Although I’m not old enough to remember most of these singles being released, I thought it would be worth finding out about the seven songs which have sold over two million copies.
Before exploring each song in detail it’s worth remembering that all of these songs were released in a time when the only way to ‘buy’ a copy of the single was to travel to a record store and buy a physical copy. Singles cost around £4 too – around four times more expensive than a download. To have sold in such vast quantities in those times makes their sales even more impressive.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the tracking of sales in the Seventies and Eighties was not always accurate. It relied on record stores manually submitting numbers of copies sold. It wasn’t until the Nineties when sales were recorded electronically and so became more accurate (which possibly makes the biggest-selling single’s sales even more impressive again).
Many of the seven two-million sellers had huge sales figures due to related deaths and charity events. Some were due to massively popular cultural events like a huge movie release. Some of them were down to controversy. But some seem to be unrelated to any of these and its these records which make me curious…
Elton John – Candle In The Wind 1997/Something About The Way You Look Tonight (1997) 4,930,000 sales
The phenomenal sales of this single, in truth, are actually nothing to do with the quality of the song. The sales reflect the hysterical outpouring of grief on the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Over 650,000 copies were sold on its first day on sale. Supply couldn’t keep up with the demand and it ‘only’ sold 1.5 million by the end of the first week.
The Princess’ death, and the circumstances surrounding the way she died, filled every news programme. When Elton John performed the song at the funeral six days after her death, the song became the focus for people to express their grief. People simply bought copies out of duty – many bought several copies. I wonder how many copies were bought by the youth of the day – not many, I’ll bet.
All of the proceeds from the sales went to charity. Candle In The Wind overshadows Something About The Way You Look Tonight, which is actually a brilliant song. The song is unlikely to have sold many more copies since 1997. One day, maybe the cumulative sales of a single may add up to more than 4.93 million. But this is going to take years and years. This is a sales record which will be around for an eternally long time.
Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas (1984) 3,780,000 sales
During 1983 to 1985 there were unbelievably tragic news reports of famine stricken countries in Africa. Bob Geldof was moved to tears by one of these reports and wanted to do something about it. He, and Midge Ure, created the now immortal song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and were able to persuade the biggest pop stars of the day to record it in November 1984.
This was the first time that pop stars had gathered together to collaborate in such a way. People were not only inspired by the notion of ‘buying the record in order to do something to help’ but also by the collective might of the country’s biggest stars recording together. The song is also brilliant!
The single sold three million copies during its five week spell at Number 1. It returned to the Top Three in 1985 with a slight remix. It has since been re-recorded three more times but their sales are counted as separate records each time.
Do They Know It’s Christmas was the first major charity single. Personally, I’m not a fan of charity singles. In what way is buying a CD, record or download better than giving the money directly to the charity? I’m not sure.
The legacy of this song is such that it returns to the Top 40 just about every year on sales and streams. It is a guaranteed dancefloor filler at Christmas parties. It seems quite perverse when you think about it – getting so excited about a song which is actually about the starving, hungry people of Africa. Perhaps people have forgotten its tragic inspiration.
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975 and 1991) 2,440,000 sales
Surely everybody has danced like a nutter to this song at some point in their lives? Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most interesting songs ever released – from a musical point of view but also from a chart performance point of view.
First released in November 1975, the song took just four weeks to reach Number 1. It stayed there for nine weeks – therefore becoming Christmas Number 1 in the process. After singer Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991 the song was re-released (this time as a double A-side with These Are The Days Of Our Lives). It entered the chart at Number 1 and stayed there for five weeks altogether. During its second spell at Number 1 it was again Christmas Number 1 – the only song ever to be Christmas Number 1 twice. The song has, therefore spent 14 weeks at Number 1 and has the fourth longest non-consecutive spell at the top of the charts ever.
Its original release in 1975 was in an era when radio play had the biggest impact on sales. DJ Kenny Everett, in particular, pushed the single and so demand for it became massive.
The song has inspired endless parodies and tributes – one of the most famous being the film Wayne’s World in 1992 when the song was used in a famous scene.
The unique nature of the song (which has been described as rock-opera) was right for the Seventies, when pop stars who offered something a little bit unusual enjoyed massive success. Nine weeks at Number one in the Seventies was pretty much unheard of. The 1991 re-release brought people out to the shops to buy the single in tribute to the man who fronted one of the best bands of all time. The sales of the re-release also went to charity. His death (Mercury was probably the highest profile victim of the disease AIDS at the time) inspired a tribute concert. Their popularity had never been greater.
To me, the incredible sales of Bohemian Rhapsody are right and fully deserved as a tribute to the legend of Freddie Mercury and to the phenomenal band Queen.
Wings – Mull Of Kintyre/Girls’ School (1977) 2,080,000 sales
Mull Of Kintyre is the biggest selling non-charity single ever. You read that right. Ever!
I can’t quite get my head around this fact. It was the first single to sell more than two million copies. That’s two million people (ish) inspired enough by the song to leave the home, travel to their nearest music store and buy a copy. I just can’t understand why.
Sure, it’s a nice song. I’m sure my mum would have loved it. But, in the rock and disco era of the Seventies, how on earth did this have so much popularity. It’s incredibly tame and bland. It has bagpipes on it – to me that says it all.
The song was released in November 1977 and after three weeks it was at Number 1 and it enjoyed nine weeks there in total.
I just can’t understand why. What was the demographic of people buying this record?! Mull of Kintyre!
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John – You’re The One That I Want (1978) 2,050,000 sales
It’s actually quite easy to explain the success of this song. It is brilliant! It is the huge song (which means a lot because all of the songs in the film were huge) from the ending of Grease!
Grease had been a popular stage show for years. But the announcement of the film release in 1978 was met with huge excitement. You’re The One That I Want was released a few months before the film was in cinemas. After just five weeks, the song was at Number 1 and it stayed there for nine weeks altogether.
Teenagers were the main market for sales of this song. They loved it and bought it in massive quantities.
Years later the song is still a dead cert to get people on the dancefloor at parties, although usually as part of the Grease Megamix!
The timing of the release also, perhaps, explains why Mull Of Kintyre was so massive. Sales of records in the late Seventies were the absolute peak of sales figures ever. Sales from 1976 to 1979 in particular were enormous!
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax (1983) 2,030,000 sales
First released in 1983 Relax took a while to build up traction. It took until January 1984 before the song hit the Top 40. It then quickly climbed to Number 1 where it stayed for five weeks. It then slowly feel to Number 31 in May. By June it was back in the Top 5! Through remixes and releases it has enjoyed 70 weeks in the Top 100 – this is an incredible number of weeks as records released in the Eighties typically had much shorter chart runs.
Why was it so successful – the answer is – controversy! As soon as it hit the Top Ten, the BBC banned it from further airplay, with DJ Mike Read publicly refusing to play it. Radio 1 declined to play it (despite commercial stations playing it) and then Top Of The Pops refused to include it – even when at Number 1! Although it was denied by the band at first, it was assumed that the lyrics were sexual. That is why Mike Read hated it. Years later the band confirmed it.
The British love a joke and enjoy a bit of controversy. Part of me thinks a lot of the success was down to the public buying it just to wind up the BBC!
When the band’s second single, Two Tribes, was released it prompted Relax’s resurgence back up to near the top of the chart.
In truth, Relax is a brilliant dance song – pioneering the electronic sound which would eventually go on to dominate the chart in the future.
Boney M. – Rivers Of Babylon/Brown Girl In The Ring (1978) 2,020,000 sales
The biggest selling religious single, Rivers Of Babylon is based on Psalm 137. It was turned into a popular song in Jamaica before German band Boney M. made it their own in 1978.
Sure, it’s catchy. But I can’t think of a reason for the huge sales of the single except that, once again, it was released in the massive sales year of 1978.
The song reached Number 1 in May of that year. It stayed at the top for five weeks. It then fell down the chart before climbing back to Number 2 in September.
I can’t explain the huge success of some of the two-million sellers. I just don’t get it. Others I understand as they were closely linked to cultural events of their era.
As for the future? The Official Charts company (as of March 2016 when this article was written) only counts physical sales and downloads towards being classed as a million seller. Now that streams have been added to the mix, some singles are already racking up over two-million ‘combined sales’, e.g. Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud. Perhaps, the OCC will revise their standard at some point and count streams. This could change everything!
But for now, the list of seven two-million sellers will remain as it is, and as it has done for the last nineteen years!