Bastille's 'Pompeii' Erupts: From the U.K. to Alternative to Top 40

Jesse Jenkins

During the past 10 months, London quartet Bastille's boisterous debut single, "Pompeii," has grown from compelling alternative track to verified pop hit. Fueled by a 27-24 move on Billboard's Adult Top 40 airplay chart and a 33-29 jump on Mainstream Top 40, the song breaks into the Hot 100's top 40 for the first time this week, with a 48-38 leap. The song's sales have grown in each of the past seven weeks as well: In the week ending Dec. 1, it sold 36,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, bringing total sales since its late-February release to 511,000.

The song's success is particularly surprising considering its morbid inspiration. Singer Dan Smith wrote the track while thinking about the titular ancient Roman town, where a deadly volcano eruption famously left behind ash-covered corpses frozen mid-pose.

"I was working a crap job and thinking about those images of those people in Pompeii-my life was also in stasis," Smith says after performing on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Dec. 3. "I imagined a conversation between two people frozen in the same position forever. I quite like the idea that people have been hearing it on the radio and are at festivals jumping around, but actually it's a song about two old corpses talking."

The song first made a mark in the band's home country, where it reached No. 2 on the Official Songs chart in March. In June, the song bowed on Billboard's Alternative tally, eventually hitting No. 1 for four weeks beginning Oct. 26. (This week it holds steady at No. 2.)

The song's strongest supporter has been alternative WLUM Milwaukee, which has played it 1,247 times through Dec. 1, according to Nielsen BDS. Music director Michelle Rutkowski discovered the band on YouTube before it signed with Virgin, and hipped PD Jacent Jackson, who added "Pompeii" to rotation as soon as the label deal went through. Jackson says the single is "powerful and immediate," but thinks it-and Bastille-will have a long life. "When songs break multiformat, it either kills them or makes them stronger," he says. "I expect Bastille to have a career beyond 'Pompeii.' If they're managed and imaged correctly, they could be another success story like Imagine Dragons."

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Patrick Davis, PD at mainstream top 40 KHKS-FM in Dallas-which has played "Pompeii" 234 times-says he added the song after watching it grow at alternative sister station KDGE. "The pop rhythmic side is not as robust as we'd like it to be-we need to have some edgy records added to the format, so sometimes we're leaning on alternative records to do that. This record allows us to be edgy for a mainstream station."

"Pompeii" was first packaged as part of an EP, The Haunt, which debuted at No. 1 on the Heatseekers chart in June and has sold 27,000 copies. It was then included on the band's debut LP, Bad Blood, which hit U.S. stores on Sept. 3 after a March release in the United Kingdom. The album has sold 119,000 U.S. copies.

Virgin Records GM Ashley Burns says the label is focused on pushing "Pompeii" as far as it can go, but doesn't want it overshadowing the band. "We want people to get to know the band beyond the one song. We'll do that through as many pieces of strategic content as we can put out without crowding ourselves."

Virgin is currently choosing a second single, which Burns says will likely go to alternative radio in February. It has plenty of choices-the album has produced seven U.K. singles. Bastille will play several holiday radio shows this month before returning to tour the United States extensively next year, including key festivals. A deluxe edition of the album, All This Bad Blood, will arrive Jan. 14, featuring several U.K. B-sides, covers and two new tracks that Smith says offer an indication of Bastille's next project. The band has already written "two-thirds" of its follow-up album, but the focus remains on its debut-and justly so.

"It's surreal coming to the States," Smith says. "It's hard to get your head around fans in somewhere like Salt Lake City telling you they like songs I wrote in my bedroom back in London. I never imagined these were songs that would ever reach anyone, let alone that far."