2012 marks the 60th Anniversary of the day the NME produced the first list of best-selling songs in the UK. Topping the charts that day – effectively the first number one hit in the UK – was Al Martino.
Prior to this chart of record sales, there was a music chart – but one which reflected sales of sheet music. (As an aside, let’s speculate as to whether the four notes and four words of 2Unlimited’s No Limits – to take an entirely random example – would have reached the top spot had it been only in printed form…)
Since that time, the Charts have provided a snapshot of history every week, reflecting the reality (in pure record sales) of how music was touching the nation.
Perhaps what is interesting is that they tell a different story to the history books in a way that is irrefutable.
For example, the charts tell us that 1967 was not the summer of love. In terms of sales it was the year of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me, which kept The Beatles’ greatest Double A side Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever off the Number One slot. This was the first Beatles single for four years not to reach Number One.
Similarly the best selling records in 1977/8 were not by The Sex Pistols or The Clash, but were the likes of Mull of Kintyre and Boney M. Does this mean that the social impact of bands like The Sex Pistols are over-stated? You can’t argue with the fact that Boney M sold more records in those years than The Clash. Why do we not refer to the seventies as “The Boney M Years”?
This is one of the many questions posed by a new BBC4 TV Documentary to be broadcast tonight. Which, in case I didn’t mention it before, (OK – I have mentioned it before – I’ve been banging on about this like an excited schoolgirl) I have made a contribution towards.
So, were ’77 and ’78 really the years of Boney M and Mull of Kintyre rather than The Sex Pistols and The Clash?
They were for me. I was seven years old. My parents played Radio 2. I was oblivious to punk. I was no more aware of Jonny Rotten pointing out to the establishment how unhappy he was with prospect of WWIII (Holidays in the Sun), having to flush two of his mother’s stillborn children down the lavatory (Bodies) or with the establishment and state of the UK (God Save The Queen) than he was aware of my growing collection of Krazy and Whizzer and Chips comics.
Unless it was on Swap Shop or Top of The Pops, I knew nothing about it. It is just possible that Britain’s sporting decline can be traced back to the advent of Noel Edmunds‘ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop which launched in October 1976 and caused a sensation in the school playground: Kids TV! For three whole hours on a Saturday morning! Like a bearded Death Star with a light-entertainment tractor beam, Swap Shop dragged the nation’s kids indoors and in front of the TV, away from healthier pursuits such as playing hop-scotch and kicking a tin can around with jumpers for goalposts…
Does that mean that the charts were a better reflection of what was going on in people’s lives? Not in my view. The reason for this is that the Charts are a rare meeting place of show business and rock n roll – and the two are very different. Boney M and The Sex Pistols might have both recorded music onto 7″ vinyl records, but there wasn’t much else that was similar. There is little social commentary in Boney M’s Brown Girl In The Ring, and precious few of their gigs were in front of a packed 100 club in front of pogo-ing sickly-yet-threatening-looking Mohican sporting yobbos that were driving the nation’s media commentators to distraction. Equally, The Sex Pistols never satisfactorily addressed the question of what Rasputin’s life was really like and whether he was in fact Russia’s greatest love machine.
The way I see it is that throughout rock history there has been a battle between show business and rock n roll.
Boney M: show business. They were all about going on Des O’ Connor. Being the musical interlude during The Two Ronnies. Prime time TV. Saturday Night at The London Palladium. What the Beatles had to go through before they realised they didn’t need all that stuff, and they changed tack and made Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper.
Englebert’s Please Release Me may have kept Penny Lane off the top, but it wasn’t a rock n roll record. In truth it was a terrible record. A novelty record. But a popular record…that kept not one but two of rock’s greatest ever songs off the top spot in the UK.
The charts are about show business. A lot of people like show business and musical theatre. A lot more than like rock n roll – and that was even more the case thirty five years ago than it is now. It doesn’t mean they are wrong. They just like something different. It hurts to say that, but then, as Shakespeare said, if everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other. Sorry. Not Shakespeare. Groove Armada.
The charts are where rock n roll and show business meet. Sometimes show business sells more. But rock n roll always make better records. And that counts more than mere chart positions.
Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten is on BBC4 on 16th November 2012 at 21.25.
Record #117: Paul McCartney and Wings – Mull of Kintyre