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VALLEY WEEKEND

Charting the Rise to No. 1

Craig Rosen examines the Billboard phenomenon, giving a history of music groups and an analysis of the listening public.

July 11, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Rosen decided that if he were going to write a book about Billboard's pop album chart, and specifically about every No. 1 album in the past 40 years, he would listen to them all. This decision entailed countless weekends perusing the bins in used record shops.

"The Singing Nun was really hard to find," Rosen said. "I was looking for that about a year. The day I found it, there were three copies. They were all 99 cents."

Such determination resulted in the "Billboard Book of Number One Albums," an informative and occasionally startling look at both the history of pop and the listening public that bought the records.

Rosen chose as his starting point Elvis Presley's first album, an eponymous release that reached No. 1 on May 5, 1956. He lists 423 albums, ending with the Beatles' "Anthology 1," which topped the chart in December 1995.

Each entry includes a photograph and interviews conducted with performers, producers and record company executives.

For the 33-year-old author, a lifelong Valley resident who began writing about music for the Monroe High School newspaper and now serves as Billboard's West Coast bureau chief, the effort proved enlightening.

"There was a lot of fairly obscure stuff like Allan Sherman and Vaughn Meader," he said of the two comedians. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into."

In fact, Rosen expected the album chart to be relatively immune to the one-hit wonders who more often soar up the widely publicized singles chart. That is because a top album usually requires several popular songs and an established following.

But the author found that shifting fad and fashion allowed more than a few Singing Nuns and Milli Vanillis to score top albums.

So, while the Beatles predictably lead all other recording artists with 16 No. 1 albums, it is interesting to find Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and the Monkees high on the list, at No. 5 and No. 4, respectively.

Lest anyone cast aspersions on the comic Sherman, he recorded three top albums in 1962 and 1963. That's two more than the Doors managed.

And the album that spent the most time at the top? The soundtrack to "West Side Story," which reigned 54 weeks.

"Every category has its fans," said Kip Brown, owner of Ear Candy, a used-record shop in Van Nuys where Rosen did some of his searching. "We even have a lot of young soundtrack collectors, though the show tunes are mostly older individuals."

It was a love of music that led Rosen to delve into this history. The author recalls that as a youth he would regularly haunt Valley record shops. Not only did he begin writing about rock 'n' roll in high school, but he sent copies of his first review to newspapers and magazines.

One critic wrote back with constructive criticism. An editor at Trouser Press, a now defunct alternative music magazine, bluntly labeled Rosen's work trite and colorless, suggesting: "Good writing, as any English teacher will tell you, stems from good thinking."

But another magazine, Action Now, liked the young writer's style enough to pay him $30 a piece for future reviews. From such beginnings, he went on to write about music for the CSUN newspaper and the Daily News before taking a job with Billboard in 1989.

Even with this experience, Rosen wanted to bolster his knowledge. That is why he took the trouble to research every listing in his book, tracking down someone who could talk about the studio sessions.

Madonna recalls that the first time she heard the title track to "Like a Virgin," she thought the song was "really stupid and retarded."

George Harrison says of his first full-fledged solo album: "I've always looked at 'All Things Must Pass' like somebody who has had constipation for years and then finally they get diarrhea. And that's what happened. I was only allowed to do my one or two [tunes] on Beatle albums, so I had a backlog of songs. When I did 'All Things Must Pass,' it was just good to get them out of the way."

Some performers were less relieved. Drummer Stewart Copeland describes the tensions that wracked the Police as they recorded their first and only No. 1 album, "Synchronicity."

"In those days," he told Rosen, "Sting thought he was the devil. It was my job in life to persuade him that he wasn't the devil, he was just an [expletive]."

Rosen said: "Unfortunately, in the case of a lot of No. 1 albums, these groups were reaching their peak and things kind of fell apart after that. There are a lot of stories in there about bands breaking up."

Indeed, "Synchronicity" turned out to be the last Police album. It finished just ahead of the soundtrack to "Flashdance" on the July 23, 1983, chart.

"This book perfectly demonstrates the schizophrenic taste yo-yo that has long driven the American record-buying public," wrote Chris Dickinson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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