Everything I Do, pt. 4: A Statistical Analysis of Number Ones (with graphs) [July 28, 1991]
Plus: Extreme, The Shamen, and LFO
This week’s Number 1 :
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
We’ve talked before about the cultural meaning of a Number One and how it has kept changing since Al Martino topped the very first UK chart in 1952.
But are there any patterns in the charts that might tell us more about how pop music works? Pop charts are essentially a form of data analytics, after all. And you know what that means.
We can stick the numbers into Excel and make an ugly chart:
(Apologies to Tableau users for this ugly graph. Also, please tell me how to use Tableau.)
First things first: Bryan Adams stands out by a mile. Bryan and Wet Wet Wet are notable outliers in the history of pop music, twin towers standing aloft from the others.
Apart from that, it’s actually remarkable how regular the chart is. You can’t see it in this visualization (really should have used Tableau) but approximately one-third of Number Ones spent only a single week at the top.
Almost two-thirds of chart-toppers spent between 2 and 4 weeks at Number One. Which is incredible, in a way. It shows that there’s a steady rhythm to pop culture, a neverending drumbeat that we all hear.
Every 2-4 weeks, there’s a new song that a bunch of people get really excited about. They rush out, buy it, and the song goes to the top. Then, 2-4 weeks later, the same thing happens with a new song.
And this has been going on every week since the 50s. Throughout the Cold War, through Thatcher, through Alex Ferguson’s career, through The X Factor, through the rise of the internet.
The rhythm has kept going through jazz, skiffle, rock’n’roll, soul, psychedelia, the folk revival, prog, glam, punk, disco, new wave, hip-hop, house, techno, indie, R'n'B, nü-metal, nu-rave, poptimism, Napster, MySpace, Spotify, and Soundcloud.
Through it all, we always collectively turn our attention to a new song every 2-4 weeks. Since 1952, only around 12% of hits have lasted longer than 4 weeks at the top.
Guess how many have lasted ten weeks or more?
And here’s where it gets weird on a statistical level. Those nine songs show signs of clustering. Three distinct clusters, in fact.
First, you’ve got the oldies:
1954 - ‘Cara Mia’, David Whitfield (10 weeks)
1955 - ‘Rose Marie’, Slim Whitman (11 weeks)
Plus there’s Frankie Lane’s ‘I Believe’, which spent a total of 18 non-consecutive weeks at the top in 1952.
This cluster seems reasonably easy to explain. It was the early days of the charts and of singles sales. There was less competition and fewer distribution channels. Also, the actual chart data involved a lot of guesswork from record shop clerks who didn’t really care.
At the other end, you’ve got a cluster in recent years:
2016 - ‘One Dance’, Drake (15 weeks)
2017 - ‘Shape of You’, Ed Sheeran (13 weeks)
2019 - ‘Dance Monkey’, Tones & I (11 weeks)
Again, this is relatively easy to explain: streaming has weirded the charts. If you look at the tail end of the graph, you can clearly see that it’s a lot more chaotic than previous eras:
Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ (10 weeks) is a true outlier in 2007, although we can possibly explain that by it being a four-quadrant crossover hit, and a total bop.
The cluster I can’t easily explain is this one in the early 90s:
1991 - (EID)IDIFY (16 weeks)
1992 - ‘I Will Always Love You’, Whitney Houston (10 weeks)
1994 - ‘Love Is All Around’, Wet Wet Wet (15 weeks)
Were these three songs so spectacular that we just couldn’t stop buying them?
Well, no. Obviously not. Something else must have happened to explain it.
Singles sales in 1991 were historically low, which is probably a major factor. EID’s run at the top was definitely aided by weak competition from rivals, although Right Said Fred are about to set a record for the longest run at Number 2.
1991 also saw a major change in chart methodologies. That’s a whole other story in itself, but basically the charts transitioned from manual recordkeeping to an automated system, which made it slightly harder for record labels to fiddle the charts.
I think CDs were also a major factor. Those things are expensive here in 1991. Nobody wants to spend £15 - £20, but you might drop £3 for a CD single. Distributors tended to discount singles when they wanted to give one song a push, which became a major factor later in the 90s as shops started selling CD singles for 99p.
We’ll never know for sure. But one thing is certain. A 16-week run at the top was a genuine cultural phenomenon. Something that only seems to happen a few times every 30 years or so.
→ Part 5: The reclusive genius behind the song [August 4, 1991]
← Part 3: How to change your life in 45 minutes [July 21, 1991]
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (↑8): ‘More Than Words’ — Extreme
What a golden age for rock-ballad-ey slowdance classics. I remember being OVERWHELMED by the emotions in this song when I was 13 and desperate for a girlfriend. Recently, I read something about how it’s problematic because it’s really about urging women to prove their love by doing butt stuff. Or something. I don’t know, I struggle to keep up with these things.
‘More Than Words’ does deserve some credit for being a little ahead of its time. Extreme was a funk-rock band emerging against a background of hair metal. There must have been a strong temptation to ‘More Than Words’ like a Whitesnake song, with thicker instrumentation throughout. I bet the label wanted to rip out the delicate middle eight and replace it with a shredded guitar solo. Hey, it’s working for Bryan Adams.
But Extreme kept it simple and acoustic, and in doing so they anticipated the MTV Unplugged vibe that would become so popular in the coming years. The song is still a bit too naive and clumsy to ever be taken seriously, but it aged better than some contemporaries.
Number 4 (↑9): ‘Move Any Mountain’ — The Shamen
The songs that catapulted The Shamen into the bigtime. It’s quite upbeat. You could use the lyrics as your daily affirmation, if you like.
Number 8 (↑14): ‘Jump To The Beat’ — Dannii Minogue
‘Jump To The Beat’ felt like a more obvious attempt to emulate Kylie than something like ‘Love and Kisses’. Slightly housey cover of an older pop song. This song was fine, but not Dannii at her best.
Number 14 (↑ 30): ‘Winter In July’ — Bomb The Bass
Bomb The Bass were one of those bands, like Massive Attack, who were censored during the Gulf War. What a dumb policy that was.
Number 25 (↑29): ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’ — Morrissey
I wish I could quit you, you weird old racist.
Album of the Week
Frequencies — LFO
“Bleep techno” is probably the most uninviting name for any musical genre (apart from scat, I suppose). What it means in practice though is a futuristic, trancey sound with lots of weird sci-fi samples.
Frequencies opens with a manifesto, asking:
What is house?
Technotronic, KLF, or something you just live in?
To me, house is Phuture, Pierre, Fingers, Adonis, et cetera
The pioneers of the hypnotic groove
Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and the Yellow Magic Orchestra
This album is dedicated to you
The album lives up to these lofty ambitions. The 90s would be full of people trying to create album-length soundscapes using bleeps, bloops and interesting samples. Frequencies is a major stepping stone in that journey.
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