It's a surprise at the top of the singles chart.
The surprise being that this hasn't actually been done before. The idea of assembling all the finalists from a TV talent show to record an ensemble charity record was first used in America back in 2003. The Top 10 contestants from the second series of American Idol were assembled for a rendition of God Bless The USA which dutifully landed at Number 4 on the Hot 100 and was the biggest selling single in the nation for the best part of the next two months. Five and a half years later the idea is transported back to Britain with the result being that the Number One single this week is the heavily marketed and promoted Hero as performed by all 12 of this years X Factor Finalists with all proceeds going to the British Legion's 'Help For Heroes' charity campaign. The problem is, it worries me.
First, let's talk about the record itself as despite fears when it was first mooted it isn't actually totally horrible. Originally intended for Gloria Estefan to sing for the soundtrack of the Dustin Hoffman film of the same name, Hero instead became a worldwide smash hit for its co-writer Mariah Carey at the end of 2003, topping the charts in America and making Number 7 on these shores. A true classic that is very hard to ruin, The X Factor rendition is as slick as you would expect. Each contestant takes it in turns to emote a lyric of the track, and as the amused reaction to their debut performance of the single a week before last showed, in a smooth professional manner that is a world away from the rather halting, tuneless delivery that some of them are showing in the live TV shows. That's studio magic for you.
After relentless plugging on the TV show and in the popular press the single was always going to debut with a massive sale, and so it proves with Hero selling well over 313,000 copies in the seven days it was on sale. That's the highest one-week sale for any single this year, the first time since last Christmas that any track has broken six figures, the tenth highest weekly sale of the decade and at a stroke enough to make it the 12th biggest selling single of the year to date, a ranking you can be sure it will climb over the next few weeks.
Yet for all of those superlatives, it is still deeply frustrating to see it at Number One. If 300,000 people were prepared to drop everything and race to the shops or download the track, where the hell are they the rest of the time when music sales appear to be fighting a losing battle? The closest any single has come to matching this one week sale in 2008 was Mercy which "only" managed 72,000 in its second week at Number One back in March. We surely have to address the fact that this record epitomises everything dislikeable about worthy charity releases. Most of the purchases are not because people love the music inside, but because they have been instructed that it is a worthy thing to do.
Such "event" tracks can often have a knock-on beneficial effect of course as they can inspire people to get back into the habit of purchasing or downloading singles and even in the short term the increased footfall that results from people venturing out to buy the single can have a knock-on effect on the other product available. That said, from what I witnessed this week, that is less likely than it used to be. Go into any branch of HMV and you will see that music is increasingly being relegated to the back of the store, the street-facing displays by and large packed with DVDs which these days are much more profitable for the retailers. The exception this week was the X Factor track which was racked on its own, particularly in those stores which months ago ceased to stock CD singles. It is almost as if the casual purchaser was encouraged to step inside, grab the charity track and then get out as quickly as possible. The chances of knock-on sales or even encouraging habit forming are sadly very slim indeed.
On Sunday evening a ticker on the BBC website told me that 'Hero' was "...the decade's fastest-selling charity track". Is that even an actual record that people aspire to? This really is the big problem with this track. It sits in isolation from the rest of the music business, skewing sales statistics and year-end records and reducing music such as the second place Girls Aloud track that will still be relevant beyond next month almost to an afterthought. It is great that the industry can still show it has the power to capture the public imagination and raise money for a good cause, but if you feel that Help For Heroes is a charity worthy of your support, go and put a fiver in a poppy sellers collection tin. It will probably do far more good than buying this record.
As you might expect, with the charity single having long been scheduled, virtually nobody else thought it worthwhile releasing any big new singles this week, the direct result being a singles chart largely devoid of any other new activity. The only other new Top 10 arrival is Another Way To Die which as predicted in these pages weeks ago, finally catches fire now that it can be heard in the context of the Bond film and so moves 18-10 for Alicia Keys and Jack White. It is Keys' fourth Top 10 hit single, her first since No One made Number 6 almost a year ago whilst for White it is his sixth appearance in the upper reaches, his last visit coming in the summer of 2007 when the White Stripes' Icky Thump reached Number 2. Another Way To Die is now the third Bond theme in a row to reach the Top 10, following in the footsteps of Madonna's Die Another Day in 2002 and Chris Cornell's You Know My Name back in 2006.
The most prolific chart star of the week turns out to be Akon who has not one but two singles march up the chart to land Top 30 places. Leading the way is Dangerous on which he duets with Kardinal Offishall which moves 32-21. It is only the second every chart appearance in this country for Canadian hip-hop star Offishall, his only previous brush with fame coming at the tail end of 2003 when he guested on Carnival Girl by Texas which hit Number 9. Thanks to Akon's smooth vocals, Dangerous is that rare beast of a rap single that works on a pop level as well as at its roots, making its prospects of going Top 10 within the next couple of weeks very strong indeed. All good news for the executive producer of the album of course, one Aliaune 'Akon' Thiam.
The second Akon track to chart is his own Right Now (Na Na Na) which arrives on the Top 40 at Number 23 after two weeks stuck just outside. After a year which he has spent appearing as the "featured" star on an array of chart singles (Michael Jackson, Plies, Nelly and of course Kardinal Offishall to name but a few) this is his first hit single as a lead artist since Sorry, Blame It On Me was a Number 22 hit at the end of 2007. Right Now is the first single release from his new album Freedom although he is using a promotional tactic very common in the USA at present and actually pushing two tracks from the album as singles simultaneously, just to see which one wins out. Hence the presence lower down the chart of I'm So Paid which appears to have wound up the loser on these shores, slumping to Number 72 after debuting at Number 59 last week. Whilst such dual release tactics may well be appropriate for America, especially if the two tracks are different enough in style to appeal to a broader section of radio stations, in this market it is really a waste of time. Radio and TV will get behind just the one track, whichever one happens to sound the most commercial, leaving the other to flounder and be lost.
Also new to the Top 30 are Kings Of Leon who despite the continuing Top 5 success of Sex On Fire are already doing business with the follow-up. Hence Use Somebody, not "officially" the next single until the start of December, but already with a chart presence as an album cut, the track advancing 50-30 this week. This you may not is its second Top 40 appearance after it spent a fortnight at Number 29 in the wake of the album's release.
It may not have escaped your notice that it was Halloween last week and it appears that a sizeable number of people hit the online stores to build up the soundtrack for their own ghostly parties. Hence the otherwise inexplicable arrival of a series of ghostly-themed classics. At Number 60 you have Monster Mash from Bobby Boris Pickett. Although a Number One hit in the USA back in 1962 the single did not chart here until 1973 when it hit Number 3. Ray Parker Jnr is at Number 49 with Ghostbusters, the theme to the famous film having originally hit Number 2 back in 1984. This is the second year running the track has made a seasonal reappearance, charting at Number 70 exactly 12 months ago. Most extraordinarily of all is the chart performance of Thriller from Michael Jackson which soars up the chart to land at Number 35. Again this is the second year running it has put in an appearance, hitting Number 57 in early November 2007. Both of these are the first time the single has charted since its original 1983 release which saw it peak at Number 10.
Finally, it has little to do with Halloween, but the Bellamy Brothers' 1976 hit Let Your Love Flow also makes an unexpected chart appearance at Number 48. TV commercials are to blame for this one. Thank you Barclaycard.