Want to know what the odds were for the big Christmas Number One race in 1992? Well sadly the only clippings I can turn up are quoting prices as of Tuesday December 15th, which was during the week of sales covered by this chart. Nonetheless, it shows you where the thinking was at the time, especially as before these days of chart leaks and midweek updates, nobody really knew from one weekend to the next just how well certain singles were doing. The market lined up as follows:
- 1/7 Whitney Houston
- 3/1 Rod Stewart
- 4/1 Michael Jackson
- 16/1 Freddie Mercury
- 16/1 The Shamen
- 16/1 WWF Superstars
- 16/1 Madonna
- 33/1 Diana Ross
Yes, by then it really was all over bar the shouting… and the final countdown of the Christmas Top 10.
The flap and publicity over the release of Madonna’s infamous “Sex” book in which she posed clunge out in a variety of artistic poses did rather overshadow the fact that it came out alongside her ‘Erotica’ album, a work which stands tall as one of her most consistent and impressively produced works of her first decade in music. After the blissed out house beats of the title track (A Number 3 hit back in October) came this rather more conventional sounding club track which even today ranks as a critics choice of one of her best releases of the 1990s. Shep Pettibone produced the track, just as he had done with global smash hit ‘Vogue’ back in 1990 and in a nice nod at what might otherwise have been its own derivative nature, ‘Deeper and Deeper’ briefly turns into the earlier hit towards the end. For all its popular brilliance, the chart performance of the track caused a rather uncharacteristic wobble in Madonna’s fortunes, peaking at Number 6 it became her first single to fail to reach the Top 5 since ‘The Look Of Love’ five years earlier.
After releasing what was possibly one of the best records of his career with a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’ in early 1990, the only surprise was it took over two years before Rod Stewart dipped into his extensive songbook again. His second Waits cover version was a track taken from his album of reinterpretations ‘Lead Vocalist’ – a reworking of a song originally performed by the American singer for his 1976 album ‘Small Change’. Just as on ‘Downtown Train’ this was a perfect example of singer and song working in perfect harmony, Rod imbuing the gin-soaked track with the perfect amount of regret and longing. Although not the most immediate of hit singles (or so it seemed), ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ became his first single ever to smash straight into the Top 10 upon first release, peaking eventually at Number 6 a fortnight before Christmas. Not quite the Christmas Number One it was touted to be, but a fine addition to the holiday soundtrack.
What a horrible term. Once upon a time sequences of different songs were called “a medley”, in the early years of pop all performed live by the singer but as production techniques developed, cut together in the studio by creative producers. At some point in the 1980s though this term didn’t seem, well, EUROPEAN enough so a selection of songs jammed together in the studio became “megamix”, the kind of expression which can only conjure up images of naff continental DJs bellowing it over badly balanced microphones. Come the 1990s and the Greatest Hits megamix was seen as a great way of rounding up an artist’s career with minimal promotional effort required save to issue club DJs with extended versions of the same.
After the seasonal chart of 1991 paid host to both the ‘Joseph Mega-Remix’ and the ‘Jungle Book Megamix’, Christmas 1992 saw two of these badly made abominations clogging up the bestsellers list. The smallest of these was an energetic romp through some of the early highlights of Gloria Estefan’s career as old Miami Sound Machine tracks such as ‘Bad Boy’, ‘Dr Beat’, ‘Conga’ and ‘1-2-3’ were all paraded one by one. Longtime MSM re-mixer Pablo Flores collaborated with Florida DJ Javier Garza for the ‘Miami Hit Mix’ which took the curious step of removing much of the original production of the composite tracks in order to sequence them with a consistent set of dance beats. Bizarrely released to promote Estefan’s then-current Greatest Hits collection (which naturally featured all the original versions), the rather messy track did at least register a presence in the Top 10, with festive double a-side ‘Christmas Through Your Eyes’ strangely all but ignored by radio and record buying public alike – although that is at least the one track from this single which we can Spotify.
7: Boney M – Megamix
As to what this was doing here, heaven only knows – there was no new Boney M hits material in the shops at the time. A “megamix” of Boney M classics had raced up continental charts in the summer of 1988 but had never been granted a release on these shores (although something called the “Summer Megamix” did creep into the bottom of the Top 100 in September 1989). I’m unsure as to whether the rendition which finally graced us with its presence in the shops three years later was the same production or a brand new sequence, but suffice it to say they both saw all the usual Boney M classics given a quick spin in sequence, their choruses bolted together like bleeding chunks of Eurodisco. Hitting Number 7 with perfect timing for Christmas, the track did at the very least give Boney M their first Top 10 hit since ‘Hooray Hooray Its A Holi-Holiday’ was a Top 3 hit way back in 1979. To date it remains their last.
6: WWF Superstars – Slam Jam
Perhaps inevitably this was a Simon Cowell idea. He documents in his autobiography how he marvelled at the ability of the World Wrestling Federation to sell out Wembley stadium in mere minutes when they staged their Summerslam event on these shores in the summer of 1992. With Vince McMahon having long made good use of the links between his performers and music (remember Cyndi Lauper and the rock n wrestling connection?) he needed little persuading to buy into the idea of a concept album featuring the vocal talents of some of the Federation’s then stars. Fortunately the alarming prospect of Randy Savage or the Ultimate Warrior crooning away was never to be realised. Instead the WWF musical project consisted of a series of Mike Stock and Pete Waterman created club tracks, all loosely themed around the shouted utterances of a series of wrestling stars. Proving once more than Simon Cowell can turn the naffest of ideas into pop music-ruining commercial success, the opening single ‘Slam Jam’ did indeed slam its way into the charts, forever leaving a legacy of the likes of the British Bulldog, Bret Hitman Hart and The Undertaker featuring on a Top 10 single. ‘Wrestlemania The Album’ would ultimately come out in April 1993. Copies presumably in a charity shop somewhere near you, but nowhere near Spotify, naturally.
Ah, proper music at last. The apparent furore over the Shamen’s Number One single ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ from September 1992 seems to be one of those legends which grows ever larger in the telling. Yes, the almost blatant drug references in the track caused a few furrowed eyebrows and airplay restriction, but nothing like the pitchforks at dawn outrage that clip shows ever since would have you believe took place. Nevertheless you get the feeling that subsequent single ‘Boss Drum’ (title track from their then current album) was raced into the shops out of sequence in an attempt to get some non-controversial Shamen product into the shops and onto the radio. It did appear though that this played havoc with plans to make ‘Phorever People’ their end of year offering, with the net result that the two singles arrived in the shops just six weeks apart from each other. ‘Phorever People’ arrived on the charts on December 7th at Number 7, just as its suddenly deleted predecessor dived down to the depths of the Top 75. Both tracks in truth would have made fine Christmas hits, but it was left to this single to be the standard bearer, a track featuring both Mr C and singer Jhelisa Anderson in equal measure and the sound of a group at what was arguably their commercial and creative peak.
If you divide Take That’s career up into stages, then this is the final act of their pre-superstar years. Commercial breakthrough was a long time coming for the soon to be famous fivesome. A desperate cover of ‘It Only Takes A Minute’ had finally taken them into the Top 10, but a bizarre choice of follow-up in the form of the Robbie Williams fronted ‘I Found Heaven’ later that summer had dumped them back into mid-table. ‘A Million Love Songs’ may well have returned them to the upper reaches and given us our first clue that Gary Barlow was a songwriter of considerable merit but the truth of the matter was the initial hype of how they were saviours of pop was starting to wear off. Their debut album had appeared in the shops to little fanfare and the truth of the matter was that Take That needed to do something special to get the world on their side.
So they released this single. Yes, it was another cover, but their take on Barry Manilow’s 1975 Number 6 hit turned out to be an inspired move. Taking its cue from Donna Summer’s own disco version from the late 70s, this was an upbeat party smash hit – featuring an all too rare vocal duel between Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams who had now discovered his true singing voice and was ready to take a bow as the most charismatic performer of the group. ‘Could It Be Magic’ ultimately peaked at Number 3 to become their highest charting hit thus far. One year later and they missed out on Christmas Number One by the skin of their teeth.
A distinctly old-fashioned soul ballad by two upcoming American stars becoming a worldwide smash hit single yet only a minor chart entry in its home country? It happened. Despite virtually the whole of the developed world falling in love with ‘Would I Lie To You’, it made a brief Top 20 appearance in America, peaking at a mere Number 13. No matter, with this one single Charles & Eddie became global and award winning superstars. Just like ‘End Of The Road’ before it, ‘Would I Lie To You’ had an all too rare wander up the singles chart on its way to Number One, albeit moving in a rapid 34-14-2-1 arc which suggested it was only ever going to peak at the very top. Number One for a fortnight in mid-November, the single simply refused to go away and indeed this was the third of what would end up a four week stretch locked in place at Number 3, the single spending ten weeks in total in the Top 10. To all intents and purposes however the duo became one hit wonders in this country, follow-up single ‘NYC’ peaking at Number 33 early the following year and none of their other singles ever climbing higher than Number 29. When Charles Pettigrew died of cancer at the age of 37 in 2001, I don’t think I remember even reading an obituary.
When Michael Jackson’s long-awaited ‘Dangerous’ album was released at the tail end of 1991, much was made of the rather startling way it was sequenced. With all the Bill Bottrell- and Teddy Riley- produced swingbeat tracks banded together on Side 1 in a never-ending mush, the arrival of ‘Heal The World’ at the end of them hit you like an overdose of Sweetex. One of the more notable tracks on the album, ‘Heal The World’ prompted endless jokes about whether Jacko was going to sue himself for plagiarism, given that it was more or less a chord for chord copy of his work on the famous USA For Africa single ‘We Are The World’. I remember the Q magazine review of the platter musing that the two tracks would be banned from getting married in most countries as they were simply too closely related. Heck, they even performed a medley of the two tracks at his 2009 memorial service!
Composition issues aside, it was always inevitable that the sweet gospel ballad was going to be turned into a hit, and so with immaculate timing it was unleashed as Michael Jackson’s Christmas offering. Despite being the fifth single to be released from ‘Dangerous’ it became one of its biggest, charging to Number 2 and holding firm there for an impressive five weeks – denied the chance of becoming Number One (whether for Christmas or the new year) by a superstar of equal stature above him. Three years later of course he would have his revenge and become Christmas Number One for real, but for now ‘Heal The World’ simply fell agonisingly and frustratingly short. I can’t help but wonder though, had Quincy Jones still had a hand in matters, would he have had the courage to tell Jackson just what a blatant copy of his earlier work it was and suggest it be reworked to be a touch more original?
Typical, just typical. Four days of waxing lyrical about semi-forgotten pop records and we climax with one of the world’s biggest selling singles of all time and thus a record which really needs no introduction. Let’s instead deal with the elephant in the room. Whitney’s cover of the old Dolly Parton song and which formed the centrepiece of her performance in “The Bodyguard” and in its own way helped it become the biggest film of the moment when it finally hit the cinemas just after the Christmas holiday. It’s not actually very good is it?
Call me hard hearted. Call me a musical ignoramus if you must, but ‘I Will Always Love You’ falls a long way short of being the most moving track on the soundtrack album, never mind the best record of Whitney’s career. It is under-melodied, lazily and rather shoddily produced and designed more to show off her prowess as a diva rather than actually being sung to the melody lines printed on the sheet music. I’m sure plenty of people get chills down their spine as her vocals re-enter after the bridge, but I can’t hear it without wincing as she howls and hoots and strips what was once a rather sweet C&W ballad of every last shred of emotion.
As has been noted by many people before me, the classic irony of ‘I Will Always Love You’ is that it stands tall as the most misinterpreted song of all time. People get married to it and I’ve presented love song shows on the radio where people phone up wanting it to become the soundtrack to a romantic proposal. Yet this all ignores the central point of the lyrics – the couple in the song are breaking up. She’s waving him goodbye with a tear and the knowledge that she will never be quite good enough for the man in question. Just try pointing that out to people though, just try.
To the facts then, and you could have asked as many experts as you wanted when it was first released -there was initially no way at all that Whitney was going to be Christmas Number One with this single. When the market was first formed, I believe prices of 33-1 were on offer. It had simply been released too soon, hitting the shops at the start of November. No matter than it had moved to Number One at the end of the month in its fourth week on the chart, there was little chance it had the legs to remain there until the end of the following one. Yet it did. This was in fact its fourth week at Number One, marking the first time any record had topped the chart in November and stayed there until the end of the year since ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ and the original issue of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the 1970s. In fact ‘I Will Always Love You’ would go on to duplicate another feat of those celebrated predecessors, remaining on top of the charts until well into February to eventually clock up ten weeks at the top of the charts.
In my original write-up of the 1992 Christmas Number One, I supplied some sales statistics which I’d presumably cheerfully lifted from Music Week that week. By the end of December 1992 it had sold a million copies in the UK, 4.5 million around the world, was Number One in nine different countries and was the second biggest selling single in American chart history (an accolade it holds to this day as the second biggest physical single of all time across the pond). Fast forward to 2011 and its total sales stand somewhere in the region of 1.37 million copies, enough to make it one of the 40 biggest sellers of all time in this country. I may hate every last note of it, but it is still justly one of the most famous records of the decade.
As I may have mentioned a few times, this particular chart came out during the very first weeks of my weekly British chart commentaries, posted at the time to the rec.music.misc newsgroup via a rather flaky email gateway from university. Although the Google archive for this period can be patchy, the original posting still exists in full – but be warned, intense analysis of each song is somewhat thin on the ground. I think I was in something of a hurry that day.
So as Bruno signs off and hands over to Pete Tong with the Essential Selection (opening track: ‘The Sun Rising’ as tonight’s Revival Selection) we can reflect on a Christmas chart which may not quite be as stuffed full of classics as some over the years, but did at least contain its fair share of cheerful novelties, popular club hits, legendary names and naturally one of the biggest singles of all time by a female artist. For that reason alone it has a worthy place in our memories, and I hope it stirred a few of your own whilst reading this.
Happy Christmas everyone, see you on the other side.