Official Singles Chart turns 70: Seven historic controversies

As a teenage music nerd, I would sit in my bedroom every Sunday afternoon, listening to Bruno Brookes count down the Top 40 and writing the results into a thick lever-arch file.

Somewhere in my parents’ attic, those yellowing A4 sheets boast accolades from superstars like Madonna and Michael Jackson, alongside forgotten hits by Arnee And The Terminators or Twenty4Seven ft Captain Hollywood (I Can’t Stand It, number seven on 6 October 1990).

Back then, the charts were entering their middle age. There had been a big fuss on Top Of The Pops when T’Pau scored the UK’s 600th number one with China In Your Hand. And the chart’s inherent ranking system (“my favourite band is officially better than yours”) led to a lifelong obsession.

This week, the charts celebrate their 70th birthday, with Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero the current chart-topper (number 1,404, fact fans).

Their significance has diminished in the streaming era – but every so often, a story breaks into the public consciousness, whether it is LadBaby scoring a record-breaking fourth Christmas number one; or the incredible resurgence of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill.

But seven decades of chart history have not passed without incident. Here are seven controversies that made headlines over the years.

1) The Beatles’ vanishing number one

The Beatles

The singles chart began in 1952, when Percy Dickins, one of the founders of the New Musical Express, decided to produce a ranked list of the UK’s best-selling singles, by telephoning 20 record shops up and down the country every week and asking what they had sold.

The first ever Top 12 was published in the NME on 14 November, with Al Martino’s schmaltzy ballad Here In My Heart at number one.

Pretty soon, rival publications wanted a piece of the action. Record Mirror started its top 10 in 1955, based on postal returns from record stores, Another magazine, Melody Maker, started its chart in 1956, and was the first to include sales from Northern Ireland.

Then, in 1960, the music industry trade paper Record Retailer (now called Music Week) launched what is now recognised as the “official” chart, based on reports from a panel of 30 shops. But for almost a decade, those charts were only available to industry insiders, which led to one of the biggest chart anomalies of all time.

In 1962, the Beatles cut their breakthrough single Please, Please Me at Abbey Road studios. When they finished the 18th, and final, take, producer George Martin said: “Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record.”

And he was right – but only if you read the NME, Melody Maker, or Record Mirror. In the “official” chart, Please, Please Me was denied the top spot by yodelling crooner Frank Ifield and his song Wayward Wind.

As the Record Retailer chart is now recognised as canon, The Beatles’ historic run of 17 number one singles officially begins with From Me To You.

2) Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead – Maggie Thatcher gives Radio 1 a headache

Media caption,

Radio 1’s Newsbeat explains the curious rise of a 73-year-old song to number two.

In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2012, the song Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead, from the Wizard Of Oz soundtrack, was downloaded enough times to reach number two.

In doing so, it became engulfed in a storm of controversy, not least at the BBC. Rather than playing the song in full during the Official Chart show, Radio 1 played a report from Newsbeat explaining the song’s significance.

“I don’t believe it’s a shoddy compromise but it is a compromise,” then-Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper told BBC 5 Live when asked to defend the decision.

“You have got a record which is not a political record. It is actually a personal attack on someone. There is a grieving family here and they are yet to bury their loved one and… I need to take that into account.

“But I am very much aware that, on the other side of the issue, if I ban that record, then there are questions about freedom of speech and about censorship.

“So yes, I have compromised, but I believe it is the most logical compromise available to me.”

3) The Joker’s curse

Deee-LiteIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES

Although the first singles chart was supposed to be a Top 12, it actually featured 15 songs, thanks to ties in 7th, 8th and 11th places.

But ties are pretty rare – and they have only caused a major controversy once in the chart’s 70-year history.

In 1990, the two songs at the top of the charts achieved exactly the same number of sales. One was Steve Miller’s 1972 rock smash The Joker, enjoying a revival thanks to its use in a Levi’s commercial. The other was Deee-Lite’s Groove Is In The Heart, a giddily playful wedding disco classic.

To much wringing of hands, the older song was given the number one spot – and John Pinder, chart manager for polling company Gallup, was wheeled out to explain why

“A ruling was established in 1973 by the British Phonographic Industry that there are no equal positions in the charts,” he said. “The guidelines recommend that the preferred single is the one that has increased its sales most in the course of the week.”

According to Pinder, The Joker’s sales had gone up by 57%, and Deee-Lite’s increase was only 37%.

But Deee-Lite’s record label still were not happy – protesting that their brand new signing would benefit more from the publicity of scoring a number one single.

Their protest deflated, however, when it transpired The Joker had actually sold eight more copies than Groove Is In The Heart – 44,118 to 44,110 (a rounding error initially obscured the discrepancy).

In 1991, the rules were changed to allow ties again – such as when The Prodigy’s Out Of Space shared 19th place with Lisa Stansfield’s Some Day I’m Coming Back in January 1993 – but they are still uncommon.

4) Hyping the charts

Mirror cover story on the charts being hypedIMAGE SOURCE,MIRROR NEWSPAPERS

As you would imagine, getting songs into the chart is pretty important to record labels; and sometimes the general public cannot be trusted to have good taste. So, at various points over the years, people have invested in alternative methods of cracking the Top 40.

In 1978, the Mirror newspaper uncovered evidence that a network of housewives was being paid to go into record shops and buy multiple copies of songs like Sweet Sweet Smile by The Carpenters, or Right Time Of The Night by Jennifer Warne.

“It is very important that you appear to be a normal customer making a genuine purchase,” the record buyers were told. “Please do not quote the [catalogue] number of the record when asking for it.”

Cunningly, the idea was to help songs into the lower reaches of the chart, after which, the Mirror reported: “Natural, genuine sales will take over as the record gets the exposure on radio and television that follows automatically once it is established in the top 50.”

The paper’s expose ended that particular scheme – but two years later, labels were at it again.

Two separate documentaries, one by BBC Two’s Newsnight and the other by ITV’s World In Action, claimed record stores were being sent free gifts to encourage them to falsify chart reports for acts like Fleetwood Mac, Gary Numan, Queen and The Pretenders.

One owner told World In Action they received items, including T-shirts and alcohol, worth as much as £237 in a single week (£911 in 2022 terms).

Sometimes, record companies would even send over free copies of songs they wanted to chart. It was claimed that this resulted in a band called Shy earning a Top 75 single, despite retailers only ordering 82 copies of the song.

The programmes led to a six-week investigation by the British record industry which found “a very thin dividing line between what is known as aggressive marketing and what is known as hyping”.

It said that, while the practice was not widespread, some shops had received a “supply of promotional records” and “other unrelated material” in an effort to persuade owners to cook the books; and recommended that record label staff were no longer paid bonuses based on chart positions.

5) A historic low

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Piracy plagued the music industry in the 2000s, as sites like Napster and Kazaa made millions of songs available for free, albeit illegally.

In the space of a decade, global recorded music revenues plummeted from $23.4bn (£20bn) in 2001 to $15.6bn (£13bn) in 2010.

The singles market was particularly badly hit, reaching a low point in March 2006, when US band Orson managed to top the charts with just 17,694 sales of their pop-rock radio hit No Tomorrow.

Analysts speculated that it signalled the death of the single as a consumer format.

Orson never reached the top 10 again, and split up in 2007. But band members George Astasio and Jason Pebworth have subsequently scored huge hits as writers for Girls Aloud (The Show), Iggy Azalea (Fancy) and Bebe Rexha (No Broken Hearts).

Elton John holds the record for the UK’s best-selling number one single. His Princess Diana tribute Candle In The Wind 1997 sold 1.5 million copies in its first week of release, and went on to triple that figure.

6) Ed Sheeran breaks the chart (and finds a loophole)

Ed SheeranIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES

The advent of streaming changed the charts forever. No longer did the Top 40 reflect the songs people were buying. Instead, it told you what they were listening to.

In many ways, this was a blessing. It certainly broke the X Factor’s stranglehold on the number one spot, because people generally bought the winners’ singles as a souvenir, rarely listening to the musical monstrosities they contained (there is a reason why Little Mix airbrushed Cannonball from their official discography).

But the popularity of streaming also broke the charts in new, unique ways.

For one week in March 2017, Ed Sheeran had 16 singles in the Top 20, including nine in the Top 10. The reason? He had just released a new album, ÷, and fans were streaming it in their millions.

The Official Chart Company responded by rewriting its rules. Since June 2017, artists have only been allowed three songs in the Top 100 at any one time.

The changes are meant to “ensure the chart continues to be a showcase for the new hits and talent which are the lifeblood of UK music”.

“This is not a chart for album tracks; we want to remain the Official Singles Chart, for singles,” chief executive Martin Talbot told NME.

“It’s tougher than ever for new music and developing artists to break through, and this is us doing our bit,” he added.

However, sneaky old Ed Sheeran has found a loophole. This August, the star had seven entries in the Top 100 – three as a solo act, and four as a guest vocalist on songs by Camila Cabello, Burna Boy, Fireboy DML and Russ.

There’s no stopping him, is there?

7) Ellie Goulding’s suspicious number one

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The other way that streaming affects the singles chart is the avalanche of Christmas songs which appear every December, as everyone plays Now That’s What I Call Christmas on a loop.

Last year, 29 of the top 40 singles on Christmas week were festive favourites like Last Christmas, Santa Baby and Let It Snow,

But 2020 threw up a strange anomaly: Ellie Goulding’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s River soared to the top of the charts, beating all of those perennial favourites.

On the face of it, the feat seemed impossible. The song was exclusive to Amazon – meaning the only way to it was to stream or download it on their Music app, or to play it on Ellie’s YouTube channel. River was not available on Spotify or Apple Music, and you could not buy it in the shops.

Even so, it clocked up 78,000 sales. But, as many people pointed out, she had an unfair advantage.

Amazon gave River a prominent place on its Christmas-themed playlists. So every time someone said, “Alexa, play me Christmas music” while they boiled their sprouts, they inevitably heard Ellie’s song. And each of those plays counted towards the chart.

What is more, the charts are weighted in favour of new songs – meaning River earned one “sale” when it was streamed 100 times on Amazon’s subscription service; while Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You needed 200 streams before a “sale” was counted.

So while Ellie’s number one was not a fix, it certainly felt suspicious – and the debate over whether active streams (where the listener selects a song and presses play) and passive streams (where the song plays automatically) should be counted differently still rages today.

Some other chart statistics

  • Most number ones: Elvis Presley, with 21
  • First foreign-language number one: Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus (1969)
  • Longest song title: Rod Stewart’s You Can Make Me Dance Sing Or Anything (Even Take The Dog For A Walk, Mend A Fuse, Fold Away The Ironing Board, Or Any Other Domestic Shortcomings)
  • Shortest song duration: Jonny Trunk and Wisbey’s The Ladies Bras, at 36 secs
  • Longest song duration: The Orb’s Blue Room, at 39 mins 57 secs
  • The Abba anomaly: Abba’s SOS is the only palindromic hit by a palindromic artist.

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