That music’s lost its taste, so try another flavour: Chart Music

This blog has always been behind the times. It doesn’t wear this as a badge of honour, partly because it can’t be bothered to go out and find one. The tragedy of it is that I Have Grave News took a six year hiatus (and no one noticed because they were all getting on with Progress) chiefly because it ran out of new cultural things to get excited about. My interest in culture, and its advancement, was on the wane and a blog which seeks to dissect culture cannot exist in such a vacuum.

“Blogs” themselves feel behind the times. The video versions seem to thrive, partly driven by their presenters’ anxiety to feel fresh and relevant. The trouble with IHGN is that it’s written by someone who is neither of those things and never has been. Vlogs aside, over this period, culture was being lauded and promoted by people who, unlike me, were still earning a living from journalism, and long may they thrive.

A lot actually happened during the years this blog was missing, little of it fit to publish. The main thing was that I took a long, internal review of who I was as a consumer of culture and what I wanted to do with my findings. They came out, in no particular order, as follows:

  • Pay more attention to the music/books/films/television series that I already liked
  • View these in their cultural context
  • Start to look at other players in the same eras/genres/styles and explore those in depth
  • Revisit things I previously dismissed
  • Come to the conclusion that in order to have a future, I need to make my peace with the past

There will be plenty of time to review my discoveries and rediscoveries in literature and cinema, I just want to look here at the music. Out came my old records, tapes and CDs, which they were dusted down, played, scrutinised and evaluated afresh. And I came to a startling conclusion: my record collection is bilge.

When I look at what I stream as opposed to what I buy, it’s clear that they rarely coincide. I had to admit to myself that I ended up buying music I cared little for based on the same set of criteria I had subconsciously applied since my teens: I bought what I thought I should buy rather than what I wanted.

A degree of snobbishness has haunted my musical taste for as long as I can remember, but mainly since I discovered punk (again, miles behind the times, although I at least had the excuse of being too young) in the early 1980s. Guitar bands, chiefly the Pistols, The Damned, The Antz and, later, PIL and The Undertones, led me to sneer at electronic music. Then in the 1990s, I listened almost exclusively to electronic music as a personal snub to the horrors of grunge. Then, so on and so forth, buying records as a protest, rather than buying records to be loved and cherished. My dismissals outweighed my adorations. I never doubted that I loved music, and neither did anyone else, but it rarely made me happy.

And so, finally, to the point of this post. In the context of looking back in happiness and discovering the past anew, I want to recommend my current rabbit hole. Once again, I am years behind but I am at least catching up.

Thanks to an old pal, who still thinks the best of me, I was put on to Chart Music – The Top of the Pops podcast. According to their Twitter profile, the podcast consists of, “A random episode of Top of the Pops lovingly pulled to bits by some of the UK’s best and gobbiest music writers. Loads of swearing.”

I can’t better that for a description. I’m still listening to the early casts but so far I have relived random weeks in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984 and 1985. From about 1979, when I turned 10, I remember entire episodes. Previous to that, I remember many of the songs from radio and my 1970s’ Spotify playlist has grown and grown since I started listening to it. I have fallen entirely down a rabbit hole and it’s wonderful. Back to being in my mother’s boutique with the tinny wireless in the background, back to the jukebox in Café Melbourne in Saltcoats. It’s been a blissful experience in wilful nostalgia and Proustian rushes.

Yes, there were a few issues with the first edition of Chart Music: mainly that very few sentences were successfully strung together, too many observations fell flat, and a good half hour of umms and ahhs could have been edited out. But it’s been gaining in strength by the episode since, as recurring contributors, including Taylor Parkes, Simon Price and Neil Kulkarni, settle into their go-to quips, in-jokes and other idiosyncrasies in a free discursive style, where no opinions or observations are too risky – all of which set it apart from general, risk-averse radio chit-chat.

Therefore, we do hear episodes presented by Dave Lee Travis (I haven’t yet heard a Jimmy Savile one yet, I assume that there will be one soon), we do hear Gary Glitter at Number One, and we do hear some astonishingly unacceptable utterings from presenters like Peter Powell and (guest presenter) Roger Daltrey. But then, I also now realise that I have a place in my heart for Tony Blackburn, which didn’t seem likely years ago when I read his quote, “It’s so easy to have a fatal accident and ruin your life.” We also hear the highs, the lows and the often staggering mediocrity that made up the UK charts, and ToTP, on a week by week basis.

All of which is analysed, dissected, lauded and grumbled about by your host and guests and always in the context of what was going on in the world at the time and what else was on television that day. I love it. These are my people. Slightly curmudgeonly, yet massively enthusiastic about music – but, more pertinently, the vital importance of popular music to our collective culture. Indeed, one of our culture’s highest forms of art. While the contributors are largely drawn from the roster of Melody Maker writers, it has more of a sweary Smash Hits tone, being as the line ups of the ToTP episodes are so often made up of the fleeting fads and one-hit wonders we all assumed were going to be forever swingorilliant.

The podcast has allowed me to relive times I didn’t fully appreciate then, almost like stepping out of my 14-or-whatever-year-old self and taking a good, fresh look around. At heart, I conclude, I was always a pop kid. Still, who would have thought that in my 50s I would be reevaluating the cultural contributions of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam or Sheila & B. Devotion? Both of whom were brilliant, incidentally.

Are there any downsides to Chart Music? Well, it’s been mainly three blokes on the show, with only one woman, one time so far, which is never ideal, especially given the enormous changes in culture we’ve witnessed over the decades since these ToTP episodes were broadcast and which now need to be put firmly in context. I’m sure this is down to availability and not policy, but it’s jarring in an era where gender balance tops most broadcasting agendas. I think this is possibly readdressed later on, so I won’t judge this harshly.

Another “downside” is entirely down to me and my podcast virginity. I’m so used to instant access radio programmes that I still get the urge to text in during conversations to point something out. For instance, a 1985-focused episode included a brilliant performance from S/A/W artist Princess and I was itching to point out that Prince and King had also been in the chart rundown – all we were missing to make it a true royal occasion was Queen, stars of Live Aid only a week before that edition. Actually, it’s probably just as well I wasn’t able to.

Mainly, though, I think it just pains me to think those days of writing and talking about music on radio are in my past, forever. The many laughs I had with Phil Udell, Jenn Gannon and JJ Worrall on the long defunct Phantom’s State of Play was the closest I got to doing something as forensic and archaeological as this. That career was a blast while it lasted but the young, fresh bucks have so much more positivity to offer than an old duffer like me, however much I still love to talk.

So, Chart Music is now where I belong, where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing, mainly while walking the dog. And I’m about to go back there, happy to be one of their ‘Pop-Crazed Youngsters’. It’s wonderful and highly recommended. See you in another six years.

2 thoughts on “That music’s lost its taste, so try another flavour: Chart Music

  1. Hello Johnnie, I hope that a recollection of the past, when you were writing reviews for In Dublin, doesn’t trigger bad memories. I just discovered your blog, but you had discovered myself and my wife years ago. In Issue 160 of In Dublin, you reviewed The Hedrons (Whelan’s, 28th May). Yes, Wilbur and Meredith, the (middle-aged – thanks, we were already in our 60s) American tourists were there. In reality, you could have just as easily encountered us at the Voodoo Lounge when Blood or Whiskey were playing. Well, we are still in Dublin, nearly 16 years since we arrived. And, yes, we are lifelong music fans, going back to the 50’s – Bill Haley and His Comets, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, et. al. Booked in 2022: The Undertones at The Academy and Green Day at the RDS. As Irish citizens now, I suppose that we are no longer, “tourists”. Anyway, good luck with your current pursuits. Wilbur (aka William / Bill) and regards from Meredith (aka Dorothy / Dot).

    1. Well hello William! Thank you for writing to me, your letter (which my then editor, who is still my friend, passed on to me) is a treasured possession. It was also a salutary lesson to me that when searching for an angle (my ed, again, always challenged me to make her laugh when she read my submissions over a cuppa), you can’t be too careful. I thought it extremely noble of you – and proof, as if any were needed, that you are the better people – to identify yourselves via your letter. I should say though that the person who spoke to you at the Whelan’s gig was not me – I’m not so awful that I would chat to you first and then write that. No, I was just an observer and obviously picked up your accents and – bingo! – there was my angle. Well, it wasn’t a very nice introduction but since I received your letter I have m nothing but respect for you. So here I am in all humility. Delighted to hear you are still here and now citizens. I am still here too but not yet a citizen! My very best to Dot and to you, Bill. Please find my email in the About section and by all means drop me a line. Perhaps we could actually have that drink, all these years on. Take care, Johnnie.

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