It may have escaped your attention that it was 40 years this month since the first publication of a list which would have a huge influence on the music world for the next two decades, and beyond.
The first official UK indie chart was published 40 years ago – on 19 January 1980, to be exact. And if that makes you feel old, it’s because – like me – you probably are.
The punk explosion of the late 70s saw a plethora of small record labels spring up as an outlet for artists unwilling to sign with major record companies, or not considered commercially attractive enough by the labels. However, chart success was based on sales at big chains like HMV, Virgin, WH Smith and Woolworth’s, and ignored significant sales at the then-thriving independent shops.
Iain McNay of Cherry Red suggested to the weekly trade paper Record Business the idea of an independent chart, and the first one appeared in January 1980 in Record Week, and was later licensed to weekly music paper Sounds, which, in its heyday, was bought by thousands of folk every week.
The definition of whether or not a record was “indie” depended on how it got into the shops – it needed to be delivered by a distribution service that was independent of the four major labels, EMI, Sony, Warner and Universal.
All good things come to an end, however, and by 1990, the significance of the indie chart had been diluted by major record companies forming their own ‘indie’ labels, in order to break new acts via exposure from the indie chart.
The first weekly independent chart was published on 19 January 1980, with Spizzenergi’s “Where’s Captain Kirk” topping the singles chart, and Adam and the Ants’ Dirk Wears White Sox topping the album chart.
As a teenage punk, the indie chart was the first thing I turned to every week when I picked up my copy of the then-influential Sounds music paper, to see what was selling outside the mainstream.
For while it was great to see favourite bands like Stiff Little Fingers, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects on Top Of The Pops, you wanted to know about the new bands who were emerging from the underground.
The weekly ‘inkies’ – Sounds, NME, and, to a lesser extent Melody Maker – were where you found out about the avalanche of independent music being released, with the indie charts at the centre of it.
I remember buying singles by Discharge, Blitz, The Exploited, The Partisans, and many more after seeing them championed by the likes of Garry Bushell in Sounds, and seeing them rise up the indie charts.
But if you look back at the very first indie chart, things weren’t as black and white as they seemed. There was still some very mainstream stuff creeping in there, because it was released on independent labels, outside the control of majors, hence the incongruous sight of Daytrip To Bangor – a piece of folk whimsy by Fiddlers Dram – at No 2.
And while other classics such as California Uber Alles by Dead Kennedys and Transmission by Joy Division were in the top 10, and Crass’s first 7in single Reality Asylum was at No 21, there were clear signs that the times were a-changing.
The chart was moving away from such a strong punk influence, shown by the presence of post-punk acts of the time, such as Modettes, The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Monochrome Set and Scritti Politti.
The list of indie chart No 1s from the first year alone shows how much good music was being released away from the major labels, no doubt to their frustration: chart-topping singles from that first year alone included Bloody Revolutions by Crass, Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Requiem by Killing Joke, Kill The Poor by Dead Kennedys, and Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers by Motorhead.
As the year came to an end there was a sign of the ever-changing face of music as Cartrouble by Adam And The Ants stayed at No 1 for seven weeks, and they had the first new No 1 of 1981 too with Zerox, which spent three weeks at the top.
1981 saw something of a resurgence by post-punk and punk bands, with Crass, New Order, Toyah, Discharge, Dead Kennedys and Anti-Pasti all enjoying spells at the top, though new electronic acts like Depeche Mode, who had three different No 1s, were beginning to make their presence felt.
This continued into 1982, with biker punks Anti-Nowhere League enjoying a couple of chart- toppers, but Depeche Mode enjoyed 13 weeks at the top with See You and Leave In Silence, though that was beaten by synth-pop duo Yazoo, whose three separate No1s gave them 17 weeks on top.
1983 saw the emergence of Aztec Camera, The Sisters Of Mercy and The Smiths, though the undoubted biggest indie hit of the year was New Order’s Blue Monday, which spent 13 weeks at No 1.
The odd novelty record continued to confound expectations, with club act Black Lace enjoying a two-week stay in the top spot with the awful Agadoo in 1984, though The Toy Dolls’ punked-up version of children’s favourite Nellie The Elephant trumped (sorry…) that with seven weeks on top.
1985 onwards saw acts like The Smiths, New Order and Depeche Mode continue to dominate, with new faces like Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and Half Man Half Biscuit keeping things interesting.
Things were clearly to unravel by 1988, when Kylie Minogue went to No 1 with I Should Be So Lucky, straight from the Stock Aitken Waterman s-hit factory, and the following year saw her ex-Neighbours star Jason Donovan follow her with Too Many Broken Hearts.
There was still some decent music around, with the likes of Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and the Stone Roses topping the charts, as well as New Order and Depeche Mode. But the last year of the decade saw 29 different No 1s, compared to just 12 in the first, which showed the majors had wised up and were routinely using it as a way of promoting more mainstream acts.
By 1990 the Madchester bands had taken over, with Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets dominating, and by 1991 the changing times were again reflected by the number of rave acts who got to No 1 – including Shamen, The Prodigy, 2 Unlimited and Altern-8.
This continued until 1994, when guitar music began to make a comeback thanks to the burgeoning Britpop sounds of Suede, Blur, Terrorvision and Oasis, though curiously this year also saw Elton John and Ant & Dec top the ‘indie’ charts!
1995 was probably the last really eclectic year, when the chart-toppers included Oasis, The Human League, Edwyn Collins, Black Grape, Ash, Blur, The Rembrandts, Bjork, and, sadly, Simply Red.
1996 was a strange old year; ‘proper’ No 1s included guitar bands like Oasis, Blur, The Bluetones, Ash and The Charlatans, mixed with rave acts like The Prodigy and Underworld, football clubs Liverpool and Manchester United with their FA Cup final songs, and the bloody Back Street Boys.
There was more chaff than wheat in 1997, with Blur, Depeche Mode, James and a dwindling Oasis representing proper music in the face of a tsunami of dross from the likes of Backstreet Boys, Peter Andre, R’Kelly and Gala.
Guitar music was well and truly passée by 1998, with only Space, Oasis, Cornershop and Stereophonics flying the flag in the face of increasing dominance by mainstream acts like Fatboy Slim and Steps.
When the last two acts continued in 1999 where they’d left off , and were joined as chart-toppers by Britney Spears and, for the last six weeks of the old millennium by Cliff Richard, it was clear the game was up.
Although there were shining lights in the early noughties such as a resurgent Ash, Stereophonics and the emerging Libertines, the golden days when topping the indie charts really meant something were over.
The indie charts continue to be published, by the Official Charts Company, but it says a lot for the state they’re in these days that the last No. 1 of 2019 was I Love Sausage Rolls, a viral hit by Ladbaby, a lifestyle blogger and YouTuber. Us old farts really did enjoy the best of times didn;t we…?
THE FIRST OFFICIAL UK INDIE CHART FROM 19 JANUARY 1980
1 WHERE’S CAPTAIN KIRK? – SPIZZENERGI
2 DAYTRIP TO BANGOR – FIDDLERS DRAM
3 MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS – DELTA FIVE
4 WHITE MICE – MODETTES
5 CALIFORNIA UBER ALLES – DEAD KENNEDYS
6 TRANSMISSION – JOY DIVISION
7 EARCOM THREE (EP) – VARIOUS
8 WE ARE ALL PROSTITUTES – THE POP GROUP
9 KAMIKAZE – BOYS
10 SILENT COMMAND – CABARET VOLTAIRE
11 TAAGA (EP) – DANGEROUS GIRLS
12 BILL GRUNDY (EP) – TV PERSONALITIES
13 HE’S FRANK – MONOCHROME SET
14 SHEEP FARMING IN BARNET – TOYAH
15 YOU’VE NEVER HEARD… – FRESHMEN
16 I’M IN LOVE WITH MARGARET THATCHER – NOT SENSIBLES
17 FOUR A-SIDES – SCRITTI POLITTI
18 YOU CAN BE YOU – HONEY BANE
19 SID DID IT – NAZIS AGAINST FASCISM
20 PEEL SESSIONS – SCRITTI POLITTI
21 REALITY ASYLUM – CRASS
22 OPENING UP – CIRCLES
23 SOLDIER SOLDIER- SPIZZENERGI
24 POPCORN BABY – ESSENTIAL LOGIC
25 CONFESSIONS – FLOWERS
26 KISS THE MIRROR – WALL
27 UK ’79 – CRISIS
28 FIRST AND LAST – ART ATTAX
29 ADDICTS 4 TRACK (EP) – ADDICTS
30 GABRIELLE – THE NIPS