UK Singles Charts

Most books on rock are over deferential to “the charts.” The Top 20 / 30 / 40 / 50 charts are a rough guide to sales and popularity and no guide at all to influence or quality. Chart books are invaluable for doing a book like this, and they’re fun to browse, but they’re not definitive. 

Much as I’d like to have found three charts from the same week, old music papers are hard to find. The nearest I could get was three from the same first quarter of 1966:

New Musical Express 2 March 1966
(19th Nervous Breakdown was not #1 in the Record retailer chart)

For the UK, the two main chart references were the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, which is arranged by artist, and  The Guinness Top 40 Charts which gives every week’s chart from 1960. Both have been in multiple editions, but in 2008 they were replaced by The Virgin Book of British Hit Singles.  For the USA, Billboard have been more parsimonious with their chart information, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is arranged by artist, but a weekly chart book is not published. Carlton publish Hit Singles: Top 20 Charts From 1954 to the Present Day which have parallel British and American charts by month, which are of limited use as no one at the time used monthly charts. An older listing is Tony Jasper’s Top 20 Guide.

Chart books with week-by-week listings

The first chart or Record Hit Parade, a Top Twelve, was published by the New Musical Express on 15th November 1952. Al Martino was top with Here in My Heart. (Five were Columbia (EMI), three were Decca, two each for HMV and Capitol, and one for Brunswick). It was compiled by phoning fifteen or so London stores, and asking for best sellers, though not sales figures, and was broadcast by Radio Luxembourg weekly. Record Mirror added a Top Ten in 1955, Melody Maker issued a chart in 1956, Disc came in with a Top Twenty in 1958, and Record Retailer introduced a chart in 1960, sampling around twenty stores. 

The BBC chart (from 1955) calculated an average of the various charts, a system Top of The Pops continued.

The charts held a fascination for teenagers. We felt we were recording history. I guess we were.

Top 20. 3 September 1969
In 1969 New Musical Express produced a Pop Record Book where you could copy the Top Twenty every week. And people did. This one was filled in neatly and faithfully from September 1969 to March 1970, then abandoned. As with the real charts ‘Sandra’ noted the record label for each.

Guinness dominated the chart books market, and dissenting voices, such as DJ Brian Matthews pointed out that the charts they use for the 1960s were by no means universally accepted at the time. The several popular weekly music newspapers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc, had their own charts with New Musical Express having additional clout in the early Sixties through Radio Luxembourg’s mid-week Top Thirty show’s use of the NME chart. 

Record Retailer was a trade publication, which you couldn’t buy at your local newsagent. The centre page pulled out, and was a red-framed Top 50 which every record store in the country pinned on the wall. Except that major chains like Woolworths produced their own chart. Additionally, the EMI, Decca and Pye groups produced their own weekly charts for in store display, featuring only their own products.

I never realized it when I found this one in a pile of music magazines in a shop many years ago, but Record Retailer display charts like this are now collected. I haven’t checked but I’ll bet they cost more if The Beatles are #1. Note that unlike the weeklies, Record Retailer gives the catalogue number for every entry. That was important for the store when they re-ordered.

Record Retailer In-store chart, 8 November 1962

Guinness had to find the most authoritative chart for the whole era since charts started in 1954. They used the NME (New Musical Express) chart for lists up to March 1962, and then switched to the Record Retailer chart until 1969. 

Tony Jasper produced The Top Twenty: The Official British Record Charts 1965-1982 which proclaims as used by BBC Radio One and Top of The Pops.These were taken from The Record Mirror.  

40 Years of NME Charts list the New Musical Express ones.

POP Weekly 10 October 1964

POP Weekly magazine had a Top 30 chart, plus a Northern Top 20 and Southern Top 20 in October 1964. 19 of the songs are the same, and the only different discs are #20 and #21 in their main Top 30. Otherwise they’re so close that I assume they did their Top 20, then allocated the existing places to regions, rather than worked on raw data from each region.

POP Weekly were looking at the USA where regional charts differed greatly because of regional radio. For most of the sixties and seventies, Britain was dominated by the BBC. One national radio. Regional charts have never been compiled in the UK, except that for years the local evening newspaper would publish a weekly local chart supplied by a single store in the town. So you’d have the Oxbridge Evening Echo Top Ten compiled by Wartleby’s Radio Store of the High Street, with Oxbridge’s own Barry Bean & The Beaners at number seven, despite failing to get into any national chart. His mum and her friends were loyal buyers. We can guess that The Animals did better in Newcastle, The Move in the Midlands, Zoot Money along the south coast and The Hollies in Manchester but there’s no objective measure.    

As a result of these competing charts, some records will be in different positions to those you remember from other weeklies. Record Retailer didn’t admit EPs to the main chart in the early sixties, because it ran a separate EP chart.  The others didn’t, and so did admit EPs. 

The Record Retailer was the least-regarded chart by teenagers in the early sixties. While Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc all showed The Beatles’ Please, Please Me to be their first number one, the Record Retailer chart resolutely kept it at number two. No one who was there at the time will ever recall Please Please Me as being anything other than number one. Every newspaper trumpeted the event. 

Similarly, Record Retailer was the only chart in which 19th Nervous Breakdown by The Rolling Stones failed to make number one. For NME readers, The Yardbirds For Your Love was a triumphant #1 in April 1965, while only reaching #3 in Record Mirror and Record Retailer.

New Musical Express 7 April 1965

The New Musical Express chart for 7th April 1965 tells the story when compared with the Record Retailer chart which is now “history”. History is written by the winners.

NME= New Musical Express, – 7th
RR = Record Retailer / Guinness / Record Mirror / BBC – 10th

artisttitleNME RR
The YardbirdsFor Your Love13
Cliff RichardThe Minute You’re Gone24
Unit 4 Plus 2Concrete and Clay31
Rolling StonesThe Last Time42
ThemHere Comes The Night56
DonovanCatch The Wind65
The SupremesStop! In The Name of Love712
Tom JonesIt’s Not Unusual87
Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’913
The WhoI Can’t Explain1010
Marianne FaithfulCome and Stay With Me148
Herman’s HermitsSilhouettes129
7 April 1965

The differences aren’t huge, but the NME Top Ten is a shade hipper in favouring The Yardbirds, The Supremes and Bob Dylan’s sales.

It would have been good to get all the music papers for one week, but there are only the two week by week chart books. So I’m doing them separately. Yes, it’s 1965-1966 heavy, but it’s hard to source music papers, and I had these as research for a novel set then. It’s a good point. Singles sales were high, and the album charts were still dominated by musicals.

To compare Melody Maker we need another week. If you offered me the Top Ten from any week, this is one I’d skip. Its proximity to Christmas shows … two by Ken Dodd, Cliff Richard and The Barron Knights with another spoof medley.

Melody Maker 1 January 1966

MM – Melody Maker 1/1/1966
NME = New Musical Express 1/1/66
RR = Record Retailer / Guinness / Record Mirror / BBC – 1/1/1966

The BeatlesWe Can Work It Out/ Day Tripper111
Ken DoddThe River223
The SeekersThe Carnival Is Over334
Spencer Davis GroupKeep On Running4415
The Walker BrothersMy Ship Is Coming In586
Ken DoddTears655
Cliff RichardWind Me Up762
Len Barry1-2-3898
The Barron KnightsMerry Gentle Pops91019
P.J. ProbyMaria 101212
Fontella BassRescue Me11711
The Four SeasonsLet’s Hang On151010
The WhoMy Generation13137
The ToysA Lover’s Concerto161710
1st January 1966

The charts are different, but if anything, Melody Maker is the most Middle-of-The Road that week.

On to DISC:

DISC 19 March 1966
The Walker BrothersThe Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore111
The HolliesI Can’t Let Go2218
The Small FacesSha La La La Lee37=3
The Beach BoysBarbara Ann456
Gene PitneyBackstage595
Eddie ArnoldMake The World Go Away6310
Nancy SinatraThese Boots Are Made For Walkin’7109
The YardbirdsShapes of Things846
The MindbendersA Groovy Kind of Love9134
The KinksDedicated Follower of Fashion1068
Bob LindElusive Butterfly167=34
Rolling Stones19th Nervous Breakdown12213
Petula ClarkMy Love11124
19 March 1966

The divergences in this one are strong, check I Can’t Let Go and 19th Nervous Breakdown especially. It’s something to do with reaction to discs which are falling in the charts particularly.

POP Weekly 26 December 1964

In December 1964, POP Weekly complained that both the New Musical Express and Melody Maker belonged to the Daily Mirror group but they had ‘A difference of a No 1 hit and a No 21 hit a few weeks ago!’ (26 December 1964). I assume that’s a difference in chart compilation dates with a major release. It said that some charts were based on sales to wholesalers, not to retailers.

Record Collector magazine traced the story of the charts in 2002, and compared the methods of compilation. The Record Retailer poll was  initially done by telephone, and mainly used a points system rather than aggregating sales. i.e. if a store had a disc at number one, it got (say) 20 points, number two got 19 points and so on. They worked Monday to Monday, while all the others worked Friday to Friday, establishing a new chart for the weekend. Record Retailer moved to sample forty stores in the mid sixties, eighty at the end of the sixties.

At the same time, NME expanded to 150 stores using a team of independent samplers. NME relied only on sales totals and would list double-A sides as separate singles. EPs and even LPs could enter the singles chart. 

Melody Maker (also part of the IPC Newspaper Group) was sampling 220 stores nationwide by 1967, then combined with Disc to sample 270 stores, before reducing to 200 in 1969. In 1969, the BBC united with the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) and the US Billboard group which had bought Record Mirror. The three parties financed an independent British Market Research Bureau to compile its charts. This became the standard chart, and it’s the one the chart books use from 1969 on. For the period before 1969, the Record Collector article plumped for Melody Maker as the most authoritative chart, with the NME chart as the runner-up.

Melody Maker carried little record company advertising, while NME gave over its entire front page to an advert for a new single most weeks. So many of the front pages feature records that died a death, that buying the front page can’t have figured too highly in gaining chart placings. 

Even in 1966, Melody Maker was devoting a lot of space to jazz, and the whole page adverts were for Boosey & Hawkes instruments, with large ads for Headmaster plastic drum heads and Farfisa compact keyboards. That NME whole front page revenue would influence any publication at least subliminally, if not otherwise. In early 1966, a copy of Melody Maker has one small Decca advert, and one small Pye advert and that’s it. Disc, the more populist paper from the same company has a large Planet ad, a large Philips ad, a Decca new release box ad, a Pye LP ad and an RCA Chet Atkins ad. Not a large percentage of coverage. NME has whole front page (Pye) and back page (Reaction) ads, a half page EMI, a half page Bachelors / Decca, a whole page Thane Russal ad from CBS which mentions the record title but not the label, half a page Pye International (James Brown), half a page London (James Brown), a large Pye new release ad, a smaller CBS new release ad, a large Decca new release box, four more box ads from Pye, one each from HMV and CBS, and a biggish Polydor ad.  Markedly different.

Disc 22 August 1964

The extent of the charts was argued. Should EPs be in? Should even LPs be listed? Disc on 22 August 1964 had both an EP and an LP in the singles chart: See #18 and #19 … Five By Five by The Rolling Stones, A Hard Day’s Night LP by The Beatles.

The charts were never tightly accurate enough over most of the period to be regarded as gospel truth. In retrospect, too much attention is paid to precise chart placings in rock histories. They might tell you that the fourth release by such and such a singer got to number twelve, a sure sign of serious commercial decline as the three previous ones were all top ten. That’s meaningless. In some weeks (like those in December with shopping for Christmas gifts) far more records are sold than others. A mid-December #4 would outsell a late January #1. What were the competing titles that week?  A record facing the latest Beatles or Stones was less likely to chart high. 

In March 1967, the tabloid press were crowing with delight at The Beatles’ failure to reach number one with Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane. Is this the end? they trumpeted. They noted that Englebert Humperdink’s Release Me had held it off the top spot, meaning a triumphant return for crooners, and the end of beat groups … etc. All bollocks, and as global warming dissenters would say, weather not climate. George Harrison commented: There were always so many different charts that you could be number two in one chart and number one in another.

We know the charts were fiddled on a regular basis and had been for years. The USA had its payola scandal, ending the career of DJ Alan Freed. It seems, horror of horrors, he was paid to play certain songs. In the UK, the BBC were panic stricken at the thought of any commercials on air, banning the use of Coca Cola in the lyrics of The Kinks’ Lola for example. The gender-bending possibilities didn’t concern them, just the Coca Cola. Radio Luxemburg were refreshingly straightforward. They had Decca shows, Oriole shows, Pye shows, CBS shows and very good they were too. 

The US record industry was so appalled at payola manipulation that they forbade payments in cash. The poor American DJs for the next twenty years had to make do with grass, cocaine and hookers instead. Clive Selwood, who was an expert on chart hyping, states categorically that neither cash nor drugs changed hands with DJs in Britain, but that expensive lunches and even “houses of pleasure” were used. Selwood says the current list of chart shops was bought and sold for a few hundred pounds in the 70s. Contrary to popular belief most records in the lower reaches of the charts would only sell a few hundred copies in their first fortnight, so sales pitches focussed on the chart shops would hype a record into the lower reaches of the chart.  Selwood says that no one could afford to hype above the lower reaches, and that it would have been self-defeating. Hype focused on an entry into the Top Thirty. The BBC’s stranglehold over airplay meant that you had no chance of play without establishing a chart presence, however lowly. The chart meant airplay, listing in the top thirty on the record shop walls, copies being ordered for stock at non-specialist outlets like Woolworths and W.H. Smith. This could be translated into sales if the record was any good. And only if the record was good. There would be no point in hyping a record beyond the lower chart reaches, which established air play. 

Chart fiddling in Britain was based on knowledge of the chart shops, those which sent in returns of sales to make up the charts. It’s said that Brian Epstein, running the record department in the family store, which was the main Liverpool chart shop, had enough influence to get his hopefuls the auditions with Decca and Parlophone. It’s also said that he bought 10,000 copies of Love Me Do on release, claimed he’d sold them, and got the record into the chart within seven days of release. His brother, Clive Epstein, who managed the shop’s accounts said it was impossible and never happened. Others said it was a wild story … far, far fewer would have done the trick, because the charts were extrapolated from such a small sample. If he’d really bought 10,000 it would have been number one.

It was common practice for a junior accountant with a briefcase to appear in a chart shop and ask for a dozen copies of (say) Rockin’ Twister by Barry Bean and The Beaners.

The perplexed salesperson might say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want the original American version? That’s by Luther Snakehips Langdon on London-American.’
The accountant would shake his head, ‘No, I want the Beaners version,’ and glancing at two girls browsing the racks, he’d raise his voice, ‘That’s the best one.’
‘A dozen, you say?’
‘Yes, it’s so good, I’m giving one to all my friends.’

When that ploy got publicized, and multiple purchases were excluded, vans with ten or twelve youths would travel round the chart shops, releasing each kid with 6/8d to stand in line to buy a copy. The more cavalier labels would then give away these copies at the coolest night spots and clubs to other kids to help spread the word.

According to Andrew Loog Oldham: 
There wasn’t anything to stop you putting a load of girls in taxis, telling them which shops to go to, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. We’d send them back in on Saturday to re-order when there was no stock there, so then you get big re-orders on Monday morning.

He added:

Out of Time was (Immediate’s) only number one single – for the rest we had to resort to my old trick of buying our singles at retail in order for them to chart. The problem there, of course, is that the artist wants to be paid on those records as if the’d actually been bought by the public.

Don Arden describes a fixer with a network of housewives across the country who for a £10 each weekly retainer, would buy a dozen records at a time in selected shops, thus ensuring a regional sales spread.

Oldham founded Immediate with record plugger Tony Calder, who soon found it easier to bribe shop managers and chart compilers directly to manipulate the lists. It cost around £500 a week, and was more reliable, if less fun, than pushing mini-skirted girls into taxis. The system had its faults. They paid ‘a certain person’ to list The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda in the NME charts. EMI were astonished. They phoned Calder to ask how it had got into the charts as they hadn’t yet pressed any copies. He’d got the release date wrong. So don’t be too impressed when you read this sort of thing: The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda shot into the chart at number 33 immediately on release, proving how much more popular … 

The same story was told about Cream’s Wrapping Paper, in this case it also charted before it was pressed, and continued to climb over three weeks, only being released at the end of the third.

New Musical Express 13 May 1967

Simon Napier-Bell says of the John’s Children single, Desdemona:

I arranged to have it bought into the charts. This was comparatively easy. You just phoned a guy called Gerry and told him what you wanted. He figured out how much money he could get out of you and told you the price. For instance for a couple of hundred pounds he’d put you around twenty-nine, or for a bit more you could go higher.

John’s Children got to #28 according to Napier-Bell, but do not feature in the Guinness chart books at all. However, you would have thought the whole front page advert as influential as any bribe, even if so often it didn’t guarantee a chart listing (see section The Ones That Got Away).

From 1964 to 1967, pirate radio was a straightforward pay-to-play situation. The pirates had their own charts, shamelessly promoting what they were paid to. Don Arden wrote down a precise account of the costs of hyping Whatcha Gonna Do About It by The Small Faces into the NME chart, which involved buying in shops, paying Radio Caroline to play it and a direct payment to the fixer who had infiltrated himself into NME. In retrospect, the NME charts are the ones most fondly remembered by fans because the new and maverick bands got into the lower reaches. Then you’d go into the local shop and see they hadn’t appeared on the red Record Retailer chart, or that the plodding Van Doonican or Ken Dodd were a couple of places higher. 

Disc 22 June 1968

Disc hit on the idea of commentary on the chart right next to the listing in 1968. In this case it’s Don Partridge (#3 with Blue Eyes) opining that the Rolling Stones Jumping Jack Flash (at #1) was ‘just a lot of noise.’ On the classic Do You Know The Way to San José? Don says, ‘I don’t like the Dionne Warwick one. There’s been much of that sort of song.’ Tellingly, they advertise that next week will be Des O’Connor (then #10 with I Pretend). On Des’s record, Don Partridge says ‘Des O’Connor though, I do like, because I met the bloke and he seems like a nice bloke.’

That week, 22 June 1968, the New Musical Express and Record Retailer have exactly the same ten records in its Top Ten as Disc, though in a slightly different order between #3 and #10.

Simon Napier-Bell claims one chart was rigged by the BPI themselves, for the second week in June 1977. The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen was number two, though it apparently outsold the number one record, Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It, by two to one. A week earlier, terrified that the Sex Pistols would fart all over the Royal Jubilee, the BPI eliminated sales from “stores directly owned by labels”, which meant  specifically Virgin. However they didn’t eliminate sales from EMI’s own HMV chain. After the jubilee, the decision was suddenly rescinded.

The BBC were instrumental (repeatedly) in cleaning up the charts they were supplied with via Gallup, so that controls gradually got tighter and tighter. Eventually they were getting returns from 1500 stores, but only 500, a third, were selected randomly each week to analyze for chart placings, so that two-thirds of any spot buying or promotional freebies would be wasted.

By the 1980s, adverts in the music press had switched largely from record labels to the then current major record stores, so that the biggest ads were for Our Price, Boots, W.H. Smith and Woolworths. This must have meant a shift in marketing strategy, the important thing being to get a record (almost invariably an album by then) onto the block of six or nine the store was advertising. This was done with discounts and these would be the lead discounted titles in the stores, and by then stores were advertising their own top twenty charts. By the 1990s, and the CD single era, labels had to resort to selling new singles at 99p for the first two weeks (instead of £1.99 or even £2.99) in an attempt to boost those early sales enough for a chart placing. 

By the 21st century, most singles with top ten placings had sold less than had been required to get in the Top 50 in the 1960s or 1970s. Also, by the 21st Century most chain stores (Tesco, HMV, Asda, Sainsbury’s, and once upon a time, W.H. Smith, Woolworths, MVC, Music Zone, Fopp and Virgin) had moved to their own charts. The store chart goes up on Monday morning, with new releases in the top ten, even though not a single copy has been sold.  They’re based on predicted sales (or more likely achieved special discounts), not actual till transactions.

So any chart placing is no more than a guide, and arguing the comparative sales based on the chart position can only be done broadly.

Records which sold steadily over a long period won’t have achieved the chart status of rapid sellers with short lives, but may have shifted many more copies. If I were filling a time capsule with 1960s records, Wilson Pickett’s In The Midnight Hour would be in there. Every band played it, and it was on the playlists at discos over three or four years, and still fills the floor instantly now. Most people forty years later know the tune. It reached a moderate number twelve in the 1965 chart according to Record Retailer. The almost equally well-known Mustang Sally reached number 28 (or didn’t make the Top Thirty at all if you prefer Music Week’s chart). 

Reggae labels sold large quantities of some records without touching the charts. Trojan reported some singles selling 35,000 to 40,000 via Afro-Caribbean outlets, which included barbers and greengrocers, without gaining any chart presence (this should have been easily Top Ten), while others they released, which sold fewer copies, but were popular in general retail outlets, charted. If a record crossed over to chart shops, all well and good. If its sales stayed largely within the Afro-Caribbean community with its own outlets, it might not chart at all. This explains why labels like Starlite, Blue Beat and PAMA could motor on happily and profitably, staying in business for years without ever having “a hit”.

Let’s Go Baby (Where The Action Is): Robert Parker, Island 45, 1966

Robert Parker’s Let’s Go Baby (Where The Action Is) was the B-side to Barefootin’, which reached number 26 in August 1966 (or didn’t chart at all in Record Mirror). Yet no self-respecting DJ would go to work without a copy of this late mod anthem over the next couple of years.

By 1981, the charts had got longer and more specialist. The Record Mirror for 6th June 1981 has all of these charts:

UK Singles (Top 75)
UK Albums (Top 75)
Independent Singles (Top 50)
Independent Albums (Top 30)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Singles (Top 10)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Albums (Top 10)
Heavy Metal (Top 20)
Video (Top 20)
Futurist (Top 15)
Reggae (Top 10)
Films (Top 10)
UK Provincial Films (Top 5)
Books, i.e. music books (Top 20)
Reader’s Chart (Glam Top 10)
Star Choice (Noddy Holder’s Top 10)
UK Disco (Top 90)
US Albums (Top 75)
US Singles (Top 75)
US Soul (Top 20)
US Disco (Top 20)

The disco top 90 chart mixes 12 inch, LP and 7 inch, but one still wonders how many copies of #87 (Janice by Skip Mahoney on the Underworld label) sold that week. Or what about the copies shifted of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend by Kerrin Vialardi, a 12 inch on the Ealing label, sitting at #12 on the Futurist chart?

1992 is the point where the official chart books switch to the CD catalogue reference foremost. Officially, a record was allowed to combine a maximum of three formats, and this might be CD single, 7 inch and 12 inch; or CD, cassingle and 12 inch. In 1995, the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles has Blur’s Country House as an example. Three formats were allowed, and these were two CD versions and a cassette single, taking it to number one. The fourth format, the 7 inch single (as a last gasp) had to be listed as a separate release and also charted at #57.

Chart reference books

The charts hit their lowest point in 2006, when Orson’s No Tomorrow topped the BBC chart with sales of 17,000 in a week, in a year which saw sales of twenty million singles, which mainly meant CD singles. 

By 2012, sales of singles had risen to 188 million, rising every year for the previous five years. These sales were more than 99% downloads. In independent shops, the box of new vinyl 7” 45 rpm releases will be on display, while the CD single has virtually disappeared.