Running Through My Head
There are so many extraordinary tales to tell about this week's Official UK charts that it would be almost too easy to overlook the one at the very top. But we shouldn't, for with every step it takes Luis Fonsi's Despacito moves ever closer to becoming the singles chart phenomenon of the summer. This week it extends its stay at the top of the charts to four weeks, in the process once more smashing its own weekly sales tally. A combined sales total of 129,000 copies - made up of 59,000 downloads and well over 10 million streams - means it is so far ahead of the competition it is almost scary. That's the fifth highest weekly combined sale of the year to date, the other four naturally clocked up by Ed Sheeran's Shape Of You. As we noted last week, four weeks at the top of the charts similarly ensures Despacito is now the most successful foreign-language track in British chart history.
Mind you, it might not have been that way. When compiling lists of non-English chart hits we should really take time out to acknowledge the two other Number One hits of the past which had been international smashes in their native tongue but which topped the charts in new versions recorded completely in English. They are 99 Red Balloons by Nena, which topped charts in early 1984 but which as 99 Luftbalons and sung in its original German made it as far as Number 2 the American charts that same year. In similar fashion in 2003 T.a.t.u.'s Russian-language Ya Soshla S Uma was reworked as All The Things She Said and duly spent four weeks at the top of the UK charts in February that year - a tally which you will note only now Despacito has matched.
On The Re-Election Day
Now for the bizarre bit. What might have been an unremarkable chart week suddenly turned into a game of "explaining things to people who don't know how the charts or broadcasting law works". Yes, it was a new one on me too, but also enormous fun. The occasion was the rapid appearance of a track called Liar Liar by a collective calling themselves Captain Ska. The politically-charged track had first been made back in 2010, then focused on opposition to the David Cameron-led Conservative party. First time around it reached Number 89 following an online campaign to propel it up the Christmas charts which never quite caught on. With a new election upon us, the group have re-recorded the track, now making Prime Minister Theresa May as the focus and featuring soundbites of some of her speeches and past statements. Some clever maneuvering on social media planted the idea of a brand new mass-purchase of the track, and to the glee of everyone involved it steadily began climbing the live iTunes charts.
Now the truth is that it does not take all that much these days to climb iTunes. The volumes of purchased tracks have reached such a low point that a few thousand copies sold in a concentrated period will get you somewhere inside the Top 10, and on a normal week about 5,000 sales in a 24 hour period is enough to take you to the top. In fairness, however, the social media effect of the Liar Liar track was helping it sell much more than that, even to the extent that by Wednesday was successfully challenging even the colossal market lead enjoyed by Despacito meaning for a period the two singles were neck and neck at the top of the live sales tables.
The track itself is awful. A badly-made piece of barely literate and unsophisticated ranting which at times borders on legally actionable in its accusations of all manner of wrongdoing by the Prime Minister. But as with all these social media bandwagons, the actual quality of the music isn't the point. After all, nobody was really buying the single for the way it sounded. The naughty idea was to try to install a track hating the Prime Minster at the top of the charts for General Election week, even if this was unlikely to change a single person's vote or make the forthcoming defeat of the Labour Party any less crushing. This did however also mean the conjuring up of wild conspiracy theories about how the 'establishment' might contrive a way to prevent the track topping the charts. Because obviously, that's something the Prime Minister has the power to do, right?
In the event, the Captain Ska track sold 43,000 copies, all but a handful of those being download purchases. That was enough to make it the second-most-purchased track of the week and a surprisingly high profile Number 4 overall. No conspiracies needed though, that was still 80,000 copies short of the top of the charts.
Not for the first time in recent weeks, this was a fascinating study in just how far a single can go if its market profile is confined to purchases. Liar Liar achieved strong viral penetration and indeed did far better than the hoped for Christmas Number One contenders last December. A lack of downloads put the mockers on a truly shocking chart position, but interestingly neither did it prevent the single making a chart splash - and becoming a bigger hit than new releases from other more high-profile musical acts. As the 'normal' sales market sinks still further it will briefly become far easier for such viral campaigns to propel singles to high points on the charts with the bare minimum of true popularity - at least whilst the download services remain open for business anyway.
The saga of Liar Liar took another fun twist when the more ill-informed amongst its supporters began to get agitated at the way radio stations appeared to be ignoring the track, in the first instance labouring under the misapprehension that radio of any kind is obliged to play anything that hoves into view in the live sales tables. Needless to say, under normal circumstances, they were never going to touch a track so badly made and with a message that was liable to alienate half their audiences, but there was a further spanner in the works given that broadcasting law and the Ofcom code, in particular, would have prevented them from doing so. Election Purdah law means that equal and balanced coverage must be given to all political parties in the run-up to an election, and without the benefit of a fun viral track heaping praise on the incumbent government, it would have been impossible to achieve any kind of balance after giving Liar Liar a play. That even extended to the Radio One chart show which, despite the Number 4 placing of the track, had little choice but to skip over it altogether. Those of us with long memories were reminded of the way exactly 30 years ago this week there was similar frothing over what appeared to be a blanket airplay ban on the Blow Monkey's flop single Celebrate (The Day After You) for exactly the same reasons.
I watched this all unfold with some wry amusement, enjoying enormously the way just a couple of months after we were told Ed Sheeran's 9 out of 10 in the Top 10 had illustrated just how "meaningless" the singles chart truly was, it suddenly became vitally important that one particular single was placed as high as possible in that self-same chart.
One More Time
Let's move on to records that are being bought for the best of reasons rather than the worst. Ariana Grande's revived One Last Time returned to the chart at Number 11 last week following her unfortunate association with the Manchester Arena bombing. I didn't expect that to be any more than a one-week wonder, but as it turns out the track has a life of its own once more. One week on the single has more than held its own, slipping to third place on the sales table, but finally enjoying a surge in streams to rank at Number 39 on that list. It means the single holds its own overall as well, dipping to Number 12 on this week's chart. The healing process continues this weekend as the star returns to Manchester along with a host of other superstars for a hastily-arranged charity concert which is set to be aired nationwide this coming weekend. Timed nicely for the start of the chart week, it will almost certainly mean an upsurge in sales support for many of the acts involved - not least Ariana Grande herself, all of sudden associated from an event full of wonderful memories rather than bad ones as before.
You Can Tell Everybody
With her biggest hits having come five years ago at the height of the digital download era, there's a danger that Rita Ora could be seen as a relic of a bygone musical age. What hasn't helped at all have been the numerous delays in following up her acclaimed debut album Ora ever since. First, there was the split from Calvin Harris, resulting in the junking of much of the work they had been doing together. Then after it seemed she was finally back on track, she enduring a messy split from her record label Roc Nation, resulting in a year of suit and counter-suit and yet another enforced pause in her musical output, resulting in a period where her public profile was only maintained by a willingness to be photographed wearing very few clothes. Finally, though things are back on track and this week Rita Ora returns to the UK charts with her first brand new solo material in two years. Featuring a timely songwriting credit for a certain Ed Sheeran, Your Song opens strongly, landing at Number 13 (Sales: 5, Streams: 34) although you will note from those numbers that she, for now, retains the market profile of a 'legacy' act - very strong opening week sales but with streaming potential still lagging behind. For now, it appears to be enough, restoring her musical reputation with the 12th Top 20 hit of her career - and the label is clearly working beyond Week 1. Not for the first time recently, a high-profile pop record arrives on the charts ahead of its official video, leaving us for now with nothing else to do but pay attention to the lyrics.
Still fighting to keep their own heads above water and maintain the kind of hit single levels that befit their status as the pre-eminent manufactured girl group of their day are Little Mix. Their last single No More Sad Songs demonstrated the struggle they face. It was an after-the-fact single release from an already established album which sold well to their core fanbase but which struggled to find its way onto enough playlists and despite a herculean promotional effort could only creep to Number 15, not quite their smallest "official" single release ever but certainly amongst their smallest. So it is a bold step to lift yet another track from their Glory Days album as Power duly becomes its fourth chart single. Inevitably the single appears in a slightly reworked form, adding a new vocal from grime superstar Stormzy in what surely has to rank as one of the more startling crossover attempts of the year so far. For now we have to wait and see just how it does. The track opens its chart account at Number 27 (Sales: 10, Streams: 51) but faces the same challenge, albeit on a larger scale, as the Rita Ora track above. Can it maintain that kind of strength at downloads whilst waiting for its streams to crank up to acceptable levels - or at least remain alive until the proper video is released. Otherwise, it is staring down the barrel of the fate its predecessor avoided - becoming their smallest official single release to date.
What Would You Think If I Sang Out Of Tune
Now naturally I'm far too young to have been around for the original release, but I am old enough to remember the celebrations which marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the celebrated Beatles album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Taking its cue from the album's opening lines of "it was twenty years ago today" the occasion was marked with shop displays, radio documentaries, and breathless retrospectives. All coinciding with the famous album being issued on CD for the very first time and propelling it back into the Top 3 for the first time since its original 1967 release. Whilst not necessarily the most easy to listen to of all the Beatles' albums it is far and away the most famous and is generally regarded as being one of the biggest-selling albums of all time in this country (its true status slightly murky thanks to the less than accurate accounting records of the time leaving nobody entirely sure how many copies it sold upon first release). Yet there still remain people who don't yet own a copy and the celebrated collection has returned to the charts on many occasions since, such as in 1992 for its 25th anniversary and in 2009 when it became available for download along with the rest of the band's catalogue for the very first time.
This week the album celebrated its 50th birthday and with that milestone came a brand new issue, bulked up by expanded and remastered editions. The result is one of the most extraordinary album chart sights for some time, as for the first time in half a century Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the Number One album of the week - 50 years to the week that it first climbed tot the summit. Needless to say, this is utterly without precedent. Until today the oldest issued album to top the charts had been Abba Gold which returned to the top in 2009, 17 years after it was first released [but as one commenter below noted, this was beaten in 2010 by Exile On Main Street]. As well as that particular benchmark, Sgt Pepper comes close to setting two others. Charting at Number 84 last week it posts what is now the second-biggest climb to Number One in album chart history, only one shy of the 85-1 climb enjoyed by Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool almost one year ago. The Beatles can now claim a 54-year span of Number One albums (dating back to May 1963), returning them to second place in that table behind Elvis Presley who topped the charts in November last year to give him a 60-year span.
No singles were ever issued by the group themselves from Sgt Pepper but its most famous 'pop' track With A Little Help From My Friends has twice been a Number One hit, first for Joe Cocker in 1968 and then for Wet Wet Wet in 1988 [and again to credit the commenters, it topped the charts a fourth time in 2004 thanks to Sam and Mark. But we've all wiped that from our memories].
Little By Little
Just for a change, we have a chance to anticipate one of what should be next week's biggest new hit singles. The eagerly-awaited debut solo release from former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher was a surprise, but by no means unusual right now, Thursday release this week. After just one day on sale, the single had sold over 8,000 copies - enough to rank at Number 18 on the sales chart and Number 60 overall. As long as it keeps up that momentum it should make a rather larger splash in seven days time. When bombings and general elections are all but a distant memory thank goodness.