Pop's long-player records social change: The music charts are 40 years old next month. David Lister examines their history and hears the argument that they have become devalued

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FORTY years ago next month, the New Musical Express decided to publish a chart listing the top-selling records in Britain over the previous week. Al Martino, an American balladeer with short-back-and-sides and a cheesy grin, grabbed a niche in social history with the first number-one record.

From that moment on, it was not just the record industry that was transformed. The charts have chronicled and arguably helped determine our social history.

Occasionally, they have been less accurate in chronicling musical fame and fortune. Millionaire 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 and primarily a maker of records, has barely dented the singles charts. All those, however, have sold large numbers of albums, which have long been a better guide to lasting popularity.

In chartland, logic frequently went out of the window. Perhaps the best double A-side ever released - The Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields Forever'/'Penny Lane' - only made it to number two, kept off the top by Engelbert Humperdinck.

Through the first decade of transistor radio earpieces under the bedclothes tuned in to Radio Luxembourg and Alan Freeman's now cringingly dated BBC Light Programme Sunday afternoon alliteration ('Hello, pop pickers'), the charts rundown had a devoted weekly audience.

But in 1964 it became part of the country's weekly timetable with the birth of the television programme Top Of The Pops, only now facing an uncertain future as the youth market turns away from BBC disc jockeys (an outdated term; the BBC insists they are 'broadcasters') to the hipper presentation of Saturday morning television chart shows and, especially, the quickfire format of satellite television's MTV.

The first changes in technology began not long after the charts. In the late Fifties, the 3s 9d 10-inch 78 was replaced by the supposedly unbreakable) 7-inch single. Cassettes, 12-inch singles and compact discs followed. Next month, record stores will feature the latest technology, the digital compact cassette.

These days a wealth of specialist charts appear in the pages of Music Week, the trade paper, but it is still the main singles chart that the record companies and artists have to puncture to make money and reputation, the key difference between now and 1952 being the pre- requisite of an accompanying video to feature on chart programmes. Since Queen started the pop video revolution in 1975 with 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the video has sometimes been as big a factor in sales as the music.

The charts have never solely been a barometer of musical taste. Yes, the statistics show that The Beatles and Elvis Presley had the most number one hits (though Frankie Laine in 1953 had the as-yet unbeaten run of 27 weeks at number one in one year). The most consecutive weeks at the top was Bryan Adams' 'Everything I Do (I Do It For You)', unbeatable for 16 weeks last year.

The charts were also a barometer of celebrity (tone-deaf movie stars such as Telly Savalas and Lee Marvin could reach the top); of topicality (so could England's World Cup football team); and, most pertinently, of cultural mores. The early charts in the Fifties were dominated by American music, reflecting the heavy reliance on American culture after the war. The rise of The Beatles and the English-dominated charts of the Sixties coincided with the growing affluence and artistic experimentation of the baby-boom generation, through punk rock in the late Seventies to the cultural force of dance music in the Nineties, alongside revived hits.

One thing has remained constant throughout 40 years of pop charts. As a reflection of any sort of homogoneity in public taste they have always been a nonsense. The teddy boys who bought Elvis and Little Richard didn't buy Doris Day or 'How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?' Part of the fun in looking at the charts has always been to see the indentations of middle-aged Middle England into the youth market. As the hippy and hard rock generations become middle-aged that mixture is becoming even stranger. In today's charts, there is the comfort of seeing albums by Madonna, Mike Oldfield and Abba representing continuity of a sort; but topping the singles chart is one Tasmin Archer, who came from nowhere and whose name looks like a typing error. But at least she is British.

Queen of rock'n'roll, page 28

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: Best selling singles 1956-1991 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1956 I'll Be Home Pat Boone 1957 Love Letters in the Sand Pat Boone 1958 All I Have To Do Is Dream The Everly Brothers 1959 Livin' Doll Cliff Richard 1960 Cathy's Clown The Everly Brothers 1961 Runaway Del Shannon 1962 Stranger On The Shore Acker Bilk 1963 From Me To You The Beatles 1964 I Love You Because Jim Reeves 1965 I'll Never Find Another You The Seekers 1966 Distant Drum Jim Reeves 1967 Release Me Engelbert Humperdinck 1968 What A Wonderful World Louis Armstrong 1969 My Way Frank Sinatra 1970 The Wonder Of You Elvis Presley 1971 My Sweet Lord George Harrison 1972 Amazing Grace Royal Scots Dragoon Guards 1973 Tie A Yellow Ribbon Dawn 1974 Tiger Feet Mud 1975 Bye Bye Baby Bay City Rollers 1976 Save Your Kisses For Me Brotherhood of Man 1977 Don't Give Up On Us David Soul 1978 Rivers of Babylon/ Brown Girl In The Ring Boney M 1979 Bright Eyes Art Garfunkel 1980 Don't Stand So Close To Me The Police 1981 Tainted Love Soft Cell 1982 Come On Eileen Dexys Midnight Runners 1983 Karma Chameleon Culture Club 1984 Do They Know It's Christmas? Band Aid 1985 The Power of Love Jennifer Rush 1986 Don't Leave Me This Way The Communards 1987 Never Gonna Give You Up Rick Astley 1988 Mistletoe and Wine Cliff Richard 1989 Ride on Time Black Box 1990 Unchained Melody The Righteous Brothers 1991 Everything I Do (I Do It For You) Bryan Adams

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: First New Musical Express chart: 14 November 1952 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Here In My Heart Al Martino 2 You Belong To My Heart Jo Stafford 3 Somewhere Along the Way Nat Cole 4 Isle of Innisfree Bing Crosby 5 Feet Up Guy Mitchell 6 Half As Much Rosemary Clooney 7 Forget Me Not Vera Lynn 7 High Noon Frankie Laine 8 Sugar Bush Doris Day/Frankie Laine 8 Blue Tango Ray Martin 9 Homing Waltz Vera Lynn 10 Auf Wiedersehen Vera Lynn 11 Cowpuncher's Cantata Max Bygraves 11 Because You're Mine Mario Lanza 12 Walkin' My Baby Back Home Johnnie Ray -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)