Taylor Swift is as of today (April 18th, 2021) top of the albums chart with Fearless (Taylor's Version), her extraordinary note for note cover of her own second album as the opening salvo in her well-documented quest to wrestle back control of her older material. It is also her third No.1 album in less than a year. For not only has she busied herself recording all her old songs exactly the way she remembered them but she has also found the time to release two vast albums of folk-inspired material. Folklore topped the charts upon release last August and its spiritual twin Evermore did the same just before Christmas. It means that in the space of a mere 38 weeks the American superstar has topped the charts with three totally different albums.
So inevitably all chartwatchers worth their salt asked themselves the question. Has anyone come close to doing this before? Well Official Charts themselves did just that and indeed trumpeted to the media on Friday that Ms. Swift had indeed set a brand new chart record. The only other act, they told the world, to have landed three No.1 albums in the space of a year were The Beatles. In the space of precisely 364 days in 1965 and 1966 they topped the charts with Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Record holders for years, Taylor Swift has blasted them out of sight.
But were they truly the record holders? And does Taylor Swift now hold it? The answer to that question all comes down to on which side of a debate you sit. Because the status of The Shadows throws us all a tiny curveball.
Starting their career as The Drifters before the presence of the American group of the same name forced a change, The Shadows were famously Cliff Richard's semi-permanent backing group at the start of his career. They received equal billing on the vast majority of his chart singles for the first decade of his career and with one or two particular exceptions they were the musicians on the recordings. But aside from this they also had the time to develop their own career, with a string of celebrated solo hits and some No.1 successes too in the early years of the 1960s.
Both acts enjoyed success in the still-nascent albums market at the start of the decade, and it is during this period that The Shadows technically achieved something that blows even Taylor Swift's feats of the past few months out of the water. Chart records show that The Shadows topped the albums chart:
- In September 1961 with their own album The Shadows
- In November 1961 as the musicians on Cliff Richard's 21 Today album
- In January 1962 alongside Cliff as performers on the soundtrack to The Young Ones
As I noted in Music Week this week, that's a span of just 17 weeks. So why isn't this definitively the record? Well, it is all a case of how the act was billed, both in the charts at the time and on the records themselves. They were definitely on their own record and received co-billing on The Young Ones. But what about 21 Today?
Here, thanks to the Discogs site is the sleeve of that record. The front cover credits the performer of the album as Cliff Richard solo. Yet who are the four men pictured with him on that cover? Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. Or "The Shadows" as they were popularly known.
But in the old-fashioned vinyl era the only "metadata" that truly counted was the label on the record itself. Which happily is also reproduced by Discogs. And Cliff has sole billing.
Ah, but that's the physical disc. What did the charts of the time and the subsequent record books themselves say?
My grateful thanks here to archivist Lonnie Readoff for this scan of the printed charts from Record Retailer that week. The primary source saying:
Cliff only! And making a fascinating error naming the album I'm 21 Today, one which is carried over to a number of other publications. This does actually expose the fallacy of treating the published listings of the time as an unimpeachable source. If they could not be bothered to get the title of the record correct, what other errors did they make? Although Record Retailer is the core source for the master charts database, as anyone around at the time will tell you it was far from being a mainstream publication. Seeing what the likes of Melody Maker or NME listed at the time will be equally informative. As for how the record books themselves listed things, well, here it all depends who you ask. I don't have any early editions of the original Guinness Book Of British Hit Albums to hand, although I do own a copy of Guinness Hits Of The 60s which reproduces the relevant material from the master book. Here the authors feel the matter is important enough to justify a footnote as the attached scan shows:
Were The Shadows credited on 21 Today? No, but Gambaccini, Rice, Rice and Read note that they performed on it anyway. Because their contribution to Cliff's early career is pretty important.
Over to the spiritual successor of the Guinness books, Warwick, Kutner & Brown's Complete Book Of The British Charts. They indeed list the album as "I'm 21 Today" (just as the Guinness book does), and they state with some authority that the album was credited to "Cliff Richard and The Shadows".
Our final primary source should be the database on the Official Charts website itself. The canonicity of this database is, in fairness, often open to question as it is littered with errors and inconsistencies even for modern listings. Yet it is to all intents and purposes the journal of record for the custodians of the charts themselves. So how do they list the album?
Cliff solo. So pretty definitive huh? Except that when you turn to the full list of No.1 albums on the site there is a different story told:
Heh. Proof that the list has been once upon a time manually imported from somewhere and is not automatically generated. So which source does one take as definitive?
As I noted in the teaser text for this piece, the fun part of having so much history to play with is that there is always room for debate. Sources differ on whether The Shadows were credited on chart listings as co-performers on (I'm) 21 Today. They were part of the branding and marketing for the album, but weren't listed on the label. Yet they appeared on every track, so they indisputably performed on the record. Technically the primary source here, the charts as printed in Record Retailer don't credit them, but as long as you don't fixate on that specific point it can be argued to be a part of "their" rapid trio of No.1 albums. And plenty of archivists in the past have been content to credit them that way.
Personally, I stand by my statement in Music Week this week. Taylor Swift has been anointed with an inarguable record for the fastest trio of No.1 albums in history, beating The Beatles in the process. Yet technically and morally we have to acknowledge The Shadows of having bested her in some style. Even if it does take some explaining as to why.