Music: Charting the number ones that somehow got away

You'd think it would be obvious which record sells best. No so, writes Spencer Leigh, who reveals that the books have sometimes been cooked

You've heard the question scores of times: "What was the Beatles' first number one?" Trouble is, you will also have heard the answer, the wrong answer: "From Me to You". Today we're going to celebrate - or, at least, I'm going to celebrate - the 35th anniversary of the Beatles' first number one: "Please Please Me".

Nowadays, we take our knowledge of past chart performances from The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles. From 1952 to 1960 the compilers used the weekly charts published in New Musical Express, after which they switched to Record Retailer. In 1969, a Top 50 was complied jointly for Record Retailer and the BBC by the British Market Research Bureau, and we have effectively had an official chart since that time. Before then, it did not exist.

In the Sixties weekly charts were published in New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Disc and Record Mirror, the last-named printing the one from the trade paper, Record Retailer. NME had the largest circulation and was regarded as the standard by music fans, although neither we, nor anyone else, had any idea which was most accurately compiled. Unlike TV viewing figures, however, there were only minor differences, so I suspect that there was little of the chart hyping that was to take place in the Seventies.

The most intriguing differences surround the number one position. By my reckoning, 14 records topped the NME chart and failed to make number one in Record Retailer, peaking at number two or three or, in the case of Tom Jones's "Help Yourself", at number five. Joe Brown is understandably miffed when reporters tell him that "A Picture of You" peaked at number two. "I hate that book," he says of the Guinness publication. "It has deprived me of my only number one, and I'm unlikely to get another."

The Allisons came second in the 1961 Eurovision Song Contest with "Are You Sure?" According to Guinness, the record also made number two, but they had the first missing number one, as they topped the NME chart for two weeks in April 1961. Are you sure? Yes, I'm absolutely positive.

Moving to 1962, Acker Bilk had a missing chart-topper with his TV theme, "Stranger on the Shore", and another trad musician, Kenny Ball, topped the NME chart with "The March of the Siamese Children" from The King and I. Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again" sounds like a number one in anyone's book, but it only reached number two in Record Retailer. This is because the two sides of the Record Retailer number one, "Can't Help Falling in Love", and "Rock a Hula Baby", were shown separately in the NME Top 10, thus causing Elvis to suffer from a slipped disc. I wonder how this can be; someone couldn't have bought "Can't Help Falling in Love" without buying "Rock a Hula Baby", and vice versa.

And so to 23 February 1963. According to Record Retailer, Frank Ifield was enjoying his third number one with "The Wayward Wind", but in NME he was shown at joint number one with the Beatles. The following week, Frank had dropped to number two and the Beatles had the top slot to themselves. Flash forward to June 1963, and Lennon and McCartney share in another missing number one, as they wrote Billy J Kramer's "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"

The Beatles' biggest rivals, the Rolling Stones, have a missing number one with "19th Nervous Breakdown", and the Hollies ("I Can't Let Go") and the Yardbirds ("For Your Love") also topped the NME chart but not the Record Retailer. The Everly Brothers' powerful "Price Of Love" and Len Barry's dance routine "1, 2, 3" are also missing number ones. The final missing number one is Paul Ryan's epic "Eloise".

Although the BMRB and then Gallup have compiled an official chart since 1969, it has been fiddled on at least one occasion. In 1977 Virgin Records released the Sex Pistols' attack on the Silver Jubilee, "God Save the Queen". It entered at number 10 and looked as though it would be number one during Jubilee week itself. This horrified the loyal compilers, and so for one week they decreed that shops which sold their own records could not have those records represented in the chart - hence, Virgin's sales of "God Save the Queen" were immediately barred from the statistics, letting the Pistols' detested rival, Rod Stewart, hold sway that week with "I Don't Want to Talk About it."

So, the answer to the question "What was the Beatles" first number one?" is: "Please, Please Me" - or is it? The Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do", made Number 17 in Record Retailer and number 27 in NME. However, in Liverpool, the record retailer Brian Epstein published his own shop's Top 10 and, in October 1962, "Love Me Do" was at number one in the chart in NEMS's window.

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