The UK singles chart turns 70 today and, like most good things, it started with a song – Here In My Heart by Italian American crooner Al Martino. He’s little remembered now except as a bonus question in a gangster movie trivia quiz – ‘Who played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather?’ – but he goes down in British pop music history for having the first ever official UK number one single.
Currently overseen by the Official Charts Company on behalf of the UK record industry, the chart is a huge operation and encompasses data from streaming services as well as paid-for downloads and what are quaintly termed physical sales. Things were a lot simpler back in 1952, however, when it was established by fledging music paper the New Musical Express (NME) and in particular co-founder Percy Dickins.
A former Melody Maker journalist, his duties on the NME included layout and advertising and it was with this second hat in place that he cooked up a way of deciding who had the country’s best selling single. It wasn’t as scientific or exact a process as it would become – Dickins telephoned a couple of dozen record shops and asked them what was selling well – but it was definitive enough to hand the crown to Martino. And so was born a British pop culture institution.
The American stayed in the top spot for nine weeks, beating off stiff competition from singles by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn and something called Cowpuncher’s Cantata by Max Bygraves. By mid-January 1953, Jo Stafford had pinched the top spot with the aptly-named You Belong To Me, so let’s not forget her place in the story as the first woman to have a UK number one single.
Since then, the coveted number one spot has changed hands over 1400 times and become a cultural lodestone. The chart itself has become a week-by-week measure of the musical tastes of generations of Britons. Almost all of us have grown up listening to it, or felt its influence on the pop music which has soundtracked out lives. So, to mark the anniversary, here are the climbers – our selection of the most notable singles from each decade.
Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte (November 1957)
An odd choice, perhaps, given that the two number ones which followed his seven week stint at the top were by Elvis Presley and the late Jerry Lee Lewis, but Belafonte was the first black artist to hold the British number spot and an appropriately iconic one. Born in New York to Jamaican parents, he capitalised on the calypso craze of the late 1950s – his 1956 album Calypso was the first million-seller from a solo artist – and also found favour as an actor, appearing in Otto Preminger’s hit 1954 musical Carmen Jones. But it was his close relationships with Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr., his subsequent political activism, and his role as a leading light in the US civil rights movement which have won him his place in history. Mary’s Boy Child was taken from his fourth studio album, An Evening With Belafonte, and is a longer version of a cut he recorded a year earlier. Interestingly, it didn’t even make the top 10 in the US. Music fans who came of age in the 1970s rather than the 1950s may be more familiar with Boney M’s disco-tinged version, a Christmas single in 1978. Now 95, Belafonte lives in New York and is still active in politics.
Bubbling under: Great Balls Of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis, Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley, Three Coins IN The Fountain by Frank Sinatra
I Want To Hold Your Hand by The Beatles (November 1963)
We couldn’t not have The Beatles, could we? The Fab Four had 17 number ones and, though this wasn’t the first, it did give them their first US number one. Along with She Loves You, which it replaced in the top spot following a million pre-sales and which also hit number one Stateside, it’s the song which kickstarted the so-called British Invasion. That in turn introduced millions of American teenagers to bands like the Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Animals and The Kinks, gave the 1960s its initial swing, and made London the centre of the pop music world. Lennon and McCartney wrote the song “eyeball to eyeball” on a piano in the cramped basement of 57 Wimpole Street, the Marylebone townhouse owned by the parents of McCartney’s girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. Supposedly composed with the American market in mind, it was recorded on October 17 and was the first Beatles song to employ the four-track process. That fact in itself caused cultured musical ears to prick up. “I flipped. It was like a shock went through my system … I immediately knew that everything had changed.” So said a certain Brian Wilson on hearing I Want To Hold Your Hand for the first time. The 1960s would still have happened without this single – but not in the way they did.
Bubbling under: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, Je t’aime … moi non plus by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (October 1975)
When is a pop song not a pop song? When it’s six minutes long, has no chorus, name-checks Beelzebub and Galileo and is sung by Freddie Mercury in an operatic falsetto. Nobody whose musical entertainment came from charts-based daytime radio had ever heard anything like it when it was released on October 31 1975, just in time for Halloween. The lead single from the band’s fourth album, A Night At The Opera, it spent nine weeks at number one and is as much of a technical masterpiece in its way as anything by The Beatles or the Beach Boys. Three weeks of recording at five different studios and nearly 200 overdubs went into its creation, and the nation was enthralled. It has more mondegreens (misheard lyrics) than you can shake a stick at – “Bismillah! We will not let you go!” – and among its other accomplishments is the much-parodied, but then highly innovative, promotional video. No Bohemian Rhapsody, no MTV? It’s a stretch, but you can make the case. Two decades on it spent another five weeks at number one following Mercury’s death in 1991.
Bubbling under: I Feel Love by Donna Summer, Dancing Queen by ABBA, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? by Tubeway Army
Do They Know It’s Christmas Time? by Band Aid (December 1984)
The pop single as novelty item was well-established even by the close of the 1950s. But it was Midge Ure and Bob Geldof who had the wit to turn it into a political and humanitarian tool by bashing out a song in a day or so, forming a supergroup from the leading pop acts of the day and using the single’s proceeds to help tackle the ongoing famine in Ethiopia. Trevor Horn said he would need six weeks to record when the pair asked him – Ure and Geldof had barely six days to spare – but he let them use his studio for free. The single was recorded at the end of November, released on December 3 and by December 31 had racked up over three million sales and secured the coveted Christmas number one spot. Peter Blake, who had designed the cover for The Beatles’ iconic album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band designed the sleeve, though all comparisons with that record end here: “far from brilliant”, “rotten” and “turkey” were some of the more polite reviews the charity single received. Still, few singles in the 1980s shifted the dial as much – or sold as many copies – as Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?
Bubbling under: Ghost Town by The Specials, Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys
Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis (February 1996)
There is a counter-narrative to the Britpop and grunge-dominated 1990s which favours the distaff side and boosts the claims of, say, Whitney Houston, Madonna or the Spice Girls to have had the most significant number one hit of the decade. But against the background of a country which had finally swung from Conservative to Labour, from middle age to snotty youth and from pessimism to optimism – and regardless of your feelings about Cool Britannia – it’s hard to argue against the primacy of the gobby, working class, defiantly retro Mancunians. With a sneer and a quip and a chunky guitar riff, they ruled the 1990s, bringing to the charts a swagger and a visceral thrill that glossier pop acts couldn’t muster. Recorded in 1995 at the legendary/notorious Rockfield studio in Wales, it was the first Oasis single to feature Noel Gallagher on vocals and became the band’s second number one. Patrick Macnee, star of The Avengers, featured in the video and if you had it on cassette or CD single rather than seven inch vinyl you would have been treated to the band’s self-deprecating cover of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize. Since the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017 it has been given a new lease of life and become emblematic of the city’s sprit and resilience.
Bubbling under: Brimful Of Asha by Cornershop, Firestarter by The Prodigy, Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor
Crazy In Love by Beyoncé (May 2003)
Enter the internet (anyone remember MySpace?). Enter downloads (the first chart to measure them was introduced in 2004). Enter TV programmes such as Popstars and Pop Idol (source of persistent Noughties chart botherers Hear’Say, Will Young and Girls Aloud). Enter a second wave of boy bands to follow Take That (hello Westlife!). And enter Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, formerly of super slick R&B trio Destiny’s Child but destined for a game-changing solo career when the band hit pause following 2001 album Survivor. Based around a horn sample from criminally under-rated 1970s funk act The Chi-Lites, Crazy In Love was recorded at New York’s famous Hit Factory studio and featured a collaboration with future husband Jay-Z – a rap improvised in 10 minutes and captured in a 3am session. Producer and co-writer Rich Harrison provided the sample and came up with the lyrics and the rest of the song in around two hours while hungover. But from those chaotic beginnings an era-defining solo career was born. Crazy In Love spent three weeks at number one and you could say that since then it has been Queen Bey’s world – the rest of us just live in it.
Bubbling under: Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue, The Real Slim Shady by Eminem, Toxic by Britney Spears
Someone Like You by Adele (January 2011)
Despite the best efforts of Pharrell Williams in his 2014 chart-topper Happy, pop music turned pretty maudlin after the 2008 financial crisis. Generally, most people were sad rather than happy – and nobody in pop music does sad better than Adele. Returning narrative to the heart of pop music – it hasn’t really been spotted since the heyday of the 1970s singer-songwriters and the great Motown writing teams – she crafted an iconic song which really does leave them sobbing in the aisles. Recorded in Los Angeles and co-written with American musician Dan Wilson (that’s him on piano), its sparseness is part of its beauty. Of course it’s Adele’s vocals and the emotional heft of the story within the lyrics which gives it its oomph. ‘The new boring’ was a tag applied to the singer and her ilk, but there’s no denying the power of this song.
Bubbling under: Get Lucky by Daft Punk, Royals by Lorde, Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran
No Time To Die by Billie Eilish (February 2020)
Michael Ball, Captain Tom Moore and the NHS Voices Of Care Choir were at number one by the end of April 2020 with their version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, an appropriate song for a country then one month into lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But if there’s an artist who speaks to and for the young cohort worst affected by Covid and lockdown – let’s call it Generation C – it’s Billie Eilish. Released on February 13, the song was notionally the theme tune for the soon-to-be-released James Bond film and the American was a barely credible 17-years-old when she recorded it. That the film itself would have its April 2020 release postponed twice and wouldn’t actually open until late 2021 makes for an ironic coda, and is emblematic of the havoc Covid wrought on the creative industries. “Fool me once, fool me twice,” Eilish sings in what is one of the gloomiest yet most resonant number one singles ever.
Bubbling under: Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush, Anti-Hero by Taylor Swift, WAP by Cardi B