Top of the Pops

Once a week the new pop charts are announced on Top of the Pops. This is a Solid Gold type program, with various artists lip-synching whatever their big hit of the moment is, plus an occasional video. The difference is that in this country, it has a massive viewership. Traditionally, everyone watches it. (There are no dancers in spandex, either, but apparently there were at one point.) And because of that, everyone performs on it too, from one-hit fluke to megastar. A recent edition featured Janet Jackson, four different girl groups trying to cash in on the Spice Girls’ success (the most polished one was a quartet called All Saints), and a quintet called Steps with a line-dancing single called “5,6,7,8,” which looked like a aerobics routine more than anything else. (People say line dancing is big here, by which they mean not that everybody does it, but that it exists: a few clubs host it, there are sporadic hits on the charts, and I spotted a Line Dancing Magazine at the newsagent last week. If it hadn’t cost almost $20, I would have bought it.)

They take the whole idea of “Christmas #1” really seriously over here. It’s a lot more prestigious to be #1 the week of Christmas (the biggest record-shopping week of the year) than at any other time, and you can even go down to the local betting shop (the ambiance is pure OTB) and put money on who you think will have the Christmas #1. For 1997, it was les Girls du Spice, with “Too Much.” Oasis were scorned for sidestepping the competition altogether after bragging about how their “All Around the World” was a surefire Christmas #1. And although it has the traditional elements (popular group, big obvious chorus, vague love-your-neighbor sentiment), they chose to release it the second week of January, preferring the sure bet of a #1 hit then. (Poor poor Morrissey released his new single the first week of January, which is tantamount to sending out a press release titled “I’M SAD AND PATHETIC AND HAVE NO FANS ANYMORE,” and still couldn’t get into the top twenty. People cluck sympathetically, but they don’t go buy the single or anything.)

(There’s a lot of hubbub right now about how easily manipulable the singles charts are, and how record companies are willing to do it as a promotional expense. I can’t get too exercised about this, since it’s been true in America for about twenty-five years, and I’m just so delighted to find a country where they take a pop-music countdown seriously.)

So what was the #1 single in the interregnum between the Spice Girls and Oasis? I’m glad you asked. It was the third week at the top for a track that had already logged two weeks in December, a cover of–I am not making this up–Lou Reed’s 1973 composition “Perfect Day.” The original was featured in Trainspotting and on (I think) The Blue Mask. But this version was recorded by the BBC for a TV ad (excuse me, telly advert) that promotes what a variety of music they show on the network. And so it was recorded by a cast of thousands, one line at a time, “We Are the World” style. In the following order: Lou Reed, Bono, Morcheeba, David Bowie, Suzanne Vega, Elton John, Boyzone, Lesley Garnett, Burning Spear, Bono, Thomas Allen, Brodsky Quartet, Heather Small, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Shane McGowan, Sheona White, Dr. John, David Bowie, Robert Cray, Huey, Ian Broudie, Gabrielle, Dr. John, Evan Dando, Emmylou Harris, Courtney Pine, Andrew Davis/BBC Symphony Orchestra, Brett Anderson, Visual Ministry Choir, Joan Armatrading, Laurie Anderson, Heather Small, Tom Jones, Visual Ministry Choir, Lou Reed. It’s choppy and odd to listen to, although a few of the line readings are great (I’m particularly fond of Shane McGowan’s atunal three words). But I bought a copy because I know five years from now, nobody will believe this object actually existed.