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Celebrating 60 years of the British chart

Published: Wed November 21, 2012  News Feed
Celebrating 60 years of the UK chart

Undoubtedly a great British institution, the Singles chart has gone from the dark days before Rock N' Roll (Vera Lynn anyone?) through the homegrown domination of the Beatles, Queen and Sir Cliff; right into the present day of downloads, dubstep and Diana Vickers. While it's popularity may have dwindled slightly since it's hey-day the charts are still an important matter to fans and artists alike.

A Rather British affair

Only the country that invented the rules of test cricket could truly come to love what could be a rather dry, statisical affair. The Sunday chart show and Top Of The Pops are a great source of trivia, band rivalry and the best indicator we have find who's hot and who's not.

Many of us have fond memories of the Oasis/Blur and Boyzone/Take That face offs, buying our first single and all those TOTP performances, complete with one hit wonders, bad miming and bizarre costumes.

It's not all trivia and questionable clothing however. The No. 1 tag can lead to overnight success at home and abroad, even leading to every UK artist's dream of US stardom.

Modern Era

The music industry has arguably changed more in the past ten years than in the preceding 40. In fact things are now very similar to how they were in the 50's, with a greater emphasis on singles and less on album sales. Although with ever increasing visitors to the Top 40 website the charts may just be on their way back.

In honour of this great institution and it's 60th birthday we've compiled our own chart of notable hits, both famous and infamous.

The Tornadoes - Telstar
Not just notable for being one of the biggest UK singles of all time this was the first British single to break into the US. It's not easy to understand the effect this curious novelty record had in the years before prog synth solos and Lady Gaga's outfits.

At the time however the haunting melody and sound effects were considered strange enough to fuel rumours that it used real recordings from the Telstar satellite. Really though it was British recording legend Joe Meek that was responsible for the singles unique sound.

The main melody is played on an electronic instrument known as a Clavioline. Manufactured by Vox it was essentially an early synthesiser. To get a similar, analogue synth tone try the Korg Monotron. For the sci-fi effects you can squeeze any number of wild sounds from a Microkorg, just like Joe Meek in his studio on the Holloway Road.

Eventually Vox went on to develop the Continental Organ, cropping up on countless famous 60's recordings. So for a range of organ sounds, retro and contemporary, try the Nord Electro.

The Beatles - Hello, Goodbye

While it's true that Ringo's KitWestlife hold a greater number of chart records no compilation would be complete without 'the four lads from Liverpool who shook the world'. Not just a hit in the UK, 'Hello, Goodbye' was number one in the US, France and Norway as well as hitting number two in Austria and Switzerland.

Of course if you want the classic McCartney bass tone it can only be a Rickenbacker, on guitar the Epiphone Casino was the source of so much mellow, woody tone from both Paul and John while Harrison often favoured his Gretsch Country Gentleman.

The real star on Hello, Goodbye is Ringo, giving it some beans. For that deep, punchy sound you really need maple toms, however to buy Ringo's Ludwig Hollywood kit you might need to have a few number one records yourself. Mapex offer great maple kits at introductory and higher end price points.

You might also want to snag some natty percussion for that full, always exciting Beatles arrangement. According to McCartney a big part of the distinctive sound was achieved by deciding to "...really whack up the echo on the tom-toms." So get some classic vintage delay sounds from the Beatle's amp maker Vox.

T Rex - Get It On

The early Seventies were arguably the apex of chart popularity. A whole new visual element was coming into music with the popularity of Top Of The Pops and colour TV. Few bands better represent this than the mighty T Rex.

Get It On had numerous members of the Rock gliteratti involveBolan With His Les Pauld in recording and performing. Tony Visconti (Bowie, Morrissey, Kaiser Chiefs) was producing, Rick Wakeman provided the small piano part (earning £9 for his efforts) with Ian McDonald from King Crimson on sax. Even Elton John got in on the act, merrily miming a piano part on the classic TOTP performance. With T Rex it's all about that guitar tone, Marc Boland was well known for using Les Pauls and was a fan of both Epiphone and Gibson models.

Of course effects pedals were really starting to take off by the 70's and Bolan was a pioneer of the effects heavy glam rock sound. Nothing says glam quite like a big, smiley Fuzz Face. A more subtle part of the arsenal was the Electro Harmonix 'Screaming Tree', out of production now but very similar sounds can be had from quality modern boosters. You can still get Bolan's Vox Wah made the same way as ever or using modern production techniques to the same spec. For the more far out tones try an MXR Blue Box for wild octave down fuzz. Bolan's acoustics were generally the Hummingbird and 160 models from Gibson.

For the instrumental parts why not try a funky black alto Saxophone for great stage presence and sound. These days you're more likely to see Rick Wakeman in the limelight with a Roland Fantom than odd jobbing around studios.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Relax

Since the early days of TV it has increasingly taken a combination of a great image combined with a catchy tune to have a really big hit, of course courting controversy never hurts either. So with bold sexual overtones and a good old banning from the BBC (a sure way to get sales coming in) Relax was a huge international hit.

Essentially the brain child of mega producer Trevor Horn (Yes, Seal, Robbie Williams), who took the raw original songs and through extensive studio trickery turned them into the finished product.

Early 'Relax' Demo Recording courtesy of Wikipedia

After getting in the Blockheads (Ian Dury's old backing band) to record parts live Horn ultimately turned to the Fairlight CMI sampler to get everything as he envisioned it.

One of the first users of this fantastically expensive instrument Horn still sings it's praises to this day, along with being a huge fan classic analogue sequencers and synths. Whether it was an 808, Minimoog or Synclavier you can be sure Horn was among the first on it. To the great perfectionist even MIDI is a little too sloppy for his tastes, stating in Sound On Sound that only analogue CV/Gate sequencers are really "Spot on."

Nothing quite defined the sound of classic 80's synth pop like a Yamaha DX7. Out of production today and ultimately superceded as Yamaha have gone from strength to strength in the performance synth world, similarly great value can be had with the MOX6 synth or try the Motif XF8for an all in one production power house like the Fairlight and Synclavier.

For the classic tight sequencing and great programmed drums there can be only one choice with Swedish company Elektron still making superb analogue-style drum machines.

Of course there's a lot more to the 80's sound that Trevor Horn helped define than the instruments. Nearly every studio of that era had the holy trinity of analogue console, Yamaha NS10 speakers and tape machine.
  • Try the Yamaha N12 for a great analogue front end for recording and studio console feel. Has numerous modern features to integrate with your DAW of choice.
  • Yamaha updated the NS10M over the years and now you can get similar looks and legendary sound from the HS50M.
  • Try Universal Audio's stellar plugins for classic tape sounds and other near perfect emulations of rare and vintage gear.

Gnarls Barkley - Crazy

Possibly the biggest international hit of the early 2000's, a collaboration between Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green based around an Ennio Morricone sample. It takes a lot to stand out in this day and age, the image, tune, hook and marketing have to all be in place. Danger Mouse made his reputation cheekily mashing up the Beatles White album and Jay Z's Black Album and spreading it virally across the internet. Gaining steam producing for Gorillaz and MF Doom it was in 2006 Gnarls Barkley formed and released the single that would dominate the charts for weeks on end.

There are a number of ways to get in on the modern production game with many great software and hardware options.
  • For the classic hip hop production style that Danger Mouse is rooted in then it can only be the MPC, used on more rap records than air raid siren samples.
  • You can't get beat Ableton for quality modern workflow, ease of use and great remix/mashup potential. Mix any manner of samples, VST instruments, MIDI gear and built in Live Instruments while keeping the tempo locked and your creative juices flowing. Check out Push for cutting edge performance options with Ableton.
  • Maybe you're more of a decks and FX kind of remixer, in which case Native Instruments have you covered with this great Traktor controller.

Going Forward

It's hard to see the charts regaining their peak popularity, with a much broader range of artists than ever before and increasing exposure on TV before they've even released a song (hello X Factor). However they will doubtless continue to give us curios like Gangnam Style and be the ultimate indicator as to whether an artist has truly made it.
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