I listened to 65 years of number-one hits, so you don’t have to!
Perhaps it is my South Africanness that compels me to categorise things. To analyse, compartmentalise instead of experience. But I insist that the analysis often leads me to a deeper understanding, and then a more rewarding experience.
Whether that has been the experience of South Africa’s compulsive, psychopathic categorising impulse, is not the subject of this piece. This is about me and my music.
I am a keen listener of popular music, and an enthusiastic, though clumsy practitioner of it on occasions. So I listen constantly. New music, American artefacts from the Lomax archive, Bob Dylan’s Theme Theme Radio Hour and of course the discographies of the various incredible artists who enrich our lives with their songs.
Thanks to the wonders of streaming services, a bottomless ocean of music is now available to us and our experience is now not only about what we choose to listen to, but how.
Interested in the provenance of music, I often listen to an artist’s work chronologically. I will decide, in my categorising, South African way, that Stevie Wonder being a 25-time Grammy winner, he is worthy of study. I will then sit myself down, fire up my streaming app, and listen to all of Stevie Wonder’s album releases, from The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie in 1962, until 2005’s A Time To Love.
This is rewarding, and gives a great insight into the artist’s development. I did it with AC/DC and Iron Maiden, two bands that will forever live together in my mind since I saw their names listed in Tipp-Ex down the side of a classmate’s rucksack in high school. I did it with the Beatles and the Stones obviously, the Kinks, Wu-Tang, Bob Dylan, Metallica, Hendrix, Madonna, Marley, Run-DMC, Public Enemy and heaps of other artists.
But what I was missing was context. Sure, the Beatles are amazing, and their music evolved along a fascinating path from Please Please Me to Let It Be. But what made it so good? Why were they so popular? The answer, I started to realise, lay in not only what the Beatles were doing, but in what all the other artists were doing. What came before?
I decided I could best understand, for instance, the revolutionary impact of the Beatles on popular music, by listening to what they had swept before them. To understand the impact of each new musical wave, each fresh drop of artistic innovation, I had to listen to it in order. Where did it start and how did it evolve? Only then could I understand the true meaning of the music. In what environment did it appear? What else were people listening to when they heard that, and what set it apart from everything else? And then how did it influence what happened next?
I decided I would listen to every number-one pop single ever, in chronological order.
For some reason, perhaps its debatable cultural proximity to myself, I chose the UK pop charts, I found out that they were established in 1952, when Percy Dickens of the New Musical Express phoned up 20 record stores and asked them each what their best-selling record singles were. Al Martino topped that first chart with his bellowed, strings-driven lament Here In My Heart.
The chart has evolved to embrace download and streaming data, and there were a further 1 318-odd singles until the likes of Ed Sheeran appeared atop the chart with the acoustic hip-hop flavourings of Shape Of You.
Armed and fortified with a musical goal, I set to work. Listening to all the number-one hits ever took me about six months. I did it in annual chunks, methodically downloading the hits of 1973, say and then listening to them as I went about my day. Some years flew by, like 2016, with its mere 10 number ones – all crisp and entertaining pop gems. Other years were like climbing a Kilimanjaro of molasses like 2000 for instance, which yielded 43 number-ones, a challenging listen.
The 1950s were different times.
It was common for composers and conductors to enjoy chart success, as did Annunzio Paolo Mantovani with his number-one The Theme From Moulin Rouge
Mantovani was acknowledged by the book, British Hit Singles and Albums, as “Britain’s most successful album act before the Beatles…the first act to sell over one million stereo albums and [have] six albums simultaneously in the US Top 30 in 1959″
They were different times indeed, with different politics, so in the early years it was not unheard of for a song riven with racial stereotyping to top the charts. She wears red feathers and a hula hula skirt sings the praises of a girl who “lives on just cockeynuts and fish from the sea”. Shocking to our enlightened ears, but this trend of poking fun at non-Anglo ethnicities would persist into contemporary times.
Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano, for instance, is replete with references to pizza, mozarrella, rhumba – and enchilada for good measure.
There were already some long runs – Rose Marie by country singer Slim Whitman secured itself an 11-week run in 1955. That was the longest stay atop the charts until Bryan Adams brought us (Everything I Do) I Do It For You and secured a 16-week residency.
Listening to hits of the early Fifties, you’re struck by the fact that microphone technology has a way to go. Singing is still heavily influence by stage projection, which makes for some powerful songs, but the sensitivity of later years is yet to come. David Whitfield’s Answer Me ends with a vocal blast like a dockyard foghorn!
Sex symbols were a feature of the charts from early on. Lita Roza, who cracked number one with the iconic How Much Is That Doggy In The Window in 1953 was simply stunning.
The Fifties were an era of sentimental songs, like Frank Sinatra’s strings-powered tour de force Three Coins In The Fountain from the movie of the same name. When you compare Sinatra to the bellowed delivery of his contemporaries, you come to appreciate his contribution. He manages to convey so much emotion, but appearing to sing softly and emotively.
Throughout the years, this becomes a theme. Consistently, the texture of lead vocals is what distinguishes the number-one hits. Not even as much as the melody or songwriting. Later, production also becomes a clear distinguishing factor.
From as early as 1955, rock ‘n roll appeared on the charts, when Bill Haley top the hit parade with Rock Around The Clock, the best-selling single of the decade.
But rock did not sweep all before it. It shared the fifties charts with a plethora of stringsy ballads, and a lot of material adapted from popular films and stage shows. Among these are the works of Perry Como and Tony Bennet’s Stranger In Paradise from the musical Kismet, based on a melody composed in the 1800s.
The clear new element added by rock n roll is the driving snare-drum backbeat that propels the music. Everything else proceeds at a more sedate pace, or sometimes accelerates into a bit of a march. Other styles of music appear as novelty diversions, such the castanettes of Hernando’s Hideaway by the Johnston Brothers. Rock makes its first appearance as a novelty style alongside the ersatz latin horns and cod calypso and Mexican waltzes.
Rock ‘n’ roll does not immediately replace all other styles on the charts – there is still heaps of other stuff. There is martial troopies’ music like Lay Down Your Arms, by Anne Shelton. This was a militarised world, with Britain embroiled in the Suez crisis and American in Korea. Skiffle, a kind of country-fied uptempo folk-rock, made its appearance thanks to the single-handed expertise of Lonnie Donegan.
But after 12 July, 1957, when Elvis Presley topped the charts with All Shook Up, things would not be the same. Elvis had 4 number ones during the Fifties, but the main thing was his influence. The impact of this irresistible new style, played well, spawned a legion of imitators, and for a few decades, we were off.
Some imitators were so accurate, they were almost better than the real thing, like Conway Twitty, with It’s Only Make Believe. Blistering! Simply not as handsome as Elvis, though, and one has to concede, not for the last time, that looks can be decisive in a pop career.
It’s common cause that Elvis influence the Beatles. But another link in the inexorable chain of influence that is sometimes overlooked is the Everley Brothers. Their Claudette chart-topper from 1959 has a twin-vocal approach that soon reappears in the work of the Lennon and McCartney.
But first, more novelty hits! Hoots Mon by King Rockingham’s XI is a kind of Scottish instrumental rock. Running Bear is another bit of ethnic fetishisation and treacle-fest Why by Anthony Newley might be the xylophone’s finest pop moment.
Listening to it now, with the benefit of hindsight, one notices the Elvis pastiche coming thicker and faster, but each time with a bit more of something original, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Eddie Cochran, Del Shannon…
Cliff Richard and the Shadows make hay in the early Sixties until the Fab Four first appear on 4 May, 1963 with From Me To You, their first of 17 Sixties number-ones. But somehow Cliff Richard has wormed has way into British hearts, and for the next several decades, he seems able to summon up a number-one at will.
In fact, the reigns of the Beatles and Elvis overlapped. Elvis continues to rack up hits in the Sixties – 11 of them.
Why? The cynic would say, this was melody’s last stand, before tone, texture, production, looks and attitude became more important in capturing the popular imagination.
Cilla Black makes her appearance with the magnificent Anyone Who Had A Heart and anyone who didn’t know better would think this was the germ of the singing register Madonna would later adopt.
Looking back at the songs that topped the charts during the Sixties, it’s apparent that it wasn’t really a decade of homogenous output. It was a time of innovation and disruption, certainly, but there was all kinds of stuff going on. It was the first decade where pop genres came to the fore, and they remain largely intact today: commercial pop like The Archies, rock like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Byrds, dance music, like the aforementioned Tornadoes, and ballads a la Jim Reeves. Stirred into the generic pot were other flavours like country, which inflected the work of yodelling hitmaker Frank Ifield and even ska-reggae which appeared in the work of Desmond Dekker.
Then there is that uniquely British peccadillo, the novely single. Far from being rarities, novelty songs are a staple of the British charts and crop up constantly, often incongruous songs by TV stars or actors, or one-hit wonders by eccentric geniuses, they also come to be marketing tools by market-savvy Svengalis, or a joke that got out of hand by a comedy crew, such as Lily The Pink by the Scaffold.
A distinction that will become less relevant after the Sixties is the dichotomy between groups of bass, guitar and drums and singers backed by orchestras.
In pop music there are years with many number ones, and years with barely a dozen.
UK chart commentator James Masterton believes that “When record sales are high, public interest in a song expires very quickly and this creates a need for ever more new product to take its place.”
This is possibly why, in 2016, Drake would come to nestle at the top of the charts for a ludicrous 15 weeks with One Dance.
The Seventies opened with another one-off, a song that is neither sung, nor rapped, yet is also not spoken – Lee Marvin’s Wandrin’ Star.
But no sooner has the heartache dissipated than we’re into a series of classics. 1970 turns out to be quite a year – Norman GreenBaum’s Sprit In The Sky, Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime… Even Jimi Hendrix snags a valedecitory number-one with Voodoo Chile. But then, like a bodge in the bedsheets, the England football team show up to top the charts with Back Home. The track has much to answer for, ushering in the tradition of English XI singles that shows no sign of stopping – or indeed becoming good – 50 years later. .
And so the formula continues. Novelty records (Benny Hill), treacle pop (Donny Osmond), reggae (Dave & Ansel Collins), spiced up in the UK by the onset of glam, which sees Slade and Gary Glitter having their moment, before Queen arrive to wipe those memories clean, from about 1975, with Bohemian Rapsody.
Which brings us to the punk era. Ostensibly that was what happened from about 1976, 1977. But the top of the charts tells a different story. The UK charts in 1977 featured nothing but candyfloss pop, which, I guess, gives us an idea of what the punks were rebelling against…
Brotherhood of Man feature, along with Abba, Wings, songs from Grease, and the Bee Gees. Punk’s first representatives at the top of the charts, would probably be the Boomtown Rats, with Rat Trap in 1978.
In fact, it seems disco was the sound that captured the popular imagination in the late seventies, even if its influence is often overlooked in retrospect.
The Village People were there in 1979, Gloria Gaynor, the aforementioned Bee Gees, Anita Ward, Boney M, and who can forget Baccara with Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.
Then, things take a turn for what seems again like authentic rock n roll auterism, as The Police see in the Eighties with the likes of Message In A Bottle and Walking On The Moon.
Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats would enjoy a singular success in the Eighties by writing the decade’s biggest single, charity song Do They Know It’s Christmas. For a while it was also the biggest selling UK single of all time, having been purchased a superlative 12 million times.
The Eighties were the Eighties. They can perhaps be best understood in terms of the artists who had the most number ones. George Michael and Wham!: seven. Madonna: six. Pet Shop Boys: 4. Michael Jackson: 3. Then again, Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers: Also 3.
In terms of progression, as these things often go, the beginning of the decade was more about the end of the previous one. The first chart number-one came courtesy of prog-rock relics Pink Floyd, with Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)
The end of the decade was marked by the Band Aid II charity single, which is noble, if unlistenable.
In fact, in retrospect, and maybe this is a personal insight, most of the No. 1 hits of the Eighties are dire beyond listening. Doing so became like homework by this stage of the process.
Never one to play the race card without good reason, I have to note that the chart-toppers that have aged best were those in the R&B paradigm. Here one thinks of Back To Life by SouL II Soul (Jun 1989), Whitney Houston One Moment In Time (October 88) and Chaka Khan I Feel For You, which is disco, I know.
Of course, there are exceptions, such as Eurhythmics There Must Be An Angel (July 1985) which is spectacular, despite the gated snares in the production.
The Nineties dawned with Eighties acts stretching their influence into the new decade. That is, if it wasn’t Seventies and Sixties acts. The likes of Cliff Richard continued to leave evidence, along with Meat Loaf, The Righteous Brothers, Queen and Iron Maiden. The Simpsons saw in the decade, providing more evidence of the British proclivity for novelty cross-over number ones, with Do The Bartman.
A case could be made for the Nineties really starting musically in 1992, with rave dance culture starting to top the charts in the form of The Shamen and 2 Unlimited. D:Ream provided similar chart-topping dance fodder, along with some quality R&B from Boyz II Men in the form of End of the Road and Mariah Carey’s Without You. Again, R&B ages the best of the genres, thanks to its high production quality and reliance on songwriting as opposed to mere texture. And that’s coming from an avowed non-listener of R&B. Just watch that Ebenezer Goode. That thing has aged!
The dance-pop trend opened the door for a lot of travesties, not least Whigfield, Rednex and Ace of Bass. But then, around 1995 came Oasis to save the day with Some might say, a blast of guitar rock in a wasteland of treacle-pop, nostalgia, novelty football songs and crap dance music. Just listen to it! That song is incredible for attitude and broad, enveloping production.
Their breakthrough brought in a bit more toughness, across all genres, with the likes of the Fugees boosting the hip-hop sound, Chemical Brothers and Prodigy adding credibility to the dance chart toppers and Blur joining their rock rivals Oasis at the top of the charts.
In the meantime, U2 continued a ludicrous string of chart toppers and boy- and girl groups began their ascendancy in the form of B*Witched, Boyzone, Spice Girls, All Saints, Backstreet Boys and Westlife.
The new millennium was seen in by Westlife with I Have A Dream, robbing eternal opportunist Cliff Richard, who offered The Millennium Prayer. Given the chance, I would have said King Of My Castle, by pop ravers the Wamdue Project might have had the most credibility at the time… Cracking anime video too!
The decade of massive belt buckles dawned with boy bands still representing – Westlife had the most chart number-ones. But the rise of hip hop/pop continued inexorably, with Rihanna and Jay-Z’s Umbrella spending the longest period atop the charts (10 weeks). No clouds in my stones, indeed.
Technological changes saw the introduction of the UK singles download chart in 2004 and the start of the long, slow death of physical recordings.
In 2006, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy reached the top of the chart based on downloads alone – the first song ever to do so.
Lily Allen built a following through her MySpace page and later earned a number one with The Fear in 2006.
Reality shows were now all powerful in their ability to construct pop stars. Popstars, Pop Idol, X Factor and Fame Academy helped to create careers, as winners and finalists tended to top the charts with their debut release after the series. Here reality alumni include the likes of Hear’say, Will Young, Gareth Gates, Leona Lewis and Girls Aloud. Kelly Clarkson topped the charts in 2009, having won American Idol in 2002.
2000 was the year with the most number-ones – 42 in the course of the year.
Beyonce began establishing a beachhead of dominance with six number-ones – two with Destiny’s Child. Madonna scored five, and Lady Gaga three – all during 2009.
However, despite the rise of pop, there were signs of a rock renaissance. U2 got four number-ones, as did Oasis. Kings Of Leon scored a mammoth 68-week chart stay with Sex On Fire, and a social media campaign against the hegemony of X Factor winners topping the charts at Christmas, saw Rage Against The Machine getting to number-one at the end of the decade, with Killing In The Name, first released in 1992, and known for its evocative refrain of, “fuck you, I won’t do what you told me!”. Not to mention the intro assertion that “Some of those at-work forces are the same that burn crosses”. Not pop music indeed, and an encouraging, if brief, sign of a people’s movement on the pop charts.
Tech evolution meant that in the 2010s, CD singles essentially faded from relevance, and the brief significance of downloads also came to an end. Streaming was now the choice method of consuming music. In 2014, it was determined that 100 streams would equal a sale, later rising to 150 and 300.
Drake established himself as a superstar. Besides One Dance, he had number-ones with God’s Plan and Nice For What, the former of which made him the only artist in UK chart history to have two songs spend at least nine weeks at number-one.
Tinie Tempah was emblematic of the rise of grime, the uniquely British rap style. He had is first number-one single in 2010 with Pass Out, topping the charts again with Written in the Stars and Not Letting Go, and as a featured artist on RIP, Tsunami, Crazy Stupid Love and Turn the Music Louder.
Reality-show pop remained represented by the likes of One Direction, with four number-ones, and dance music by Calvin Harris, with seven this decade. Music mogul and starmaker Simon Cowell’s Syco record label has the most number-ones of any label, with 21.
The future seems likely to be Justin Bieber flavoured, with that incredibly talented artist – born in 1994 – having already snagged three number-ones in 2015 alone. He and Ed Sheeran spent the most time at number one, with 30 weeks each.
IN 2016, Bieber secured a collab number one with Major Lazer and MØ called Cold Water.
Pop, dance and hip-hop now dominate the charts – if not stylistically, then production-wise – with rock affectations like guitars now more props than real musical elements.
Production also underpins the success of almost all number-one hits, determining, the way they sound, their impact and their adherence to contemporary formalism.
Collaborations and features are another distinctive characteristic of the times.
And so we return, in a way, to the principles of group creation where we began with the number-one hits of the Fifties, where orchestras and singers collaborated to create works that would have been impossible for an individual.
But the wheel ever turns. Gears inside gears, trends inside trends, affecting forms that beget other forms. The thing that is popular music continues to give birth to itself over the decades, reflecting and driving youth culture, reciprocating, consuming and emitting.
We can observe, but it would not be fair to judge popular culture, for whatever it is, we are, and it is us.