‘I don’t really know why I started it!’ Dave Watson and his collection of UK No 1 singles. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Dave Watson is the proud owner of 1,404 chart-toppers. He looks back on three decades of tracking down obscure vinyl records – and reveals how he copes in the digital era
For 70 years, the UK singles chart has been a constant in our lives: a weekly countdown humming along in print, on TV and the radio. But to Dave Watson, it’s more than just background noise: it’s a lifestyle. The 55-year-old has been collecting copies of UK No 1 hits since the late 1980s; today, he owns all 1,404 UK No 1 singles, reaching back to the birth of the charts in 1952. He believes it’s the only complete collection of its kind.
Watson’s devotion to the charts began when he was given a Guinness Book of Hit Singles one Christmas. Starting a collection made sense: with a mother who had worked in a record store, he grew up in a musical household and he enjoyed collecting things. “I just looked at the list at the back of the book and thought: ooh, it might be quite a good idea!” he says, speaking from his home in Dunstable.
By the time he’d started his mission in 1988, the charts had already seen 605 No 1 singles. With the newly released Don’t Turn Around by Aswad under his arm, he set out to find the previous 604 releases.
Growing up in High Wycombe, Watson would get trains to London to scour music fairs and secondhand record shops in search of his bounty. He would respond to adverts in Time Out and Loot magazines and write to record dealers. “I’d spend endless bloody hours searching through dealers’ stock,” he says. “I had a handwritten list that I’d photocopy and take around with me to put the word out. Some would write back to say what they had with their prices scribbled on.”
His wish list had started off pages long. “Then you start putting lines through them, your list gets shorter and you think: well, I actually stand a chance of doing all this. Once I started building it up, that just fuelled me to keep going.”
Watson would break the search up by decade of release; the older ones were harder to find. But he enjoyed the challenge, opting for the rarer of the two when singles had been released on two formats in transitional periods.
Discovering eBay around the millennium was a turning point: at the time Watson had fewer than 10 singles left on his list: “I remember going on for the first ever time, finding the remaining half a dozen and just thinking: wow, this is crazy. I’d looked and looked and looked, then all of a sudden you type it in and there it is.”
By the time he bought a 78 RPM record of Lita Roza’s (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window, which reached No 1 in 1953, his collection was up to date.
At one point, Watson toyed with the idea of collecting all the No 1s from the official UK albums chart too, though he says that, luckily, sense kicked in. “It’s not so much the money, it’s more where are you gonna put it all? There’s gonna be blimmin’ hundreds of them!” he laughs. “You can’t collect everything!”
To adapt to changing technology and listening habits, digital downloads and streamed songs became eligible for the singles chart in 2005 and 2014 respectively. Accordingly, Watson began downloading the No 1s and burning them on to CDs, complete with a printed-out sleeve and label.
In 2020, he started to craft homemade Now That’s What I Call Music-style compilations for the top hits of the year. “I try to make the CDs look like they have been purchased commercially,” he says. “It’s probably a bit old school.”
Physical singles are scarcely released these days. (The physical singles sales charts reads like a dispatch from another world; currently, Firestarter by the Prodigy is No 1.) While he misses the process of browsing through stands of records, Watson can now maintain his collection from his computer. It’s a weekly ritual: “On a Friday evening, I check the charts to see what’s No 1 and make a record of it,” he explains. “Sometimes if I can’t do it on a Friday, I’ll do it on a Saturday, but I very rarely forget – because I want to keep the collection going.”
Watson’s ever-growing archive of 78s, 45s and CDs now sits on display in his home. He doesn’t listen back to the singles much any more – he uses his mobile phone to return to his favourites, from his teenage years in the 80s, as well as later cherished hits from the Prodigy to the Spice Girls – but the collection is a source of pride, as well as an icebreaker. “I try not to drone on about it but it is a good talking point. It opens up a conversation,” he says.
Although he doesn’t much like the chart music of today (“it’s not really my taste”), Watson won’t be stopping his hobby any time soon. “It’s just one of those things: I’ve gone so far with it that I’d be stupid to stop it now,” he says. “I’m gonna keep it going as long as I can because it just seems part of me now. It’s just what I do.”