Platinum jubilee: The story of the singles chart decade by decade

Platinum jubilee: The story of the singles chart decade by decade

The Official Singles Chart in the UK has just celebrated its 70th birthday. So to celebrate, we’ve partnered with the Official Charts Company to relive the history of a list that remains a pillar of our industry. Here, chief executive Martin Talbot writes exclusively for Music Week about the importance of the singles chart, before the OCC presents a look back at its story..

There are few working in the music business today who would be able to recall the 1970s, let alone the ’60s or the ’50s. Indeed, so much has changed in our industry since 1952 that it might as well be a different planet. But one of the few music institutions that does span such a long period is the Official Singles Chart, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Few charts in the global music industry have the cultural position of the UK’s Official Singles Chart. It was among the first in the world and continues to be among the most admired across the globe. 

Today, it is operated by the Official Charts Company, a unique partnership between the retail and label communities (represented by the Entertainment Retailers Association and the BPI). It is a collaboration of the biggest players in the entertainment industry – Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, BMG, Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube among many others – who all feed into the management and evolution of its various charts. 

Before we begin a journey down memory lane and look back at each decade, a brief note on our methodology: all figures cited are based on pure sales only and are derived from Official Charts Company data. 

All that remains is to say a huge thank you to all our partners across the business, and here’s to the next 70 years of the singles chart... 

THE 1950s
The launch of the chart and arrival of the rock'n'roll explosion...

There is no doubt that 1952 was a defining year for the UK. It was a time of post-war austerity, Winston Churchill led a new Conservative government and music continued to be dominated by crooners and jazz musicians.

The launch in March of the New Musical Express went largely unnoticed, other than to the most enthusiastic music fans. The Musical Express (founded in 1946) had been bought in early 1952 by manager and promoter Maurice Kinn, who recruited Percy Dickins from Melody Maker, moving the operation to Denmark Street in London and relaunching it as the New Musical Express in March 1952.

By the autumn, advertising manager Dickins had decided to launch a feature designed to set it apart from the competition. He created the first ever record listing for the UK by calling round to his contacts at 20 record shops and asking which tracks were flying.

The first chart ran in the issue of the New Musical Express dated November 14, 1952. Designed as a Top 12, it included 15 tracks, because of the dead heats at various positions.

At No.1 was Al Martino’s ballad Here In My Heart, which retained the top spot for nine weeks. These were pre-rock’n’roll years, when the chart housed hits by the likes of Jo Stafford (whose You Belong To Me was the chart’s second No.1), Vera Lynn, Alma Cogan and Frank Ifield, among others. But rock’n’roll was on its way.

While many highlight Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston as the first rock’n’roll record, it never made an impact in the UK. The first big rock’n’roll song to do so was Bill Haley & His Comets’ (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock, which became the first million-selling single in the UK and the genre’s first No.1 after its release in 1954.

Soon afterwards came the arrival of Elvis Presley, who remains the most successful singles artist in UK chart history, with 21 No.1 hits, 76 Top 10s and 139 Top 40s. His emergence created the conditions for popular music to dominate culture worldwide for decades to come...

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Bill Haley & His Comets – (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock (1954), 1.44m sales

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Frankie Laine – I Believe (1953), 18 weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: Dean Martin’s That’s Amore peaked at No. 2 and remained in the Top 5 for six weeks

THE 1960s
The Beatles arrived and pop music was born...

The story of 1960s pop ultimately has to boil down to the story of The Beatles.

First appearing in the UK singles chart in October 1962 with Love Me Do, their first No.1 was From Me To You the following May.

By the end of the decade, they were over, but they had chalked up 17 No.1 singles (including Christmas toppers in 1963, ‘64, ‘65 and ‘67) and 28 Top 10s.

The Beatles changed so much about how music was made and promoted. Before them, few artists wrote their own songs, the biggest stars around the globe tended to come from the United States and concerts generally took place in halls not stadiums, which The Beatles had reached by the time of their last and legendary 1966 US tour.

The group also set a brand new template for the concept of a ‘boy band’, which would soon be picked up by a range of acts including The Monkees, The Osmonds, The Jackson 5 and Bay City Rollers. 

While Elvis continued to rival The Beatles as the biggest act in the world throughout the 1960s, becoming the first artist to claim the Official Singles and Albums No.1s at the same time in January 1962 and racking up 11 No.1s in the ’60s alone, the other big import was the original hit factory, Motown.

Founded in 1959, Motown finally scored its first UK hits in 1964 – My Guy by Mary Wells and Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes. But over the following decades, various artists on the label scored No.1s, including Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men and Ne-Yo among others.

By the end of the decade, the UK chart had also become genuinely ‘official’ for the first time. 

Up until this point, there had been only a fragile consensus on which chart was the proper, recognised rundown. Only when chart archivism became established for the first time in the 1970s was it agreed that the NME chart through to February 1960 and the Record Retailer chart from March 1960 onwards represented the real lineage for today’s chart.

Then, in 1969, Record Retailer (the predecessor of Music Week), came together with the BBC and the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) to create what would become recognised as ‘the’ UK chart – broadcast on Top Of The Pops (which had launched in 1964) and BBC Radio 1 (which had arrived in 1967).

It was the most significant step since 1952 in the evolution of the UK chart, which now marks its 70 year anniversary.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: The Beatles – She Loves You (1963), 1.93m sales

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Elvis Presley – It’s Now Or Never (1960), The Shadows – Wonderful Land (1962) and The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969), eight weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: The instrumental Stranger On The Shore by Acker Bilk was one of the biggest hits of the early 1960s, yet it stalled at No.2 for three weeks in 1961. During an unbroken chart residence of 55 weeks, it sold 1.2 million copies. The decade’s only other million-seller not to reach No.1 was Frank Sinatra’s My Way, which peaked at No.5 in 1969.

THE 1970s
Disco and punk created a singles sales explosion...

At the start of the 1970s, in the wake of The Beatles’ break-up, British music headed into a new era with a very different musical footprint. Besides a range of groundbreaking new artists who could claim to

be genuine auteurs (including David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Roxy Music), a generation of teen stars (such as the Bay City Rollers, David Cassidy, David Essex, The Osmonds and Marc Bolan) followed elements of the blueprint created by the Fab Four.

The brightest, shiniest new genre which emerged early in the decade was glam, from the rockiest edge of which came the biggest chart stars of the moment. It is easy to forget how huge Slade were, chalking up five No.1s in less than two years, between autumn 1971 and summer 1973 – including Cum On Feel The Noize and Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, singles which also made them the first band to have consecutive releases enter at the top of the Official Singles Chart.

As the mid-’70s approached, two new genres emerged which would send the singles market to new heights – disco and punk. The first disco hit is widely considered to be George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby, which topped the singles chart for three weeks in the summer of 1974.

The first punk hit, meanwhile, was probably Anarchy In The UK by the Sex Pistols in December 1976, but it was God Save The Queen which has gone down in pop legend, peaking at No.2 during Silver Jubilee week in June 1977.

Between them, the two movements played a huge part in helping drive singles sales. In both 1978 and 1979, 89 million singles were sold in the UK, the highest levels on record at that point. It was indeed a halcyon era for singles: six of the 20 biggest-selling singles of all time were released between 1975 and 1978, including three of the Top 5 – Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Wings’ Mull Of Kintyre and John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John’s You’re The One That I Want.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (2.62m sales)

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975), nine weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: Perhaps the most famous No.2 ever, the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen was pipped at the top of the singles chart by Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It/The First Cut Is The Deepest in June 1977.

THE 1980s
The decade when charity took over the charts...

The first Official No.1 of the 1980s was by a legendary band who hardly ever released singles: Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), Pink Floyd’s first single since See Emily Play came out 12 years earlier.

But the opening year of the new decade was dominated by a parade of new acts which were to deliver on both the singles and albums front.

The Pretenders’ Brass In Pocket represented the new wave boom which had evolved from punk. No.1s subsequently arrived in 1980 from Blondie (Atomic and The Tide Is High), The Specials (The Special AKA EP), The Jam (Going Underground and Start), Dexys Midnight Runners (Geno) and The Police (Don’t Stand So Close To Me). Then, in the summer of 1980, David Bowie returned with the chart-topping Ashes To Ashes.

The ’80s would herald the arrival of the pop superstar in the shape of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, who would all go on to change the game. Scoring her first hit with Holiday, Madonna peaked at No.3 with Like A Virgin the same year and then embarked on a run of 20 additional Top 10 singles through the rest of the decade, including six No.1s.

The biggest single of the decade, however, was to be a release which would reset the expectations for charity releases forever. Pulled together by established stars Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Band Aid was a multinational supergroup boasting 14 bands and four solo acts with 23 No.1 singles between them. Do They Know It’s Christmas? was designed to raise funds and awareness for the Ethiopian famine and went on to become the biggest seller of the decade in five short weeks.

Band Aid steam-rollered its way into the nation’s consciousness and launched a campaign of multiple releases and concerts which, by the end of 2011, had raised £120 million for charity. Geldof and Ure repeated the act with Band Aid II in 1989, scoring the final No.1 of the decade with a new supergroup of late ’80s pop icons including the likes of Kylie, Jason, Cliff, Bros and Wet Wet Wet.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984), (3.83m sales)

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes (1984), nine weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: The Ghostbusters theme by Ray Parker Jr is a Halloween perennial which has hit the chart in 15 different years (up to 2021), but peaked at No.2 in its release year of 1984. It has sold 1.2m copies in its lifetime.

THE 1990s
Say hello to Britpop and the Spice Girls...

In the first half of the 1990s, a series of super-singles dominated the Official Singles Chart for weeks at a time. In 1991, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You gave Bryan Adams a 16-week spell at No.1, in 1992 Whitney Houston set up camp for 10 weeks with I Will Always Love You, and in 1994 Wet Wet Wet hung around for 15 weeks with Love Is All Around. All three were driven by huge movies, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, The Bodyguard and Four Weddings & A Funeral, respectively.

But it was two very British movements that vied for domination during this decade: Britpop and Girl Power. Britpop brought guitar bands to the upper levels of the charts in a way which has rarely been seen since, with Oasis and Blur leading the way. When Some Might Say became Oasis’s first No.1 in May 1995, it teed up an iconic chart battle in the summer when Blur’s Country House was released on the same day as Oasis’s Roll With It. Ultimately Blur won, pipping Oasis into second place. 

The other band to emerge from Manchester during the 1990s could hardly have been more different, but Take That had an even bigger impact on the Official Singles Chart, scoring eight No.1s during the decade before breaking up in 1996. Four further chart-toppers followed their reunion a decade later.

The boy band model was subverted almost immediately afterwards by the Spice Girls, who exploded onto the scene in June 1996. Their debut single Wannabe topped the chart for seven weeks and set in motion a run of six successive No.1 singles and nine career No.1s to date, including three Christmas chart-toppers (in 1996, ’97 and ’98).

But the final word of the ’90s must go to the biggest charity record of all time. After the tragic death of Diana, Princess Of Wales in 1997, her great friend Sir Elton John reworked his classic Candle In The Wind in tribute to her. It sold 4.9m copies in the UK, raising money for the Diana, Princess Of Wales Memorial Fund. It remains the biggest-selling single in UK Official Chart history.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Elton John – Candle In The Wind 1997 (4.94m sales)

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Bryan Adams – (Everything I Do) I Do It For You (1991), 16 weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: Wonderwall peaked at No.2 in its first week in 1995 and went on to sell 1.55m copies, a feat that made it the second biggest-selling No.2 in chart history.

THE 2000s
When downloads kicked off the digital era...

The first million-seller of the new decade was an unlikely figure, as Bob The Builder romped to victory in the 2000 Christmas No.1 race, following in a long line of novelty No.1s including cartoon band The Archies, the Teletubbies and Mr Blobby.

However, for the first few years of the decade, singles sales were in a tough place. Physical sales had fallen to a new low, partly because of a clear shift to albums (2004 was an all-time high for UK album sales, with 239 million units sold), but also the growth in online piracy. 

All that changed with the arrival of legitimate digital music, via the European launch of download services such as Apple’s iTunes in 2004. The Official Download Chart followed and, in April 2005, downloads entered the Singles Chart. By 2007, annual singles sales (now mainly downloads) had soared beyond the previous highs of 1978/79 to a total of 89m sales.

The explosion of digital music came in parallel with the arrival of TV talent shows such as Popstars, Pop Idol and The X-Factor, among others. But the first and biggest launch of the lot actually pre-dated the digital boom. Pure & Simple was the debut single by Hear’Say, winners of the 2001 series of Popstars, whose week one total of 550,000 sales sent the five-piece to No.1.

The following year, Will Young became the first winner of Pop Idol, pipping Gareth Gates in the final. Young’s debut single Anything Is Possible/Evergreen sold 403,000 copies in its first day, 1.1m copies in its first week and 1.8m copies in total. In the same week, Gates’ debut, Unchained Melody, sold 851,000 copies.

Winners of Pop Idol and X-Factor would come to dominate the charts, especially at Christmas. To date, Shayne Ward’s That’s My Goal, Leona Lewis’s Bleeding Love, Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah and Matt Cardle’s When We Collide have all topped 1m sales off the back of X-Factor victories.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Will Young – Anything Is Possible/ Evergreen (2002), 1,793,880 sales.

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Rihanna – Umbrella (Feat. Jay-Z) (2007), 10 weeks

POP INJUSTICE, THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: Peaking at No.5 in 2006, Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars (1,213,667 pure sales) is the biggest-selling single never to make the Top 5. But the lowest charting million-selling single ever is The Killers’ Mr Brightside, which peaked at No.10 and has 1,056,667 pure sales to date.

THE 2010s
Streaming emerged and everything changed...

By January 2010, the singles market had become almost entirely digital, with around 98% of all sales coming from downloads. By 2012, they would drive singles sales to an all-time annual high in the UK of 188.7 million.

But by the end of the decade, downloads would be almost on their way out, as consumers turned to streaming. Only in the 2010s did subscription plays start to become referred to as ‘streams’ and generate enough volume to be considered for the singles chart, with audio streams admitted in July 2014 and video in July 2017.

The biggest artists of the decade would be defined by how they engaged with streaming. Ed Sheeran was named by the OCC as the Official No.1 Artist Of The Decade, having chalked up a combined run of 12 No.1 singles and albums between 2010 and 2019, with Shape Of You crowned the biggest single of the 2010s with 14 weeks at No.1.

While Adele was also dominant in the 2010s, the world-conquering singer had a more restrained approach to streaming, holding back her 2015 album, 25, from services for its first seven months.

Sheeran’s streaming power was so great that in March 2017, 16 tracks from his album ÷ rocketed into the Top 20. Chart rules were then adjusted to limit any act to three tracks in the Top 100. 

The shift to digital has also changed the life-cycle of a hit, with established tracks afforded a longer lifespan and old hits a chance to return. A further 2010s development arrived with the introduction of the OCC’s No.1 Award in 2011. The first recipient was that year’s Christmas No.1, the Military Wives & Gareth Malone with Wherever You Are.

BIGGEST SELLING SINGLE: Pharrell Williams – Happy (2013), 1,973,705 pure sales

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Drake – One Dance (Feat. Wizkid & Kyla) (2016), 15 weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5 (Feat. Christina Aguilera) peaked at No.2 during its seven-week run in 2011. The track has amassed a total of 1,554,613 pure sales in the UK to date

THE 2020s

UK rap, the dance boom and looking towards the future of the chart...

Today, as it enters its eighth decade, the singles chart is much changed, with 2022’s biggest stories coming from the likes of Harry Styles, No.1 for 10 weeks with As It Was, and newcomers Eliza Rose and LF System, emblems of both this year’s dance revival and the growing influence of TikTok on the singles chart.

Earlier this year, Dave scored his second No.1 single, topping for four weeks with Starlight. Meanwhile, the industry is welcoming the return of Stormzy, and the success of the two MCs illustrates the vital role Black music and UK rap play in today’s chart.

Dave topped the singles chart with Funky Friday back in October 2018, while Stormzy notched up 10 weeks at No.1 with Vossi Bop, Take Me Back To London and Own It across nine months from May 2019 onwards. Then, by the spring of 2021 there was a new sound in town, with Tion Wayne & Russ Millions’ Body becoming the UK’s first chart-topping drill single, assisted by a viral dance craze on TikTok. The video platform also helped fire Nathan Evans to No.1 with Wellerman in 2021, while Sam Ryder’s TikTok popularity lit the fuse for his Eurovision hit Space Man.

All of which stands as testament to the fact that the singles chart continues to represent the beating heart of the British music industry. Artists continue to hanker after that No.1 spot, and the Official Singles Chart continues to play a crucial role for executives in the British and international music industry. BBC Radio 1 continues to be its broadcast home and, above all, the Official Singles Chart continues to be a reflection of the nation’s favourite music. 

Seventy years is a long time in music. But when considering the history of pop music in the UK, the Official Singles Chart has acted as a unique lens through which to view its evolution and growth.

What form the chart will take when it celebrates its 75th, 80th, 100th or even its 150th anniversary is impossible to predict. But, just as it has captured every evolution and reflected cultural moments throughout the past 70 years, it will continue to do so over the coming decades. For as long as there is new pop music for fans to discover and listen to, there is sure to be an Official Singles Chart.

MOST STREAMED TRACK: Ed Sheeran – Bad Habits (2021), 337,655,521 streams

MOST WEEKS AT NO.1: Ed Sheeran – Bad Habits (2021), 11 weeks

POP INJUSTICE – THE NO.1 THAT NEVER WAS: It may have been the UK’s biggest Eurovision hit in years and a streaming sensation, but Space Man by Sam Ryder rose no higher than No.2


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