Monday 7 July 2014

Big I Little i: the independent charts

I grew up obsessed with the charts. Like thousands of other kids, I'd listen to the new Radio 1 Top 30, with the Top 5 played in full on Tuesday lunchtime, then write down the new chart in an exercise book. Yes, I was there in 1976 when Manuel & His Music of the Mountains - with their highly undanceable Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto - were announced as the nation's number one at lunchtime, only to be demoted a few hours later (with no explanation from Radio 1, of course). Of such fragments, pop history is made. And then largely forgotten.

Of slightly greater long-term significance, I also remember hearing Paul Gambaccini sitting in for John Peel in the spring of 1980. He played Love Will Tear Us Apart, the new single by Joy Division, and then played their Peel sessions as a tribute to the late Ian Curtis. I knew from looking at the mysterious independent chart, and reading Ian Cranna's Independent Bitz column in Smash Hits, that Joy Division were signed to Factory, a Manchester label run by a local TV presenter called Tony Wilson. I'd seen the reviews of A Certain Ratio and Section 25, other Factory acts, which were largely negative but the sleeves looked great and I was intrigued.

Independent, at this point, was not a musical or artistic definition.  The independent chart, though, was largely about new music, difficult sounds, not the kind of groups likely to end up on a Radio 1 Roadshow in Tenby. As every pop student knows, Al Martino's Italianite ballad Here In My Heart was the first number one on the UK singles chart in November 1952; Spizz Energi were the Martinos of the independent chart, sitting at number one when the first chart was published in January 1980, with Where's Captain Kirk. The Fall turned out to be the Who of this alternative world, always seemingly at no. 2 (Totally Wired), or no.3 (The Man Whose Head Expanded), but never number one.

Geoff Travis's Rough Trade label were responsible for Where's Captain Kirk and several other singles in the very first Top 30: "We used to do our own Top Tens in the shop" he recalled, "but they were personal taste. The first independent charts were very important. It was significant if the Fall's LP was number one, it gave you a sense of achievement.
We were happy in our own world - there was a logic and beauty to it. And the real world's taste is so terrible." I wasn't quite as disdainful of the real world's taste, as the British public made Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) the surprise number one summer sound of 1980. Also in the chart that year were nailed-on classics like Teena Marie's Behind The Groove, Squeeze's Another Nail In My Heart, Roxy Music's Oh Yeah, Dexy's Midnight Runners' There There My Dear. But the notion of a parallel pop universe, nonetheless, was fascinating.
The independent chart had been the brainchild of Iain McNay - then, as now, the boss of Cherry Red Records. While all the music papers were publishing their own separate lists, there wasn't an official one until McNay approached the trade sheet Record Business: "The rules were simple" said McNay. "Any record was eligible that didn't go through the major record distributors." The new listing would help shops to order records, alert the majors to new acts, and inform non-metropolitan music lovers (like me, stuck out in Surrey) that records had definitely been released. Within weeks of Record Business publishing the independent charts, the nascent Smash Hits began to print them, which is where I first came across them.

To a pop kid raised on Top Of The Pops and the Top 40, the song titles and band names conveyed vast mystique:
Get Up And Use Me by Fire Engines; Cabaret Voltaire's Seconds Too Late; Simply Thrilled Honey by the thrillingly named Orange Juice. At number 5 in the summer of 1980 was the Cramps' Drug Train. There could never be a song called Drug Train in the real chart, whose number 5 that week was Feels Like I'm In Love by Kelly Marie. The independent chart was a secret world where pop appeared to be deeper, more mysterious, a world from which Kelly Marie and her Seaside Special-disco tack were banished.

In turn, independent became indie, then Indie - the charts unintentionally led to a more homogenous, less eclectic mix of sounds. In its prime, though, the independent chart could mean Delta 5's Mind Your Own Business, 
Discharge's Never Again; it could mean the atmospheric instrumental work of the Durutti Column, or the animal skin-clad metallers Manowar, or even Stalin Wasn't Stallin' by Robert Wyatt. Almost every independent hit lacked airplay, they were often no more to me than titles written on paper, never to be heard; Dome 2 by Dome - what could it possibly sound like? This distance, as well as the wildly varied music, was part of the romantic appeal. I've still never heard Subliminal by Drinking Electricity, or Banned From The Pubs by Peter & the Test Tube Babies but, thanks to the independent charts, the names are lodged in my memory forever.
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