Friday, January 2, 2009

The Great Chart Meltdown: Guidelines

This year, my Saturday posts will focus on the music charts of the 1950s. I’ll combine a “This week in 195X” approach with a glance at odd trends and, on rare occasion, discrepancies between the charts (which I have before me as I write) and the books that summarize the charts, some of which you may own.

The principal music-industry publication used several different charts during the 1950s. One (25-30 songs) measured sales alone, another (20 songs) showed what coin-operated machines played, a third (20 songs) did radio surveys, and by mid-1955 there was a chart that tried to give a combined ranking of 100 songs.

The problem for anyone trying to compile data from the various charts would be one of space; it is impossible to confine a song’s chart performance to one line without making some compromises. In the chart books we own, a song that is pushed into the Top Ten by radio people is considered as valid a hit as a Top Ten single that was propelled by sales. My suggestion is that, should you want to know how strong a particular single really was, you look at the tiny chart peaks listed by each 1950s single from 1955 to late 1958.

Apart from such discrepancies as songs that never hit the radio chart but sell very well (a phenomenon I can’t discuss in great detail until I receive permission to quote the actual charts), there is one type of compilation decision I will want to address each week.

If you own a book about Top 40 hits, you will note that some songs are listed as having been flip sides to hits. The sales chart, and to some extent the radio and coin-op charts, listed B-sides that seemed to drive some of the sales or plays. All of these songs appear in the books that compile the entire chart of 100 hits.

However, a procedural decision was made regarding Top 40 B-sides. If a song was listed as a B-side on a chart, it appears in the book as long as it did not chart elsewhere. If it climbed onto a chart as an independent song but failed to reach #40, the B-side disappears from the Top 40 book.

For example, “High School Dance” by Larry Williams is listed in the Top 40 book as the sales B-side of “Short Fat Fannie.” By the same token, “You Bug Me, Baby” appeared on the sales chart as the non-charting flip of “Bony Moronie,” so it should appear in the Top 40 book in some fashion.

However, “You Bug Me, Baby” charted independently. It fell short of #40 in several weeks on the combined chart of 100 songs. That means it was probably more significant as a B-side than was “High School Dance,” but its failure to reach the Top 40 on any chart means that it is left out of the Top 40 books altogether. Those who own just the Top 40 book will have no record of the record. I will, therefore, note B-sides that aren’t mentioned in the Top 40 books.

Seeing the 1950s charts up close is a fascinating exercise in historical interpretation. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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