Sheeran, Drake et al – How They Rescued The Album

The argument appears to have been raging for close to two months now and shows little sign of dying down any time soon. The ability of entire albums to sweep en-masse into the singles chart was thrust to the fore of the news by the near-total domination of the Top 10 achieved by Ed Sheran’s Divide album back in March. It has prompted an extended debate as to whether things are now “broken” regarding the way charts are compiled, and the popularity of songs is measured. From my point of view it has resulted in the most-read Chart Watch piece since I migrated the column to its own site almost a year ago, and this previous posting where I refuted suggestions made by the BBC as to how things might be “fixed”.

However, for a few weeks now I’ve become convinced that there is one thing that is indeed broken. What Ed Sheeran (and other streaming Kings such as Drake and The Weeknd) have actually done is rescued the album from near-oblivion. And that was actually the last thing that anyone expected to happen.

The idea of the album as a complete body of work, as opposed to a random collection of songs assembled for convenience, only truly dates back from the late-1960s with the invention by the likes of The Moody Blues and The Beatles of the ‘concept album’ with all tracks being bound by a single theme or narrative. By the 1970s the LP was seen by some acts as an artform in itself, elevated above the level of the mere pop record and the mark which distinguished the average performers from the truly great. Rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd released famous bodies of work and by and large declined to lower themselves by promoting them with single cuts. You didn’t cut pieces from your masterpiece, the argument went, you sat back and appreciated it as a whole. And people cheerfully bought into that idea. If nothing else, the technology of the time meant that the only ‘proper’ way to listen to a long playing record was to put the needle at the start and let it run until the end. Anything else was too much of a faff and involved getting out of your seat to move the needle along. So why bother?

The slow death of this concept actually came far earlier than anyone realised, with the invention and subsequent adoption by the mass market of the Compact Disc player. For the first time music was available by random access. As much as the marketing of the early players focused on the crystal-clear sound of the reproduction (so good you could hear the singer breathing), the system was also sold on the idea you could program or even randomise the available tracks. I remember as a teenager visiting friends whose parents had indulged them with hi-fi systems that played the wondrous silver discs in order to hear the latest album by our favourite groups. This would normally consist of programming in tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 on the basis that “you don’t need to hear the rest, they are a bit rubbish”. People had started to enthusiastically cherrypick the killer cuts from a long playing record. It was just that nobody really noticed – you still had to buy the complete disc regardless of how much of it you wanted to hear.

Hence when the digital era arrived, the iTunes store and the concept that every individual track was effectively a ‘single’ you could buy was less of a revolution than it might have first appeared. In 2007 when the gloves finally came off, and any track was free to chart, I and many other chart-watchers were anticipating mass invasions of the singles chart by the complete set of tracks from the biggest names in pop. Except it never really happened that way. What we saw instead was a savvy music buying audience homing in on the most popular tracks from an album and cherry-picking those ones alone. Two or three, or at the most four, tracks from a hot new long playing collection would make brief chart appearances before fading away to perhaps await the day they were properly elevated to ‘singles’.

It was this break-up of albums into their constituent parts which not only frustrated the veterans (Pink Floyd albums were notoriously slow in appearing online, Roger Waters refusing to countenance Apple’s wish that tracks could be purchased individually and insisted that his masterpieces were designed to be appreciated as a whole) but also the music industry as a whole. While singles buyers enthusiastically embraced this new musical form, album purchases remained stubbornly locked to their physical past – a market that was slowly but steadily dying. Many attempts were made to fix this problem and migrate people to the idea of purchasing full albums digitally, whether it was the iTunes “complete this album” button which allowed you to snap up the rest of a collection you had partially bought for a discount, or the “instant grat” tactic whereby a pre-release purchase of a big name album allowed you immediate access to one or more of its tracks.

None were particularly effective, and the near-calamitous collapse of the album market over the past few years can be directly attributed to the decline of the physical-buying audience who simply were not replaced in sufficient numbers by those who wanted complete digital sets.

It seemed safe to assume that this trend would continue, that (freaks of nature like Adele aside) the album was largely dead and the future lay in the cumulative sales and streams of particular tracks. When the Official Charts Company made the move to fold streaming data into the albums chart they rejected counting plays of entire albums, or certain percentages thereof, in favour of counting the total listens for individual tracks from a set, weighting down the biggest singles and adding them in on a 1:1000 ratio. It was a way of continuing to measure the overall popularity of artist collections in an age when all the evidence was that nobody actually listened to albums any more. This is why there was no need to put in place any kind of rule to stop entire albums swamping the singles chart – because let’s face it how likely was it that this would ever happen?

Except that of late, we’ve seen a significant social change. For far too long, appreciation of recorded music has been a solitary activity. We’ve all become used to vanishing into our own musical world via a pair of earphones and a portable player. Your musical choice was nobody’s business – unless perhaps you were 13 years old and riding on the back seat of a bus. Yet slowly but surely music has become a collective activity again. All thanks to social media. Twitter and Facebook mean we can band together with like-minded individuals, congregate on a hashtag and enjoy the shared experience of the appreciation of a work of art. “Second screening” started with television fans and has now spread enthusiastically to music lovers.

Gathering for an online listening party is now the done thing in the wake of a big name release. Fans will co-ordinate their efforts to listen to the work of their idols track by track, commenting and interacting along the way. Radio has picked up on this too. Once upon a time, a major album release by a priority act might be marked by Radio 1 making it a weekly feature and sprinkling tracks from it across dayparts. Now they will devote entire programmes to their own listening parties, playing a release in full, one song at a time. For the first time since the 1970s people aren’t skipping, randomising or programming. They are listening. Albums have become an important part of the narrative again.

That then is why Ed Sheeran, and to a lesser extent acts such as The Weeknd and Drake managed to “break” the singles chart. Because their fans played the new music in full, en masse, and repeatedly over a short period of time. There was little discrimination. Every track was effectively just as popular as the next, and in they shot to the singles chart side by side with each other. It isn’t the charts that are broken, just that the public have started to behave in ways that were never anticipated.

Don’t panic. I’ve not quite come over to the dark side and believe in making rule changes to stop this. This tendency for new releases to create floods is also a consequence of what is still an immature streaming market, one which is still effectively dominated by the early adopters – and in particular those newly-minded music fans who have never bought a record in their lives and probably never will.  Those who have embraced this new means of consumption are overwhelmingly young and their tastes lean almost entirely towards acts of a more urban nature. Because nobody else is doing this in such numbers, they have the ability to swamp the market when they put their minds to it. Or when there is an exciting new release to hashtag listening party. As the market grows and matures and listeners with more diverse tastes arrive online and start to bend the charts to their will, the ability of one act or sound to completely dominate will be greatly diminished, simply because the weight of numbers are against them.

For now, however, we are in what should be a brief period where things do indeed appear to be broken. At least I assume it will be brief. As reports of the premature death of the album have proved, even the smallest of assumptions can be a very dangerous thing.

Sheeran: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

If you are reading this post around the same time it is published, in the middle of March 2017, you will scarcely require the topic of this post explaining. Ever since Ed Sheeran released his album Divide and duly planted all 16 of its tracks inside the Top 20 (9 of them in the Top 10) the media coverage has been enormous. Although not always on the positive side. To read some of the articles which have been printed in the press, or to hear features on some radio stations, you would think that an artist landing a large amount of very big hits all at once was akin to the end of days, a civilisation-cracking event. Or at the very least proving that the pop charts in this country are broken.

Last night I posted a new podcast dealing with this issue and put forward a theory I developed whilst talking to friends over the past few days. I’ve been studying and writing about the British charts for virtually the whole of my adult life, but I do so for the benefit of what is inevitably a transient audience. Everyone has a certain period in their life when pop music matters a great deal, when the study of the charts week by week is what defines your life and gives your memories the accompanying musical snapshot. But for most that lasts just 2-3 years and you move on, the charts now something to glance at occasionally and marvel at the “rubbish the kids are listening to” whilst safe in the knowledge it was better in your day.

The consequence of that is that virtually all of us have connected to them in some way and have an internal view on the way things should look and how they should behave, regardless of which particular era this happens to be in. This week we have a situation where an artist has done something so totally without precedent that it violates everyone’s internalised view. Hence the large numbers of people expressing unhappiness and hence my amused reaction of noting the number of people with only a passing interest in pop music who nonetheless have very strident views on the singles chart and how it should be constructed.

Some opinion pieces have taken the argument further and explored ways things can be “fixed” to stop evil bastards like Ed Sheeran in their tracks. One such piece which caught my eye this week was on the BBC’s own entertainment news website, penned by their main entertainment guru Mark Savage. BBC news items don’t allow for direct comment, but it seemed appropriate to present here my own rebuttal of all the main points in Mark Savage’s Five Ways The Singles Chart Can Be Fixed.

Redefine What A Single Is

The problem, so the argument goes, is that there is no dividing line any more, no restriction on what counts as a ‘single’. So any old album track can invade the charts. Therefore there should be some rule in place to ensure only specific tracks by an artist which qualify can register on the singles chart.

But that would be pretty much unworkable. How do you do this? I’ve seen it suggested that chart places are reserved for only the most popular 4 or 5 tracks from an album. Which is fine, until the 5th and 6th most popular tracks are more or less neck and neck and swap places each week. Why would you exclude the track which was just outside the Top 50 one week just because it has sold 5 fewer copies this week than the track it sold 5 copies more of last week. Chaos would ensue.

If you simply insist that labels designate specific tracks from an album as the chartable “singles” you also run into complications when the public decides otherwise and starts buying or streaming ‘unauthorised’ album cuts in large numbers. We are seeing this happen this week with Ed Sheeran. Far and away the most popular of all the Divide tracks is Galway Girl and all indications are that if it continues in the manner in which it has been doing it stands the best chance of any current hit of removing Shape Of You from the top of the charts. So an album track will be the Number One single. And you cannot argue that it would not make a joke of the singles chart if the best selling or most streamed track of the moment was not at the top or even on the charts at all, just because the record label didn’t make it one of the nominated few.

Fix The Formula

‘Fix’ is once more a very leading word, presuming by definition that there is something broken. This refers to the current ratio of 150 streams : 1 purchased sale, adjusted down from 100:1 at the start of this year. It has been changed once and almost certainly will be changed again as the streaming market continues to grow and evolve. Nobody is suggesting changing it just because of Ed Sheeran, and indeed you could have a 200:1 streaming ratio and Ed Sheeran would still have dominated this week. But if he is the thing which causes a jump in the market, causing custom to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al to notch up dramatically then I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us move to a 200: 1 ratio by the end of the year. But by no means before then.

Eliminate Passive Listening

This is the notion that much of the perceived stagnation of the market is down to people blindly listening to the various “today’s hot hits” playlists, to the extent that it swamps the true investigators, those who go on journeys of discovery and actively choose which tracks to listen to, or build their own playlists based on personal tastes. So the argument goes that the charts should not be tracking passive playlisted streams, those that follow on automatically from a user selection. The downside here is that strange though it may sound it will actually just play into people’s conservatism. The number of users who take time to explore the catalogues under their own steam is tiny compared to those who immediately go to the songs of their favourite acts time and time again. Not all playlists are bad, and Spotify’s heaviest users are unanimous in their praise for the famed “discover weekly” playlist – your own customised batch of both songs the system knows you like and other stuff (old and new) which it thinks you will like. Playlists are actually how labels get new music in front of ears and potentially into the charts. Take that away and you will find new music has more of an uphill struggle than ever before.

Include Airplay In The Charts

Radio One would love this, as the BBC article notes. But it also notes that relying on the programmers of commercial radio to positively influence the pop charts is a hiding to nothing, given the way their own research constantly insists that they should play the songs that people know and love to increase audiences. And right now the stuff that people know and love is indeed Ed Sheeran. Calls for the UK charts to incorporate airplay have been made for as long as I’ve been a music fan, and it has always been rejected by those with the power to make these choices. The Billboard chart for all its historical worth is seen as constantly in hock to the small handful of radio programmers. Say what you like about the UK charts, but it has always been the public who has shaped them. And long should that continue.

Ban Ed Sheeran

The final, tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mark Savage isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Back in the spring of 1976, a mass re-issue programme of old Beatles singles resulted in a phenomenal chart invasion, the like of which had genuinely never been seen before. The Top 50 singles chart of April 10th saw no less than six of the places occupied by tracks by the famous Liverpudlians and there were genuine calls from those whose releases were now stuck outside the published chart for Beatles tracks to be relegated to a listing of their own, almost as if there was the assumption they would hang around forever. Which of course they didn’t.

Fifteen years later it was the album chart which was causing headaches for some. Just before Christmas 1991 a plethora of TV-advertised hits collections had made the chart rather collection-heavy. As the following clipping from Music Week shows, there were rumblings in some quarters that the album chart should be the preserve of new studio recordings. Hits compilations should be binned off to their own table, much as compilations had a year or two earlier.

We won’t see a Sheeran-only chart, any more than we saw a Beatles-only or Hits-only chart. Because the issue is this week’s issue alone. By the end of April we’ll all be wondering just what the fuss was all about, you wait and see.

Once upon a time it was thought Hits albums should be excluded.

Gentleman’s Quarterly

Like a great many other men of the modern age, I have a list of personal goals. Events and life achievements it would be nice to think can be ticked off one by one at leisure.

This week I have achieved one of these goals by appearing in the pages of GQ Magazine, quoted extensively in a piece of work by a proper writer in the shape of Dorian Lynskey – this piece on the Top 40 charts and the strange way streaming works which was in the last print issue that went on sale and has now appeared online too:

Why The UK Top 40 has Changed For The Worse

I’ll admit, though, my GQ ambition involved being featured as one of the tastemakers of the age, posing dressed in an Armani suit in the immaculately furnished front room of my multi-million dollar New York penthouse. So, partial unlock.

Never Go Out Of Style

Gone For A Leak

For a couple of days at the start of this week, it appeared to be all anyone with even the remotest connection to the radio industry could talk about. The “leaked” (ie, a single photograph posted on Twitter) excerpt from a new presenter style guide issued by Bauer to the presenters on its Big City stations in the wake of some brand new positioning. It prompted a great deal of brow-clutching and reaching for the smelling salts of those who determined it to be the final proof that radio had lost its spirit and soul.

The document also inspired some creative responses, such as the quickly knocked together parody by Jack FM, emphasising their own differences, and a near 15-minute rant by talkRADIO’s Iain Lee, himself a believer and a master at the art of more freewheeling uninhibited radio, who had hammered together his own version.

Bauer themselves felt compelled to issue their own statement shortly afterwards, musing on the “hyperbole” their presenter guidance appeared to have stirred up. And the funny thing is I’m inclined to agree with them. Because nothing that was in this document was particularly startling, surprising, unusual or even for the most part wrong. It was simply good common sense radio coaching.

Note that I don’t work for Bauer, never have, nor am I likely to any time soon it seems. What follows is simply my own damn opinion based on what I’ve learned over the course of my own 25-year radio career.

Let’s take the leaked snippet line by line.

Designated speed links are the way to keep the music flowing in daytime radio shows, playing songs more or less back to back without resorting to segueing songs with or without a station sweeper or ident. Instead, the presenter plays the role of link man, identifying the station and its slogan and bringing in the next track. They are used sparingly – once or maybe even twice an hour – but they have to be regimented. All too often a presenter’s idea of a “quick link” is to be diverted into reading out a tweet or commenting that it is raining. So the instructions make it clear. You sell the positioning, you remind people what they are listening to (important for anyone with a RAJAR diary) and you introduce the next song. Keep it simple, make it slick and far from sounding mechanical or forced, it makes you and the radio station sound bright and dynamic.

The final bullet point here is also true. Streaming technology has shown to the world what radio programmers and music researchers have known for years: the general public (ie non-music fans) takes time to grow to love a song and even longer to tire of it. That’s why these days the biggest hits hang around the charts for weeks on end and maintain their streaming numbers long after sales have died away. They are just following the way the ordinary Joe – the commercial radio listener – engages with the songs. Even if you have played the same song once a show for the past 10 weeks, there are still plenty amongst your audience who shout with joy the moment you cue it up. So nothing on your music log should ever be undersold.

What a radio presenter does into a commercial break is vitally important. It is the one moment when there is a genuine risk of tune-out from the dial-surfing listener. You can be as creative with your content as you like, take as much care over the programming of the music as you can, but if people really hate listening to adverts and would rather press a button to avoid them then they will do just that. All you can do to mitigate this is to give people a reason not to move. To stay right here because there is something they don’t want to miss. That’s basic stuff – Radio Presenter 101. The first line here is also perfectly sensible. It makes utterly no sense to tell people you play the biggest hits right before you play something that is neither hit nor music. Given you have to say it every time you open your mouth say it after the record.

This line is the only one I’d disagree with. Yes OK, this is a brand new format, the stations having been repositioned recently and the need to keep everyone on message is strong. Yet making all presenters script their “teases” beforehand and having someone senior authorise them just on the off chance they might be “wrong” smacks slightly of excessive micromanagement. If you have no confidence in the people you employ to do their jobs properly, then why are you employing them in the first place? Your presenters are trained professionals, so let them work and present to the best of their ability. And if they get it wrong, tell them so afterwards and watch to see if they do it again tomorrow.

Back to the sensible stuff again, and once more this isn’t outrageous or insulting. Just basic common sense for making good radio. All presenters know now they should throw forward into the break and encourage people to keep listening, but the bad ones can be very lazy at this. It is not enough just to list the next song on the log or lean on the “Rihanna plays next” presentation crutch. So this document reminds them that the ‘tease’ can be creative and fun. Far from being corralled into a closet of blandness as some critics would have it, this encourages and frees them to make the links into a break work hard.

All radio is about selling. Selling the radio station you are hosting. Selling the breakfast show to make people tune in tomorrow. Selling the Italian leather furniture that you have an S&P read for ready for a competition running next week. And here you are selling the reason to stay listening through three minutes of ads for motor dealers and double glazing. So to make it good, don’t just list the next songs, why not say “and on the way shortly on Viaduct FM, one of those songs which if you are in the car will make you want to nudge the volume up a little, just so you can appreciate it properly”. Because that’s the perfect tease. You’ve sold the listener on staying tuned. Because they now want to know just what the song is that is so good you will turn the volume up.

I remember once covering the afternoon show for an absent presenter. Our music database was cleverly structured so that just once in a while a random oldie from out of nowhere would appear to spice things up. So it was that at 3.15 on a Wednesday afternoon I was able to tell people “next on The Pulse I’ll play you one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I won’t cut it short either, you’ll hear all 7 minutes and 11 seconds of it, just to make today even better”. What was the song? I’ll tell you at the end. Call it a tease.

Another anecdote from personal experience. Many years ago at the start of my career, I’d routinely follow the late night phone in with an overnight show. At the suggestion of the Programme Director, I’d go sit with Alex Hall ten minutes from the end of her programme and have a conversation with her about what people could hear next. One night she asked me “What songs are you playing after 2am James?”. I confessed:”I don’t know, I’ve not looked at my printout yet”.

During the news, she admonished me for that line. The listeners neither knew nor cared to know that the songs I was playing were as ordered by a printed piece of paper. I needed to take ownership of the music I was playing and make each one my personal choice, I was told. I didn’t make the same mistake again. The next night I confidently listed three sample songs from the first half hour of the show and told West Yorkshire I couldn’t wait to share one song with them because I knew it was one of everyone’s favourites of the moment.

That’s a basic radio lesson. And the teaching hasn’t changed in 20 years because it remains correct.

Setting Them Up To Fail

Some of the rantings I read in the aftermath of the leaked document suggested this was evidence of how big corporations were “killing radio”, turning stations into jukeboxes filled with bland automatons. Some of it doubtless from people who were convinced their own careers could have flown further if only they had been set free and not confined to “style guides”. Yes, there is much to be said for hearing a true radio talent at work, someone able to work freely with the medium and for whom any kind of barriers or constraints would be too much of a burden to bear. I do that every time I get paid to listen to Iain Lee. But these people are rare and it is often a talent that has to be carefully coached, just as footballers have to be trained and managed to bring them up to the level of the once in a generation prodigy. A good manager should hopefully be always able to spot that potential and direct it accordingly.

The problem is if you give everyone space to spread their wings then many will fall short. They won’t just make poor radio, they will make bad radio. I should know, I’ve done enough of that in my time. Just as bad as hearing a creative talent stifled by a narrow format is hearing someone with little talent dying on their arse on air because someone believes telling them what to do is a bad thing. There are multitudes of bedroom stations on the internet demonstrating that in spades.

So the managers of these Big City stations don’t want their presenters to all sound equally bland and dull. Far from it. They want them all sounding as drilled, confident and enthusiastic as each other. Which is why they have a style guide, which is why they are shown what to do, and which is why crucially they are all successful in their markets.

Only Natural

I was in one sense lucky to spend much of my on-air career at a radio station which wasn’t too tightly formatted. For sure there were rules we had to follow, clocks to stick to and were carefully coached and trained by a man who was a master of the radio art. But it was more about how we said things rather than what we had to say. Nonetheless, all of us on air actually found ourselves opening most links with the radio strapline anyway. To say “West Yorkshire’s Radio – You’re On The Pulse” was easy to do, told everyone what we were about in a second and cleared the way for whatever else we had to impart. Even when free we all instinctively knew the correct way to go.

A few years later I worked briefly for a temporary radio station run by a major group as a test for a licence they wished to bid for. On the wall of the studio was a strict notice: “106.6 The Edge must be the FIRST and LAST thing you say in each link. 30 seconds max”. That might sound intimidating but it was actually a fun challenge. Because it meant every time I prepared to open my mouth on air I had to prepare mentally exactly what I was going to say, how I was going to say it and then get out of the way of the music as quickly as possible. Far from being stifled I found that liberating, exciting and dare I say it inspired to better links than I’d broadcast for years.

So hand me a style guide any time you like. Because it gives me the tools to be a better broadcaster and to make a better radio station. Every single time.

Oh yes, the “7 minutes 11 seconds greatest song of all time”? Hey Jude by The Beatles.

Always Will

The final weekend before Christmas always reminds me of a song. It isn’t even a Christmas song, although it was released at that time and was in the charts for the holiday.

I’m reminded every time I hear it of one particular occasion when I played it on the radio. Saturday December 19th 1998, just after the start of the regular sports updates show I presented on local radio at that time. Not long after it had finished the studio phone rang. On the end was a lady who informed me she had just parked up to do her last Christmas shopping and wanted to thank me for the song I’d played because it had made her feel so happy.

It made me happy to hear that too. And so every time I hear the song (far less often than I should) I think back to the day it just happened to catch someone in the moment, made them feel their life was worthwhile and inspired them to share that with the local radio disc jockey who helped. Even if all he did was line up the CD that his computer printout had told him to.

So when I hear this song I always think of the final weekend before Christmas. Always have, always will.

 

Christmas Number One – Liveblog

Friday December 23rd – 7pm: What are you still doing here? The race is over. Read all about it on Chart Watch UK – it is worth it.


Thursday December 22nd – 1pm: I had in my head today to write a long and detailed account of the way the numbers are working and in the absence of any solid information how we can infer that the gap between the Number 1 and Number 2 in the singles chart race this week is not narrowing in any way at all.

But truly there is no need. There’s another sales flash circulating behind the scenes, Music Week will publish the details later. But all you need to know is this: Clean Bandit lead Rag’N’Bone Man by 7,000 sales as of the close of play Wednesday. And that’s without certain streaming data to take into account as well.

Bookmakers, grab some headlines and settle the markets now. Clean Bandit will land the Christmas Number One 2016 with their seventh week at the top of the charts – something that is totally without precedent in the modern era. If any media outlet is tempted to write a story of how this has been “disappointing” and something of a damp squib of a festive battle, send them to me and I’ll put them straight with a few home truths.

I’ll tell you the full story of a truly great triumph for a truly great British band and the outright victory for “real music” we’ve been told has been urgently needed for years, this Friday night on the Chart Watch UK site. Link at the top of the page.


Wednesday December 21st – 2pm: We here’s me half expecting no further progress updates as the week draws on when one lands in my lap mid-morning. It features the state of the singles market as of the end of Tuesday with the caveat that it is (as you might expect for that time of day) missing streaming data for Apple and Spotify for Tuesday.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, we do actually have something of a race, even if the prospect of the lead changing hands before the end of the week remains slim. According to the latest numbers Rockabye and Human are separated by the small matter of 6,000 sales and it is a gap which it seems will remain just as tight for the rest of this week. What stymies the prospects of Rag’N’Bone Man taking over at the top of the charts at least for this week are his still sluggish streams. Tuesday’s Spotify numbers bear this out – 362,000 for Rockabye versus 184,000 for Human. That’s approximately 3,600 chart sales compared to 1,840 just from Spotify alone. To wipe out that deficit, Rag’N’Bone Man would have to be similarly besting Clean Bandit by more than 1,800 sales a day at downloads. Which he may well be, but that information is something only the Official Charts Company themselves are privy to for now.

Note that if we add this Spotify data to the streaming-free sales flash the gap between first and second increases to 7,800 – and that’s without knowing what the Apple Music numbers were.

They are naturally well out of the Christmas Number One race, but for the record none of the other ante-post contenders are in the Top 20 flash I was handed. The Dave Clark Five track suddenly bounced into the sales race by Glasgow Rangers fans ends up at Number 64 as of the end of Tuesday. Don’t be fooled by any talk that it will be anywhere near the top of the charts this weekend. It is a total red (blue?) herring. The fact that it is trading at 47-1 on Betfair at the time of writing should be enough to clue you in on how the armchair gamblers view it too.


Tuesday December 20th – 5pm: Today began pretty much as expected, Rag’N’Bone man edging ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes, enough to suggest that his destiny to top the full singles chart will indeed be fulfilled early in the new year. The time could thus be passed browsing the increasingly disgruntled Facebook groups backing certain other Christmas Number One contenders. One managed to anger me sufficiently to tweet it out: Now let’s leave aside the fact that a “real band with real musicians [bearing] the fruits of hard work and persistence” is an exact description of Clean Bandit who have been working towards their success since the very start of the decade and whose creative and musical talents are utterly beyond doubt. This is merely proof that some people are battling musical or chart demons that are entirely of their own invention and are content to display an almost wilful ignorance of modern popular culture in pursuit of their own imaginary point.

No, this is another example of “the new shit will never be anywhere near as good as the old shit I’m into and you youngsters are blind to this” thinking of which you stumble across far too often in musical conversations online. This chap is presumably old enough to remember when the “old shit” was itself the “new shit” and was indeed being sneered at and dismissed by the ignorant from the previous generation who were sure that their “old shit” was actually far superior to the whining noise merchants of the 1990s. But he still falls into the same trap of becoming the kind of old fart he would have rejected back in his teenage years. Isn’t it funny how every generation imagines their era of music to be the greatest one ever with nothing else standing a chance of comparing?

Then something weird happened, and a golden oldie started rocketing up the live sales tables out of nowhere. The single in question is Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five, a Number One hit from the 1960s and, I was actually rather surprised to learn, absent from the UK singles chart since May 1993 when a re-release saw it poke its nose into the Top 40. The foot stomping track has retained a place in popular culture ever since thanks to its adoption from time to time as anthems for football teams, be it as pre-match crowd rousing or with suitably modified lyrics to celebrate a new hero. Well, this time around it is Glasgow Rangers supporters who have taken to using it as a terrace anthem. And out of nowhere, they have hit on the wheeze of buying it for Christmas just to see what happens.

Well fair play, if any group of people can be motivated to behave in an identical manner in a short time it is football supporters. They achieved enough volume to give the track a startling presence at the top of the iTunes table by mid afternoon. Few expect it to stay there, let alone represent any kind of chart challenge. For a start there are just over two days left in the survey period, nowhere near enough time for any single, no matter how intensively bought, to recover from a standing start and catch up to those who have been selling all week long. 70,000 copies (which is what it will take to overhaul Clean Bandit now) in two days just isn’t possible in this day and age. Even if you do have 50% of Glasgow’s largest city buying into the idea. Oh, and it isn’t on Spotify either which makes getting any kind of streaming momentum kind of tricky.

Still, it is a fun distraction and at least provides material for me to muse over for a couple of days. Late week sales updates tend to come via Music Week’s website and they have pretty much all knocked off for the holidays. We’ve got an interesting 48 hours of watching and waiting ahead of us.


Monday December 19th – 9pm: Well, the secret (such as it was for people reading these pages) is out. The official midweek chart update was unveiled earlier this evening and naturally enough caused a shock for anyone expecting a mass festive invasion. Instead, the general public learned that Clean Bandit were out in front in the race to be Christmas Number One, hotly followed by Rag’n’Bone Man with Human and surprise bronze medal contenders Little Mix with new single Touch. All the songs the press and social media expected to be in contention were nowhere. Or to be precise: Inspiral Carpets at 20, London Hospices Choir at 33, one time favourite Friends Of Jo Cox at 59 and the Everly Pregnant Brothers at 73. To name but a few. It is almost as if the general public have become bored of buying music that they have no intention of listening to. At long last. Needless to say, this has caused convulsions on some of the Facebook groups, with some folks becoming frustrated because their assumptions about the way something works turn out not to be true: There are those who have literally no idea who the current leading contenders are: Along with those who are already falling into the trap of presuming that because their attempt to “fix” the charts and propel a track to an artificially high position bearing no relation to its true level of popularity is failing it must be because of some kind of well, fix: The only final point I’d note is that the infamous “Bieber Tweet” of 2015 which stood that year’s race on its head when he urged his sheep-like followers not to purchase his single but go buy a charity record instead was issued on the Tuesday of the chart week. But the NHS Choir single he directed people towards was at that point a struggling but still close second in the sales flashes. History won’t repeat itself this year.


Sunday December 18th – 7pm: Updates? No, I got nothing, at least officially. Which is kind of understandable as right now there is no story to tell, at least not in the way everyone was expecting. Literally none of the “special” releases for the Christmas market are anywhere near contending in the real market as it stands. Whilst the story of the most consistent British music act of the moment making a herculean effort to be Christmas Number One with a single which was never released on that basis is actually one which will go down as a famous pop moment, a mass media weaned on a decade of X Factor-inspired mega sales or feel-good stories of charitable causes really has nothing to bite on. Meanwhile the singles market rumbles on. Matt Terry surrendered his iTunes lead mid-morning on Sunday, replace naturally enough by Clean Bandit. Their return to the top was however to be brief, the ding-dong battle between them and Rag’N’Bone Man resuming, the hotly tipped new star making his first appearance in the lead of the live sales tables shortly after lunchtime. This does however change nothing, Saturday’s Spotify numbers confirmed Rockabye as the most streamed track of the day. Only All I Want For Christmas Is You is showing any sign of deposing it from that particular pile. It all means the late November 66-1 shot is now almost an unbackable cert to be Christmas Number One 2016. Unless an earthquake happens on Monday morning. But with both London Hospices and Friends Of Jo Cox so far back in the running there is little point attempting even the kind of PR coup the NHS Choir achieved in 2015. All that is left for us to do is amuse ourselves with the shrill belief of people on Facebook that Saturn 5 is still in “we can totally do this people” contention. More on that tomorrow, along with the official midweek update. The reaction to which will be enormous fun to watch.


Saturday December 17th – 7pm: Bang on cue Spotify’s listening data for Friday has arrived online, and whilst it contains nothing revolutionary it is as expected revelatory. Clean Bandit remain the most streamed track on the platform. Now whilst the following makes a large number of presumptions, their total of 391,941 Spotify  streams extrapolates to a seven day total of 2.74m which itself scales up to an expected universal (i.e. all services added together) total of just over 4.1m. So still enormous, still enough to pretty much guarantee Number One under any normal circumstances and even if these are not normal circumstances giving any other single hoping to nick a win on purchases alone a huge mountain to climb. But as I’m fond of repeating, that is what happened last year. Of the other potential contenders, the Steve Aoki single, flagging at download is at least making streaming progress, doing 235K on Friday, up from 200K the day before. Sales leader Matt Terry continues to have lacklustre streams – less than 200K once more. Even by the most generous of guesstimates he can only be presumed to do 2 million by Thursday. That’s essentially 20,000 chart sales to Clean Bandit’s expected 41,000 chart sales. And trust me, he isn’t on track to be 20,000 purchases ahead of them by next Thursday. Meanwhile Rag’N’Bone Man – still ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes – languishes way down the streaming rankings with just 170K plays on Friday. The London Hospices Choir single isn’t on Spotify, whilst the Friends Of Jo Cox track is reported by the app to have been streamed just over 1,000 times since being added to the database. That’s worth 10 chart sales if anyone is counting. The Inspiral Carpets oldie, in third place according to the lunchtime flash, does not appear in the reported Top 200. That means it has been streamed less than 41,000 times so far. The next update should come via the OCC tomorrow lunchtime, featuring more realistic sales data plus the Friday streaming tables just mentioned. That will give the wider world a clearer picture, particularly as it will feature any extreme skews from retailers we cannot easily track ourselves, but right at this moment the Christmas Number One race is still Clean Bandit’s to lose.


Saturday December 17th – 2pm: “The first glimpse of how the race is shaping up will be issued to the media around lunchtime this Sunday” announced the Official Charts Company on Friday afternoon. Well just like a child on Christmas Eve it turns out they could not wait and unwrapped the presents early, presenting a unique Saturday lunchtime sales flash. This is risky, and the OCC themselves admit that it contains no streaming data at present and is based solely on pre-orders and purchased sales. Even then the update it still startling, suggesting that the London Hospices Choir is in the lead, followed by Rag’N’Bone Man at 2 and Inspiral Carpets at 3. But that has to be a nonsense, bearing no relation at all to even the live iTunes data we can see via their published live charts which presently list the LHC as the 36th most popular download of the moment. So I suspect this update doesn’t include iTunes information at all, which would not be unusual. What it appears to reflect is early purchasing on Amazon, which tends to be the destination of choice for people who have jumped on board a social media promotion and entered the music market for the only time this year. Because in their minds, you buy everything else online from Amazon so why not a digital track? Yes, you can do that. But nobody else normally does and so Amazon’s market share is insignificant compared to other players for whom music is their core product. Except when it happens to be the only major retailer which has reported data by Saturday lunchtime. At which point it becomes the basis for wild speculation. So I’m reading nothing into this absurdity, and indeed significantly neither are the betting markets. At the time of updating Betfair remain unmoved and have Clean Bandit locked in place as a now strong favourite with the Jo Cox tribute single in second place (based it must be said little more than gut instinct than anything else). Of far more interest will be tonight’s expected data dump from Spotify which will allow us to see just how the race between Clean Bandit and Rag’n’bone Man is developing – and whether Matt Terry’s narrow iTunes lead is being bolstered at all by an improvement in his streams.


Friday December 16th – 9pm: So Clean Bandit are Number One for the final week before Christmas. Which in itself means nothing – being top of the charts for one seven day period has utterly no bearing on whether another record will sell more than you in the next seven day period after all. What is significant is that the Clean Bandit single did so in the teeth of some strong competition, both from new releases and a current chart rival, resulting in its slipping 1-4 in the sales table. Details are in the Chart Watch UK column which is linked at the right hand side of this page. No, Rockabye is Number One still because its streams were far in excess of any sales rivals. And that matters when it comes to deposing it. Any chart-invading single which wants to reach the top has no choice but to ratchet up such a commanding sales lead that the effectively 40,000 copies head start Clean Bandit has becomes irrelevant. Not that this cannot happen – remember Justin Bieber and his 5.5m streams last year which were ultimately irrelevant? But at least for now, not one of the ‘other’ Xmas No.1 rivals. Be they charity hits or Facebook campaigns have anything approaching a strong sales momentum. And every hour they do not have one, the existing hits build up a lead which becomes ever harder to overcome. Right now we still have a race. But it is between Clean Bandit, Rag’N’Bone Man and theoretically Matt Terry (at least until we see Spotify data). Which is not what anyone expected. On Betfair, Clean Bandit are trading at 3’s, making them favourites above the Jo Cox record. Mind you the Betfair market here is all kinds of wacky. If I’ve read this correctly, just about every other non-runner is showing over £1000 waiting to be matched by backing them at minimal (1.1) odds. This suggests some chancer has laid every record he could name at the same price and is waiting to clean up when none of them top the charts. But that’s what happens when you run a market with a large number of contenders and it is quickly becoming apparent that only one or two can actually win.


Friday December 16th – 1pm: I now know who is Number One this week, and although I can’t tell you until later this evening this does put an interesting spin on the first part of this particular sales and streams race – particularly as the early shape of the overall market indicates that the incumbent hits are those with the early advantage. But all will become clear later. For now we’ve no streaming information to go on, Spotify data doesn’t hit the public domain until late the following day meaning it won’t be until 6pm Saturday until we know what is being streamed right now. But that’s largely irrelevant anyway given that the incoming contenders, the singles released specifically with the aim of being Xmas Number One, won’t be in a position to grab many streams anyway. If anything comes from nowhere to top the charts it will be on sales alone – just as the NHS Choir did last year. And in truth they have all started slowly at sales. Charity single The Living Years is languishing at 14 on iTunes, the Friends Of Jo Cox single (which isn’t actually in aid of a registered charity) down at 16 with a handful of other novelties lower down. As we’d half suspected, the sheer number of “causes” lobbying for your 59p or 99p have only served to dilute focus. Campaign tracks are thin on the ground. Attempts to fire Saturn 5 by The Inspiral Carpets to the top have propelled it to 13 on iTunes thus far. With a following wind it may well end up Top 40 for Christmas which will be nice to see (it’s a great song after all) but in no circumstances Christmas Number One. Meanwhile the Betfair market comes alive at this point in proceedings and shows where the clever money is going. The Jo Cox single is a bizarre favourite at just over 2.1 (or even money in old-fashioned terms). So that’s an easy lay for me. As far as that market is concerned it is between that single and Clean Bandit with nobody else in with a chance.


Friday December 16th – 9am: Yes, it is that time of the year again. However much we hardened chart watchers or music fans may lament the circus which has grown over the years to become a frenzy, it is hard to escape the fact that the annual “race” to become the Christmas Number One has become one of the most high profile popular music events of the year. There comes a point when you can do little more than embrace that. So here then is my contribution, a week-long blog of the events that take place to shape the market and just how the runners and riders (and indeed whichever of your favourites you have backed) are doing. There’s a strange irony that this comes hard on the heels of a ‘regular’ chart week which actually played host to one of the tensest and most intriguing chart races of the year, but all we can do is sit and wait to see how this one plays out. As I have noted on Chart Watch UK over the past few weeks, you can divide the contenders into one of four categories:

  • ‘Normal’ hit singles from mainstream acts. Including the incumbent Number One record (the identity of even that we won’t know until this evening) and other current hit singles. In a sense, this is the ideal scenario. The Christmas Number One being a “proper” hit single for the first time in decades.
  • A charity single as has been the case on a number of occasions over the past few years. I have a low opinion of these, the quality of the music now secondary to the need to virtue signal and buy a record just to show how much you are pretending to care about cause x (or even cause y). Culturally they are an irrelevance and indeed undermine any remaining argument as to why it is “important” to be Christmas Number One. Last year’s winners The Lewisham And Greenwich NHS Choir set a record the week after Christmas – for the greatest fall from the top of the charts ever. Because one week later everyone stopped caring so much it seems, and they weren’t all that bothered about the music.
  • An online campaign, from those taking inspiration from past efforts and using the power of social media to encourage mass buy-ins of random old singles. Whereas once the motivation appeared to be to “stop X Factor from getting to the top” this has taken on rather less urgency. Few if any can manage the kind of momentum needed to obliterate the competition.
  • A festive classic. This was a possibility floated by friends a few weeks ago and for a time it appeared the concept had legs. Seasonal perennials may have reached a saturation point as downloads, but as streaming hits they remain as potent as ever, perhaps more so as the market for streaming services grows. Already Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You has landed its highest chart placing for a decade. However for all the talk of streaming accounting for 86% of chart ‘sales’ these days, at the top end of the market things are closer to a 50/50 split. One day circumstances may mean than an oldie becomes the most played track in the week up to Christmas and thus the Christmas Number One. But that won’t happen this year.

Me? I’m truly ruling nothing out and nothing in. All I will do is note that this is a week when normal expectations and the normal rules of consumer engagement do not apply. Last Christmas Justin Bieber enjoyed 5.5 million streams of Love Yourself but still finished as runner-up. The sell-through market may have contracted still further in 2016, but Christmas week and indeed the chance to contribute to the Christmas Number One race will inspire people to dust off their iTunes logins and buy some music for the first and only time this year. And we have no idea how these people will behave. Keep checking back later in the week. Let’s just hope this turns into a fun and indeed close race rather than one which is all over bar the shouting by Tuesday.

Quiz-Mania

To the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington on Monday night, the occasion being the annual staging of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Industry pop quiz, an event which has achieved near legendary status over the years for those who work in or around the music business. And for the first time I was able to be there too, invited to be (hopefully) a key member of the team fielded by the Official Charts Company. Double the personal thrill in so many ways I would struggle to articulate here.

There is nothing duller than hearing an after the fact account of someone else’s night out, so I’ll gloss over most of the details. Suffice to say our team came third, trailing behind eventual winners Warner Music who had a ringer of their own in the shape of Andy Healing from Sainsbury’s who has been in equal measure a quizzing rival and collaborator since we were both at university together in the early 1990s. And I hope he choked on the champagne.

So what did I take away from this evening more than anything else? It wasn’t simply the belated realisation that relying on a Circle Line train to convey you in a stress-free and timely manner both to your destination and away from it in time to land the last train home for the night is inadvisable. Neither was it that you should never sneer at the people who pre-fetch their coats from the cloakroom just before the close of proceedings. They are the ones out the door and making their train home while the rest of you are queueing 20 deep at the booth wishing the solitary man in charge had more hands to retrieve more than four coats at a time from their hangers.

No, it was that there is nothing more fun, more soul-affirming than making music a shared experience. And we simply do not do enough of this in the modern world. Music has become something we do while retreated in a cocoon. Our music is on our personal devices, ones into which we plug headphones of ever more lovingly crafted fidelity. Ones to which the finest minds have focused their attention on filtering out the sound of the outside world as much as humanly possible. Music is all to often wired directly to our brains, but that stops it entering our hearts.

On Monday night most of the rounds involved identifying a piece of music and then answering a question related to it. Once done you could sit back and enjoy it, or just sing along with the similarly drunk people on your table. An Ibiza-themed round saw the room turn into a mini-rave as Cafe Del Mar blared out over the speakers. And a hotel ballroom full of people all as one threw Big Fish Little Fish shapes and smiled.

Because enjoying music together is fun.

Works In Progress

Hello friends, it isn’t often these days that I use this platform for a random update of this or that, but it seemed appropriate to talk about the progress of the various projects I’m current juggling in between real life. In no particular order they are:

The Next Book

It seems like ages since I published the last book in the Top 40 Annual series. April 2015 to be precise, which just so happened to be the date I began work on the next volume. The fact that it has taken so long is a testament to my own lack of organisational skills and the sheer awkward way life has a habit of throwing up obstacles that mean no sooner have I got into a groove of writing then the opportunities slip away. But be assured the 1989 volume is coming, it is nearing completion and there should be something on the shelves in early 2017.

Chart Watch UK

That is naturally subject to other distractions, one of which happens to be the new Chart Watch UK site  of which I am inordinately proud and continually excited to spend time on. Its primary purpose is to be the home of the latest chart updates and commentaries and indeed it is these articles which represent the bulk of the weekly traffic. My only frustration there is the fact that my regular Friday routine means it is sometimes late in the evening when I finally get the full text uploaded rather than swiftly after chart publication. But if that means something for people to devour over breakfast on Saturday then so be it.

I’m also racing forward on the surprisingly involved process in uploading the archives, the near complete set of columns that date back to the end of 1992. Although there are times when I grow tired of the sound of my own voice on the page, it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise, both in relearning trivia which I’d drawn attention to at the time but had all but forgotten about in the years since. Working my way through chronologically it is also fascinating to note the way I grew and developed as a writer and spotting the exact moment when I truly found my ‘voice’ as an author and when the pieces grew from a dry revelation of facts and figures into proper analysis and discourse.

I’m frequently in two minds as to what to focus on first, whether to concentrate on the more contemporary commentaries to hook in the casual reader, or to treat it as a history lesson and do it all in order, leaving people waiting for the 21st century when the columns grew really good and were arguably at the peak of their popularity and influence. Your own thoughts are naturally welcome. For now at the time of writing I’ve put 1992, 1993, 1994, 2010 and 2011 up in full and am working my way through 1995.

The Podcast

Alas that is the one project which for now is on indefinite hold. Whilst I’d been producing it with the same enthusiasm and love for the medium I always had, the truth is that every week it was becoming harder and harder to find the time to prepare, record and edit it. When two weeks went by in which I’d scripted the broadcast but not actually found time to sit and do the recording, I had to ask myself how viable it was. The truth is as well that despite the loyal and enthusiastic audience the podcasts had, they were small in number and just not growing in any way at all. They are fun to do and an essential part of the multimedia age in which we live, but as a core part of my own brand they served little purpose in the long run.

I’ve not ruled out restarting or tweaking the format in the future, but for now that is one project which is on hiatus until I’m less time poor.

Back Catalogue

Zack Evans is one of my oldest friends, a man I have known for almost 25 years now – back in the days of university bulletin boards when he was RAVE CHILD and thus in the best position to pull me up on my ignorance of dance music. To this day he will still pull me up on things, just like he did on Twitter last week when upon reading my last post he noted:

Yes, strong words, although in truth probably more a case of both lazy writing on my part or at very best use of some dramatic hyperbole to emphasise the point I was trying to make. Nonetheless for any long time music fan, the availability of vast catalogues of recorded music all of which can be heard at the press of a screen or the click of a mouse can be a rollercoaster experience. For every moment of joy at discovering the presence of songs you had long thought were confined only to your memory (hence the Elaine Paige piece last week) there are indeed some glaring omissions which make you go scuttling back to your physical collections for reassurance.

The most notable digital absentees remain Def Leppard. At one point legitimately the biggest rock group on the planet, you will search the Spotify or indeed iTunes catalogues in vain for albums such as HysteriaAdrenalize or indeed most of their lesser starred recording released either side. The reason for this is apparently because the group long ago inked a deal which means all rights to their music revert to them 20 years after release. They choose to exploit this ownership of their catalogue by crafting deluxe editions of the old records, making them physical collectors items. They appear to have no interest in moving into the digital age and in the process perhaps facilitating discovery of their work by new generations. Super-serving the long term fans is their aim, and in truth they are rich enough not to care about losing out on any other revenue streams. All they have on Spotify then is a live album and the handful of reworked tracks they did for the Rock Of Ages musical soundtrack. However the presence there of their most recent deluxe repackaging, 1996s Slang suggests that possibly all it takes is time and remastered versions of their most famous albums will eventually appear.

Some artists are just wilfully unavailable in all forms. The chances of Spotify and the like ever containing “every last bit of popular music ever recorded” are minimal when there are acts such as the KLF whose entire catalogue has been deleted for over two decades. Virtually everything Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have ever done can be interpreted as a carefully thought out piece of performance art. Their refusal to allow anyone to buy or legitimately listen to any of the work which made them famous in the early 1990s is probably best viewed in those terms rather than being a case of the pair being miserable bastards.

For my part I remain continually annoyed at the gaps in the catalogue which means I cannot revisit my appreciation of the second album from Material Issue. The power pop trio’s 1991 debut International Pop Overthrow is present and correct on Spotify, but the follow-up Destination Universe is missing, this despite being released by the same label and under the terms of the same record deal. Until someone chooses to throw up a dodgy rip on YouTube it means I can’t hear What Girls Want or forgotten classic single When I Get This Way (Over You) and either appreciate it anew or discover that my memory of it is playing tricks.

But that said, for all the above frustrations, Spotify contains the kind of gems which I never dreamed I’d either hear again or be able to get my hands on easily. Elaine Paige’s 1991 comeback attempt we’ve already covered, but there is other stuff as well. For many years the Michael Jackson oddity Farewell My Summer Love was something of a holy grail for collectors. The cash-in 1984 release featured ten year old Motown material newly reworked with overdubs to make the songs sound halfway relevant in the post-Thriller era. It had fallen off the catalogue shortly after release. When the singer died in 2009 his entire musical output poured back onto the charts. Yet Farewell My Summer Love remained missing, despite its title track becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK in the summer of 1984. A cassette of the album was presented to me on my 11th birthday to accompany my first ever walkman. I must have played it a hundred times before donating it to my sister (busily building up her own Michael Jackson collection) who promptly lost it.

Yet not only is the album now online in its entirety but there are complete sets of Motown recordings featuring the original untouched 1970s tracks allowing side by side comparison. That’s utterly phenomenal.

I also love the esoterica you can stumble across. Many years ago my friend Louis played for me an old Bernard Cribbins LP of novelty songs he had uncovered from one of the many second hand record shops he would spend his weekends wallowing in. It was the kind of collectable which made searching racks of records such a joy, an all but forgotten gem from the past. Only now his entire recorded catalogue is up on Spotify. And I can play it any time I want.

Every “last bit of popular music ever recorded”? No not quite. But there is more than enough to satisfy for now.

Dumb Enough

Elaine Paige had never truly been a pop star.

For sure, during the 1980s she had made more than her fair share of forays into the pop singles charts, but these were by and large as an adjunct to her primary career as a star of musical theatre. It just so happened she was for a while the favourite muse of the composers of some of the most famous theatrical productions of the decade and was therefore gifted the chance to sing on some of their most iconic works.

Thus when we think of Memory it is not in terms of the show-stopping first act closer in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Cats but more as Elaine Paige’s signature rendition of the song, and one which she took to Number 6 in the charts in the summer of 1981. The same goes for the musical Chess which is not defined by Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok (although that would be no bad thing) but instead by I Know Him So Well which as performed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson was a memorable Number One hit single in early 1985 and was appreciated on its own level by people who were ignorant of its true context in the libretto of the musical.

This interplay between stage show and chart success had however resulted in the singer recording a handful of albums, although her most successful ones had been TV-advertised collections of songs from stage and screen: 1983 release Stages and its 1984 follow-up Cinema both released through K-Tel records, the former reaching the dizzy heights of Number 2 upon release. Then in 1988 came the rather notorious Queen Album which saw Elaine Paige croon her way through selected highlights of the Queen back catalogue accompanied by a Philharmonic Orchestra. It is as extraordinary as it sounds and in truth deserves an entire blog devoted to it. But that is for another time.

However in 1991 she signed a new deal with RCA records, the label convinced that they had the secret to turning the then 43 year old star into a mainstream pop performer in her own right. To that end she travelled to California to record with renowned producer Dennis Lambert. The result was Love Can Do That, an album crammed with contemporary songs from some very big names indeed. Diane Warren was in there, as were Steinberg and Kelly (via a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours). The album was hailed as a very big deal indeed and was promoted as a huge priority – including extensive coverage for what was hoped would be its major hit single.

Well Almost had a pedigree all of its own, composed by one man hit factory Mike Chapman alongside his favourite protege Holly Knight. It was also very Diane Warren-like, a made for FM radio mid-tempo soft rock anthem which in truth barely stretched the powerful talents of its appointed singer but whose highly polished vocal tones somehow made it exude a classiness which made it stand out from the crowd. The song had a huge fan in the shape of Radio One mid-morning host Simon Bates who played it virtually every day for a fortnight in March 1991, proclaiming “this is the single which will send Elaine Paige back to the top of the charts”.

 

History records that didn’t quite go as plan. Well Almost failed to chart at all as stockists and indeed purchasers appeared singularly uninterested in Elaine Paige’s pop star reinvention. It is a shame because the song is at the end of the day a rather classy and well constructed pop record. It was just that it was possibly a record out of time, a production steeped in the musical shorthand of the late-80s with its chiming synths and squealing guitar figures. It wasn’t that the charts of the time weren’t host to such soft-rock balladry. The One And Only by Chesney Hawkes was at Number One at around the same time after all, but by and large such records were outliers. Novelties harking back to what was by then a bygone musical era. If it had been backed by being the soundtrack to a hit film or the theme to a TV series then Well Almost might have stood a chance. As a major pop hit it never truly stood a chance.

The Love Can Do That album fared slightly better, limping to Number 36 in the charts and spending a month with respectable levels of sales. It would turn out to be her final dalliance with pop music. Her stage career would hit new heights with her acclaimed portrayal of Edith Piaf in 1993 and she would spend the rest of the decade in her comfort zone, releasing albums of songs from stage musicals – heralding in a way her later career as a radio presenter dealing with the very same material.

Yet despite its failure I’ve still a soft spot for Well Almost. For years it was for me one of the great lost pop records and indeed a track which for a long time I had a yearning to hear again, having never picked up a copy when it was released. I genuinely hadn’t heard it since that ill-starred release until I started working in full time radio three years later and spent one Saturday evening browsing the hidden depths of the record library at The Pulse in Bradford. There to my delight on the shelf I found a copy of the Love Can Do That CD and so was thrilled to be able to play Well Almost to myself. Then the song became a long buried memory once more, that was until 2001 and the heyday of the fantastic (and illegal) Audiogalaxy file sharing app which miraculously seemed to contain a copy of every song ever recorded. I spent one long evening queuing up a download of all manner of hard to find tracks – amongst them Well Almost a copy of which I was finally able to own after ten years of searching.

I note with some amusement that anecdotes such as the above will themselves one day become long buried memories. Despite sometimes annoying gaps in their coverage (still no sign of Material Issue’s second album even after all this time) services such as Spotify are close to containing every last bit of popular music ever recorded. It means that buried in their database as you can see above is indeed Elaine Paige’s long-lost “pop” album from 1991 and the song which was supposed to take her to the very summit once more but which now relies upon people like me to call attention to it a generation later.