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apparently for reasons related to record-company mergers) a sign that even the mix-tape / compilation album is an outdated concept?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?
Record #118: Ray Parker Jnr – Ghostbusters