Friday, 22 August 2008

INTRODUCTION

REASONS

You may look at the heading at the top of this page and wonder whether I truly have gone mad. Number one singles are one (or 1) thing (if not “1 Thing”) but reviewing every UK number one album is possibly verging on the self-annihilating. Then again, why not? Various attempts have been made to write at length about hit singles, not least my colleague Tom Ewing’s exhaustively patient survey of the UK number ones on Popular – five years in and not quite yet approaching the halfway mark – to which I have contributed my own comments. And, as this new blog recently started by my dear wife Lena will confirm, there is more to be written about the singles beyond simply the number ones.

To the best of my knowledge, however – i.e. I Googled, and I don’t recall anyone doing it in book form – no one seems to have attempted anything similar with the albums. Perhaps there are aesthetic as well as logistical reasons why this hasn’t been done; after all, aren’t singles supposed to be the lifeblood of pop, those two or three (or eight) minute transfusions of red cells to strengthen our arteries and clarify or, if we’re lucky, change our world?

Yet I think it’s clear that the number one singles tell only part of the story. Right from the beginning, albums have had their own concepts and constructs, their extended tales to be told. Surprisingly few of the early entries constitute a case of hit single plus eleven fillers, but then that may also be a reflection of the more specialised album-buying market in the early days of the long-playing album’s existence. In particular, however, when we move into the late sixties and early seventies – when conventional wisdom says that rock was expanding and pop contracting – the bias of the singles lists can become irritatingly one-sided; the 1968 single and album number ones, for instance, seem to tell two entirely different and only haphazardly connecting stories, but then so do the equivalent lists for crucial years such as 1982 or 1995. So this is an attempt to reconcile the two and provide a broader picture, a fuller story of what the British record-buying public liked.

Vital balance is undoubtedly provided by doing the albums, not least because this list manages to include many important acts who never had a chart-topping single, from Bob Dylan to Radiohead. Of course the obverse is that, due to the weekly quirks and exigencies of record buying habits, many important acts regrettably won’t get a look in on either side. Many number one albums will be surprising, and in some cases downright inexplicable, while many will no doubt carp at some of the most successful and largest selling of all albums which somehow never managed to muster enough sales in any given calendar week to top the chart. But in all instances, or at least wherever practicable, I will endeavour to mention the missing links whenever apt, since most acts affected in this way did go on to achieve number ones with other albums.

CHARTS USED

For the sake of preserving what is left of my own sanity I have adhered to the Guinness guidelines. The starting point is with the first album chart published in Record Mirror – a top five – in July 1956. At that time the now familiar format of the 12-inch album was still relatively new and had only just gone into mass production; many of the very early entries were released only in the more standard 10-inch format. Whatever their size, however, albums were a new phenomenon and Record Mirror started to tally their sales more or less at the time when they began to be taken seriously; the comparison would be, say, a CD chart in 1986. In Guinness there is some overlap since the NME singles charts used to cover the period 1952-60 had a tendency in the mid-fifties to list albums within the singles chart (although this served as a useful sales comparison point since the first number one album also managed to peak at #12 in the “singles” chart).

The Record Mirror lists are used until November 1958, when Melody Maker began to publish an album chart; and the latter is used until March 1960, when Record Retailer (later Music Week) started compiling their chart, and this is the one which will continue to be used until the present day. Naturally I am duty bound to point out that there exist other album charts, and further/auxiliary information on those is duly welcomed via the comments boxes.

THE VARIOUS ARTISTS QUESTION

The rule has varied over the decades but certainly in the early days of the album charts – and, as we shall see, for some considerable time thereafter - “Various Artists” are prominent in terms of film and stage soundtracks, in particular the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It isn’t until 1972 that the major influx of TV-advertised chart hit compilations, spearheaded by K-Tel and later annexed by Arcade and Ronco, begins. Some major record labels, most notably EMI, began to nudge in on this market towards the end of the seventies, and the Now That’s What I Call Music series begun in 1983 – as well as its sundry imitators – has proven one of the biggest and most reliable of cash cows over the last quarter century.

However, so successful were these compilations that voices of protest were raised from within the industry – individual artists being denied number ones by compilations, unfair competition, etc. – and so in January 1989 a separate compilation chart was inaugurated and compilations were excluded from the main chart. It should therefore be borne in mind that many of the subsequent entries may not necessarily have been the biggest selling album of their particular week, and a fault in the system was revealed when the 1995 all star Bosnian relief charity album Help! was prevented from topping the main chart on the grounds of compilation rules even though it was clearly the main talking focus of that time (and the necessary pivot or anchor to Britpop). Nonetheless compilations continue to inhabit their own lists to this day, so the dozen or so Now albums included here will need to be weighed against the actual running total of seventy (at the time of writing).

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU HAVEN’T GOT ALL OF THEM, CALL YOURSELF A MUSIC WRITER, CONT. P. 1994

As I write there have been, by my count, 848 different number one albums. And some readers may be surprised to learn that I don’t own all of them. To put things into perspective, I own the vast majority of them but there is a certain minority of albums which have never darkened or lightened my doorstep. In addition, in case you’re wondering why I don’t just go out and buy the missing albums, I have to remind you that we’re talking about over half a century of recorded music history and not all number one albums are currently available. Furthermore, I was born in 1964 and although my record collection “began” with the two albums my parents left for me to find inside my brand new Dansette record player as a Christmas present in 1969 – both of them, you’ll be pleased to hear, made number one, and I’ll point them out when I come to them – I didn’t start seriously collecting records until 1974, when I turned ten and was allowed pocket money. So there is a fairly broad swathe of music here which simply didn’t register on my radar.

Broadly – since we’re talking breadth – the missing albums fall into two distinct categories. The first is MoR, the kind of whitened, beyond bland (un)easy listening which was the primary feature of Radio 2 in my extreme youth, and certainly far too bland for my parents to invest in, let alone myself. And I do not use the term “whitened” lightly; there is one particularly controversial act who managed to rack up three number one albums in the very early sixties, and I do not relish the challenge of having to deal with these.

The second is the aforementioned wave upon wave of As Seen On TV compilations. As with the Now series, these were not designed for long-term catalogue life, since the hits on them were only leased to the label for a fixed, short-term period. And since from 1974 I already had a standing order (my tenth birthday present!) for every single to make the Top 50 it seemed rather pointless investing in the same music – especially in view of K-Tel’s fiercely compressed sonics and the occasional unwelcome “edit” to make 20 tracks fit on two sides of thin vinyl – twice. Nonetheless I am aware that to make up the balance (and also on account of record company favours) some non-hits occasionally made their way onto these compilations so the record here is incomplete.

THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN

Given the major nature of this task that I have set myself, I am aware that finding some of the missing entries may prove an uphill job. Most of the K-Tel-type stuff is easily locatable with earnest searching of charity shops, etc., and I will venture onto ebay as and when indicated, but I may require and would be immensely grateful for the help of readers to locate some of the more problematic ones. If I’m having trouble finding an album I will flag it up and all advice, suggestions and offers will be publicly acknowledged and privately rewarded (when I finally get around to investing in a CD burner!). I’m already indebted to Mike Atkinson of Troubled Diva who very kindly found an especially elusive sixties entry for me. You can either comment here or email me at marcellocarlin at hotmail dot com.

PREJUDICES DECLARED

All are welcome to comment with their views, reflections and corrections (as and when required, and I’m sure they will be). However I should emphasise here that the entries to follow will not be a definitive encyclopaedia; they will reflect the views of the author and the author only, based on assumptions, preferences and biases accumulated over four decades or so of listening to music, and both historically and factually are liable to be fallible, especially since the charts began eight years before I did. Perhaps I ought to have asked my mum to write the early entries since she would be able to give a direct, first hand account of how this music felt in the context of an Italian expatriate in fifties Glasgow, but wherever possible I will concentrate on the music and how it makes me feel at the time I come to listen to it for the purposes of writing about it here.

MARKS?

After much internal deliberation I have elected not to give the albums marks out of ten (cue huge sigh of disappointment) since I feel this a particularly self-defeating exercise in this particular context and trust that the discerning reader will clearly glean my views from the writing alone.

BORING BUT NECESSARY PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT – COMMENTS CAVEAT

It’s also important for me to point out that, as with BiA, all comments will be moderated and read by myself before being considered for publication; although this will tend to drag things down a bit, it is, sadly, necessary for the purpose of keeping out spammers and trolls as well as niggling nitpickers, pointless point scorers and other sundry sociopaths. If you want to slag me off, do it on your own blog!

POSTING FREQUENCY

Singles, as I said at the beginning, are one thing. They may take some considerable time to assess and write about but basically you’re listening to one piece of music (or two if it’s a double A-side) several times in succession and the mechanics of doing that are fairly quick.

But whereas, with some concentration and zero interference from the outside world, you could just about get away with writing about one single per day, albums are a different matter – and I speak as one who, in my Uncut days, regularly got through and wrote about a dozen albums in the space of one weekend. Twelve or more tracks – or, when you get to the seventies, perhaps three or four very long tracks, and occasionally just two, or even one – take time to assimilate and assess, and then you have to consider the music within the context of the album as a whole.

Now, since I don’t have a multimillionaire philanthropic backer who’s willing to pay me a living stipend to research and write about this full time – if that sounds like a hint then it’s meant to be – the pace of this blog will necessarily be slower than normal. I plan to do one post, one album, per week, at the weekend (I haven’t decided exactly when in the weekend as yet, but rest assured that it will probably be variable). In view of the 848 albums which need to be considered, I am fully aware that at this pace, not only will I be seeing my sixtieth birthday by the time I’ve written about all of them, but also that when I get there, there will have been an additional sixteen years’ worth of accumulated number one albums to take into consideration – that is, if the album as a saleable format survives that long. So I may need to be fairly flexible with this rate of production but I’m not going to rush to get it up to date. Theoretically I suppose I could do an album a day but then that would leave me with no time or energy to listen to any other music, or indeed live a life of any meaning, for the best part of three-and-a-half years and the words “no can do” spring to mind, not to mention the words “cardiac tent.” Maybe this is the sort of enterprise I should have started twenty years ago (if only there had been a workable mass usage internet in the eighties) but I’m starting it now and that’s that.

Bear in mind also that this weekly frequency may vary if I can’t find a copy of the next number one album. In all such cases I will simply hold off doing any posting until a copy is to hand, however long it takes me to find one. It would be indecent to skip, I think.

WHY THE NAME?

Very simple but cleverly so; I was thinking of Then Play On, the best album released by the Peter Green edition of Fleetwood Mac – although that unfortunately only peaked at #6 so won’t be written about – and the associated titular origin from Twelfth Night (i.e. “if music be the food of love…”). The nobilliards URL is also a Shakespearean reference, this time from Antony And Cleopatra when, in response, to the exhortation “The music, ho!,” Cleopatra blandly views the eunuch and comments “Let it alone; let’s to billiards.” The idea here is that you might find both the writing and the music under consideration interesting enough to defer the billiards for at least a couple more decades. At least I hope so.