Well, give the mass media a chance to bash the record industry and they will seize it with both hands. This was indeed the reaction to the "leaked" figures that confirmed that singles sales last year vanished down the toilet and which of course prompted the inevitable predictions of the death of the industry and/or charts. As anyone in the know will tell you, the music industry is far from dead with overall sales remaining buoyant. What is causing concern is the singles market which has swung from 20-year highs in the late 90s to ten-year lows in the last two years. File sharing apps have shouldered much of the blame, possibly some of it fairly. However, if people were indeed eschewing record shops for Kazaa then you would expect sales of albums to fall as well. No, what is happening is that the traditional CD single is in trouble. Consumers are falling out of love with a product that costs around 40% of the price of an album for a fraction of the number of tracks. Just as in the 1990s when the market was rescued by the CD single taking off to replace the fading vinyl 7-inch, so now something needs to emerge to replace the CD - and if that happens to be a £1 online download then so be it [dramatic music...]. Sales of downloaded tracks are set to be integrated into the listings later this year in what will be a quite revolutionary step [to put it mildly. It took rather longer than that to happen as history now records, but this is the first time the prospect had been raised]. For the moment then we are in a sort of holding pattern, the singles charts left to reflect the sales of what is clearly a declining medium.
There is of course also a mature argument that suggests shaky singles sales are as a result of a poor selection of product. It is not that the talent isn't out there but when you compare the top of the albums chart (exciting new product from exciting new talent of the likes of Norah Jones, Katie Melua and Franz Ferdinand) with the top of the current singles chart it is clear that something is going badly wrong. I surely can't be the only one to see this of course, but for the moment we are stuck with it. So let us bring on the tired karaoke cover versions...
Now let us be honest here, the final three in Pop Idol this year were the very best of a rather mediocre bunch, Sam and Mark, in particular, comparing poorly with the likes of Will, Gareth and yes even Darius. Something tells me this is why no attempt has been made to market the pair as solo artists, instead teaming them up as a clean cut male duo in the Robson and Jerome mode. Their song of choice is an old Beatles song, taken from the legendary Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The Beatles themselves never released a single from the album, leaving the door open to other artists to cover them. With A Little Help... was covered at the time by Young Idea (who reached Number 10) and famously Joe Cocker who topped the charts with his version in that same year. In 1988 the song was back in the charts again, this time thanks to Wet Wet Wet who made it their contribution to Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, an NME sponsored compilation album recorded in aid of Childline and which saw various acts of the day each covering a track from the original to reassemble it in a modern style. Wet Wet Wet's version (backed with Billy Bragg's version of She's Leaving Home) also soared with ease to the top of the charts.
So it is that 16 years on the song is Number One once again, giving it the aura of being one of the few songs to have been Number One in three different versions. Spookily enough the song that holds the record was the one recorded by Gareth Gates - Unchained Melody which is unique in having topped the charts four times. In another bizarre coincidence, it is the first Beatles song to top the charts since The Long And Winding Road - recorded of course by Pop Idols Will Young and Gareth Gates. Of course this could all not be a coincidence and in fact be as a result of a lack of imagination on the part of Simon Fuller who has been responsible for the careers of most of the Pop Idol winners and runners up. [Simon Cowell's lack of imagination may have had more to do with it too].
OK so this isn't the most inspiring or breathtakingly original Number One single we will have all year (and the fact that one song based on another has been replaced by a somewhat tired old cover version should not pass without comment) but Number One it is. Be grateful I guess that we had this record, rather than Ronan Keating's granny-pop.
Ah yes, what of Ronan Keating. Five years on from the start of his solo career and there seems to be no slowing down of his chart prospects, in spite of the fact that he abandoned all pretence of being a pop star some time ago and now is content to churn out drippy country remakes who what is doubtless still an adoring audience of Radio 2 listeners. Of course, this particular musical course has probably afforded him a far longer career than would otherwise have been the case but this does not make some of his records any more bearable. His first hit of 2004 is She Believes (In Me), a slightly reworked remake of a C&w song first recorded in the 1970s by Steve Gibb but which was popularised in 1979 by Kenny Rogers who had a minor hit with the track in this country. Ronan's version updates the lyric and adds a new verse to give the song a slightly more upbeat feel. The single has performed startlingly well, hitting Number 2 to give Ronan his biggest chart hit since If Tomorrow Never Comes topped the listings in May 2002. This is his 10th solo hit single in all, every single one of them a Top 10 smash. Looks like we cannot really knock the granny-pop.
Just two other singles make their debuts inside the Top 10 this week. First up at Number 5 is Moviestar, a long awaited brand new single from the Stereophonics, recorded just a little too late to make it onto the final cut of the album You Gotta Go There To Come Back. The lack of availability of the track anywhere else has certainly helped its chart prospects and the track races into the Top 5, a swift turnaround in their chart fortunes after Since I Told You It's Over only reached Number 16 in November last year.
Next in line at Number 9 is Fatman Scoop, It Takes Scoop being the follow-up to Be Faithful which hit the top of the charts back in November. For all the talk of him being a hip-hop genius, it is clear that Scoop's real talent lies simply in the process of stitching together lots of old beats and samples whilst yelling over the top about how good a time we should be having. Proof of that is in this new record which follows pretty much the same formula as the first, this time taking Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's 1988 hit single It Takes Two as inspiration. Out in a club, the records stand out as party classics but in the cold light of day you cannot help but scratch your head and wonder how creative they really are.
There is more dance just outside the Top 10, Rock Your Body Rock marking the return to the chart (under his own name anyway) of Ferry Corsten whose last hit single came almost two years ago - Punk hitting Number 29 in June 2002. This new single burned up European dance floors a treat at the end of last year, winning a clutch of awards along the way.
At Number 12 are Speedway who this week notch up their second hit single. Their debut, of course, came back in September with their quite inspired cover of Christina Aguilera's Genie In A Bottle which hit Number 10. Now it is time for their own material to stand up to scrutiny and happily it seems more than up to the job. Can't Turn Back further reinforces the initial perception of them as Texas with louder guitars but just for a change comparisons with an existing act are intended as the greatest compliment of all. If they don't have another Top 10 hit this year then that will be the biggest injustice of all.
The big exciting new band of three years ago have the next new entry. The Strokes open their 2004 chart account at Number 17 with Reptilia, the follow-up to 12.51 which gave them a long overdue Top 10 breakthrough in October last year when it hit Number 7. The fact that this single charts a full ten places lower perhaps further defines them as "not a singles act" - perish the thought that nobody under the age of 25 actually cares about them of course.
Just sneaking into the Top 20 at Number 19 are UD Project, Saturday Night being the follow-up to the European smash hit Summer Jam which surprisingly wimped out at Number 14 when finally released in this country in October last year.
The bottom end of the Top 40 is dominated by new entries from some rather more up and coming acts. Head of them are Jagged Edge, sneaking in at Number 21 with what is only their second ever UK hit. The US soulsters last graced the charts on these shores back in late 2001 when a collaboration with Nelly helped Where's The Party At? to a Number 25 placing. Walked Outta Heaven follows the template for most of their music - slickly produced urban soul with an edge. One listen makes it obvious just why they are deservedly massive stateside but it also shows that they will need a massive international smash to ever be more than a passing interest in this country. Never has a mid-Atlantic sound been so far away from British tastes.
The Stands break into the Top 30 for the first time at Number 25 following two smaller hits in 2003, but the big story of the lower end of the chart arrives at Number 28. Step forward The Poppyfields who are an old name with a new name so to speak. The group are best known as 80s welsh rockers The Alarm who, understandably nervous about being labelled as has-beens when attempting to make a comeback, promoed the lead track from their forthcoming new album under a pseudonym. Hence 45rpm made it to radio credited to 'Poppyfields' - actually part of the title of the new album due out in April. Reaction to it was overwhelmingly positive but whereas acts who have attempted the same stunt in the past have found it backfire on them when they finally 'come clean', the Alarm have elected to release the single under its alternative credit, and thus in a way allowing us all to share in the joke.
In a way it is a shame they felt they had to resort to such tactics in the first place. Back in the 1980s if you wanted fists in the air sing-along stadium rock then The Alarm were your men. Tracks such as 68 Guns and Rain In The Summertime have a deserved place on retro rock compilations and it was only a few months ago that I dug out '87 flop Rescue Me and almost cried at how good it sounded. Strange to relate then that they never had a Top 10 hit, the aforementioned 68 Guns being their biggest at Number 17. The boys promise that this will be their only Poppyfields single, the next one seeing them revert back to being The Alarm. Oh yes, and Mike Peters has indeed shaved the mullet off, I thought it was important to point that out.
I've said enough for this week, If you do happen to be in a record store and are tempted to shell out money for the Sam & Mark single, please don't. If you look carefully there is a new Belle & Sebastian single just to the right. Please. For me?