Could it be magic? Manilow is a chart-topper again

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The Independent Culture

The king of easy listening is back. It's been 29 years since Barry Manilow last had a number one album, but this week he has pulled off the old magic one more time.

Manilow's new compilation of golden oldies - what else? - unexpectedly soared to the top spot in the US Billboard chart in its first week of release, to the delight of his middle-of-the-road, predominantly female audience and, no doubt, the horror of just about everyone else.

The album title says it all: The Greatest Songs of the Fifties. The tracks - "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", "Beyond the Sea", "Unchained Melody" - are tried, true and indestructibly safe.

But no matter: Manilow's eyes are still blue. His hair and face, even at the age of 62, have a Cliff Richard air of eternal youth. And he still holds that microphone up to his mouth like a man whispering his deepest, most intimate secrets to a dearly cherished lounge cushion.

Back in the 1970s, when Manilow made the best of his gawky features and protuberant nose to pioneer the blow-dried, whitened teeth, fake suntan style of crooning, he was the man you either loved or hated, but certainly couldn't get away from.His hits, from "Mandy" to "Copacabana" to "I Wanna Do It With You", were on the radio, in the office lift and even in the dentist's waiting room. He was Rod Stewart without the rocker edge or the raspy voice, Tom Jones without the demonic sexual undercurrent, a sort of male Barbra Streisand - except he appealed to straight women, not gay men.

He was roasted by the critics and lampooned by comedians, but still his albums sold by the million. The past 20 years or so have been considerably quieter, as he has popped in and out of Las Vegas, packaged and repackaged his old songs and helped oversee Copacabana: The Musical.

He never entirely went away, though, as boy bands from Take That to Westlife hit paydirt by covering his old hits.

Yet it seems incongruous that this music should be thriving when it bears absolutely no relation to what young people are listening to these days. That, though, may not be a coincidence. The past year has seen an explosion in sales via musical downloads, while album-length CDs have put on their worst commercial performance ever - a 7 per cent drop in business between 2004 and 2005, and a 21 per cent drop since 2000. Manilow's album took the top spot selling only 156,000 units across the entire US. Compare that with the Arctic Monkeys, who sold 360,000 copies of their debut album in Britain last week, and you have to wonder if Manilow's comeback is as big as it looks, or if his fanbase is just too old for the iPod and MP3 craze.

On Wednesday night, hours after receiving the news about the Billboard chart, Manilow was at the Grammys in Los Angeles celebrating with manager Clive Davis. His outfit: a burgundy crushed velvet jacket, black shirt and matching black tie. Watch out, it's the 1970s all over again.