New at Number 40
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
Whenever I see someone on the Tube holding an iPod (it’s always an iPod), I find myself trying to catch a glimpse at its screen and see what it is that they’re listening to. I take out my own earphones before going into the lift at my station and love the way that the quiet, enclosed space magnifies the leaks from everyone else’s. Occasionally a song will be easily recognizable, but usually I just get brief snatches of alien sound.
I tell you this as a way of showing that—when it comes to music—I’m habitually nosy. I think this goes some way towards explaining my long fascination with the UK music charts. It’s nosiness on a grand, statistical scale. That isn’t the only reason that—from the age of 14—I would listen to Radio 1’s Top 40 rundown every week without fail, though. Music hadn’t had quite taken over as my all-consuming interest, and I bought as many books or computer games as singles. Even so, I couldn’t have cared less about the sales charts of those. Not many people could. Reading the best-selling ten books of the week would take days even for a fast reader. But listening to every record in the Top 40, in order, took just three hours. In three hours, I could hear everything that people were buying in bulk. For free! I could care, deeply, about whether “Breathless” or “Take a Look Around” was number one because I could hear them both in their entirety and know which one was irrefutably better. That’s one of the most glorious, uniting things about the pop single: within a few minutes anyone can have an informed opinion.
The democracy of the show appealed immensely: in the UK, the singles chart was (and still is) calculated without any element of airplay. As such, it wouldn’t matter if radio wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a record; if enough people thought that it was worth buying, it could be in the Top 40 and get a prime place on Radio 1. As with anything allowing the public to have their say, this could be infuriating, but at the same time it’s fascinating to hear Marillion, Bob the Builder, and U2 all treated in the same way.
The best thing about this system, of course, was that it allowed for the chance to have my favorites heard by the nation. I listened more intently than ever when a single that I had bought might turn up. My saved-up pocket money could make a crucial difference! And yes, someone other than me, my brother, and Steve Lamacq had heard of Lowgold: there they were, in at number 40! Figuring out my own tastes for the first time, rather than just listening to my dad’s records, there was nothing more reassuring than this absolute proof that I wasn’t alone. None of my friends at school might have heard of Grandaddy or Soulwax, but they really did have fans out there. Celebrations were held with my brother for every unlikely minor victory.
The victories were minor, mind. We never had a number one to call our own, though there were some we admired. The opposing force was pop, and there was a lot of it. This was a time when even comparatively minor boy bands like A1 and Another Level could get to the top spot. Dance was a big force too, but it all sounded the same to me, because it wasn’t what I liked, and defining against anything and everything else made my sometimes shakily held likes all the firmer. At the time, pop was shunned on principle. Unlike most of those vocal in their hatred for the form, I hated it from the inside. I knew every word and loathed them all.
I’d like to think I’ve grown out of that, but the polemics undoubtedly left a mark. I have a whole lot of knowledge about turn of the century pop, even the stuff that none of my friends can remember. I can sing you Girl Thing and Girls@Play songs. And hearing them now, outside of the context of the fraught imaginary battle? Downright weird. It took a long time to stop seeing anything outside of my restricted indie concerns as something to be enjoyed, rather than something to sit through before the real music came on. I’m not sure that I’ve even fully gotten there yet. To go from not listening to listening is easy, but to go from listening to listening without preconceptions… that’s difficult. But I don’t do so out of a sense of duty or indie guilt—that I can’t be a proper modern music critic without loving Beyoncé (I don’t). No, I just think that at some level I loved pop music all along. Why else did I spend so long listening to it?
By: Iain Forrester
Published on: 2006-11-13