A two-step in the right direction

Perhaps the best thing about the singles chart today is it provides a useful index of what music to avoid. The success of Craig David, however, offers discerning pop fans hope.

It never ceases to amaze me how people get so hot under the collar over the charts. Endless hot air is expended over Steps, B*Witched, Five and all their saccharine soul-mates who hog the upper reaches of the charts. You can only imagine the extent of their ire when Westlife bagged their fifth consecutive Number One last week, earning themselves a place in The Guinness Book of Records.

This, said their press release, is something that the Spice Girls, the Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Elvis all failed to achieve. Well, congratulations boys. After less than a year on the scene you have not only made pop history but you can probably already afford to retire. Just don't be deceived into thinking that anyone is actually going to remember you.

Back in the old days, there was always a flurry of excitement over who was about to top the charts. Even the one-hit wonders - remember Nina's "99 Red Balloons", M's "Pop Music", Yazz's "The Only Way is Up"? - stay defiantly lodged in the memory. Today's teenagers may be able to recite the new Number One single backwards but I can't be the only one who hasn't the vaguest notion what Westlife's "Swear It Again", "Flying Without Wings", or the latest "Fool Again", sounds like.

Yet as far as the industry is concerned it is the singles rather than the albums that matter; a song in the top five can practically guarantee an artist a slot on the National Lottery show, Top of the Pops and a variety of prime-time chat shows. You could pontificate endlessly over the evils of boy/girl/boy-girl bands, how the concept of underground has virtually disappeared and how marketing strategies have sucked the life out of the music industry. But surely what all this points to is the fact that, where the public are concerned, the charts don't matter anymore. That, if anything they are an index of what the discerning music listener should strive to avoid.

Or are they? Last week's mid-week charts heralded the arrival of David Craig's "Fill Me In", a catchy slice of UK garage (or two-step as it's fashionably known because of its two-two beat) at Number One, not only knocking Westlife off the top spot but scuppering Richard Ashcroft's attempts at world domination with his first solo single. But the biggest coup of all is that here is a record which has gathered kudos without the kind of formidable marketing offered by a major label.

This is what rock historians call a Significant Pop Moment. This is David taking on Goliath and landing him a beauty right between the eyes. You may have heard Craig David's name before, in association with the Artful Dodger's two-step track "Rewind" - David was the one yelling: "Re... re...wind/ And the crowd say bo select-aaah." OK, it was the kind of irritatingly catchy tune that was tailor-made for the mainstream but the difference is it wasn't manufactured. It had been doing the rounds in underground garage clubs long before it wound up in the charts.

DJ Luck & MC Neat's "A Little Bit of Luck", another underground UK garage tune, entered the charts earlier in the year and even made it on to Top of the Pops. "Fill Me In" is another example of a tune that has come up through the clubs. It straddles UK garage and R&B and finds David in a more melodious mood, crooning about his love for the girl next door.

Unlike his reconstructed predecessors, Craig David is the nearest thing to an ordinary kid made good. At 14 he was MC-ing in his local pirate radio station before he became resident DJ as his local club in Southampton. Here he met Mark Hill, one half of the Artful Dodger, prompting the start of a friendship which eventually yielded "Rewind". David and Hill now have their own garage show on Capital Radio and David had recently been signed to Wildstar records, a modest-sized record company. For an artist such as David to top Westlife, a teen band signed to the RCA record label, is no small achievement.

Now it would be naive to believe that David has got where he has without any promotion at all. We may be falling victim to stealth marketing, a subtle and deliberate strategy that has a subliminal effect on precisely the kind of buyers that believe they are above crass marketing hype. But so far he has avoided appearances on naff TV shows and has steered well clear of the music press. By far the best reason to support him is that he has not been groomed for stardom and has hit the big-time on his own terms.

However, entering the mainstream can be a death-knell for many a respectable underground genre - just look what happened to jungle, drum 'n' bass and big beat. The major labels get involved and, before you know it, what was previously seen as urban and "street" has become an advertising jingle for the next Vauxhall car.

I can't say that I particularly like Craig David's song - on hearing it a friend of mine accurately described it as "white stiletto" music. But in as far as the way it has arrived at the top of the charts, it is at least a step - or is that two-step? - in the right direction. Perhaps one day we may even start to care about the charts again.