To mark the centenary of PRS for Music, we’ve scoured the society’s records to uncover British music’s most performed works over the last 100 years. In part two we cover the 1950s to the 2010s.

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 27 Mar 2014
  • min read
To mark the centenary of PRS for Music, we’ve scoured the society’s records to uncover British music’s most performed works over the last 100 years.

Through these songs – their writers, publishers and audiences – we can trace the resilience and ingenuity of the industry and learn how the society has adapted throughout its history.

In part one we explored the most performed songs from the 1910s to the 1940s. This time round you'll hear about the iconic songs from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Living Doll by Lionel Bart
Published by Lakeview Music
Fifties’ Britain was a uniquely radical time for the music industry. As the country continued to grapple with the fallout from the Second World War, ideas of upward mobility, social freedom and consumer aspirations were starting to take root. The cross-generational ballads that dictated the early part of the decade slowly became outmoded and cliché. Youngsters were tapping into the latest trans-Atlantic seven-inches and 78s, and began emulating the hedonistic style, sound and spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll. The British teenager was born.

Back then, the music business was controlled by publishers and songwriters based on Denmark Street, London – our version of the Big Apple’s Tin Pan Alley. In the cafes around the area, upcoming songwriter Lionel Bart would tune into the latest US R&B and rock ‘n’ roll infecting the jukeboxes and wireless sets, turning his hand a new writing style. But he needed a foil.

Then in 1958, Lionel discovered fresh-faced teenager Harry Webb in a nearby Soho club. Harry, later Cliff Richard, and his band, The Drifters, were perfect. Lionel had them perform three songs he’d written for a film called Serious Charge, including Living Doll. Lionel later said he wrote the track in 10 minutes, adding: ‘I never spent more than an hour on a tune. Songs should be like sneezes – spontaneous.’

Since its initial release in 1959 the song has clocked up nearly four million sales and earned Lionel an Ivor Novello Award for his troubles. It hit the top spot again when Cliff rerecorded it in 1986 with comedy act The Young Ones for Comic Relief. Lionel’s other songs from the era, including Little White Bull and Big Time, also topped the charts and he became much lauded for his hit musical Oliver! 

The decade saw a massive rise in television ownership – from three million households in 1954 to nearly 13 million by 1964 - which profoundly altered the way the public interacted with music.

She Loves You by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Published by Sony/ATV
The swinging sixties began in earnest as Britain’s budding pop music industry was yet to blossom. Senior management at PRS were voicing fears over the Americanisation of British cultural life, a sentiment which echoed loudly around the whole UK music industry. But within three years the headlines had changed. Leslie Boosey, then chairman of PRS, proudly announced at the society’s 1963 Annual General Meeting that ‘beat groups’ had changed the fortunes of British music - and new PRS members Paul McCartney and John Lennon were leading the charge.

John and Paul wrote She Loves You in the early summer of 1963 while on tour with Roy Orbison and Gerry and the Pacemakers. They recorded it in July that year and by September it was number one. It hit the big time across the Atlantic too, kick starting a severe bout of Beatlemania that was to infect the rest of the decade.

It was during this time that foundations were cemented for the British music industry we recognise today. The cult of youth, rock ‘n’ roll, pirate radio, rising demand for music on TV, the brand new album format, a record industry with a licence to print money… all of these things came to define the business for the next five decades. PRS had to undergo massive transformation in response to these revolutionary forces.

The market for music had changed immeasurably and was increasingly available in recorded and broadcast form, and via mobile portable radios and cassette players. Meanwhile, BBC Radio 1 begun airing in 1967 amid growing popularity for the ultra-hip pirate stations Radio Luxembourg, Radio London and Radio Caroline.

The number of businesses playing music mushroomed, helped by the rise of companies providing readymade pop cassettes for background music. During the decade, the society found a new spirit of optimism, defined by a raft of new licences, including the Aircraft Tariff of 1961. By the turn of 1970, PRS had more than five thousand members and a gross income of just over £9.1m – an increase of more than £5.8m in a decade.

Night Fever by Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb
Published by Universal Music Publishing
By the time the Bee Gees’ Night Fever ruled the charts, the trio already had an impressive canon of songs behind them. Earlier ballads, including 1967’s To Love Somebody and Massachusetts, had stolen hearts in the UK, US, Europe and Australia, and brought a timeless sensibility to the world of pop.

Having started out as a Beatles-inspired, vocal-oriented pop outfit, the Gibbs began to experiment and by the mid-seventies had settled on a more R&B-influenced groove that chimed with a growing underground dance culture. Night Fever, lifted from the Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack, was their mainstream homage to the disco scene, and became an instant success on its release in 1978. A year later, in response to the UK’s nascent club circuit, PRS launched its first ever DJ licence.

PRS underwent massive internal structural change during the seventies, initiated in 1975 by the then little known composer, publisher and solicitor Trevor Lyttleton. His calls for an overhaul of the society’s voting system and member structure eventually ended up in the House of Commons, with disparaging allegations about both sides littering the front pages of the national press. All this activity encouraged PRS to update its constitution and it began publishing yearbooks and news bulletins to keep members ‘in the picture’.

Outside the organisation, the British economy was in freefall. From 1975 to 1980 retail prices doubled and the whole music industry had to constantly readjust its costings, licenses and royalty rates to deal with the crisis. Punk was stirring in the suburbs and cities around Britain, offering a narrative for disaffected youngsters who felt outside the political system and underserved by the bloated prog-rock that was consuming the mainstream.

Never Gonna Give You Up by Matt Aitken, Mike Stock and Pete Waterman
Published by Mike Stock Publishing, Sony/ATV and Matt Aitken Music Publishing
For many, the songwriting/production force of Stock, Aitken and Waterman came to define the eighties. Their hedonistic hit factory fired an overwhelming arsenal of ‘candyfloss’ pop to the top of the charts, spawning a glut of one hit wonders and global superstars.

They scored more than 100 UK top 40 hits (including 13 number ones), sold 40 million records and earned an estimated £60m with their winning formula of Hi-NRG beats, prosthetic basslines and lovelorn lyrics. Together, the trio rode out the era of the mullet with a brass neck, a canny sense of rhythm and a killer business instinct. Pete later reflected in The Guardian: ‘What we did [was] candyfloss ... but there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t eat too much of it and you brush your teeth afterwards.’

Their acts – including Bananarama, Sinitta, Kylie Minogue and Dead or Alive - enjoyed ubiquitous success, but it was a young chap from Lancashire who stole the decade’s ‘most performed’ crown. Rick Astley’s first proper release, Never Gonna Give You Up, became the highest-selling UK single of 1987 and topped the charts in 24 other countries.

The track made an unexpected comeback in 2007 when internet users began baiting each other to watch the YouTube video by emailing disguised links in emails – the ‘rickrolling’ phenomenon.

Back at PRS, the Berners Street headquarters was groaning under the sheer weight of indexed handwritten cards and data sheets detailing compositions and their performances. By the end of the decade the old computer system, installed decades before, had become obsolete and work started on an ambitious new IT project.

In the world of television, big things were afoot. Channel 4 launched in 1982 and by the end of the decade, satellite TV companies opened out the small screen. The record companies weren’t resting on their laurels either. At the start of the decade Sony and Phillips introduced a format that would usher in a new boom time for the business - the compact disc.

Love is All Around by Reg Presley
(Universal/Dick James Music)
Wet Wet Wet’s 1994 cover of Reg Presley’s Love is All Around stayed at number one in the UK Singles Chart for 15 weeks, propelled by its place in the blockbuster British romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. It had originally been a top five hit in 1967 for Reg’s band The Troggs, who also reaped success with psych-rock tracks I Can’t Control Myself and With a Girl Like You. But their biggest hit was their cover of Chip Taylor’s Wild Thing, which went on to influence a whole generation of garage and punk bands from Buzzcocks to Iggy Pop, REM and The Ramones.

In 1995 Reg picked up three Ivor Novello Awards for Love is All Around – including the coveted gong for Most Performed Work. He reportedly used his royalties to fund research on subjects from alien spacecraft and lost civilisations to crop circles. His findings were revealed in his 2002 conspiracy theory book Wild Things They Don’t Tell Us.

PRS and MCPS joined forces in 1998 to become the MCPS-PRS Alliance. A year later, US teenager Shawn Fanning launched his illegal file-sharing service Napster. By letting friends swap mp3 tracks, Napster made the casual copying and exchanging of music among friends and family into a global, automated process that threatened the music industry, whose business model was in no way geared, or even prepared, for the digital online age. From day one Napster brought a seismic shift in music consumption that the industry has been adapting to ever since.


Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Rob Davis and Cathy Dennis
Published by Universal/MCA Music
Released in September 2001, Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head went on to become the Australian performer’s biggest hit and one of this century’s most enduring and influential songs. It was written by Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis during their first ever songwriting session together, organised on the advice of music mogul Simon Fuller.

Rob was running a drum loop through Cubase and strumming an acoustic guitar while Cathy came up with the main vocal riff. The demo was done and dusted within three hours. Simon heard the track and decided it wasn’t right for S Club 7, the group he was managing at the time. But when Kylie’s A&R Jamie Nelson heard the track he jumped on it. Kylie’s recording became the first song in UK radio history to have 3,000 radio plays in a single week and it hit number one in every European country bar Finland. The song has since sold more than four million copies and won three Ivor Novello Awards.

In the wider industry, the record companies, publishers and collecting societies were still reeling from the launch of Napster, which had caught everyone off guard on its launch in 1999. Litigation came from all sides and the court battles dragged on and on – way after Napster’s creators and its millions of users had ditched the service.

It wasn’t until late 2002 that the record companies launched their first digital music services: Sony and Universal’s PressPlay and Warner, BMG and EMI’s MusicNet. Meanwhile iTunes Music Store didn’t open for business in the US until April 2003.

Back at PRS, the society was gearing up for the future. The PRS Foundation was launched at the very start of the decade to support the creation of new music across all genres. A year later, MCPS and PRS became the first collecting societies to distribute iTunes royalties to their members. Four years on, they formed the International Copyright Enterprise (ICE) with Swedish collecting society STIM to simplify both national and pan-European music licensing and processing. In 2009, the society signed 12 pan-European licensing deals with Amazon, iTunes, Napster (now legal), Nokia and Spotify.

Rolling in the Deep by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
Published by EMI Music Publishing/Universal Music Publishing
We’re not even halfway through the decade but there is one song that looks set to define the era. Adele had already become a UK icon for the songwriting nous and belting vocals on debut album 19 (released 2008) but it was her 2011 set 21, and Rolling in the Deep in particular, that brought international success above and beyond what most industry experts could have ever predicted.

A definitive break-up song, Adele went into the studio with songwriter-producer Paul Epworth soon after splitting with her partner. According to Paul, they recorded the demo in just over a day. They went with that initial recording for the album as it carried maximum emotional welly. The cut won the pair numerous Grammy and Ivor Novello Awards and was played more times on US radio and television in 2011 than any other song in the BMI repertoire.

Back in the UK, PRS for Music announced that Adele’s music was being tracked in 170 countries - the most regions the society has ever worked in – helped by 150 global agreements and an international network that now represents more than two million music creators. In 2013, the society celebrated the joining of its 100,000th member and announced that, in an industry now worth £3.9bn, it had collected £630.8m for its members in 2012.

In the wider industry, take-up of streaming services including Spotify and Deezer have continued to grow, while income from downloads showed signs of slowing. Piracy is still a rampant problem for the global music business and here in the UK music industry body BPI had sent Google more than 50 million take-down requests by the end of 2013, which called for copyright-infringing content removed from the search engine’s results pages.

Read our news story on the launch of the PRS for Music centenary and visit the centenary website.