A visual analysis of UK number 1s

Image Credit: Hernán Piñera

Did you know that Grammy award-winning singer, Adele, has the same number of Number 1 Singles as children’s cartoon character Bob the Builder? I didn’t, until I undertook an analysis of the UK chart history for my final year university project.

Studying Digital Media Development (BSc) at the University of Brighton, I had the opportunity to experience a wide range of modules. These ranged from video production to 3D animation, mobile app development to SQL databases — but it was web development that caught my interest. I enjoy using a combination of code and logic to create visually engaging content.

As part of my degree, I was encouraged to undertake an industrial placement year. I secured my placement in Visual Journalism at BBC News. For 13 months, I worked full time as a web developer alongside designers, developers, and journalists to create bespoke content which showcases news stories in an interactive, engaging and comprehensive way.

Inspired by my placement experience, I wanted to create a similar product for my final year project. The project would combine what I had learned both at university and on placement, and would involve undertaking the research, project management, data analysis, design, and development phases for myself.

I knew it was important to find a topic which would excite me for an extended period of time. Following extensive research into existing datasets without being inspired, I decided I could make my own. After considering my personal interests, I decided a music project would be appropriate and subsequently discovered the rich data available through Spotify API.

Spotify produces quantitative data for every song in their library on characteristics such as ‘danceability’, ‘valence’ and ‘energy’. This data is effectively meaningless in isolation and presented as a list of numerical values. I decided to contextualise some of this data by analysing songs which have reached number 1 in the UK charts, and comparing attributes based on when they were number 1, or how long they were number 1 for. These findings would then presented in an interactive format as an online webpage.

In the following parts, I will discuss the process I went through. From the trials and tribulations of data gathering and analysis to trying my hand at design as well as the long and winding road of creating the final visual essay and testing out how good it really was.

If you want to see exactly what it is I’m going on about first, you can take a look at the final webpage (just to note, at the time of writing, the website hasn’t yet been optimised for mobile or accessibility).

You can also check out the Spotify playlist I created of the UK Number 1s available from 1952–2018.

The rest of this article gives a brief overview of the history of the UK charts (mostly because I found my research into this extremely enjoyable and thought you might find it interesting too).

A brief history of the UK charts

Creating the UK Singles Chart
The UK charts began in November 1952. Originally born as an idea to encourage advertisers to The New Music Express, the publisher compiled the very first chart by contacting a selection of retailers for the number of copies sold of the most popular records. These were then aggregated and the first UK singles chart was released — with Al Martino’s Here In My Heart at Number 1.

Subsequently, many publications created their own versions of the charts. It wasn’t until 1960 that an ‘official’ chart (created by Record Retailer) was agreed upon by most of the music industry. In 1969, the BBC collaborated with Record Retailer to commission the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) to compile the UK’s charts. These were the first industry-recognised charts and known as the UK’s ‘official’ charts for the first time.

In 1983 Gallup replaced BMRB in compiling the charts, creating a new computer system and utilising phone lines for data-retrieval rather than relying on handwritten diaries, motorcycle courier collection and manually-checked charts. Thanks to the new system in place, calculations could be made more quickly, and in 1987, when the new chart announcements was moved from Tuesday lunchtime to Sunday afternoon, (less than 24 hours after the last sale was counted), the UK Charts became the fastest and most accurate worldwide.

The changing format of music
In 1983 New Order released Blue Monday. It reached 700,000 sales and was only available on 12-inch record, the biggest selling 12-inch of all time. By 1985, cassette sales had surpassed vinyl album sales for the first time, but just seven years later, in 1992, CD became the foremost format.

In 2004, legitimate downloads reached the UK and iTunes was launched. The Official Download Chart was created to recognise this — and in the first week of 2005, downloads of singles overtook CD singles for the first time (312,000 vs 282,000). It wasn’t until July of this year that downloads started contributing to the UK Singles Chart. In 2006, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy was the first number 1 on downloads alone.

Most successful singles
In 1991 Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You spent 16 consecutive weeks at Number 1, the biggest selling cassette single of all time. This was almost beaten in 1994 when Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around spent 15 weeks at the top of the chart, but the band decided to stop producing copies of the singles before they could break the record. In an interview with the Guardian, band members discussed their decision to stop manufacturing the single. Bassist Graeme Clark described the experience:

‘Obviously it was an amazing time, but if any record gets played nonstop, people are going to get sick of it. I read about people taking it out of jukeboxes. And then Jarvis Cocker went on Top of the Pops and opened his jacket to reveal a sign saying: “I hate Wet Wet Wet.”’

Marti Pellow, singer, furthered:

‘In the last week before we withdrew it from production, it was still selling 120,000 copies a week. We were thinking: “Who is even buying it now?” Withdrawing it from sale wasn’t some cunning plan to make it sell more — we’re not that smart. It was just time to put the song to bed.’

Following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody became the first single to top the Official Singles Chart on two separate occasions and in four different years (November / December 1975 & January 1976, and December 1991 & January 1992).

In 1994, Whigfield achieved the first debut single to enter the UK Charts at number 1 with Saturday Night.

2009 saw a Facebook campaign launched to prevent X-Factor being Christmas number 1 for the 5th consecutive year, nominating Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name. This showed the power of social media as Rage Against The Machine won, (502,000 vs 450,000).

In 2013, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky sold a million copies in just 69 days and became the first track to be streamed one million times in one week.

This was just the tip of the iceberg, an introduction inspired by the Official Charts history. The rest of the data I gathered in the process of this project reveals which was the most danceable decade for number 1s and even raises questions about the impact of politics on the charts.

Read part 2 - getting down and dirty with data

Software Engineer at BBC News Visual Journalism. Brightonian living in London.