Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten – Part 2

From Pat Sharpe’s personal collection?

One of the questions I was asked in Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten was why so many people used to tape songs off the radio? Was there more romance surrounding the charts back then?

Part of the answer was for practical reasons. We didn’t have much money back then. I wouldn’t say we were poor, but when it was cold, my dad would suck a mint and we’d all sit round his tongue. (I’m here all week, ladies and gentlemen). So if you wanted to hear the songs you liked, you couldn’t afford to buy them all. Now! Compilations only started being produced around that time, presumably to counter all this clandestine recording. Is the fact that this compilation series is now coming to an end (albeit apparently for reasons related to record-company mergers) a sign that even the mix-tape / compilation album is an outdated concept?

The fact that we taped songs off the Chart Countdown wasn’t just economics, however. The other practical reason was that in the UK the only time that pop music was broadcast on the radio in Stereo was on Sunday evenings from 4-7pm. This is why when people talk about taping songs off the radio they are usually referring to the chart countdown, and why there is now a shared experience when we look back.

That didn’t explain everything however. Who was topping the charts must also have mattered greatly. Records would take weeks to climb upwards as sales gathered momentum. It was a huge thing for a record to go straight in at Number One – a sure sign of Superstar status. It only happened once a year, if that. I remember when The Jam did it. The Police. Then Adam Ant. Duran Duran maybe. Nowadays if a record doesn’t go straight in at the top spot, the Marketing Department all have to resign en masse (or they just haven’t thrown enough money at it…)

We would smuggle in a radio into class on a Tuesday lunchtime – when the first chart placings were announced. We wouldn’t have bothered if it didn’t matter. I don’t do it now. But then it might be a bit odd if a forty two year old bloke was still in a classroom. Teachers excepted. And I bet they don’t bother keeping up with the charts now.

As the documentary noted, you would also hear stories about how certain songs might have bought their way to the top. Stories of men hanging around record shops paying people to buy multiple copies of records to get them in the charts. They never asked me.

Only certain shops actually recorded the sales that made up the charts. if you wanted a particular record to chart, you knew you had to buy it from (say) Woolworths on the high street, rather than Our Price, because otherwise, like voting Labour in a safe Tory seat, you were just wasting your vote. What I didn’t know (but was pointed out by the Look-in Annual 1982) was that they rotated the shops used, so out of 750 shops, only 250 were canvassed each week.

But perhaps the biggest reason we taped, rather than just listened to the radio, was that taping off the radio is as much about not recording what you don’t want hear as recording what you do. It is the ultimate skip button.

The charts were, of course, a great example of a democracy. It was sometimes fixed, you could buy your way to power and the majority of the population appeared to have terrible taste… So being able to edit what you heard was tremendously appealing.

It was your chance to become the A&R man.

The Beatles? Suddenly I’m Dick Rowe at Decca: Yes – guitar music has a future! Sign them up! They’re on the tape… Lionel Richie? Next! Be off with you! Phil Collins? Sorry mate – on your bike. You should never have divorced your wife by fax. One Direction? Where’s the lever for the trapdoor?

People recorded off the radio because if they didn’t they’d have had to wade through hours of Stock Aitken and Waterman before they got to a decent tune.

Is that romance? Were the charts more important back then? Was the music more interesting? Did changes to radio make music better or worse? Or no different?

You’ll have to watch the documentary (on the BBC’s iPlayer) to see if wiser heads than mine were able to shed more light on these questions… In the meantime, what do you think?

Record #118: Ray Parker Jnr – Ghostbusters


10 responses to “Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten – Part 2”

  1. beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes Avatar

    A good programme and your taping skills were about right. My mate used to tape the punk songs for me in the same way, as I couldn’t afford a lovely double-decked cassette radio! But our saviour from all that was bland and record company contrived was JOHN PEEL. Gawd bless the beardie-pikkie (punk hippy) and his late night show. Oh how I loved to baby-sit my neighbour’s kids for beer money and the chance to listen to Peely unhindered by my old man’s shouts of ‘turn that bloody crap down!’

    In my novel, Thugs Like Us, there’s a bit where I remember the baths on Sundays, listening to the chart show, which were always followed by the ‘Sing Something Simple’ show. The harmonised, melancholic strains of that title track still bring back the stench of coal fires and blackouts and the dread fear of school on Monday. Torture. No happy memories for me then? No. More like a journey into the Heart of Radio Darkness. The Horror. The Horror.

    Those were the days my friend…I thought they’d never end… help, another unwanted flashback.

    I think what I got from the programme, apart from Boney-M flashbacks/nightmares and DJ cringe-factor-ten was just how sad the British record buying public really was/is.

    Number one top selling single ever – Candle In The Wind. Elton John. Princess Diana. I cannot cry enough.
    I rest my case.

    You do know you’re now gonna be asked to be on every list show every created.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I think that Sunday evening the-weekend-is-over feeling in the pit of the stomach is pretty familiar. For many, the strains of Last of the Summer Wine, for others Songs of Praise…
      My own home taping nadir came with The Friday Rock show – I’ll probably talk about that another time…
      Thanks for your comment.


  2. musikwala Avatar

    Haha I used to tape off the radio all the freaking time in my teen years! I still say that the charts had better songs in the 80s and 90s but that could just be the nostalgia talking. Initially I used to tape mono by physically placing the recorder next to the TV set speaker (playing MTV) or the radio and actually keeping quiet while the song was playing. Yes, I was that obsessed! Later I started taping properly on my radio cum double cassette player. It’s so funny, often times they would cut the song off at the very end. So I would have to rewind back and remove the dj’s voice by recording some silence. lol. Those were the days!


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I remember recording Status Quo on Live Aid by recording the TV. It didn’t get the best results. Especially when my mum came in the room…


  3. bashfulbadger Avatar

    There’s nothing like a smooth segue between songs. Seriously, there was nothing like a smooth segue between songs. They’d end abruptly with a snatch of the annoying DJ’s voice talking. And you’d miss the start of the next one because they’d blather on right up to the vocals. It took real dedication to tape the songs you wanted, especially if your parents were expecting you to have tea at the same time. I remember racing up and down the stairs, missing something on Radio 1 and tuning across to miss it on Capital too. Those were the days.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Eventually we got a fader on my Dad’s tape recorder, so you could fade a song out before the DJ came in. If you were very very lucky. Usually I’d end up fading the song out too soon.


      1. bashfulbadger Avatar

        Oh it did teach you patience and perseverance though, didn’t it?


      2. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        It made me the man I am today…


  4. John S Avatar

    Taping off the radio was a rite of passage for those of us of a certain age! Now you just go onto iTunes. And that is so much better.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      You’re right of course. These are fond memories, but we’d have stopped at a stroke if YouTube had been around…


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