I still remember the feeling of utter joy I got from listening to the chart rundown every week as a teenager. Every Sunday lunch time I would be hunched over my tape deck, poised to hit the record and play buttons, just in case one of my favourite new song was the next to be aired. The butterflies in my tummy would be flaring up as Mark Goodier’s Top 40 Singles Chart aired its weekly countdown to the top-spot. The thing about the charts in those days was that you never knew exactly where your favourite songs was going to land, or if it would land at all.
I cared a lot about these things. It had become ritual to spend an entire Sunday sitting on the edge of the bed with my best pal, as we waited to see if our favourite boy bands had actually managed to reach the top 10, or even better the top 5, with their latest pop smashes.
Take for example Sunday the 8th July, 1997. A typical Sunday for me as once again I found myself loitering by the radio as the official countdown began. My favourite boy band, 911, had just released the last single from their debut album, a song called ‘The Journey’, and I desperately wanted it to go straight to the top. To ensure this I bought both versions of the single on CD and the tape version. I’d saved, stolen and begged money just to do it too, so there was a lot riding on that week’s chart. Puff Daddy & Faith Evans sentimentally pappy tribute to Notorious B.I.G., ‘I’ll Be Missing You’, was riding the crest of a wave and would be hard to shift from its pole position. It had already spent four weeks at the top. There was also competition from a swathe of new releases from the likes of Sheryl Crow, Teenage Fanclub, Ghostface Killah and Alisha’s Attic. I particularly liked the Sheryl Crow song, ‘A Change Would Do You Good’, but couldn’t admit it to myself because she was that week’s enemy number one as far as I was concerned.
For four hours I could not peel myself away from that radio. I needed to know who would be number one (it was Puff Daddy again, the bastard). I needed to know how many places the catchy new song from No Doubt would fall (the answer was three). And I definitely needed to know where my beloved 911 were going to chart (they reached number three, their highest chart position, so I was feeling rather smug as I put away my triple single purchases). To top it all off, I now had the added bonus of getting to see all the movers and shakers perform on Top of the Pops the following week. Result.
My dedication to the charts fizzled out sometime in 2001, not long before Mark Goodier’s presenting tenure also came to an end. I was getting older and moving on to different genres of music, genres that didn’t particularly give a shit whether there was a chart battle between N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But I always missed the innocence of that time and the feeling of excitement which came with each purchase of a new CD single.
In truth, I don’t pay any attention to the charts anymore. I hear new music every day of the week and spend a lot of time trawling through Spotify for artists who are fresh to my ears but who’ve probably been releasing music for decades. I still download songs and buy physical albums too, but rarely check how my purchases affect the official chart. But I did spend one long day listening to Radio 1s entire daytime content for a university project recently, the first time I’d sat and listened to the daytime content of the station for around 15 years. It was a task which left me feeling slightly angry at the world. Radio 1 hasn’t really altered its objectives in the last two decades, it still aims to appeal to a young demographic through contemporary music choices. But the nature of how it does this, through intense rotation of one main playlist and several others which off-shoot it, are surely indelibly linked to how the current chart plays out.
I listened on a Friday, the new day for the chart rundown to be revealed. Of course, the way the singles chart is compiled has altered vastly since my CD single purchasing days – with streaming and sales combining to form the official chart run down - and I’m well aware of the impact that can have on an artist’s ability to chart, but I was still shocked by the stagnation our current chart system operates under.
Any information in this next paragraph comes from figures relating to the Official Singles Chart Top 20, week commencing 1st July. In that chart there has only been one new entry in the last two weeks, Fifth Harmony’s song ‘Work From Home’, which just about made it into the number 20 slot. All of the songs in the current top 20 have been hanging around the charts from anything between two - 22 weeks. That means there are songs that have been in this current chart rundown since the end of January. Apparently, a lot of people still want to hear Mike Posner’s ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ and it doesn’t look like they’ll be fed up with it anytime soon, either. The top five is made up of songs which have been hovering around for anything up to 13 weeks, in one of the most endless, and boring tug-of-war battle’s possibly ever witnessed. Is ‘Too Good’ by Drake, feat. Rihanna, finally going to make it to the top spot after a nine week climb (it currently sits at number three), we just don’t know. But what does it matter anyway, because he’d be battling himself for the top spot anyway (yes, Drake is currently sitting at number one and three in the chart).
The stagnation isn’t all Radio 1s fault. Many elements weave their way into that sorry tale; from the way we all tend to consume music nowadays; to record labels hedging their bets, failing new artists in the process; to the way the chart itself is constructed (it’ll get onto that point particularly in a minute). But Radio 1 still have a crucial role to play in the game as a station with over 10 million listeners per week. A fundamental element to Radio 1s remit is that it offers a range of new music and supports emerging artists, and to an extent it does this through its ‘In New Music We Trust’ and ‘BBC Introducing’ playlists. But when you actually look closely at the detail, the daytime content of Radio 1 lags painfully behind in comparison to the content of the station after 6pm. The day I listened to Radio 1 not all of its ‘In New Music We Trust’ songs were played throughout the day, its BBC Introducing artist wasn’t played at all. Its standard playlists contains a lot of songs which have already been in the charts for an endless amount of time. If it did more to showcase the breadth of music out there perhaps the charts would not be as idle as they are.
I’m just thankful that Top of the Pops is no longer on. Can you imagine it? ‘Hi, I’m Greg James and on this week’s show we have all the same songs as last week, just in a slightly different order… and here for the 23rd time in a row is Coldplay’s “Hymn For the Weekend.”’ Not even Bryan Adam’s during his ‘Everything I Do…’ 16 week chart run made me feel this nauseous.
New releases used to hit you like a juggernaut and burn away just as quickly, leaving an indelible mark on your soul, and Radio 1 used to be just as merciless about its play-listing choices too:
Blondie, ‘Maria’ – one week at number one.
Christina Aguilera, ‘Genie In a Bottle’ – two weeks at number one.
All Saints, ‘Pure Shores’ – one week at number one.
Britney Spears, ‘Oops! ...I Did it Again’ – one week at number one.
Now, songs are drummed into our brains by Radio 1s 10 song playlist shuffle and float around for months at a time on the charts before they even become any real threat to the top spot. As I pointed out earlier, Drake is currently also at number one with his song ‘One Dance’. This track has been at number one for 13 weeks and first charted in the top 100 on the 14th of April. OK, so credit where it’s due, old Drakey boy is now the claimant of the longest running U.K no. 1 single in the UK in 22 years, but if the chart was still constructed purely from sales only his song would actually only be sitting at number 11. Streams have pushed Drake to the top spot and there’s no sign of this abating. Is that fair? That the song currently making history, as the longest running since Marti Pellow bleated ‘love is all around us’, isn’t actually the highest selling single, but it still manages to nab the top spot and hold it for such a record-breaking time? I feel like Wet Wet Wet should be starting a petition (everyone else does these days) to disbar Drake’s claim to the title. It feels like cheating your way to the crown somehow.
No wonder teenagers today couldn’t really give a toss about charts or what buying a song might actually mean. Because the understanding they’ve grown up around is that buying a song no longer has equal or higher value to simply listening to it. I hate to do that thing where I become my parents and say ‘it was better in my day,’ but on this occasion I do genuinely feel it was. And yes, I do still have all three versions of 911s single ‘The Journey’ in my possession and I plan on keeping it that way. If my teenage years taught me anything about music it’s that you’ll never love any band as much, or as innocently again, as you do your first. I wouldn’t give any of the hours of chart mix-tape meltdowns and Top of the Pops abandon up, not for anything. Nothing could ever compete. But one thing I will at least admit to now is that, that Sheryl Crow song is actually a belter.