60 years of UK singles

It was the bright idea of one Percy Dickins of the New Musical Express (now better known by its obligatory acronym NME) in 1952, publishing a chart based on record sales rather than sales of sheet music, as had previously been the norm. He would gather the information himself by telephoning select record shops and asking for their biggest-selling records, and compile the charts in the paper he had co-founded each week. It would become the Top 20 and its very first number one, on 14 November 1952, was Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’. Remember it? Me neither. Let’s move on.

Today, the Official Charts reflect sales across a range of retailers, now including the internet, supermarkets, and, since 2004, downloads. As such, they reflect an estimated 99 per cent of all UK singles sold.

Since the singles chart began in 1952, an estimated 32,000 tracks have entered the chart, yet only 123 of them have registered a million sales or more. When the chart celebrated its 50th birthday back in 2002, only 76 singles had and, what’s more, it didn’t look as though any single would ever again sell close to a million copies. Singles sales had reached a 15-year peak of 77.76 million in 1997, but by 2002 had slumped to a worrying 43.03 million.

Last year, however, UK singles sales reached nearly 178 million, their highest level in music history, almost entirely due to downloads. That’s almost six times as many as were sold in 2003 (30.88 million), a year before the advent of downloads, their lowest level since the 1950s.

Indeed, sales of physical formats now account for less than one per cent of singles sales.

This decade is expected to see more singles sell a million copies than any previous decade and whatever the current decade is known as, it remains on course to surpass both the ’70s, with its 27 ‘million-sellers’, and the ’90s, with its 32; 10 singles have notched up sales of a million copies in its first three years. Rihanna, for example, has three ‘million-sellers’ to her name already and she’s only 24.

To put that into some perspective, Elvis Presley remains the most successful artist in UK singles chart history, yet only one of his 21 chart-topping, finger-popping tunes – ‘It’s Now Or Never’, not one of the finger-popping ones, to be fair – sold more than a million copies. Shame. (The King was 25 then, by the way.)

In the US, ‘It’s Now Or Never’, released in July 1960, sold 700,000 copies in its first week, topping the charts three weeks later and staying there for five. The UK release was delayed due to legal wrangling over copyright of the Neapolitan semi-operatic ‘O Sole Mio’, yet an incredible and record 548,000 advance orders were taken. It entered the singles chart at the very top in October 1960 and within just 45 days sales had passed one million. If you need another related fact, it was also the last UK No.1 to be available on 78.

The Beatles achieved three million-selling singles – ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’/’Day Tripper’ – in 1964. This was when a record would need to sell in excess of 750,000 copies to reach the coveted top spot in the charts. Within a decade, with singles sales in decline and albums favoured instead, sales of 150,000 copies could achieve the same result. The seven-inch 45 rpm record was by now, of course, the dominant format favoured by the young (it had overtaken 78s in 1958). Priced at 6s 8d, that’s about 33.3p in new money. Single downloads are around 99p, so singles now cost three times as much. Too right you got more for your money back in the old days.

And yes, I know; to keep pace with inflation since 1964, singles would actually need to cost £5.84 today. Cor, just imagine it. Don’t encourage the record companies, for goodness sake.

Here are the 123 singles that have sold a million copies in the UK. How many of them did you buy? It could be a single that you bought somebody as a gift, could even be one that you received as a gift if you can’t bear the shame of admitting that you purchased it voluntarily, as I did with ‘Ghostbusters’ by Ray Parker Jr in 1985. Some of you might remember that the first record David ever bought was the pioneering Bill Haley & His Comets classic, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, which appears at #34 – the very first million-seller in 1955/6 – and which you also might recall met an unfortunate end when his nanny sat on it. It stayed at Number One for five weeks, spending a total of 57 weeks on the chart across 1955 (19 weeks), 1956 (17 weeks), 1968 (11 weeks) and 1974 (10 weeks), with total sales of 1.42 million, fact fans. The first record I ever bought is at #107.

Returning to the list, take away all those buoyed by recent television talent shows or blockbuster movies, as well as the odd novelty single, and try to pick out the genuine classics. That’s probably too easy and shouldn’t take too long, so instead let me know which are your guilty pleasures and of course feel free to curse all the ones you wouldn’t be sorry if you never heard again if you lived to be 123. Are there any surprise omissions?

I can’t help but feel quite nauseous at the thought of how submerged the few genuinely timeless tunes will be 60 years from now, when the ever-rushing tide of download sales swell the banks of the million-sellers with more and more recent popular and, to my eardrums, mostly bland and repetitive songs, drowning the far superior efforts from decades gone by.

Alright, enough with the water imagery. You get the idea.

If you have half an hour or so to spare once you’ve lost at least twice that on the above list of 123 and associated tasks (do include your own water metaphors, I’d like that), you really should have a look in the archives which include every Number One single. So, for example, if you were to chose 1979 from the drop-down list, you would find right at the bottom of the table that ‘Another Brick In the Wall (Part II)’ spent five weeks occupying the top spot and was, in fact, the cherished Christmas Number One that year. But you probably knew that already.

Alternatively if you’d like to lose an entire day (Wednesdays and/or Thursdays are rubbish anyway) you can see every single chart, week by week, starting at March 1960 right up until the present, which is very illuminating and should jog a few memories.

If you search by artist, try Pink Floyd and you’ll find a surprising 10 singles from a band that rarely released singles; all but three made the Top 40. I think their chart positions are fairly impressive, all things considered.

The seven-inch single, the 12-inch with its extended versions and remixes, the cassette tape, the CD. We bought them all. Ah, the cassette tape. Who remembers the cardboard slipcase – I’m going back to the early 1990s with this one, when plastic wasn’t considered quite so evil – that soon became something of a liability because the more you slipped that often see-through chunk of creaking plastic in and out of its cardboard sheath, the looser it became and the shabbier the edges appeared. How much time we whiled away marvelling at the colourful displays at Woolworth’s, God rest her soul, that seemed to go on and on and on. Delighting in the sensation of crisp paper bag between our tingling fingertips. Merrily swinging the ridiculously thick plastic bag that our brand new 12-inch-so-obviously-better-than-the-seven-inch-because-it-was-bigger-and-sometimes-included-a-poster record slotted into so perfectly, as if it were meant to be. Loitering in booths where you could listen on huge headphones and try to look cool when you should have been in class.

Those precious Sunday afternoons spent listening to the Top 40 on the radio, singing along, counting down to the all-important position has been a big part of many a childhood, and I vividly recall refusing to budge from the back of various cars until a break in the chart no matter who I kept waiting. It mattered. You’d watched Top of the Pops on Thursday evening in anticipation of your favourite acts, cursed those you believed had no right to be in competition with them, and privately hated the fuddy-duddy parents and grandparents who had ruined everything and quite possibly your whole life by buying bloody Cliff Richard or Elaine Paige. Who gave them the right to meddle in such young people’s affairs, anyway? Hadn’t they had their time to influence their own generation already? You argued about the unfairness of it all at school the following day, split into loyal camps in defence of the day’s largely media-driven ‘Battle of the Bands’. You felt that buying a record made all the difference and mattered greatly to people just like you, all over the land, who were similarly poised with their fingers hovering over the record button of their chunky tape decks for a couple of hours on a Sunday, anxious and edgy.

(We shouldn’t admit to recording songs off the radio any more than we should admit to making mix tapes for the car or illegally downloading online, of course, but we all did it and would obviously buy many of them once we’d played our amateur recordings a few times just to be sure we liked the song, not to mention once we had grown tired of not having the song’s beginning or end thanks to inconsiderate DJs reminding us of which station we were listening to at regular intervals, as if we couldn’t remember. We hadn’t bought Cliff Richard or Elaine Paige, for goodness sake.)

It was as if with a few considerably larger coins we held some influence over the entire careers, lives even, of our favourite musicians back then. They were counting on us. They’d pop up every now and then between songs and plead with us to help them achieve their dream of a second consecutive hit single. And no, silly, it wasn’t about making them rich. That thought didn’t even cross our minds. Take a look again at the million-sellers’ list and you’ll see that the innocent enthusiasm we lost in place of creeping cynicism is still true to this day for Beliebers everywhere and those who must see The Wanted triumph over One Direction even if it’s the last thing they live to see. It’s so much easier for them to partake in the fantasy nowadays, but take cruel comfort from knowing that they’ll never cherish the delightful accidental rustling of a paper bag’s serrated top.

The last song I downloaded was ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry & The Pacemakers just a few weeks ago. It originally spent a month at Number One in October 1963. The next one I download, I expect, will be a cover of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ for the same cause. Rage Against the Machine showed in 2009 that it is possible to prevent whoever has rolled victoriously off the X-Factor conveyor belt in time to expect exclusive right to the Christmas Number One when ‘Killing In the Name’ became a surprise and defiant festive hit. This despite completely lacking in the sleigh bells department, even more so than Pink Floyd in ’79. The song didn’t even make the Top 20 upon its original release in February 1993. The power of social media and convenience of downloads.

A belated and somewhat begrudging convert to downloads, I haven’t purchased a CD single since ‘Arnold Layne’. David’s second of only two singles, it entered the chart at a highly respectable #19 in January 2007. Just look at who he was up against in that week’s Top 20.

As always, I’d love to share your observations. Is anyone else sickened that a cover of ‘Unchained Melody’ by two nondescript television personalities who were briefly popular for a spell in the 1990s appears much higher in the list than the Righteous Brothers’ magnificent original? #SMH, as the youngsters are fond of adding to the end of their tweets.

What’s also interesting is the number of Michael Jackson songs that appeared in the charts following his death in 2009. His were the 12-inch singles I most proudly carried back to my grandfather’s house of a Saturday afternoon in the ’80s with a cousin who carried Madonna’s. Happy memories.

The BBC (if I can mention them, I know I’m also sick to the back teeth of hearing about them lately) has some programmes coming up that might be of interest. The first is called ‘Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10’ and will trace the history of the chart, with contributions from past Radio 1 DJs. Footage of Jimmy Savile will probably not feature.

The second is called ‘Joy of the Single’ and will feature musicians reminiscing about glorious 45s. These will be broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 16 and Friday 23 November, so look out for those if I’ve left you eager for more chart nostalgia.

I shall now return to listening to those of the 123 million-selling singles that I’d never heard of, starting with Gotye.