Where It All Began

After relaunching the website a few weeks ago I’ve been concentrating on updating the database that creates the ChartBookWeekly and the associated books and that’s what I want to talk about now. 

When I began to collect the UK charts (and it was the UK as I didn’t know about Billboard back then) it was on 28 August 1999. Geri Halliwell was number 1 (new at the top of course as almost all of them where at that point) but that wasn’t the reason I listened to the chart. I listened because I was bored. 

I was 14. School holidays. Sunday afternoons dragged. I don’t play sports (sorry to those for whom it is but football isn’t my thing at all) and  there was nothing to do. I was playing with dads old typewriter (I love Star Wars and for the special edition in 1997 they released script books of the films. I was a school librarian, convinced them to get the books and then borrowed them for the summer break to learn it all – read copy on dads old typewriter – I can still recite almost all the dialogue from each of the original three films). I got fed up typing Star Wars (on page 2…) and put Radio 1 on. 

I heard Mark Goodier. I heard Groove Armada “At The River” (down five places to number 40) and was hooked. S Club 7. Steps. Shania Twain. ATB. Travis. Five. Ricky Martin. Texas. I loved the songs. Still do. But then you never forget your first time you get hooked on something. 

And I typed it all down. 

At first the collection was hand written. Then it became hand written in massive notebooks a page for each week. And then I got my own desktop computer. I discovered Excel. Then in about 2001 I discovered Access databases. I haven’t looked back since. 

I am self taught on Access, largely because we did not have internet until 2003 at home (when I started University). I copied charts from the internet (some amazing posters on forums helped a lot in sharing) and trips to London followed to look at the original paper copies as printed in the British Library. 

The British Library is amazing. A copy of everything printed and all free to access. I devoured the issues of Music Week, NME, Disc, Billboard. All went in the database. I wanted timings, producers, composers, b-sides, all to make the most of the database. Then for albums I wanted tracks. Nobody was doing a book with album tracks. Guinness stopped the Hit Singles / Hit Albums books (the internet almost killing factual books of that sort) and I wanted to replace and do it better. 

Now you can argue the merits of each book and some like one and some like the other but look at Joel Whitburn. His books for the US charts are the gold standard. Why doesn’t the UK have something equally as good?

I was explaining to my wife why I collect charts and she listened and then asked why I didn’t make books like Whitburn if I could. I thought. I wrote some code. I wrote some tables. I made a book. And that’s the first of the Decade Series if books. But after 18 months the database wasn’t up to it. So I needed a new one and that’s largely why no new books for a long time. 

The new database was built with export in mind so that I can create the books here and also other things to share the collection. Over the years I’ve sunk a lot of money into the charts. Mostly to get full chart scans of each week so I can verify that the data is correct. It’s amazing how many errors creep in when data is copied from other books or positions are transposed. Either way mine are the most accurate (which is my goal) so hopefully that’s the case. 

But it all began on a lazy Sunday afternoon. (Queue the Kinks) 

Chart Errors

Chart errors. Some are genuine mistakes and so can be fixed easily. Some are more annoying as they can’t. I’m going to pick out a one in particular, of the annoying variety, and talk about that, but really there are hundreds over the years.

March 1969

The UK Album Charts are the second class citizen of the music industry. Okay, a sweeping statement, so let me put that into context and make clear my meaning. The charts first began (in both the UK and USA) as Single Sales charts, measuring how many records where sold per week from various outlets. Singles where cheap (in comparison to albums – still the case today as you can get an iTunes track for 59p at its cheapest while an album is £4.99.) Now, obviously you get more with an album, and if you like the artist your going to buy the album (which is why Abbey Road by the Beatles entered at number 1 in October 1969). But suppose you just like this one song?

That’s what I did when I first started buying music in 1999 – I didn’t like (and still don’t entirely) dance music. Now, some dance music is very, very good, but some (personally) annoys me as its a dull repetitive thud with nothing much to redeem it. That’s largely the beauty of the charts because nobody will like all of it. But, thats beside the point – I do not like dance music, and yet I bought Alice Deejay and ‘Better Off Alone’ in 1999. I liked the song. Can’t stand the full album, but the song was nice so I bought the song.

Singles allow you to buy the song you like. And that’s largely why, particularly up until the 1970’s really, Albums always sold less than singles. In 2008 more albums where sold than singles (My source for that is here) but only just.

But it is important to realise that Singles sold more than Albums in the 1960’s, particularly for the chart error about to be discussed.

History – The charts in February 1969

Tag from the first chart in Record Retailer, 12 Feb 1969 (Authors collection)

The Official UK Album Chart, as compiled by British Market Research Bureau, began on 15 February 1969. Record Retailer and Record Mirror published the same chart, and the BBC counted down the same on the radio and on Top Of The Pops. The chart carried a legend “CHART compiled for RR and BBC by British Market Research Bureau”., as shown above. The Album chart was a Top 15, with tied places, and a Top 15 Breakers, ranked A-O, in alphabetical order. Breakers were sometimes more or less than a Top 15, but in general, for the first few months, thats what the Album chart consisted of. Singles consisted of a Top 50, as had been the case before, but Albums was a reduction from a Top 40 plus 5 or 6 breakers. An additional chart, described as “Top Budget LP’s” was also printed, again a Top 15 with 15 Breakers, labelled A-O, also published.

What the British Market Research Bureau did was create a Top 120 chart of all price albums and supplied this to the BBC and others. Record Retailer separated this out and published the Full Price albums as the main chart and kept others with a defined dealer price as Budget releases. In so doing, Record Retailer was activity reducing the size of the chart available and the only reason for this would be accuracy. In late 1971 Record Retailer started to print a Top 50 albums and a section called ‘The Next Fifty’, supplied from the full Top 120 created from 300 record shops sales returns. The chart carries the legend ‘Because of the small variations in sales in the bottom 50 of the Top 100 albums, these are listed alphabetically. Because of small differences in sales among the records in the lower sections of the chart, the positions below 20 are approximate.’ This would be removed in 1972, although the chart would remain a Top 120, at least compiled as such according to Music Week, through to at least 1978. (That said the chart became a Top 100 by 1973 and Music Week forgot to update the text). I’ve seen copies of the sales figures for a week in 1973 and five albums sold 50 copies through the shops supplying returns to BMRB – the albums appeared between positions 82 and 86. The number 50 sold 70 copies, the number 100 sold 44 and so their idea of alphabetically listing was a good one.

8 March 1969

No chart published. Previous weeks have duplicated.

That’s what most of the chart books say, and the above comment is not strictly true, as a chart was published in Record Retailer, comprising the Top 30 of the Top 120 supplied by British Market Research Bureau with no splitting into the usual Budget and Full Price charts. This chart comprised no week counts (as Record Retailer usually supplied) and listed last week positions that did not correspond to either of the two printed charts in the previous edition.

The supposition is to what happened is as follows:- British Market Research Bureau had to manually tally the diaries for both singles and albums. Their staff where unable to accurately compile both charts by the Tuesday deadline, instigated because the BBC counted down the new chart on a Tuesday lunchtime and Record Retailer was published on a Thursday and so needed the chart by Tuesday for typesetting and then Wednesday printing. The album chart was of secondary importance to the singles chart and so was compiled afterwards. The supposition is that it was compiled on Wednesdays, although this is pure conjecture and may not be the case. The Singles chart was always the chart which was published for the immediately preceding week, while, from this point forward, the album chart was always for the week before the same Singles chart. Thus if an issue contained the Singles chart dated week ending 22 Mar and cover a sales period for 9-15 Mar, diaries posted 16 Mar, received 17 Mar, compiled 18 Mar and published 20 Mar, then the Album in the same issue would be dated week ending 22 Mar but cover a period for 2-8 Mar, diaries posted 9-11 Mar, compiled from 13 or 14 Mar. This would be apparent from 1973 onwards when Music Week, as the publication became renamed, when the Album chart carried the legend “Charts cover week ending xxx” after them. Thus in the issue for 24 November 1973 the charts covering week ending 10 November were published, together with singles charts for week ending 17 November (the date being the end of the sales period at this time). It would be October 1979 before the charts where again for the same period.

So what happened on 8 March 1969? Well, again conjecture but informed conjecture, leads to the belief that after three weeks of compiling the charts each week had led to a fraught situation at BMRB and so the singles chart was prioritised and the album chart arrived, in week 4, too late to be split by the Record Retailer chart manager. As such, it was carried un-edited.

The following weeks chart is identical to this weeks chart, but correctly split into “Top Albums” and “Budget LPs”. It can be seen in the published magazine as the week counts are simply one more than the chart of 1 March which supports this theory.

Guinness Hit’s Of The Sixties used the original 8 March chart in their book, leading to the odd situation of the album “Four And Only Seekers” having an entire chart career consisting of 1 week at the top of the chart and then nothing else.

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So, new website (Same as the old website?)

Well, I wanted a new website.  I actually don’t, what I really wanted was a refresh, but this seemed really good, so it’s a WordPress website.  Does most of what I want and what I don’t want I can turn off.  Probably.  

So far I have written a couple of pages and it will take me the rest of today to add the older pages back in, into this new format.  Please sign up for subscriptions.  I think it emails when I post a new page or blog, so that means you get told about new chart books.

My aim is to post something on the blog at least once a week, but then I aim and doesn’t always happen.  For now, this is the first post and we shall see how it all works out!