Do the pop charts matter any more?

The pop charts are 45 years old. But do they have any meaning, either for record companies or for the public? David Lister looks at a national institution.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Forty-five years ago yesterday, Al Martino, an American balladeer with a short-back-and-sides and a cheesy grin, grabbed a niche in social history with the first number-one record.

New Musical Express had decided to publish a chart listing the top-selling records in Britain over the previous week. From that moment on the charts have reflected and sometimes even helped to determine youth culture.

The singles charts, unlike the album charts, have notably been less than wholly accurate in charting musical fame and talent. Superstars such as The Who and Led Zeppelin never had a number one single, nor have Dire Straits. Pink Floyd had only one. Bob Dylan, one of the more influential figures of the century, has only ever had a nodding acquaintance with the charts. And in a supreme denial of logic, perhaps the best double A-side ever released - The Beatles' "Penny Lane"/ "Strawberry Fields Forever" - only made it to number two in 1967, kept off the top by Engelbert Humperdinck.

But whatever the anomalies in the charts over 40 years or so, records have rarely moved in and out of the higher reaches so speedily and so bewilderingly as now. Artists can come and go from the number one spot, with their names barely registering on the public. It costs a record company around pounds 100,000 to launch a single, about a third of that sum usually going on an accompanying video, necessary for MTV and other television promotion. But statistics show that half the records in the top 20 are there for one week.

Jonathan King, pop pundit, producer, recording artist and impresario, told BBC Radio's Today programme yesterday: "Sadly, the chart now is almost totally unimportant to the industry and the public. In the old days it used to be the case that sales and popularity were one and the same thing." He said later that entry into the chart was now just as likely to be determined by marketing or special price offers as by the ability of the artist or popularity. "In the old days, DJs abroad would pounce on the number one selling record in Britain. Now they just laugh at you."

David Hughes, director of external affairs at EMI, disagrees. He says: "Of course the charts are important. They are still the only barometer the public has of its sales."

Twenty-one singles have been at number one this year, with the changing nature of chart compilation shown by the fact that grocery stores submit returns on record sales.

Chart compilers CIN point out to a renaissance in the chart single. The highest year for singles sales was 1979 when 89 million were sold. This year 85 million have been sold. In 1992 60,000 sales would move a song to number one. Last year it took a sale of 145,000.

And today's number one?"Barbie Girl" by Aqua, a novelty song by a Scandinavian group in which a young lady is compared to the eponymous doll. One feels the phrase "one-hit wonder" coming on.