For pop fans of a certain age, contemporary Britain is a strange place to reside. There are many who, like me, find it difficult to know what the latest number one record is, let alone songs further down the charts. Meanwhile, they are living a parallel existence, where they are caught up in the Top 40 singles of the early 1980s. BBC4 has now reached 1981 with its re-runs of Top of the Pops. These programmes are met with fervent anticipation. Bob Stanley, for example, could not wait for this particular year’s repeats.
Two things, in particular, stand out about these re-runs. One is how memorable the singles are. I regularly know all of the records from a given week’s Top 40 in the 1980s and can recall most of the Top of the Pops performances. The other thing is the quality of the music. The last episode that I watched was from 4 June 1981 (sadly, BBC4 have moved away from synchronising the week of original broadcast with the week of the year in which in which that episode is being repeated). It opened with Siouxsie and the Banshees' brilliant ‘Spellbound’, went on to feature the Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’, Odyssey’s ‘Going Back to My Roots’, and Imagination’s astonishing performance of ‘Body Talk’; Adam and the Ants’ ‘Stand and Deliver’ was number one.
I know that I am on dangerous ground here – old people need to be wary about claiming that the past is better than the present – but I do have a defence. One of the reasons why the 1981 charts were superior to today's is because people were buying physical records rather than purchasing downloads or accessing digital streams. And one of the consequences of having analogue formats is that people collected them. The Jam had huge hits in this era because they had an avid fanbase who would buy every release no matter what its quality and pretty much in disregard of whether they had heard the song or not. This was also an era in which bands with less mainstream appeal (Siouxsie and the Banshees, for example) would still have sufficient followers who were dedicated enough and consumerist enough to get their records into the lower regions of the Top 40.
Record companies took advantage of this collecting mentality. One method was to build up demand for a record and make sure that fans knew the release date. They would therefore go out and buy the single in bulk, giving it enough impetus to get into the charts. Another method, arriving slightly later, was to release records in multiple formats. This too played to the collector's mindset. Committed fans would buy a song several times over to ensure they had each of its versions. As well as guaranteeing a high first-week entry, this method could also prolong a song’s success. A case in point was Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who maintained ‘Two Tribes’ presence at number one by regularly releasing new 12” remixes during its chart run.
But why should this result in better music, particularly if the fans were collecting artefacts rather than songs? Here we have to address the reasons why fans become fans in the first place. They become devoted to artists because they sense a special something in them. This usually derives from the music itself (even if they end up buying every release or going to every possible performance by an artist, regardless of their quality, they will have been attracted in the first place because of a record that they found outstanding) and because of the personality of the performer (fans repeatedly invest in an artist when they feel a strong bond). And this bond persists. I love ‘Spellbound’ not just because it is a great song, but because Siouxsie was a transformative artist and she transformed me.
And what of now? We live in an era when hits really are hits. This has produced numerous great songs, but overall a sense of commitment – to artists, to performances, to the charts, to anything other than the song itself – has been lost. Streaming, in particular, has meant that the charts are based more on use value than they are on collecting appeal. One consequence of the fandom of collecting physical records was a fans’ partisan enjoyment in following those records' successes in the charts. Today, there is less need to know where a song has got to and what its position is because there is less of a bond with the record (if you have streamed it, you might not even have paid for it and yet you will have affected its position in the charts) and there is less of a bond with the artist (one consequence of buying records was that you entered into financial and commodified bonds with the performer).
Fandom does still play a part in the Top 40, but it is now largely the preserve of teen idols, as Justin Bieber’s Yuletide domination of the charts testifies. Older music collectors, meanwhile, are buying vinyl re-issues and they are lost in the hit parades of 1981.