Fans chart the rise and rise of a single musical revolution

FOR generations of teenagers, myself included, Sunday evenings were spent glued to their radio cassette player, listening to the latest singles chart on Radio 1 and taping their favourite songs.

It was a weekly ritual repeated in bedrooms up and down the land, where the knack was to finish recording the song before you heard the voice of Mark Goodier, David “Kid” Jensen, or whoever the DJ was (depending on your vintage).

The charts were as much a part of growing up as maths homework and turkey at Christmas, and today this pop music institution celebrates its 60th anniversary.

The earliest incarnation of the UK singles chart was published in the New Musical Express (NME) on November 14, 1952, when NME’s advertising manager Percy Dickins telephoned a handful of retailers around the UK to poll what they had sold that week.

From this he created a Top 12 chart for the pages of the magazine with Al Martino’s Here In My Heart gaining the distinction of being the first ever Number 1 single.

Little could Mr Dickins and NME have known that more than half a century later it would still be going strong, having not only helped transform the face of popular music but culture and society, too. But as Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company, points out, it has come a long way since those early days.

“When you look back at the first chart you had one man calling up a few record shops to find out what they had sold that week and noting it down in his pad.

“When you compare that to today when it’s completely electronic and you have 6,500 supermarkets, record shops and online stores feeding in the data and it’s a different world.”

The charts go back to a time when most people had never even heard of rock n roll. “We’re talking about a time before Elvis had walked into Sun Studio, before JFK had become the American president and the space race started, which is barely imaginable to us,” says Talbot.

The charts have seen the rise of rock n roll and Beatlemania through to glam rock, disco, the punk movement, indie and hip hop and more musical shades than you’d find in Ziggy Stardust’s make-up box. “Looking back through the charts you see the ebb and flow of all the types of music. It’s a chronicle of musical tastes and a reflection of British culture.”

Over the decades, the charts captured numerous landmark moments, such as the Beatles’ first UK number 1, From Me To You, in April 1963, and the Band Aid song Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which became the fastest and biggest selling single of all time in December 1984 – before it was overtaken on both counts by Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 13 years later.

At the heart of it all was the seven inch, vinyl 45 rpm record, which although a seemingly nondescript object became one of the most abiding artefacts of pop music. Small and perfectly formed, it was not only a potent symbol of youth culture but it contained the hopes and fears of successive generations.

The single has changed format over the years, from a vinyl record to a CD during the late 80s and 90s. But less than a decade ago the future of singles, and therefore the charts, looked bleak. By 2003, sales had slumped to just 31 million – the lowest level since the 50s – and critics were getting ready to write the single’s obituary.

But rather than finish it off, the digital revolution has sparked a renaissance in singles sales and interest in the pop charts. As some record shops have struggled, the advent of legal downloads from online stores has revitalised the industry. So much so that physical formats now account for less than one per cent of singles sales.

Last year around 178 million singles were sold in the UK, while this year’s figure is expected to reach 190 million.

At that rate, this decade will eclipse the 90s as the most successful ever for sales. Ten singles have already reached the million mark, including Adele’s Someone Like You and, most recently, Somebody That I Used To Know by Gotye.

“There has been a massive bounce back and the single has been reborn in the digital age,” says Talbot. But why this dramatic turnaround? “You can buy a download single for as little as 99 pence, the same price a single cost in 1980.”

It’s also convenient. “Ten years ago if you heard a piece of music you liked on a Sunday evening you had to wait to the next day when you could go to a record shop, and that was if they had it. But now you can download it in an instant, wherever you are.”