Soldiering on to be top of the pops

Andy Beckett tells how Robson and Jerome came to rival the Beatles in the Christmas nostalgia stakes
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The Independent Online
ROBSON GREEN and Jerome Flynn are nice lads. They've got firm jaws, soft eyes, clean shirts, and reassuring imperfections. Robson is a bit short; Jerome has a big nose; together, they joke and scrap and blunder like mates on any high street.

But there is quite a market for these particular nice lads. For the last four years more than 15 million people have watched them play tough but cheeky squaddies on Soldier Soldier, making it the most popular programme on television after soap operas and the lottery. This year, Robson and Jerome's first single, a polite version of the Sixties standard "Unchained Melody", has sold 1.8 million copies, making it the biggest-selling single of the decade. Their album, a polite set of Sixties standards, has kept the Beatles' new compilation in an ignominious second place ever since it was released. Robson and Jerome, who are 30 and 32, have a number one video too, and a half-hour special to come on ITV on Christmas Day, when, the bookies forecast, their current single "I Believe" will also return to the number one slot.

One explanation for all this was on offer at a Woolworth's branch in north London last Thursday. An elderly lady from Hackney called Irene was arguing with her husband beside the shelves of tapes and compact discs. She was holding a tape of the Robson and Jerome album; he was hesitating about letting her buy it.

"But it's got 'Unchained Melody' on it," she said. He examined the back of the cassette carefully, like a new and unfamiliar object. Christmas shoppers swept around them. After a long pause, he agreed. She took the tape to the cash till with a slight skip.

"We don't normally buy many tapes," she said afterwards. "I just fancied that one. You can hear what they're singing. What they have on Top of the Pops is just rubbish - they're just shouting." She buttoned up her faded green mackintosh: "And I've got the originals of all these from the Sixties."

There are lots of people like Irene. A fifth of the singles sold last year were bought by people over 45, Gallup reports. Andy Blake, lecturer in cultural studies at the University of East London, is writing a book about this forgotten audience and its ability to create huge hits. "Buying pop records is no longer seen as a phase," he says. "As we get an ageing population who've lived through the whole history of pop, this nostalgic buying of light music may happen more and more. A middle-of-the-road figure whose work is normally on Radio 2 can jump into the mainstream."

Robson and Jerome made their leap with careful timing last summer. "Unchained Melody" first surfaced in an episode of Soldier Soldier, sung bashfully by the two squaddies when the band failed to turn up for a friend's wedding. It was polished up by the commercial pop experts Mike Stock and Matt Aitken. "We called it 'Unchanged Melody', because we sped the original up a bit and put them on it," says Stock.

An outpouring of wartime nostalgia, 50 years after the Second World War ended in Europe, then made the record nearly irresistible: Vera Lynn's "White Cliffs of Dover" was re-recorded as the B-side, and the whole package was released on VE Day with a video including clips from the classic Forties film Brief Encounter. Radio 1 ignored the two songs as schmaltz, but it made no difference to their success. As Stock puts it: "Soldier Soldier gets bigger ratings than the whole of Radio 1."

In October Robson and Jerome added a video autobiography to their armoury. Robson was filmed revisiting his native North-east, talking about his father's life down the pit and his own years at the Swan Hunter shipyard. Jerome explained how he got his broken nose.

Robson and Jerome's records are reputedly favourites in army barracks across the country. Many millions are waiting to see them do their laddish little dance on Christmas Day. And yet these boys are not quite what they seem. Robson's father, it turns out, has passed on to him a great affection for Arthur Scargill. The rugged-faced Jerome actually learned to act at Rada, and lives among the crusties and trendy teachers of Hackney.

And there's more. Jerome is critical of Shell, gives thousands of pounds to Greenpeace, and wants to make documentaries about dolphins. Robson calls himself a socialist and distrusts Tony Blair. Off-screen, he says, they hug regularly and tell each other: "I love you."

"They're actually luvvies," says Mark Simpson, a gay critic who is rather a fan. "The people who buy their records tend to forget that." Another thing may escape them too: if there were a war, our favourite squaddies would not wave guns and stare resolutely as they do on television. They are pacifists.

IT'S THE triumph of marketing over music - the Instant Number One. After decades of trying, record companies have finally found they can manufacture at will singles that enter the charts - like Robson and Jerome's latest - at the top.

Today music fans will discover whether the Beatles' new record "Free As A Bird" has gone straight to number one after its release on Monday. By midweek, the pop trade's own indicators showed it was heading there - a feat that would make it the sixth song in a row to debut in the top slot.

This year has seen an extraordinary domination of the charts by instant hits. Of the 16 number ones so far, 11 have gone straight to the pole position.

If the Beatles leap to the top, they will have knocked out Michael Jackson's "Earth Song", which went straight to the same slot last week. Jacko himself had snatched the position from Robson and Jerome, who produced an instant chart-topper with their remake of the Bachelors' song "I Believe".

So how has the record industry achieved such success this year? They certainly seem to have won back their customers. Singles sales, predicted to be dwindling towards oblivion only a couple of years ago, are booming. From the low point in mid- 1992 they have increased by a third to nearly 69 million a year. Acts as diverse as Robson and Jerome, Take That and Oasis have all played a part.

But selling singles is far more than putting good-looking people with a catchy tune and an ability to sing into a recording studio. This is an industry using sophisticated selling and marketing techniques to shift its products. And more importantly, these products are the soundbites and adverts for far more profitable goods - CD albums.

Record companies today can manipulate the market with a remarkable degree of ease. Tracks are released to radio stations for a couple of weeks before the official release date, ensuring interest is built up. Then the marketing men encourage saturation coverage via press articles and advertisements, as well as discounting sales. The result: a surge in sales which propels the song to the top.

The Radio 1 disc jockey Mark Goodier, who presents the chart countdown, is one of many in the music industry concerned about the impact these sales campaigns are having. "I personally would like the record companies to market the chart less," he said. "I think it would give what most of us perceive as quality music a better chance."

Alan Jones, of the trade paper Music Week, said there had been more number one new entries in the Nineties than in the previous 30 years. "I don't think having an ever-revolving door is necessarily attractive for the chart," he added. "I think it cheapens it.

"If a record goes in and stays there that's different. But if they are going in at number one and then dropping immediately, sometimes several places, it can be harmful. It makes it seem like the chart is a lottery."

Such is the demand for instant hits that the average lifespan of a chart single is now just four weeks. And if a record doesn't make the Top 40 in its first week, it's as good as dead.

But Mr Jones believes the high turnover chart may be temporary. With the music media becoming more specialised, he forecasts record companies will not be able to reach the same huge audiences immediately. Songs will chart lower, on the basis of exposure to one audience, and then pick up sales as others latch on.

"The fragmented media means you can't reach the same number of people at the same time," he said. "It will be harder to achieve huge instant sales and then we will go back to the position where singles climb to number one."