Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

There's plenty of what ifs about the short fuse spark that was the Sex Pistols' career. What if Queen hadn't pulled out of appearing on Today at the last minute, forcing their EMI plugger Eric Hall to suggest a much talked about alternative? What if it was Today's other regular host Eamonn Andrews presenting? What if Malcolm McLaren hadn't taken his eye off the ball in search of funding for a film and an American launch at their point of most domestic notoreity? What if Rotten had known what he wanted?

Funny thing is, the most famous what-if of their holiday in the sun, the one that's just passed by on the reruns, is one that's rarely discussed. Would it have meant much more if God Save The Queen had actually been announced as the UK's number one single rather than land one short in the official ranking and launched 35 years of claim and conspiracy? Being number two allows a counteractive history to grow, reinforcing their opposition to the music industry/broadcast establishment still from a position of enough power, and if pop culture history has invested itself in punk cliche people want to believe it was anti-establishment, something surely not so possible if the establishment are willing to play along after all. The monarchy wouldn't have fallen on that strength. The story of the band exists without this juncture to an extent - certainly John Lydon says chart positions were never anything he thought about and if the fix was in so be it, and as far as McLaren went martyrdom was as good as success for purpose. The response to morality-outraging talk of "a fascist regime" by people one Sunday tabloid actively suggested be attacked so to be taught a lesson being some massaging of sales figures to drop it down one place doesn't suggest that much of an outright threat, especially one that would obviously lead to a public display of victimhood and legend now inseperable from the 'mere' recording. It's kept its outsider status even as the single has become the jump-off point for Radio 2 documentaries and its singer has moved from public enemy to beloved reality TV entertainer-cum-outsider artist (though everyone else seems to have long made their mind up about the viability of the song amid its modern peers, the Diamond Jubilee week reissue publicised as a final righting of wrongs stalling at 80)

All the same, despite the widespread agreement now that McLaren was a skilled media manipulator who didn't have the actual individuals in the band's interests, or for that matter much of the music, at heart, they still caused enough of a stink to ensure the common and unshakeable belief that some combination of BMRB and the BBC had the chart positions for week ending 11th June 1977 reversed so Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It/First Cut Is The Deepest had a fourth week at number one. Now that the once outsider punk story and the mainstream are incorporated into each other (witness all the people right since the start of TOTP 1976, half a year before New Rose, who have spent every week going 'where's all the punk?' or 'this is why punk had to happen!', overlooking that much the same music was on the show and being huge hits after punk happened - Emerson Lake & Palmer's biggest hit comes after God Save The Queen has cleared off) it's accepted as stone fact, as much assumed these days by that BBC as the music press, backed by assertion that these were the depths The Man was willing to sink to to keep the evil punk hordes at bay.

So what proof do we have? Well, not much of definite case, really. A lot of the most famous assertions made about the two records - distributors of both singles CBS claiming to Malcolm McLaren the Pistols were outselling Rod two to one (massaged to as much as five to one in some tellings), Virgin claiming they'd done (maybe distributed) more than Rod's sales that week - arise largely from hearsay, hype and claim made in the immediate wake or to sympathetic onlookers by parties with vested interests, Virgin in having a number one on their own terms, McLaren... because he was McLaren. God Save The Queen was awarded a silver disc within weeks, it's said, but this was going on sales shipped to stores - it didn't actually sell enough to go silver until the mid-90s.

To really muddy the waters, what should be pointed out is, as far as 1977 goes and indeed well into the Nineties, 'total sales' is not necessarily, and not really recoverably, the same as 'total sales registered in the official BMRB chart'. BMRB's research worked from a set of about 750 retailers nationwide who filled in weekly sales diaries, from which a random 200-250 were chosen weekly to compile the charts. Whether BMRB, as is often rumoured, ordered sales from shops affiliated with labels, by which is meant Virgin, be withdrawn from that week's selection - the oft-quoted proof of this is a reported anonymous tip-off quoted in a Richard Branson biography - on the back of concern by not just the media but other record companies, is unproveable, but if you're looking for a secondary angle it's as good as you'll find.

God Save The Queen was released on Friday May 27th. In England's Dreaming, a great book slightly stymied by Jon Savage getting some details wrong around this crucial event he uses as its pivot, it's claimed to have sold 150,000 copies in five days to put it at number eleven. Impossible, surely - for one thing 150,000 copies would have been a clear number one contender, for another the sales week finished at the end of Saturday trading. Five days later would have been the following Tuesday, when the chart was announced on Radio 1, presumably hence the assumption. A few pages later Savage claims the single had sold "over 150,000 copies" by the Jubilee bank holiday, that is to say one full week's sales later. A few pages further on it's put at 200,000 by the end of that same celebratory week, the overlap of which would have gone towards the following week's sales and besides which would have come from an incomplete week due to bank holiday closures on the Monday and Tuesday. He also speculates that the boat trip gig on Tuesday June 7th - the same day as the Queen's Mall procession, and two days before her own river flotilla - promoted sales for a chart week that ended on the 4th, even though he then states the trip was hardly covered in the daily papers and its fame arose from its embedded reporters and photographers in the weekly music press, which would have come out the following week. Come on, John.

So let's turn to what statistics we can find or assume. If we therefore take his word that by the end of w/e 11/6/77 God Save The Queen had sold 150,000 in total and take off the 20-25,000 copies from the previous part-week you'd certainly end up with an amount that would be at the very least a live contender for number one. However, Stewart's single is, by the terms of singles that spend four weeks at number one and another four in the top five, officially quite a low seller - slightly less than 600,000 according to available BMRB-derived statistics, and don't forget that this is after three weeks already at number one and a couple in the top five both before and after that, no major deviations occurring to give it an extra boost after its initial rise.

Except... what was I just saying about the difference between sales and BMRB-registered sales, and what was counted for the latter? As well as the BBC, IBA and advertising standards, the single was banned by WH Smith, Boots and Woolworths to name three known major chain stores that, as the chart by its nature obviously looked primarily towards mainstream sales, BMRB's retailer sample would have relied upon. (Which is, of course, virtually a form of chart rigging in itself - there's not many high profile records, if any, that such blanket banning has come into effect on)

One backup source often offered is that God Save The Queen topped the NME chart (they didn't blank out the name in their chart as you may have seen on various nostalgia programmes, by the way, that's an unsourced mock-up) Yet their chart is ostensibly all over the place here - for the equivalent of w/e 4th it's at 27, 11th 6, 18th top. The reason is the NME sales week by print deadline necessity went up to the Friday, so sales for chart publication w/e 11th wouldn't have included those from the end of that 29th-4th sales week. It's said maybe half of GSTQ's total sales in BMRB terms came on Saturday - extra time at weekends, Jubilee business in full swing, weekly music press push, potential heightened awareness that record exists after TOTP chart rundown - the mirror equivalent of which would be pushed forward to the following week's NME chart. As for BMRB w/e 18/6/77 it's sliding back to number four, job done (and this would roughly tie up with most estimates), in a general week of sales decline that saw Kenny Rogers' Lucille essentially go arse-first to number one, aided of course by it being a bank holiday-shortened sales week (two days, Spring bank holiday moved forward a week, as per this year) For w/e 25th June it's number 9 in BMRB and 3 in NME, presumably reflective of the natural bias in sales towards indies. As per the magazine's nature the NME chart sample was taken from about 100 mostly independent record shops largely/presumably separate to the official sample, and the confluence of underground scene band and chain unavailability would have given this single an extra boost. (Melody Maker's separate chart, of a similar sample range and cross-section of indies, never had the Pistols above number five, that being from the chart w/e 11th. Don't ask me. It's not implausible, and indeed sometimes recorded, that the staff of both papers weren't above fiddling the figures on occasion either)

Additionally, note this was by no means the only week in the mid-70s when NME and BMRB didn't coalesce. If you want definite instability between the two in 1977, it's more instructive to look for one at mid-September. Magic Fly, the groundbreaking synth instrumental by French trio Space, spent three weeks at number one in the NME list, as well as a couple on Melody Maker's chart, but never went top of the BMRB chart. The reason? Elvis - having died weeks before, his most recent signle Way Down was on its way to huge sales, the bulk of which would naturally be made from high street stores. Rod Stewart himself fell victim slightly later, a week on top in NME for You're In My Heart meaning nothing when people preferred to buy Baccara's Yes Sir I Can Boogie from their local Woolies/Smiths/wherever. And come November there was an album that spent two pretty clear weeks on top of the official chart while not managing to do the same from the figures given by the collective shops surveyed by the NME. That'll be Never Mind The Bollocks, then...

There's another contemporary source on top of all these. The trade magazine Radio & Record News, using BMRB returns and their sample store weighting measurements, backs up Rod's 600k overall sales, Pistols' 20k for those first two days and about 50k for the following week... but for w/e 11/6 they list 98,000 for First Cut and 86,000 for God Save. If as by those accounts Rod was being outsold two to one he wouldn't even have been at number two. Furthermore, according to chart commentator James Masterton ,when the BPI briefly opened up their audited sales reports some years ago researchers looked up this week and found the double A side comfortably ahead. Certainly Richard Branson has recently claimed his information at the time was there was no point, at least before the weekend, that the Pistols were ahead of the running, take that as you may.

God Save The Queen, with three weeks in the top ten and a further three in the top 20 in a low-ish selling period, ended up at number 61 in the year end sales figures, estimated at 290,000 overall. Much as that just about fits in with the weekly figures given above there is the possibility, due to confusion over bans and shortfalls in documented distribution, that that's an accounting mistake, as there seem to be several of those in the given list (it's only three places ahead of Pretty Vacant, which only got to number six albeit with a longer top ten stay) - but one of those so affected is First Cut/I Don't Want..., which is at 31, heavily behind sales figures given everywhere else which would put it somewhere between 11 and 15. Is it possible that actually Stewart's single was undercounted that week, or indeed in total (Radio & Record News estimates 458,000 sales just for his number one weeks, and for more than a month at or near the top that does seem short)? BMRB weren't above plain cockups - they managed to completely mess up a chart seventeen months earlier and had to issue a hasty replacement that gave a completely different number one.

There's a sense in which, singles wise, God Save The Queen is an outlier in the Pistols' own canon. Anarchy In The UK had limped to 38 three weeks in the immediate aftermath of the Bill Grundy affair (27 in the NME list) before EMI washed their hands of it and recalled all stock; a month and a half after this discussed chart Pretty Vacant, which was greenlighted by most of those outlets that had previously shirked away, went straight to number 7 after its first full week of sale but only got one place further. Yet here was a record you couldn't hear, see or largely read about - the press had a Jubilee to deal with for a few days, after all - still making at least number two in the proper sales chart. Punk was still the commercial underdog and would to some extent remain so for its youthful flush, even beyond the initial reaction - after all, in terms of tabloid shock this lies nearly equidistant from the Rolling Stones and acid house, both heavy bogeymen for the times in their own ways. This was its big shot, and whether number two by accident or design it's better for the genre's whole story as anti-establishment, especially given we'll never know for sure, and to keep the social outcasts story running to believe things were being worked against it. It might not have ended up half the cultural touchstone it became if there were nothing to assert 35 years later.

Quite a bit of information here is taken from the excellent Lost Number Ones thread on the Haven music forum


wilberforce said...

thanks for that simon, although it's all getting a bit too heavy for me to take in at times!

as i understood it, despite millions of records being sold through thousands of outlets at the time, presumably due to technical/logistical problems chart placings (in this country anyway - i don't know about the US) were determined by a very small sample of record retailers - perhaps as few as 100?

those chosen for this purpose were supposed to be kept secret so that sales of records couldn't be massaged and manipulated by record company pluggers and other employees/agents, but of course the word would get out (i think they had some kind of machine installed in the shop for such purpose - probably next to the till for convenience - that made it obvious to those who knew what to look out for) so it was always likely that payola was going on to some extent. i knew a guy who had managed a record shop that was on the BMRB sample list in the 70's, and he told me the pluggers would regularly come in and offer "incentives" to bump up the sales figures of certain records (of course with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, no questions asked approach)... and that he would happily accept whatever they offered and then not bother doing what they expected of him! as they had to rely on trusting him to do their dirty work,they were never aware of that so continued handing over "gifts" in return for favours...

anyway, regarding the ongoing debate about the establishment stopping the sex pistols from topping the charts in jubilee week, what i'd like to know is: did daily mail readers and other monarchists rush out to their local record shops (or more likely wh smiths!) to buy all the available copies of rod's single just so that it outsold the pistols?

Simon said...

It is a bit long, sorry about that. Hopefully what I've done is left it open enough to suggest there's possibilities for fixing that week while giving the understandably not often aired reverse. I can't imagine there was a concerted effort specifically to keep Rod top, more that the groundswell wasn't enough.

I didn't want to get into the payola side of things, because the piece is involved enough already but of the two parties involved here one had no reason to (Rod was at his commercial peak at this stage) and the other didn't feel the need (though compared to the rest of their sales and given shock tactic semi-desperation, who knows 100%?), but there's plenty of cases, mostly from a bit later, of clear and later documented payola in action, most egregiously new wave also-rans The Photos, who out of nowhere (the preceding single peaked at 56) had a number four album on Epic in June 1980 and then disappeared again. Pluggers offering free cameras for extra chart returns may have been responsible...

Tyrone Jenkins said...

Thank's for this posting,an excellent article which lends clarity to this piece of pop cultural controversy. Start writing that social/cultural history book!

Arthur Nibble said...

An epic. Nuff said.

Angelo Gravity said...

Such an interesting piece of pop history ~ and a great story too ~ yes I can see why getting to number two was the ultimate success for this record ~ number one would have been no good - no story - no controversy - no immortality.

The thing though that is really shocking to me now, is that the song broke no laws, contained no swearing, and yet in a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, could be so completely banned, just for offering an alternative point of view.

It wasn't even particularly anti-monarchy really - it seems more of a protest about unemployment and lack of opportunities.

Really looking forward to watching the Pretty Vacant performance in a few weeks time.

Tyrone Jenkins said...

Prior to 'God save the Queen' songs tended to be denied airplay on the basis of implied sexual references. The most obvious example of this is the 1969 Birkin/Gainsbourg No 1 'Je T'aime...' and others have included the mid-70s cod-reggae (that phrase again!)ditties by Judge Dread. A rare example of a record being banned because of an implied political orientation was Wings 'Give Ireland back to the Irish' in 1972, though given the trite lyrics the politics were rendered innocuous!
Considering the pre pop/rock era I'm not sure if Billie Holiday's rendering of 'Strange Fruit' , for example,was denied radio airplay.
There are some strange anomalies: the BBC sanctioned 'Walk on the wildside' despite the reference to oral sex and the allusions to transvestism.

Simon said...

This sort of thing went on for longer, in ways, then people assume - TOTP refused to show The Real Slim Shady in prime-time when it was number one (even though they had a studio performance). Even last year Pick Of The Pops did 1999 and skipped over My Name Is entering at number two.

wilberforce said...

a while back Record Collector magazine did a comprehensive article on all the records banned by the beeb (and surprisingly there were a great many long before the sex pistols controversy) - as tyrone states, pretty much all due to sexual innuendo (as philip larkin says, sex wasn't invented until 1963!)

however, as far as i know no-one has ever done a feature on those that managed to slip through the net: the lou reeds, the squeezes, the stranglers-es (is that right?) etc...

i may have mentioned this before, bur whenever judge dread was in the charts (which was quite frequently in the early-to-mid 70's) they would never play his singles in the chart rundown nor offer an explanation as to why not, so as soon as i came across one in the ex-chart bargain bin i had to buy it just to find out why!

Noax said...

Great post Simon.

Not much to add, except that I've always thought that Jon Savage is a total arse, and that I wish 'Magic Fly' by Space had been an official Number One!

Angelo Gravity said...

I'm looking forward to one that beat the '77 censor ~ Meri Wilson and the fabulously scadalous Telephone Man :-)

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, here's my theory as to what happened. WH Smith,a large seller of chart singles, weren't on the sales panel - normally this didn't matter much, indeed it reduced sluggishness in the charts. However, by not stocking this single, its sales were over-represented in chart return shops, so although it ws Number 1 in those, to truly reflect national sales all the other records' sales needed to be boosted, thereby relegating it to No 2