even begun. The week before the release Oasis’ label were alerted to a major problem with the design of the sleeve for Roll With It. Tests by chart compilers Millward Brown had revealed that both their own terminals and the EPOS machines of some major retailers were becoming confused by a black border around the all-important barcode and were unable to read it properly. In theory this is normally dealt with by a prompt for the cashier to enter the code manually, but the risk of this being done in error or for frustrated shop workers to skip over it altogether was considered too great to take.
It all meant a herculean effort by both label and distributor staff, stickering or replacing what were estimated to be over 100,000 different CDs over the course of the weekend before release. This meant that shipments of the Oasis single were delayed and so whilst retailers had been delivered boxes of the Blur single before the weekend, many shops opened with empty shelves where the Oasis single should have been until delivery of the discs was taken during the morning.
Stock issues did little to dim the assumption that the crown was Oasis’ for the taking. Based on their previous chart form (where Oasis had reached Number One before but Blur had never charted higher than Number 5) bookmakers made the Gallagher brothers 4/6 to top the charts, canny punters preferring to back the outsider able to get a price of 6/4. Although the major chains were reluctant to reveal too many details, a survey of independent retailers suggested that advance orders for the Oasis single were far higher than those of Blur. It genuinely seemed a foregone conclusion.
Such was the level of interest in the chart race that for the first time the chart publishers drew back the curtain and revealed officially for the very first time that they did indeed obtain running totals of how records were selling. CIN (as they then were) gave the press regular updates on the chart race, enabling the papers to stoke the fires of anticipation all week long.
On Tuesday morning the Oasis camp still had reason to be confident:
A genuine regional split was emerging, but perhaps more tellingly a sales gap depending on where you shopped. The more populist HMV chain had Blur edging it, but Tower Records was attracting the Oasis buyers. There was also a split when it came to airplay. By Wednesday the airplay tally was running at 245-173 in favour of Blur on ILR stations. Radio One had a different view however and by the same point midweek had played Roll With It 19 times compared to 15 for Country House.
Three days later the fight appeared to have changed direction dramatically:
The Daily Express piece unwittingly exposed what, in the final reckoning, was believed to be the decisive factor. Cannily Blur and Food records had struck the better deal with the major retailers, meaning that Country House was selling for just £1.99 compared to the £2.99 it cost to buy the Oasis single (independent shops commanded no buying power and were forced to sell both singles for the ‘standard’ £3.75). Perhaps even more cannily Blur had won the format race. They had two versions of the CD single available, one with the studio recording and the other containing a selection of live tracks (including Country House naturally) recorded at the band’s Mile End Stadium concert on May. Quite how many casual buyers would have found that attractive is open to question, but dedicated fans would have keenly purchased both, giving the Essex boys a further sales edge.
At approximately 6.45pm on Sunday August 20th all was finally revealed as the two records took their place in the charts and their place in history.
Oasis were popular and their song was good, but in the final reckoning just not quite good or popular enough. Narrowly failing to give them a second Number One single in a row, Roll With It sold 216,000 copies during the course of the week, the highest total of any Number 2 single since Last Christmas by Wham! just over a decade earlier.
Pricing issues and CD formats aside, what surely swung it for Blur was the fact that at the end of the day Country House was simply the better pop record and with the potential to appeal to a far wider audience than that of their rivals. The culmination of the musical journey the group had been on for the previous two years, channelling the spirits of both The Kinks and The Small Faces to create cheery snapshots of modern life, Country House was the infectious tale of the city banker who retires to the countryside to live in peace with his ailments and addictions. A brightly coloured video starring model Jo Guest and with shades of Benny Hill-esque humour in places only added to the package which would ultimately prove irresistible. Country House sold a huge 274,000 copies that week, a total which by the standards of the preceding ten years was huge but which in 1995 terms actually trailed the 346,000 copies sold in one week by Take That with Back For Good and the phenomenal three week run of 310,000; 460,000; and 320,000 shifted by Robson & Jerome with Unchained Melody. Chart battles be damned, 1995 had already seen some astonishingly high selling singles.
Regardless of who “won” or “lost”, the whole week had been a triumph for the music industry as a whole. The singles market overall grew by a massive 41% over the preceding week with 1.7 million singles sold across the board. A knock on effect had been felt by all the other big selling singles of the moment and it was not insignificant that every one of the Top 25 singles that week sold at least 15,000 copies. A week earlier only the Top 17 had reached that total. Indeed it was particularly unlucky for TLC and The Original who both saw their sales increase over those of the preceding week but who fell down the chart regardless.
Blur would release their fourth album The Great Escape a month later, the collection flying to the top of the charts to give them a second Number One album in a row. It duly completed the trilogy of similarly themed albums that had begun with 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and continued the following year with Parklife. Having reached a commercial high, they then had the room to experiment, the lo-fi approach to 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13 only enhancing their reputation as musicians. The group would survive a 21st century hiatus to reunite as respected veterans and a proven live draw.
For Oasis the Number 2 single was just another step up the mountain. Released in October, their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory would become one of the defining musical works of its era and a creative peak that many would argue they never quite managed to emulate. Even so, it propelled the group on to such levels of popularity that their third album Be Here Now set a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled, selling 350,000 copies on its first day of release and 696,000 by the end of the sales week – all this on just three days of sales.
Back to 1995 though and there was one final controversial twist to the tale. On September 17th Noel Gallagher was profiled in a piece in The Observer written by journalist Miranda Sawyer. In it she quoted the star discussing his chart rivals in terms which were soon to become notorious.
Exactly when this interview took place is open to some debate. Speaking on XFM a decade later to formally recant the comments, Gallagher said: “I was in this dressing room after we played Irvine Beach in that Big Top, and we were all fucked taking drugs – she was taking drugs an all, and I won’t name her on the fucking radio because that’s probably not the best thing legally to do – but I kinda thought we were speaking off the record, but of course there was a tape recorder on”. The Irvine Beach concerts actually took place on 14th and 15th July 1995, a full month before the Battle Of Britpop and indeed the original Observer piece does indeed portray the interview has having taken place backstage at that concert. Yet the infamous “Aids” comment is portrayed as moment of bitterness for losing a chart battle which had not yet happened which makes you wonder just how accurate the account of this particular part of the conversation was. Given that Noel by his own admission was off his head at the time, you do wonder if his only recollection of making the comments he spent the next few years apologising for is based on the Observer piece.
Speaking as a chart fan, and one who had only a month or so earlier been admitted into the inner sanctum of the music industry, being paid by Music Week themselves to write about them online for the first time ever, the Battle Of Britpop was a moment of great excitement. Following a singles chart which, by all accounts, “stopped mattering” sometime in the early 1970s it was rather enjoyable to see such popular attention being paid to the best sellers table outside of the week before Christmas. Over the years that followed such two way battles would continue to grab headlines, perhaps most notoriously in the summer of 2000 when a similar battle between Victoria Beckham and Sophie Ellis-Bextor led to the same levels of media attention, even if the records in question weren’t quite as achingly cool this time around. With the singles chart currently still settling into its new home on Fridays, it would be fun to once again see a proper chart battle inspire mainstream attention once more and to once again hammer home the idea of a race to the top of the charts. For now we have some very fond memories of a very famous Top 40 chart, which you can hear below in full: