As the last Sunday chart show goes out this weekend, James Hall recalls the ten biggest pop battles of the last 60 years
Al Martino vs Jo Stafford – November 1952
Up until 1952, music’s popularity was determined by sales of sheet music. But on 14 November 1952, the UK’s first ever singles chart was published in the New Musical Express after co-founder Percy Dickens rang 20 record shops and collated their best-selling singles. The opening tussle saw Here In My Heart, an overwrought big band number by 25-year-old Italian-American Al Martino, pip mournful ballad You Belong To Me, by his compatriot Jo Stafford, to number one. Martino held the spot for nine weeks, which remains among the longest ever stints. In 1972 Martino appeared in The Godfather as Johnny Fontane, the struggling crooner on whose behalf mafia boss Vito Corleone orders a horse’s head to be deposited between an unsuspecting film producer’s sheets.
The Beatles vs Engelbert Humperdinck – March 1967
While time has canonised The Beatles, it has mocked Engelbert Humperdinck.
Even so, almost 50 years on, this remains the most egregious upset in chart history. In early 1967, ‘The Hump’s’ unremarkable cover of Release Me beat The Beatles’ double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever/ Penny Lane to number one, breaking a four-year run of chart-toppers for the group.
Release Me held the Fab Four’s songs – regarded by producer George Martin as the best they’d ever made – at number two for three painful weeks. Paul McCartney has since suggested that the tracks’ psychedelic bent made them incomparable to Humperdinck’s ouvre anyway. He told The Beatles Anthology: “It’s fine if you’re kept from being number one by a record like Release Me, because you’re not trying to do the same kind of thing. That’s a completely different scene altogether.”
Carl Douglas vs The Osmonds – September 1974
The Osmonds ruled the charts in the early-to-mid Seventies. In 1973 alone, members of the Osmond family had a staggering 13 UK hit singles. The group’s cover of Johnny Bristol’s Love Me For A Reason spent three weeks at number one in the autumn of 1974, cementing their position as hit-making heartthrobs. But the Utah family hadn’t anticipated Carl Douglas. Although today seen as a novelty song, Douglas’s perky Kung Fu Fighting had been steadily climbing the charts for six weeks when it knocked The Osmonds off the top spot in late September. It was the first disco song to reach number one, and opened the door for Barry White, Gloria Gaynor, KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer, who became chart staples within months.
Sex Pistols vs Rod Stewart – June 1977
God Save the Queen, The Sex Pistols’ blast of anti-establishment indignation, was released to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of June 1977.
However the punk classic was held off the top spot by Stewart’s double A-side of I Don’t Want to Talk About It/ First Cut is the Deepest, both covers. Everything seemed against The Pistols after the release: Radio 1 excluded the song from its playlist, Woolworths and other chains banned it, and a publicity stunt involving the band playing on the Thames was foiled by police. Punks cried conspiracy, while manager Malcolm McLaren claimed that his band had significantly outsold Stewart. The song led to punk bands being called ‘pop music morons’ in the House of Commons and fuelled nationwide anti-punk panic, which only boosted the movement and made Stewart’s victory a decidedly pyrrhic one.
The Human League vs Cliff Richard – December 1981
The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me was the first British chart topper to use a programmable Linn LM-1 drum machine. In doing so, it set the pop template for rest of decade. In reaching number one it also held Sixties veteran Cliff Richard’s woeful doo-wop ballad Daddy’s Home off the top spot. The Eighties had officially arrived. Don’t You Want Me was number one for five weeks until it was displaced by Bucks Fizz’s The Land of Make Believe.
The song was the fourth single from The Human League’s Dare album, and almost wasn’t released at all. Singer Phil Oakey apparently thought it the weakest track on the album. The following year, it topped the charts in the US too.
Wham! vs Frankie Goes To Hollywood – June 1984
1984 was the decade’s high watermark when it came to pop, and no tussle summed this up better than the one between chirpy Wham! and high-energy disco Scousers Frankie Goes To Hollywood. In early June, Wham! were enjoying a stint at number one with Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go when Frankie’s bombastic Two Tribes went straight in at the top. It stayed there for nine weeks, in the process dragging previous single Relax – which had already been in the charts for 35 weeks – back up to number two. Revenge was sweet for George Michael. In August he released Careless Whisper as a solo artist, toppling Frankie from number one. The bands went head-to-head again that December, with Last Christmas and The Power of Love. Both were overshadowed, however, by a certain charity single by Band Aid.
Rick Astley vs M/A/R/R/S – September 1987
Rick Astley performing in 1987 (Image: Rex Features)
The late Eighties chart dominance of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s (SAW) plastic pop was dealt a blow when Never Going to Give You Up by their poster boy Rick Astley was knocked off number one by M/A/R/R/S’s Pump Up The Volume, the first British house track to top the charts. But there was more to the battle than the arrival of dance music. SAW took out an injunction against M/A/R/R/S for using a sample from their own song Roadblock in the track. The dance group alleged sour grapes due to SAW’s involvement with Astley. It was not the first time in this period when serious dance music competed with lightweight fluff for chart supremacy.
Two years later, Black Box’s Ride on Time battled it out with woeful megamixers Jive Bunny for the top spot.
Salt-N-Pepa vs The Fat Boys – July 1988
Although hip hop had been making its presence felt in the UK charts throughout 1987 – with modest hits from the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim – it was not until the following summer that the first rap skirmish happened at the top end of the charts. Salt-N-Pepa, a US female hip hop trio, initially released Push It/ Tramp in March 1988, but the single only limped to number 41. However a performance of Push It at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert in Wembley Stadium in June led to a re-release. The single rose to number two, displacing The Twist (Yo Twist) by fellow New York rappers The Fat Boys from that position. Push It, which was held off number one by Glenn Medeiros’s cheesy Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You, spent nearly half a year in the Top 100, all the more remarkable as it was originally written as a B-side.
Blur vs Oasis – August 1995
Such was the frenzy surrounding this straight fight between two of Britain’s biggest bands that it made the Six O’Clock News. The so-called Battle of Britpop saw southerners Blur pitch the oom-pah irony of Country House against the northern swagger of Oasis’s Roll With It. The hype – and it was *everywhere* – forced music fans to search their souls and align with one side or the other. The confrontation was in fact extremely clever marketing by Blur’s label, Food, who moved Country House’s release date to clash with Oasis’s. Blur won, claiming the number one spot with 270,000 sales compared to Oasis’s 220,000. However in the album battle that followed, Oasis’s What’s The Story (Morning Glory) was seen as vastly superior to Blur’s The Great Escape. For Blur, it was a case of battle won, war lost.
Rage Against the Machine vs Joe McElderry – December 2009
Rage Against The Machine performing at Download Festival in 2010 (Image: Rex Features)
By 2009, the popularity of The X-Factor had become too much for some ‘serious’ music fans, who had seen the winner of Simon Cowell’s reality show bag the Christmas number one slot for the previous four years. So they launched a Facebook campaign to prevent The Climb, by 2009 winner Joe McElderry, from topping the charts. The plan? To encourage people to buy Killing in the Name, the shouty, sweary 1992 track by Los Angeles alternative metal band Rage Against the Machine. Cowell dubbed the Facebook campaigners “scrooges” but the X Factor haters won, and poor McElderry was held off the number one spot on Christmas week. The battle was significant for two reasons: it demonstrated the power of social media and it landed a well-lobbed cupful of festive eggnog on Cowell’s face.
Read the article here at the Telegraph