Oldies aren't always goldies

Facebook campaigns to manipulate the pop charts are all the rage, but they have a disturbing flip side, says Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

When Rage Against the Machine beat the cutesy X Factor winner Joe McElderry to the Christmas No 1 slot, it seemed like a victory for proper music over manufactured tat, passionate fans had got one over those executives selling music like baked beans.

Yet the apparent ease with which a single that reached No 25 in 1993 could beat a pin-up with public votes and blanket media coverage opened the floodgates for those with a cause to promote. Anyone on Facebook could gain cheap publicity by encouraging their peers to buy a particular track on a certain week in the hope of making an impression on that Sunday's charts.

Taken as an individual case, you have to feel sympathy for the activists behind the save BBC 6 Music campaign. The digital station genuinely fills a niche that others fail to reach by breaking new artists and reminding us of great acts from the past that fail to meet the middle-of-the-road demands of Radio 2 or bother Xfm's limited playlist. Now its supporters have co-opted an apt band to spearhead their push on the charts in Half Man Half Biscuit.

Hailing from unfashionable Birkenhead, Half Man Half Biscuit were content to occasionally top the indie charts with their album Back in the DHSS and singles such as "Dickie Davies Eyes". The 6 Music listeners that have suggested the band's "Joy Division Oven Gloves" as a profile-raising gambit admit they originally thought of it at a spoof of the anti-X Factor campaign, but have seen their mild satire take on a life of its own, with real purpose in getting the mordant underachievers chartbound on Sunday 11 April.

Already, though, they face stiff competition in the chart attack stakes for that week, courtesy of Midge Ure's Ultravox. Diehard fans aim to get their band's biggest hit, "Vienna", up to the No 1 slot denied it 29 years ago by Joe Dolce's novelty "Shaddap You Face". Inevitably, a rival group has coalesced on Facebook to ensure the Aussie singer-songwriter maintains his hold over the British group. As well as reminding us of this No 1's irritating Italo-English catchphrases, the Ultravox campaign seems a very petty means of rewriting history.

Now a bunch of biker enthusiasts want to celebrate St George's Day by propelling the Clash's obscure "This Is England" to No 1 on 25 April. This is head-spinning on so many levels, not least the fact that the chart they have targeted is announced two days after the patron saint's feast day.

Our Clash-loving bikers first choice of tune remains odd. At first, I shuddered at the reminder of the Clash's limp final album, Cut the Crap, when what was left of the band were on their last legs. This was a record disowned by Joe Strummer and airbrushed from documentaries and greatest hits alike until the release of their exhaustive and compelling Singles box set.

Yet "This Is England", despite the tinny drum machines and keyboards and irksome terrace chanting, repays further listening. It really does distil that sense of mid-Eighties disillusionment and despair. Maybe for the bikers there is an extra frisson of irony in choosing a number where Strummer sings, "I got my motorcycle jacket/But I'm walking all the time." And there is an anti-racist context further on: "Those British boots go kick Bengali in the head/Police sit watchin'/The newspapers been read." Still, I would rather the singles charts were left alone to continue with their primary aim – providing a snapshot of the nation's listening tastes.