So here it is then, the ten biggest selling singles for Christmas 1988 and amongst them a number which won’t actually feature in the forthcoming book thanks to the chap below and his presence preventing many from reaching their eventual chart peaks until the first weeks of 1988. Or does this kind of spoil the big reveal?
10: Phil Collins – Two Hearts
It seems almost quaint looking back, but the release of the film ‘Buster’ in the autumn of 1988 was mired in controversy. The reason for the furore was the movie’s alleged glamorisation of the Great Train Robbery and the glossing over of the fact that the driver was so badly beaten he never worked again and died a few years later. In fairness all of this was to overlook the fact that the film itself was a morality tale at heart with the ill-gotten gains causing Buster Edwards nothing but unhappiness and resulting in his returning home to face the music. Nonetheless the fuss led to Prince Charles being officially uninvited to the planned royal premiere, lest he become embroiled in the row.
The soundtrack of the film was by contrast praised to the hilt and was responsible for two singles on the Christmas chart. The first of these was Phil Collins’ own Motown-flavoured romp, the follow up to his cover of A Groovy Kind Of Love which had topped the chart back in September. Still fondly remembered as one of his best singles, Two Hearts is also notable for the innovative video that saw Phil playing all four members of a 60s-era beat combo on a fictional TV show. Little seen but useful to set the scene is the introduction from a cameoing Tony Blackburn who asks “Phil” why the group are the Four Pound Notes. “Well,” he said, “there used to be five of us”.
9: Four Tops – Loco In Acapulco
Beating out Phil however is a genuine set of sixties superstars. The Four Tops had already seen chart action in 1988, a remix of Reach Out I’ll Be There having climbed to Number 11 in the summer. Taken from their well-received comeback album Indestructible as well as the ‘Buster’ soundtrack, Loco In Acapulco was written by both Phil Collins and original Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier. A smash hit worldwide (except oddly in the US), the track wound up as the Four Tops’ first Top 10 single here since When She Was My Girl six years earlier. Less well known is the fact that this was very nearly a posthumous chart placing, and all thanks to a late night recording session in London earlier in the week which meant all four members of the group missed their flight back to the USA. But for a failed alarm call, the most famous vocal group of their era might have all perished on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
8: Bros – Cat Among The Pigeons/Silent Night
Before X Factor came along it was an almost universal truth that the bookies’ initial favourite for Christmas Number One never made it. Case in point: the Bros Christmas single for 1988 which came at the end of a year when they had swept all before them to become the most screamed at (if not necessarily the most universally loved) pop act of their day. An utterly shameless attempt to capture the seasonal crown, the single combined intense ballad Cat Among The Pigeons (a thinly veiled reference to the Goss parents marital problems) with a brand new recording featuring Matt Goss letting his best choirboy tones loose on the old hymn Silent Night and which thus ensured that the Christmas Top 10 would feature two spiritually themed singles. An instant Number 2 when first released, the single simply could not sustain its initial momentum and so by the seasonal chart itself had faded to this Number 8 placing.
7: Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance
“Wot’s ‘e like anyway?”. The debut hit single for Don Cherry’s daughter, famous at the time for the fact she was heavily pregnant with her daughter Tyson at the time, proudly cavorting on Top Of The Pops with her bump, presumably making her unborn child the shows youngest ever performer to that date. Buffalo Stance was produced in bubbly good humour by Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass and introduced the public at large to many contemporary elements of South London street slang. The phrase “Buffalo Stance” I’m told refers to the style of fashion photography popularised by Jamie J Morgan during the late 80s. The track began life as Looking Good (Diving With The Wild Bunch) a b-side by Morgan-McVey, a short-lived group featuring Morgan and Cherry’s future husband (and father of the bump) Cameron McVey. 1988 was possibly one of the most exciting periods ever to be a dance music fan in the UK, the House explosion on both sides of the Atlantic spawning new talent who would go on to become big names in music and its influences creeping into the mainstream at every turn. Buffalo Stance was a glorious example of House being wrapped around a good old fashioned pop record, an all-time enduring classic being the result. Its ultimate destiny was to be a Top 3 placing in the new year, the single still on its way up the charts at Christmas.
6: Inner City – Good Life
Keeping up the Stateside end of clubland was this equally famous single, the second Inner City hit (following Big Fun) and once again featuring the distinctive tones of Paris Grey on lead vocals. The all but forgotten hero of the piece is British DJ Neil Rushton whose work scouting tracks for a compilation album he was curating led him directly to Inner City producer Kevin Saunderson and a track which he and Grey had created a year earlier only to see languish in obscurity. Once Big Fun had become the huge Europe-wide hit it was destined to be, Inner City were well and truly off and running. Good Life was once more a track still on its way up here, eventually to peak at Number 4 the week after Christmas.
5: Status Quo – Burning Bridges (On And Off And On Again)
Even as late as 1988 Status Quo could still bring the magic. Riding high after the success of 1986 album In The Army Now, The Quo returned just over a year later with their 18th album Ain’t Complaining. They had kicked off their account in 1988 with the fun romp of the title track but later singles had stalled and it had taken a charity-sponsored reworking of Rockin’ All Over The World (re-entitled Running All Over The World for Sport Relief purposes) to bring them back to respectable chart positions. Their crowning moment was however to be this single, one which proudly took its place as one of their most famous hit singles. The track’s origins as a heartfelt tale of divorce and failing relationships is all but lost these days, partly thanks to its rewriting (and subsequent chart-topping fate) as a Manchester United anthem in 1994 but there are few tracks more likely to provoke a bout of enthusiastic drunken dancing at a party than Burning Bridges. Little-remarked upon at the time was that the song was based in its entirety around an old English folk melody, the track’s central riff essentially a reworking of Darby Kelly, beloved of folk revivalists the nation over.
4: Angry Anderson – Suddenly
So go on then. Where were you on that night in November 1988 when British audiences finally saw the most iconic Neighbours moment of all – the much anticipated wedding of Scott and Charlene? There is no doubt that to the millions of people hooked on the Aussie soap during its imperial late 80s might the wedding of the teenage couple was the TV event of the year. Accompanying the nuptials was a tender love song recorded by the most unlikely of acts, and one that was inevitably released as a tie-in and lodged itself near the summit of the UK charts. Angry Anderson was best known to rock fans as the shaven-headed frontman of Australian rock band Rose Tattoo. Suddenly was written as a tribute to his wife and although originally intended as a Rose Tattoo track it wound up launching his solo career at home and became his one and only chart single in this country. Smash Hits asked him at the time of its charting whether he’d cried at the wedding scenes. “Yes,” he replied, “my song was playing on the telly”. Sadly for him it ain’t playing on Spotify and yes, this isn’t THE video for the track. But it really is the only one that matters. *blub*
3: Erasure – Crackers International EP
Far and away the best album the duo ever recorded, Erasure’s The Innocents album represented their absolute commercial peak was crammed from start to finish with potential hit singles. After smashes with Ship Of Fools, Chains Of Love and A Little Respect they had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when selecting a fourth single with anything from Phantom Bride to Yahoo or even their epic cover of River Deep Mountain High having Top 10 status written all over them. However the duo were on such a creative roll that they rounded the year off with a special present of their own – a four track EP of totally brand new material which when released at the end 1988 became one of their biggest selling singles to that date. Lead track on Crackers International was the infectious Stop which sounded like it was written as a textbook example of how to write an electropop smash but which for all that was as fresh and exciting as anything they had recorded before or since. All but forgotten it appears are the other three tracks, so for the record they were: The Hardest Part – a typical Erasure mellow track that serves as a counterpoint to the frantic nature of Stop, Knocking On Your Door – a Hi-NRG disco track with more than a handful of Acid House influences and She Won’t be Home – a melancholic Christmas song, the only seasonally themed song on the EP. Locked in place here at Number 3 for Christmas the single would eventually peak at Number 2 in the new year, equalling for now their highest charting single ever.
2: Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan – Especially For You
So let’s figure this out. Their respective characters of Scott and Charlene had just married in one of the highest rated television nuptials of the year, they had both Jason “Scott” Donovan and Kylie “Charlene” Minogue on their label roster, and yet it still didn’t occur to Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and in particular Pete Waterman to combine the two on a duet until it became clear that public demand was all but forcing them to make it happen. I think Pete Waterman’s view was that as Jason Donovan had only released one single at that point there was the potential to derail his career by teaming him up with the already stellar Kylie Minogue but history records it was probably the best move they ever made. Like many SAW songs, it was written on the back of a napkin in ten minutes and indeed was recorded in such a hurry that Matt Aitken travelled to Melbourne where Neighbours was being shot to record the vocals of the pair in a single afternoon, armed with little more than a piano melody and a click track. Every single note of Especially For You was constructed after the fact in the studio but it sounds for all the world like a lovingly crafted masterpiece, the love song now something of a karaoke classic and a reference point for just about every teenager of the time.
From a sales perspective it was nothing short of phenomenal. Released in the last week of November, the single straight shot to Number 2 on its first week, stuck behind a certain Mr C Richard and then refused to budge. The two singles would spend the next month locked in place in an epic stalemate. In an age when midweek leaks of the chart were practically unknown, the tension each week was all but unbearable. Surely it was Kylie and Jason’s destiny to advance to Number One in time for Christmas, but every week they were denied. Even in the minutes approaching the big reveal of the Christmas Number One, plenty were ready to believe that the crown was theirs to take at the death. The single was indeed to make Number One, but not until the week after Christmas when incredibly despite having spent a month in the Top 3 already it lodged itself at Number One for an impressive three weeks and was a hit single well into the first months of 1989. In an age when it was all but assumed that the days of the million selling single were gone forever, ‘Especially For You’ came incredibly close, selling a reported 982,000 copies, its final 18,000 eventually topped up in the 21st century during the download era with the result that the single was finally certified a million seller in mid-2014.
1: Cliff Richard – Mistletoe And Wine
The concept of “Cliff’s Christmas single” did not really exist in 1988, despite his occasional forays into seasonal releases – most notably 1982 Number 11 hit Little Town which was essentially the festive hymn O Little Town Of Bethlehem set to a brand new melody. Yet the single which was released to promote a new Greatest Hits album Private Collection turned out to be one of the defining moments of the latter half of his career and firmly established the idea of an end of year release as a significant part of his promotional arsenal. The song Mistletoe And Wine had been written over a decade earlier as a component part of a stage musical “Scraps”, intended as a re-telling of the seasonal story of The Little Match Girl. A TV adaptation of the musical had been screened at Christmas 1986, the song performed by Twiggy in her role as a whore and with the lyrics intended to drip with irony. Extraordinarily the entire drama is up on YouTube at the time of writing and the song and melody can be seen in their original context.
Having spent years attempting to find a mainstream star to record Mistletoe And Wine which he was convinced had hit single potential, composer Keith Strachan sent a demo of the track to Cliff Richard who responded enthusiastically, his only wish was that for the lyrics to be adjusted to bring out a stronger Christian message.
Recorded during the summer of 1988, the new version of Mistletoe And Wine was the very definition of a seasonal epic with a lavish orchestral backing, the singer himself multi-tracked to provide his own backing choir and with the added touch of choirboy James Rainbird singing a soprano refrain at the end. In comparison to some of the nailed on pop records he had been releasing over the course of the previous few years this was possibly the geekiest and uncoolest Cliff Richard single for some time, the most unabashedly religious single he had released for years. Yet it turned out to be utterly irresistible. Released in late November, the single landed on the singles chart at Number 7 in its first week on release. One week later it was Number One, his second chart-topper of the 1980s following his 1986 comedy remake of Living Doll and his first ‘proper’ single to do so since We Don’t Talk Anymore a full nine years earlier.
The only question now was whether the single could hang on for an entire month and become the 1988 Christmas Number One. It seemed a lot to ask, especially given the seemingly unstoppable presence of the Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan duet Especially For You which had entered the chart at Number 2 the same week that Mistletoe And Wine had climbed to Number One. Yet this was to reckon without the sheer level of demand for the Cliff Richard single which as Christmas drew nearer began to sell in quantities no other record had managed all year. Attempting to nail down exact sales figures for singles of this era is fraught with danger, but it is clear that Mistletoe And Wine was selling upwards of 120,000 copies per week, figures that even the biggest Number One hits of the year had only managed at the very peak of their popularity. In Christmas week itself the single smashed through the 200,000 barrier to become Christmas Number One in some style and perhaps most significantly the biggest seller of 1988 overall, edging past Yazz’s The Only Way Its Up which had topped out at just over half a million copies and until Cliff came along seemed set to end up with the crown of the year’s overall Number One.
Mistletoe And Wine helped to haul its parent album Private Collection 1979-1988 to the top of the album chart as well, ensuring that Cliff Richard would spend Christmas celebrating a sensational chart double. Perhaps just as importantly it established the idea of a Christmastime Cliff Richard release as a viable promotional tactic, one he would use to varying levels of success over the course of the following decade. The track isn’t his biggest selling single ever, that honour remaining with We Don’t Talk Anymore, but it is justifiably one of his most famous. Cliff’s biggest and most iconic release of the decade and in a recording career which has now lasted his entire lifetime easily one of its defining moments.
That indeed brings us to the end of this wander through the Christmas chart of 1988. It would be remiss to end without congratulating Paul Ranklin of Bishop Auckland, County Durham who was the winner of the Top 3 prediction game on the Top 40 show that week, his reward for guessing that it would be exactly the same as the previous week being a copy of every single one of the Top 40 records of the week. If you read this at any point Paul, please let us know if you still have the collection. If that frantic run through these 40 singles has whetted your appetite, watch out for the complete story of the year coming to a bookshelf near you in the next few months. In the meantime I’ll leave you with the pack shot of the original cassettes of this show and for those watching in a non-rubbish browser the complete Spotify playlist of as many of these featured hits as possible.