Also in the news in December 1995 – well quite a bit actually. Jack Charlton quit as manager of the Republic Of Ireland following their failure to qualify for Euro 96, Conservative MP David Ashby lost a libel claim against the Sunday Times which had accused him of sharing a bed with a male friend during an Indian holiday (truly they were very different times), two people who threatened to release mice in the Harrods food hall were charged with blackmail, the government majority shrank to just 3, and new Labour leader Tony Blair announced that if elected he would revamp Prime Ministers Question Time and introduced elected city mayors. Plus the European Community finally announced they had worked out what their new currency would be called –The Euro.
On the Christmas chart we’ve reached the Top 10, and in all the time I’ve been writing these retrospectives I don’t think there has ever been one quite so crammed with classics.
10: Eternal – I Am Blessed
First to Eternal and their ever-shrinking lineup – and you thought the Destiny’s Child personnel history was confusing. Having ditched Louise Nurding/Redknapp in the spring of 1995, Dennis Ingoldsby’s finest creation pressed ahead with the release of their second album as a trio. The title track from ‘Power Of A Woman’ became its first hit, going Top 5 in late October and it was followed for the holiday season by ‘I Am Blessed’ As a Top 10 hit for Christmas it is hard to knock the track too much but opinions by and large are divided between those who compare the powerful ballad and the strength of the trio’s voices with the best of Whitney Houston and people like me who find it just the wrong side of whiny and annoying. Never mind, this was nailed on popular UK originated R&B from the group who, whatever their complicated and rather catty history together, made some of the best pop and soul records of the 1990s. I still retain rather a soft spot for them. But maybe not this track so much.
9: Robson and Jerome – I Believe/Up On The Roof
Unlikely performance of old song is received with raptures by the public. Label impressario signs the singer(s) up and sells millions of records with the simple concept of old songs remade in a Granny friendly style. Sound familiar? Well guess what, Simon Cowell didn’t need to search too hard for the inspiration of how to package Susan Boyle. 14 years earlier he had done it all before with two TV actors.
Robson Green and Jerome Flynn were at the start of 1995 starring in the TV series “Soldier Soldier” and were part of a storyline which culminated in the duo having to team up and perform ‘Unchained Melody’. After the episode aired, ITV were inundated with requests from people wanting to buy the song, but at the time such 360-degree thinking was alien to most broadcasters and they had nothing of that nature prepared.
Opinion differs depending on who you talk to just who it was that suggested that the pair might make a useful set of recording stars, but it was a certain BMG records A&R man called Simon Cowell who pursued the pair relentlessly and eventually overcame their reluctance to ink a deal and release the record for real. With immaculate timing their double single featuring ‘Unchained Melody’ on one side and ‘White Cliffs Of Dover’ on the other was released just in time for the 50th anniversary of VE day. When the early sales figures came in, jaws hit the floor all round. Robson and Jerome sold 314,000 copies in their first week, a further 460,000 in the second when production was ramped up to meet demand and another 320,000 in week 3 to land themselves one of the fastest million sellers of all time. By the time it had finished the single had sold a staggering 1.8million copies, enough to place it amongst the ten biggest sellers of all time, a place it retains to this day (it is currently in ninth place). It was all the more extraordinary considering that their take on ‘Unchained Melody’ was a more or less note for note remake of the Righteous Brothers version which had famously made Number One four and half years earlier.
Needless to say an album of similarly smoothly done covers followed and with an end of year follow up single prepared for release. Their second offering was another double header, coupling the old Drifters song ‘Up On The Roof’ with a new version of ‘I Believe’, thus introducing a whole new generation for the very first time to the song that famously spent more weeks at Number One than any other thanks to Frankie Laine a full 40 years earlier. Another instant Number One ensued, with their second single also racing neatly past a million sales, this track currently the 72nd biggest seller of all time. When the end of year tally was in, Robson and Jerome had both the first and the third biggest sellers of the year. The duo released one further album in 1996 before feeling they had milked the concept as far as they could and returned to acting. Meanwhile the man who signed them, released their record and (some say) saved his job by earning millions for his bosses had made a very important discovery. Nobody ever went broke heading straight down the middle of the road.
8: The Beatles – Free As A Bird
Truly it was an historic era. 1989 – Berlin wall comes down. 1990 – German reunification. 1995 – Beatles reunite. The occasion that saw McCartney, Starr and Harrison beaming from the cover of Q Magazine proclaiming “We love each other!” was the release of Anthology, a TV series documenting their career from start to finish and which was accompanied by three new albums of rarities, alternate versions and esoterica. As a final bit of fairy dust, the surviving trio recorded their first new songs for 25 years, all thanks to some old tapes supplied by Yoko Ono which featured some unfinished songs by the one man who wasn’t able to participate in the reunion. Lennon’s 1977 tape of the half-written ‘Free As A Bird’ had been in widespread circulation as a bootleg for some time, but with Jeff Lynne on production duties the group refined it and polished it for release as their grand reunion single.
Needless to say anticipation for the new track was intense, and the prospect that upon release it would shoot to the top of the charts and give them a record breaking 18th Number One hit was nothing less than mouth-watering. When premiered by Radio One at the crack of dawn on November 20th 1995 the reaction was ever so slightly muted. Whilst nobody could really say just what they were expecting from this first Beatles record in a generation, I don’t think anyone was quite anticipating what they heard. ‘Free As A Bird’ was nothing like the Beatles of the 1960s, but then again it wasn’t recorded by them and in truth needed to be judged on those terms. Released at the start of December, the single flew out of the shops and charted… at Number 2, beaten to the top ironically by the man who owned the rights to all their previous material. Unable to go down in history as a famous new Number One, ‘Free As A Bird’ now exists as a curiosity and along with its follow-up ‘Real Love’ just a minor modern day footnote in the story of one of the most famous pop groups of all time.
Online streaming? Well of course not, this is The Beatles and they don’t do digital, not yet. Thankfully the video, featuring an almost frame by frame reference to just about any Beatles track you care to name, is in wide circulation.
7: Oasis – Wonderwall
Easily one of the Gallagher brothers’ finest tracks and one of their most famous moments on record, this Number 2 hit taken from the seminal ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ album requires little introduction here. The song penned by Noel as a tribute to his then girlfriend Meg Matthews may well have wound up stuck at Number 2 behind Robson and Jerome but it still finished 1995 with over 650,000 copies sold as the 10th biggest seller of the year and in the years since has shifted enough units to become a million seller and at the time of writing the 67th biggest seller of all time in the UK.
‘Wonderwall’ is also worth noting as possibly one of the best CD singles of all time, dating from an era when the chart rules allowed up to four different tracks on chart eligible releases. Hence following the title track we have the uplifting Blues stomp ‘Round Are Way’, recorded for the soundtrack of the film “A Life Less Ordinary” and in its own right a classic Oasis track. Studio warmup ‘Swamp Song’ you can take or leave, but it is notable for a cameo appearance from Paul Weller who plays guitar and harmonica on the instrumental. The CD then finishes with ‘The Masterplan’, consistently voted one of the best b-sides of all time, one of the best Oasis songs of all time and notoriously the source of several rows amongst the bad over just why it hadn’t wound up on the album and was just a b-side. “I don’t write shit songs bro” was Noel’s elegant putdown of this criticism – or at least so the legend has it. Either way, Liam to this day regrets that he didn’t sing on the song and Noel himself admits his best song ever was the hit single that never happened.
I’d love to share as many of the tracks as possible here, but Oasis tracks are some of the more notorious absences from the online streaming services although luckily ‘Wonderwall’ sneaks under the wire on We7 and is linked to above (no sign of it on Spotify sadly). Fortunately a video was made for ‘The Masterplan’ in 2006 to promote the ‘Stop The Clocks’ compilation and although just about every music fan reading this surely knows the song already it would be wrong to pass up the chance to include it here.
6: Coolio featuring LV – Gangsta’s Paradise
There are just a handful of rap records amongst the list of the UK’s all time biggest sellers, and this just happens to be one of them. Recorded for the soundtrack of the Michelle Pfeiffer film ‘Dangerous Minds’, this hypnotic fusion of gangsta rap and the melody from an old Stevie Wonder song somehow transcended all previous genre boundaries and became a huge mainstream hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ was only Number One for a fortnight, but this is one of those occasions when appearances can be deceiving. Despite being toppled by the Robson and Jerome record, the Coolio track simply locked in place and kept on selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week. By the end of the year it had edged past a million copies – the first ever rap single to do so incidentally – and was the year’s second biggest seller behind ‘Unchained Melody’. Accounts differ as to exactly how many copies it has sold to date (there has been some downward adjustment of some mid-90s figures for reasons that the OCC has never quite explained) but even taking the lowest figures quoted, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is still on the cusp of being one of the 50 biggest hits of all time. That’s a measure of just how big that track was.
5: Everything But The Girl – Missing
Everything But The Girl were never known for their hitmaking consistency. After their cover of ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ went Top 3 in 1988 it took them four years to have a Top 40 follow-up, this time another cover with their take on ‘Love Is Strange’ which crept to Number 13. Their 1994 album ‘Amplified Heart’ was supposed to be a grand comeback for the duo following Ben Watt’s extended period of hospitalisation a year earlier, yet as per usual the singles they released were by and large ignored – in particular the track ‘MIssing’ which limped to Number 69 in the summer of that year.
When the track picked up a modest amount of American radio airplay, it was Watt himself who wondered if there was potential for remixing it as a club tune. He had deliberately written it with what he described as a “laid back house groove” and so handed a copy to Todd Terry and asked him to do his worst. The Todd Terry version of ‘Missing’ turned out to be a masterpiece, removing the tinkling acoustic guitar and replacing it with a chugging four-on-the-floor beat over which Tracey Thorn’s heartbroken vocals floated as if on a carpet of air. The single shot up the charts, well, pretty much everywhere actually. A Number 3 hit in the UK, it remained in the Top 10 for 14 weeks during the winter of 1995 and at the same time raced up the US charts, hitting Number 2 there and setting new longevity records for Hot 100 runs in the process. Without really intending to, Everything But The Girl had a whole new career and a whole new direction although the pair would spend the rest of the decade trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle of their most famous hit. Seeing as this chart seems to be all about massive sellers, lets note that ‘Missing’ sold over 600,000 copies during 1995, was the 9th biggest seller of the year and has to date shifted around 910,000 copies.
4: Bjork – It’s Oh So Quiet (7Digital link)
When Bjork’s latest album ‘Post’ was released in the summer of 1995, due attention was paid to standout tracks such as ‘Army Of Me’ and ‘Possibly Maybe’ as you might reasonably expect, but for the most part the most genuine heard turning moment of the long player was its fourth track. A brand new take on an obscure Betty Hutton track called ‘Blow A Fuse’, ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ was a near irresistible combination of big band bombast and Bjork’s own unique way of turning squeaks and squeals into an integral part of her singing style. An obvious choice for single release, it was cleverly held off until the end of the year and as a direct result wound up far and away the biggest worldwide smash hit of the Icelandic star’s career. A popular airplay choice to this day, particularly around Christmas time owing to its association with this particular festive chart, it is possible you may have grown to hate it over the years but as a genuine straight down the middle pop classic it is actually pretty hard to ignore – unless that is you are searching for it on We7, sorry. Spotify has the song complete.
3: Boyzone – Father And Son
By the end of 1995 Boyzone were just over a year into their chart career and had clocked up a respectable number of Top 10 hit singles, their hits ranging from the appealing (‘So Good’) to the downright awful (‘Key To My Life’). In the teen star stakes though they were still very much on the second rung, with both Take That and East 17 owning the hearts and minds of both the teen market and the pop mainstream. Signs that the tide was about to turn came with the release of their fourth single in November 1995. ‘Father And Son’ had originally been written by Cat Stevens in the 1970s and had over the years become one his most famous recordings. The Boyzone version was an odd arrangement to say the least however. Whilst the Stevens original had been sung in two distinct registers to reflect the verses sung by the father and son of the title, Bozyone effectively disregarded the entire concept of the song and presented it as a straightforward pop track, Ronan Keating singing the entire song in the same tone and with the rest of the group doing their best harmonising on the chorus. It possibly wasn’t the most respectable way to treat a classic, but very few people seemed to care. ‘Father And Son’ raced up the Top 10 and spent most of the holiday period shuttling between positions 2 and 3 on the chart, never really in contention for Number One but maybe more importantly establishing Boyzone once and for all as a chart force to be reckoned with. Three months later their biggest rivals Take That decided to call it a day, leaving the way clear for Louis Walsh’s most famous creation to steal away the hearts and minds of the little girl population of Europe and embark on a run of hits that would see them well into the next decade.
There was even a final footnote to the story to come almost a decade later. When Yusuf “Cat Stevens” Islam decided that Allah was happy for him to make music again, his first chart appearance came in collaboration with Ronan Keating on a brand new version of ‘Father And Son’, restoring the track to its original cross-generation concept and in the process hitting Number 2 for Christmas exactly nine years after Boyzone exposed the song to a whole new generation.
2: Mike Flowers Pops – Wonderwall
A busker with a 50p wig tipped to be Christmas Number One? This calls for Kate Thornton to explain it all:
Yes it is true, once upon a time there was a neck and neck race for Christmas Number One, with the outsider being a record that was released for a giggle at the last minute but which was backed by a popular grassroots campaign. Except in this case the bland cheesy song was the popular challenger and the song written and performed by a major American talent was the one they were trying to topple. Funny that.
The Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra had been performing their own tongue in cheek homage to sixties easy listening for a couple of years with little mainstream attention. That was until their leader was approached by the producer of the Kevin Greening show on Radio One to re-record some of the hits of 1995 in a Burt Bacharach style for a regular feature every weekend. The second song recorded for the project was a wild romp through the then current Oasis hit ‘Wonderwall’ and after hearing it on his colleague’s show in mid November, breakfast host Chris Evans begged for a copy of the tape, playing the track on his own show and announcing gleefully that he’d tracked down the original version of ‘Wonderwall’ that had been forgotten for years.
From that moment on a bandwagon began to roll. Rights to the track were quickly snapped up and a released date for the single was planned. Time was tight, but the track made it into the shops for the start of Christmas week and there was wild speculation that the unthinkable could happen – a global superstar could be beaten to the top by a cheesy piss take.
Make no mistake this was a race and a half, and best of all was based on genuine popular demand and public affection for the record in question. Part of the problem was however that the late turnaround for the single meant that production of the record was always going to struggle to meet demand. I remember wandering around record shops after finishing work that Friday and noting vast tracts of empty shelves where the Mike Flowers single should have been. It had sold out everywhere, but the question was had it sold out too soon? History records the answer, as sadly the dream could not be realised and Mike Flowers Pops could only make Number 2 for Christmas, at the very least matching the peak of the original Oasis version which as we have already seen was still in the Top 10 and which received its own sales boost on the back of the publicity for the Mike Flowers version.
In the new year it was speculated that a whole new craze for easy listening style music was set to take over but that swiftly died down when ‘My Unknown Love’ by Flowers’ own protégé Count Indigo bombed despite copious airplay. Two more Mike Flowers Pops singles followed, notably a cover of ‘Light My Fire’ which made the Top 30 in June 1996 but after that he and his musicians retreated back to the live circuit before finally calling it a day at the end of the 90s.
1: Michael Jackson – Earth Song
Mike Flowers’ failure meant that the way was clear for no less a legend than Michael Jackson to score a very famous Christmas Number One hit. Even by his own lofty standards ‘Earth Song’ was a smash hit. Lifted from his part Greatest Hits part proper album ‘History’ (home also to ‘You Are Not Alone’ which had topped the charts the previous September), ‘Earth Song’ shot straight to Number One when released at the end of November 1995 and pretty much took up residency there. WIth every passing week speculation grew – could it be that the single would sustain its sales long enough to become Christmas Number One? It was a particularly pertinent question – the festive chart would be its fourth week at the top.
Sales figures for ‘Earth Song’ speak for themselves. 116,000 copies in week 1, 149,000 in week 2, 150,000 in week 3 and finally a massive 262,000 in Christmas week itself to secure the festive crown, even in the teeth of Mike Flowers shaped opposition. What may also have helped is a major health scare the star suffered a week before the event, some reports even suggesting at one stage he was at death’s door and raising the spectre of a huge superstar passing away whilst he was already at Number One. Needless to say that day would actually come a decade and a half later. For the moment the huge sale meant that Earth Song raced past a million sales in the new year, giving Michael Jackson his biggest ever hit both in terms of sales and indeed chart performance as Earth Song went on to notch up a massive six weeks at the top. It was the song he performed at the Brit Awards ceremony a couple of months later, debuting what came to be known as the “Jesus routine” and prompting the famous stage invasion by Jarvis Cocker that is now an integral part of the history of the event.
So there you have it, the Christmas chart of 1995 and one which even without its own watershed significance for me can surely rank as one of the greatest ever with the Top 10 alone featuring no less than four million selling singles, one more that came close, and a fair hatful of acknowledged classics.
All that remains to do is to finish up the tape which has Mark Goodier reeling off a list of potential hits for the new year. With the benefit of hindsight we can note that whilst ‘Imitation Of Life’ by Billie Ray Martin, ‘Little Britain’ by Dreadzone, ‘Lump’ by Presidents Of The USA, ‘Not So Manic Now’ by Dubstar and ‘Oh Father’ by Madonna did indeed become hits of varying magnitude in the new year, ‘Life’ by Blair never did become the Top 40 hit it was expected to be. ‘Have Fun Go Mad’ was their far better song anyway.
Coming up next on Radio One, “A Very Merry Pet Shop Boys” as Neil and Chris share with us their favourite records of 1995. Sadly the tape runs out at that point, so all I can do is invite you to enjoy the We7 and Spotify playlists of every one of the available songs we’ve featured over the last week although a strike rate of just 30 out of the 40 songs is a shockingly poor strike rate.
See you in the new year.