May 29

One Step To 2002 – Part Four

I did say that would happen didn’t I? You post something even remotely disparaging about a Darren Hayes record and some intensely passionate fan is straight down your throat with outrage. Made me smile anyway.

We are long overdue in wrapping this up, so time to press on and finish this chart of May 2002. If nothing else the public deserves to know what the title of the posts are cryptically referring to.

10: Russell Watson and Faye Tozer – Someone Like You

We start with a genuine out of nowhere oddity, but one which as you might imagine has something of a story behind it. Pop legends Steps had dissolved with an announcement on Boxing Day 2001, the break up of the group prompted by the decision of H and Claire (of whom more later) to strike out on their own. At the time the bitterest comments about the defection came from Faye Tozer who threw words such as “betrayal” around with wild abandon in the press. You suspect she was only silenced when offers of solo deals began to be waved in the faces of many of the former members of the group.

Her one and only moment of post-Steps chart glory however came thanks to this one-off collaboration, born out of a chance encounter between herself and mum-friendly opera star Russell Watson during a Proms In The Park concert the previous summer. Watson had grazed the bottom end of the charts in previous years thanks to records for the 1999 World Cup squad and duet with Sean Ryder of all people on ‘Barcelona’ – his signature track thanks to its association with his performances prior to Manchester United’s Champions League victories that year. Until this moment however he had never landed himself a proper mainstream pop hit single.

‘Someone Like You’ had originally appeared on Watson’s 2001 debut album ‘The Voice’ with Cleopatra Higgins performing the English language co-vocal duties whilst Watson himself crooned the Italian lyrics, but she was replaced for this re-recorded single by the former Steps star who turned in what is truth be told a masterful performance. It seems almost crazy looking back, but somehow the single clicked quite magically, Tozer doing what I described as the time as her best Celine Dion impression and helping to turn what is at the end of the day a slice of easy listening schmaltz into a single which was there in the Top 10 on merit. I’m sure nobody but the most enthusiastic Russell Watson fans will have heard it since its release, particularly as it was a non-album single, but feel free to check it out on the playlists. You may actually be pleasantly surprised.

9: Tweet – Oops (Oh My)

Not quite a one hit wonder (she charted twice more after this one), this single is nonetheless pretty much the only hit for which Tweet is remembered in the UK charts. A slinky R&B song that would perhaps otherwise have little to recommend it, ‘Oops (Oh My)’ was notorious for its slightly daring lyrics which pretty much implied the singer was in the process of bringing herself off. With a straight face Tweet always insisted that it was so much more than a song about wanking, but I suspect very few people were totally convinced. Her one other claim to fame is being the first person to record the track ‘Boogie 2Nite’ which was initially slated to be a single for her in late 2002 only for the release to be cancelled. It would otherwise have languished on her debut album ‘Southern Hummingbird’ before being turned into a pop hit by Booty Luv in late 2006.

8: Nickelback – How You Remind Me

A track that rightly or wrongly needs little in the way of introduction from me, with some justification one of the better known rock singles of the early part of the last decade. Demand for ‘How You Remind Me’ was such that the track had arrived on the UK charts as an import single some weeks before its initial release in March 2002. Made fully available, the track bucked all manner of prevailing chart trends by settling in for a Top 10 run which would be considered exceptional even in the then forthcoming download era. This Number 8 placing was in fact its final week as a Top 10 hit, the end of a run that had seen ‘How You Remind Me’ rocket up and down the table to peak at Number 4 on two separate occasions during an 11 week run. But for the similarly ubiquitous ‘Rockstar’ it would be their biggest and biggest selling hit single ever and it is maybe little surprise that it took them five and a half years to even begin to live up to it.

7: ‘NSync – Girlfriend

It is a strange and almost fitting irony that ‘NSync’s biggest ever UK hit single turned out to be their swansong as a group together, their final single and last ever chart entry making an easy Number 2 the moment it was released. The third hit single from their 2001 album ‘Celebrity’, the promotion of the album was fraught with tension as the rest of the group resented what was seen as the pushing of Justin Timberlake to the fore on lead vocals and promotional work, almost as if he was being prepped in advance for the solo career that was inevitably going to follow. Indeed ‘Girlfriend’ is almost interchangeable with just about any Timberlake record from the next four years, a tight as could be four minutes of funk-pop helmed by The Neptunes in what was rapidly becoming their signature style and a world away from the bubbly Max Martin penned pop that had previously been ‘NSync’s musical trademark. I was always down on the single for that reason as to be it was nothing like the ‘NSync of old, but as its chart peak proves it was absolutely the right record for the group to be making, one which dragged their sound and most importantly that of their soon to be superstar “lead” singer kicking and screaming into a new decade and further musical relevance. In short, see this as the first Timberlake single and judge its quality on those merits – it is unlikely to disappoint on that basis.

6: Sugababes – Freak Like Me

My favourite kind of hit record this – one with a genuine 22 carat gold story behind it.

One of the best pop records of the year started out having nothing to do with the group who eventually were to record it. It was in the summer of 2001 that a bootleg mash up of Gary Numan’s 1979 smash hit ‘Are Friends Electric’ and Adina Howard’s 1995 track ‘Freak Like Me’ began circulating. Credited to “Girls On Top” the mash-up (entitled at the time ‘We Don’t Give A Damn About Are Friends’) was the work of a then little known Richard X, a man who would subsequently make the whole “one song to the tune of another” his signature style. The rights to the track were swiftly snapped up by Island Records who set about attempting to clear it for release.

Except they couldn’t, for Adina Howard (or people connected with her) dug their heels in and refused to allow her vocals to be used on what they saw as an unauthorised remix. Never mind that despite worldwide success in 1995 the original version of ‘Freak Like Me’ had crawled to a mere Number 33 in the UK and was more known thanks to a two-step cover version which had charted in 2000, the record was not to come out with Ms Howard’s vocals intact and that was the end of it. Island records had the rights perfect hit record idea but lacked the right act to record it.

Enter then the Sugababes who were themselves at the time something of a lost cause. after making an initial splash in late 2000 with their debut single ‘Overload’ the all-girl trio had seen their subsequent singles struggle badly in the charts (something which to this day I attribute to some awful production that made them sound whiny and grating rather than tuneful) and to make matters worse they had all fallen out spectacularly whilst on a promotional tour and had not for the last time seen one of their members quit. Although Siobahn had been replaced with Heidi in fairly short order their label London records had lost patience and declined their option for a second Sugababes album. To their eternal credit their management refused to lose hope and secured a deal with Island records – a label who just happened to have the perfect hit record in the wings and needed singers to help them over a tricky copyright issue.

So it was that the Gary Numan-soundtracked version of ‘Freak Like Me’ became a Sugababes single and upon release an instant smash hit Number One record. Looking back it is hard to convey just what a sensation this was as a concept. Yes, a mash-up record in the shape of ‘Toca’s Miracle’ had been a Number One hit two years earlier but for an act to cover an already famous song with an entirely new backing track attached was something of a first. ‘Freak Like Me’ has been somewhat eclipsed since due to the fact that the Sugababes have subsequently released original material which was even better than this, but it is a nice reminder to hear again the work of creative genius that rescued the biggest pop act of the decade from the dumper and maybe as well turned one of the most famous R&B songs of the 1990s into a 2000s Number One hit.

5: Nigel & Marvin – Follow Da Leader

A rare and dare I suggest almost unique example of Reaction Calypso making the UK charts. Whilst I don’t think anyone has ever actually made a soca track that wasn’t a hard to resist command to get up and dance like there is no tomorrow, real life brothers Nigel and Marvin Lewis made such records their stock in trade from the 1990s onwards, their tracks a series of enthusiastically shouted instructions to the willing partygoers who would generally lap them up at beachside discos.

‘Follow Da Leader’ was first released by the pair back in 1997 and despite a stripped to the bone Ringbang production had spread to the holiday resorts and carnival seasons of Europe , this leading to the pair securing support slots with acts such as Shaggy, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill. The track’s long overdue assault on the charts came thanks to a rather inspired club remix of the single which removed virtually all of their original production and replaced it instead with the thundering rave beats of ‘I Wanna Be U’, a Top 10 hit a year earlier for Chocolate Puma. All of a sudden ‘Follow Da Leader’ was transformed from a track that you may have vaguely heard at the Notting Hill carnival into a bone fide club smash  – and a Top 5 hit to boot.

That said, the single release was not without some issues. Those buying the CD single will have felt rather short-changed thanks to the lead “radio mix” which dramatically shortened the track to less than three minutes but perhaps most crucially played down the call and response concept of the original in favour of making it little more than a club record based around relentless repetition of the chorus. Talk about missing the point. The power of ‘Follow Da Leader’ was that it was a record which began gently with some hand waving and built to a frenzied crescendo of jumping, waving and screaming. It is essentially one of the greatest party records ever made, something that was all but lost in the version which was played on the Top 40 and which appeared on Now 52 a few months later. Fortunately the CD single also contained the slightly longer “video mix” which as the title suggests was the same version used on the video which was in heavy rotation on music channels during the spring of 2002 and which properly respected the original structure of the track. With Spotify bizarrely only having the little heard these days original version in its catalogue, the best way to remember it is via this video. Just make sure you have a rum based drink to hand afterwards, for the track will inspire in you an almost impossible to satisfy craving.

4: S Club Juniors – One Step Closer

To think once upon a time the minipops were once considered a bad idea. With the S Club 7 franchise steamrollering pop with apparently no stopping, just about any side project Simon Fuller suggested was grabbed with wild enthusiasm. The S Club Juniors were presumably originally meant to be nothing more than a sight gag, the adult band members having their own mini me equivalents who could join them on stage as support at Wembley Arena at the climax of their S Club Carnival tour in 2001. Somehow it became more than that, and via a series of auditons shown Popstars-style on children’s television, the eight pre-teen singers and dancers who were to form the S Club Juniors were recruited ready for a pop career of their own. ‘One Step Closer’ was their first and most famous hit single, a thundering disco-inspired pop record that was never going to do anything other than charge towards the top of the charts, the single denied by a whisker the chance to hit Number One and so instead was restricted to a none too shabby Number 2 placing.

When the original S Clubbers broke up a year or so later, the juniors were promoted to full status, becoming in the process the S Club 8 for a further album before their label lost interest. Despite the string of hit singles that were to follow this one, I always felt somewhat uncomfortable even trying to appreciate their records. There was no logic to it really, and just about everything to do with the group was done with the purest motives, it was just that there was something quite wrong about a bunch of 12 and 13 year olds dancing around singing what were at times some quite adult lyrics – the “boy you keep me up all night” line from their second single ‘Automatic High’ being a natural case in point. Looking over everything I ever wrote about the S Club Juniors, one theme kept coming to the fore. “This is a fantastic pop record”, I would say, “but the whole thing just feels wrong. I can’t sit and appreciate the dance routines in the video without wanting to alert the Daily Mail about myself”.

Sad that concerns about the age of the group should get in the way of appreciating the records, but what can you do? Forget who is singing it though and ‘One Step Closer’ is a magnificently produced and immaculately performed pop record and enough to inspire anyone strictly over the age of 16 to hold on to their lovin’ with unabashed enthusiasm. As for the fate of the former S Club Juniors, Frankie and Rochelle now remain famous as adults as the core members of The Saturdays whilst Stacey… well….

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3: H & Claire – DJ

It was their fault! Truly it was. Whilst the whole Steps project was surely coming to the end of its natural life, it was the unlikely pairing of Ian ‘H’ Watkins and Claire Richards who tendered their resignations and swiftly inked their own deal, clearly feeling there was more mileage in a permanently smiling pop duo making ever more cheesy bubbly pop. As a statement of intent ‘DJ’ wasn’t the worst record in the world, even if at times it did appear to be little more than a step by step (no pun intended) retread of ‘Don’t Stop Movin’. Nonetheless whilst watching the duo strut their stuff on Top Of The Pops it was impossible to escape the nagging feeling that maybe they were just a little too old to be bouncing up and down to such kid-friendly pop and that the more considered adult direction apparently being pursued by their former bandmate was a more sensible way forward. Still, with both this and ‘Someone Like You’ arriving in the stores in the same week it meant that this chart was a mini battle of the Steps camps, with the cheesy ones winning out in assured style. Sadly for H & Claire continuing superstardom was not to be theirs, and despite two more Top 10 singles during 2002 their album ‘Another You Another Me’ was a colossal bomb and they retreated to count their royalties – as you suspect they probably should have done in the first place.

2: Holly Valance – Kiss Kiss

“I’m not actually naked in the video you know” protested Holly Valance at every opportunity she had, thus shattering the freeze-frame dreams of a thousand adolescents across the nation and neatly undermining the biggest talking point of her debut pop release. The latest in a seemingly never ending line of Neighbours stars wanting to try their hand at a musical career, the erstwhile Flick Scully made her chart debut thanks to an English language version of a rather famous continental hit. Turkish star Tarkan first recorded Kiss Kiss (back then entitled ‘Simank’) in 1997 and its popular blend of traditional Ottoman rhythms with club beats had surely grazed the ears of many a holidaymaker in the intervening period. By a strange coincidence TV star Graham Norton had been using the original track in the nightly trailers for his Channel 4 chat show for several months before Holly Valance’s release, further cementing the song in the minds of a large audience. Thus when ‘Kiss Kiss’ debuted on the radio it was fair to say that many people were familiar with the idea already, perhaps ensuring that the single could hardly fail. Helpful too was the ready made celebrity of the glamorous Australian star and yes, that video in which she writhed around in what were quickly revealed to be flesh coloured pants whilst lighting effects conveyed the impression that were were seeing far more of Ms Valance’s flesh that was generally the case on tea time television. ‘Kiss Kiss’ soared to Number One in the week of its release, turning Holly Valance into a major star, although her single chart career was vanishingly briefly, the hits drying up in late 2003 when her second album stiffed..

1: Ronan Keating – If Tomorrow Never Comes

Ah, topical irony ahoy. Back when he was just a wide-eyed and innocent former member of Boyzone, Ronan Keating was on a roll when it came to his solo career. His debut album ‘Ronan’ had spawned four smash hit singles with both ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ and ‘Life Is A Rollercoaster’ charging to Number One in short order. After a short break during 2001 during which time a failed attempt was made to turn him into an American star, he returned to British shores to plot his next move. Stateside failure aside, there was little reason to presume his second album would not repeat the success of the first, and so it proved with this introductory track carving an almost obligatory path to the top of the charts. Although unfamiliar to British audiences, ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ was an already established standard in other markets, one of Garth Brooks’ first ever hit singles dating back from 1989. Mining the back catalogue of C&W stars for potential pop hits was to prove an easy route to success for many of Louis Walsh’s charges over the next few years although it is not unreasonable to bemoan the utter blandness with which the future X Factor judge seemed to want to drown pop music. At the time one could only step back and applaud the almost perfect marketing machine and the attendant fan power that propelled Ronan Keating back to Number One with ease, the tear-jerking video which accompanied the track the perfect way to ensure just about every female heart aged 15-45 was captured. Nonetheless looking back at this chart as a whole, it seems almost offensive that a parade of some quite impressive pop tracks from a golden age of chart music should be headed up for this week at least by an MOR aberration, a comfortably easy listening record that had virtually zero relevance to prevailing musical trends or the tastes of the people who made up the usual singles buying demographic.

Musically it is hard to fault Ronan Keating tracks such as this, but artistically it falls a long way short of perfection. Plus I guess it doesn’t help it is now hard to picture him with his trousers on isn’t it?

So we finally got there, that was the chart of May 12th 2010 in all its glory. For those coming late to the party there are Spotify and We7 playlists online, each featuring 34 of the 40 songs featured. Now please excuse me, I’m off to continue stalking and frightening former child pop stars.

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May 24

One Step To 2002 – Part Three

Outside the world of music in May 2002, the papers were full of this kind of stuff:

This was the weekend of the Hatfield rail crash, when a train derailed on approach to the station and mounted the platform, coming to rest wedged underneath the station canopy. Just prior to departing for the Far East, David and Victoria Beckham staged a star-studded charity “Gucci and Sushi” party on their back lawn with the England star turning up dressed as a samurai warrior. Ahead of the World Cup, many football league clubs were staring at their balance sheets in dismay after ITV Digital collapsed into Administration and ceased paying for its TV rights and meanwhile TV viewers on Teesside besieged the BBC with calls after the revived Auf Wiedersehen Pet portrayed the dismantling of the famous River Tees transporter bridge thanks to some special effects that were so realistic people were worried it was happening for real.

On the chart, we’ve reached the Top 20 – time to hit the play button once more.

20: Darren Hayes – Insatiable

This was the first of what would turn out to be a long string of solo hits for the former Savage Garden front man, the Australian star having abandoned his home nation to set up shop permanently in the UK by this point. ‘Insatiable’ turned out to be the biggest of his solo years, his only single to make the Top 10 with successive releases never making it past the Top 20. Part of the problem was I think that Hayes was very much an acquired taste as a solo artist. Hearing ‘Insatiable’ again only serves to hammer home the reason why, his high pitched vocals manage to irritate just as much as they appealed. Somehow whilst these silky smooth tones worked for the hushed whisper required to deliver Savage Garden classics such as ‘I Want You’, on his solo work his little girl voice just came across as risible. Due to that, ‘Insatiable’ is a horrible, painful record to listen to and features towards the end a key change that is so clunky and so out of nowhere it is hard to believe the producer of the track (no less a figure than Walter Afanasieff you will note) let it out of the studio in that state.

I think this record coloured by view of Hayes’ solo career for the next five years as I could never bring myself to say anything too constructive about the records, dismissing them mostly as lightweight pieces of fluff that were destined for short chart lives – as indeed they all were. This was a continual source of distress to his die-hard fans who would bombard me with angst-ridden emails about what a hero and what a towering talent he was. I just never really got him, and ‘Insatiable’ is a perfect reminder of why.

19: Gareth Gates – Unchained Melody

When we talked about the Will Young single lower down the chart, it was interesting to note the views of one commentator who pointed out that ‘Evergreen’ was in fact “the song that Gareth Gates was supposed to sing”. Gates you see was actually the anointed one throughout the climax of the original Pop Idol, the contestant who was supposed to walk away with the prize at the end.

Gates’ appeal was obvious from the outset, a cherub-faced former choirboy stricken with a chronic stutter that meant he could barely even tell the judging panel his own name at his first audition. Give him a song to sing however and he was pitch perfect – effectively Pop Idol’s first ever sob story and one which propelled him almost by default to the final and what was presumed at the time to be his triumphant claiming of the crown. More than any other contestant on the show, he was a true teen Pop Idol in waiting. Even after his shock defeat at the hands of WIll Young, it was inevitable that Gates would be signed up for a singing career in fairly short order. His first single was a track that a tyro Simon Cowell boldly predicted would sell him a million copies if he were ever to release it – ‘Unchained Melody’.

No matter that the song had already been Number One twice in the 1990s, the second time at the hands of Robson and Jerome and with the guiding hand of one S.Cowell behind it. ‘Unchained Melody’ was released just three weeks after the Will Young single with Gates neatly replacing his rival at the top of the charts. When the final sales tallies for the year were added up, Will Young was at Number One and Gareth Gates was at Number 2, both singles selling well over a million copies and more than double poor Enrique Iglesias in third place. Indeed Will’s single is to this day the 12th biggest selling single of all time in this country whilst Gareth Gates at the time was Number 38 on the all time list.

History would ultimately record that Will Young was the rightful winner, his chart career last far longer than that of Gareth Gates whose appeal proved all too fleeting. Then again maybe Will Young was a proper singing star – Gates really was little more than the titular Pop Idol who bankability lasted only as long as his need for an acne wash.

A word finally on Unchained Melody, as with this rendition it set two important benchmarks of its own – charting in more different versions than any other song ever, and to date the only song in chart history to have been taken to to the top of the charts by four different acts.

18: Bellefire – All I Want Is You

Louis Walsh may have been the undisputed king of Irish boy bands at the turn of the century, but let’s be honest he stunk the place out when it came to replicating that success with females. Bellefire weren’t originally intended to be an all-girl group but the story is they came out when all the prospective male auditionees for a proposed mixed sex group turned out to be duds, so Walsh and his backers went with the girls instead. Bellefire’s first hit single was the dreamy ‘Perfect Bliss’ which staggered to Number 18 in July 2001 but it took over nine months for their second to appear. Attempting to go for a tap-in hit, the girls were handed the song that U2 had taken to the Top 10 thirteen years earlier, the track originally appearing on the ‘Rattle And Hum’ album. It wasn’t that the Bellefire version was a bad record, far from it, but it was clear that whilst the notion of sappy balladry sung by good looking boys was a winning formula for the likes of Boyzone and Westlife, people had little reason to care about the work of fresh faced Irish maidens – at least not outside their native country where their single were far more successful. The supposedly guaranteed hit entered the charts here and fell away quickly before anyone had really noticed it was around. It would be two years before Bellefire reappeared on the charts, reduced now to a trio after having been touted around any label that would have them.

Oddly they are so little remembered that the only tracks of theirs available for streaming are those which featured on their debut single. Hence we’re raiding YouTube for the only opportunity to hear them in action.

17: Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott featuring Eve – 4 My People

A single that marked the very peak of Missy Elliott’s powers as a chart force, one which kicked off a run of four straight Top 10 singles that she has so far yet to better in her long and respected chart career. The third single to be lifted from her 2001 album ‘Miss E… So Addictive, the track was co-penned by a certain Tim Moseley who at that time was busy trying to persuade people to call him “Timbaland” in a change of image that was to work wonders in the years to come. ‘4 My People’ features a guest vocal from Eve in what was surprisingly the only time the two women collaborated on a hit record.

16: Mary J Blige – No More Drama

Every time Mary J Blige releases a record I am forced to note that for all her long career and critically acclaimed work, most people would be hard pressed to name one of her songs, let along sing along to one. ‘No More Drama’ gave her an all too rare Top 10 hit when it made Number 9 in early May 2002 and was the title track from her fifth album which had been released the previous summer. The track is based around a sample from ‘Nadia’s Theme’, a reference which would be lost on most British listeners but which is famous Stateside as the theme to the TV soap “The Young And The Restless”, a fact which is directly referenced in the lyrics of the song. The song’s most recent mainstream use came towards the end of 2008 when Rachel Hylton performed it on an X Factor results show in what turned out to be a successful attempt to avoid elimination. I noted at the time that although a powerful song that had been a Top 10 hit, most people would struggle to even place it.

15: Hundred Reasons – Silver

Their name makes them sound like they should be another Belgian trance act, but Hundred Reasons were (and I guess indeed still are despite a lack of recorded material in the past few years) a British alternative rock act from Surrey. ‘Silver’ was their third Top 40 hit single and heralded the release of their debut album ‘Ideas Above Our Station’ which came out a couple of weeks later. Fate would ensure it turned out to be their biggest, progressing no further than this Number 15 entry point. Not a bad track by any means, but a reflection of its enduring appeal is the fact that hearing it whilst playing the tape to write this piece was the first time I’d heard it since it made the charts.

14: X Press 2 featuring David Byrne – Lazy

Dance trio X Press 2 had been making and releasing records since the early 1990s with little to show for it in terms of crossover mainstream success, that was until they recruited Talking Heads frontman David Byrne to provide the laconic lead vocals on the chilled out house track ‘Lazy’. One of the biggest dance hits of the year, the track soared to Number 2 instantly upon release in late April and to this day is something of a classic of its kind. The single is nothing less than a mini masterpiece, essentially a Talking Heads track with a house piano added, Byrne’s narrative delivery allowed the space to breathe and giving him the highest charting single of his own career – a full 17 years since he was previously a Top 10 artist with ‘Road To Nowhere’.

13: Shakedown – At Night

An early contender for an Ibiza floor-filler, ‘At Night’ was the work of two Swiss brothers Stephane and Sebastien Kohler who branded themselves Shakedown for a string of singles releases during the mid-2000s. You may not quite be able to place the single from the title (I know I couldn’t), but even the first few bars should bring memories of that particular summer flooding back – this single really was that ubiquitous.

12: Aaliyah – Rock The Boat

Something of a bittersweet release for Aaliyah, this her second posthumous release following her tragic death at the end of 2001. Indeed it was whilst filming the video for ‘Rock The Boat’ that she suffered the plane crash that was to end her life at the tragically young age of 22 and hence it was at times awkward to watch the clip without being reminded that the woman in it had literally just hours to live while it was being filmed. At the time of her death the track ‘More Than A Woman’ was the one prepped for release and it was that track which had the honour of hitting Number One in her memory at the start of 2002. Truth be told it was actually the better track of the two and a far better choice to have her mark her place in chart history. ‘Rock The Boat’ is a laid back but ultimately rather plodding R&B ballad which gently peaked here as a new entry at Number 12.

11: Shakira – Whenever Wherever

Well you could hardly pick a better single to pause the countdown on could you? Surely this needs no introduction, the single that launched Colombian singer Shakira onto the English speaking world, one of the most diverting, appealing and downright enjoyable singles she would ever release and an opening gambit she herself would confess took a lot of living up to. Featuring the now infamous line about her small and humble breasts and a video which at the time I described as containing “more raw sexuality than is surely legal to broadcast on daytime MTV” (I told you I watched all my music down the gym at that time didn’t I), the single was a smash hit worldwide and did the business in this country too, peaking at Number 2 in early March. The single would ultimately sell over half a million copies and wind up as the seventh biggest seller of 2002, beating any number of Number One hits in the process. Fire up the streaming services and revel in the company of a genuine pop classic.

Streaming services? Spotify and We7 playlists naturally (featuring 25 of the 30 songs so far) which are now up to date for this piece. See you shortly for the Top 10 as we conclude this wander through the May 12th 2002 Top 40 chart.

May 19

One Step To 2002 – Part Two

Just for a change I don’t have an interesting “where I was in life” story to tell about May 2002. I was living in a shared house in Tottenham, going to work in my media/IT crossover job Monday to Friday and then contemplating my ever diminishing bank balance during the course of each weekend. Seriously, I think summer 2002 was the only time in my life when I’ve bounced a rent check that was due just a week after I got paid. Thank goodness for a temporarily overseas landlady who didn’t spot the anomaly until a year later when I was about to move out.

My exposure to most new music at this time seemed to be via the TV screens at the gym as well, although this does mean some of them prompt a subconscious link and give me flashbacks. Most men break out in a sweat when they see Shakira videos, I just do it for honourable reasons.

Chart time. Press play….

30: Ali G and Shaggy – Me Julie

Another novelty track, this time the immortalisation of Sasha Baron Cohen’s first famous creation on record. ‘Me Julie’ was recorded especially for the soundtrack of the film ‘Ali G Indahouse’ but had little or no connection to the plot of the movie, the track simply an excuse for Ali G to exercise his full pretentions as a dancehall star whilst the ever game for a laugh Shaggy gamely attempted to hold things together around him. The danger with comedy records is that they can get old very quickly and lose their impact as the humour dates. ‘Me Julie’ just about straddles the line between fun pop record and joke, meaning that even with only a limited knowledge of the character and just why his deluded posturing is so funny it is possible to appreciate the record for what it is eight years down the line.

Honourable mention has to be made of Ali G’s own rap break towards the back end of the track, the first stanza of which is reproduced here for your entertainment:

You is better than J-Lo, next to you she is just a minger
Better than Destiny’s Child, well, apart from the lead singer
You is fitter than the Spice Girls including the Ginger
Give it a shave, ‘cos me wanna be in yer.

Incidentally the “clean radio edit” played on the Top 40 show provides some unintentional comedy as well, censoring the word “shave” in the above rap and thus making the line sound far ruder than it actually is.

29: Jennifer Lopez/Ja Rule – Ain’t It Funny (Murder Remix)

Speaking of “minger” J-Lo, here she is herself with a track that is one of my all-time favourite headscratchers. For this is a record which stretches the definition of the word “remix” to its very limits.

The original ‘Ain’t It Funny’ appeared on her 2001 album ‘J.Lo’ and was released as a single in the summer of 2001. A fun, latin-flavoured track it ranks as one of her best pop records ever and is forever in my head associated with wandering around the West End of London on a steamy summer Saturday, surrounded by lots of drunk happy people and with the track blasting out of the PA system of just about every bar you walked past.

Nine months later came this identically titled track, hailed to the world as a “remixed version” of her earlier hit. Except it was nothing of the sort. The 2002 ‘Ain’t It Funny’ was actually a totally different track, with different lyrics and a different melody. The only thing remotely “remixed” about the record was its use of the same title and an expanded set of collaborators, rapper Ja Rule joined by Cadillac Tah to drag Jennifer Lopez into the world of hip-hop for the very first time, one which arguably opened up whole new doors to her and gave her career a lease of life far beyond the latin-flavoured pop records with which she had started it.

So tell me blog readers, I’m not wrong am I? ‘Ain’t It Funny’ (2002) is in no sense of the word a remix of ‘Ain’t It Funny’ (2001) vintage. Despite writer Cory Rooney being credited on both, the two are entirely different songs written in different styles and on completely different subject matters. Was the word “remix” really added to the title just to cover up the fact that Lopez was promoting two different singles with the same name just a few months apart from each other?

28: Lost Witness – Did I Dream (Song To The Siren)

A new entry here on this chart, this was the fourth and final Top 40 entry for Messrs Paul and Kemper who traded at the start of the decade as trance act Lost Witness. Arriving two years after their previous hit ‘7 Colours’, this single was either a moment of inspired genius or the ultimate offensive sacrilege depending on your point of view. As the title suggests, the track is a blissed-up cover of the famous Tim Buckley track ‘Song To The Siren’, focusing in particular on the “did I dream, you dreamed about me” hook. Hardcore dance fans will note that this was not a totally new idea, the “did I dream” line having featured prominently almost a decade earlier thanks to rave classic ‘Temple Of Dreams’ by Messiah – itself sampling the equally classic This Mortal Coil cover version which had been a hit in 1983.

For some annoying reason the only version availble to stream is a rather ragged DJ Tiesto remix, so have the proper version here.

27: Moby – We Are All Made Of Stars

You had to feel for Moby slightly. After a decade of slogging away as a producer and writer of ambient electronic dance records, he was launched into superstardom thanks to 1999 album ‘Play’ which after a distressingly slow start suddenly exploded into a phenomenon early the following year. The catalyst was the enthusiastic marketing by his label which led to the album not only spawning eight hit singles but which also saw every one of its 18 tracks licensed for commercial use somewhere in the world. Follow-up album ‘18’ was never going to come close to topping that and so was released in May 2002 to rather lukewarm reviews. Its one and only Top 20 hit single in this country was lead track ‘We Are All Made Of Stars’ which unusually featured the man himself on lead vocals and which made a comfortable Number 11 a few weeks ahead of the album release. Not a bad Moby record by any means (and he has made a few over the years), its only misfortune being the track that had to follow everything that had come before it.

26: Britney Spears – I’m Not A Girl Not Yet A Woman

There was a received wisdom back in 2002 that this was one of Britney Spears’ strongest singles for some time. Originally recorded for the soundtrack of her semi-successful movie debut ‘Crossroads’, the track instead wound up on her album ‘Britney’ and was released as its third single. Its songwriting pedigree was mouthwatering, ‘I’m Not A Girl Not Yet A Woman’ written not only by the hit factory pairing of Max Martin and Rami but with additional contributions from no less a figure than Dido. Released in April 2002, the single appeared to justify the hype by shooting straight to Number 2, her biggest hit single since ‘Oops I Did It Again’ had topped the charts two years earlier.

Here is the issue though. The single is utter garbage. The record is an anodyne, under-melodied pop ballad that is sung with all the emotional gravity of a rag doll. Britney’s musical reputation at the time was quite rightly based on the towering genius of pop records such as “Oops..” and ‘Baby One More Time’ but to give her a free pass for this turgid waste of plastic was more than I could stomach either back then or even now. Britney Spears would later make a career of having big hits with incredibly bad records (step forward ‘Gimmie More’) for example, but this single was possibly the first time I can remember sitting down to and wondering just what everyone else was hearing that I wasn’t.

25: Lisbon Lions featuring Martin O’Neill and the Celtic Chorus – The Best Day Of Our Lives

Funny you know, once upon a time when people wanted to chart with a football record they sat down and made their own rather than reactivating tired old hits from decades earlier. ‘The Best Day Of Our Lives’ arrived on the chart as a kind of warm up to the World Cup fever which (just like now) was set to descend on the country. A tribute to the Celtic side of 1967 who famously battled their way to the European Cup Final and became the first British side ever to lift the famous trophy, the track began life as a short jingle on a website dedicated to the Lisbon Lions (as the side were forever dubbed). Expanded by its composers to a full song, it was released as a charity single to mark the apparently random 35th anniversary of that famous victory. Those nervously studying the performing credits can be reassured that then manager Martin O’Neill’s contribution to the track was limited to a monologue reminiscing about the day Celtic won the European cup. The “Lisbon Lions” on the track were however a rather more star-studded bunch, celebrity football fans such as Noel Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Rod Stewart, Ian McCulloch, Shane McGowan and even good old Huey from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals all pitching up (so to speak) in the studio to add their vocals.

In an ironic twist, the single (a swiftly in and out Number 17 hit) kind of hit the charts a year too early as in 2003 Celtic battled their way to an eventual defeat to a Jose Mourinho-led Porto in the UEFA Cup Final, a game which once more prompted fond memories of the Lisbon Lions and that famous 1967 final.

24: The Hives – Main Offender

Few and far between are the bands who have summed up their own sound and approach to music in one single eloquent quote. So it is that The Hives are indeed “like a velvet glove with brass knuckles, both brutal and sophisticated at the same time”. The back to basics Swedish rock band might have languished in European obscurity but for a trip to Germany by Alan McGee who made them one of the first signings to his brand new Poptones record label. ‘Hate To Say I Told You So’ became their first Top 30 hit in early 2002 and this single was the follow-up, perhaps immortalised forever as the music to which Kylie rode a bucking bronco in her infamous lingerie commercial. Really the song deserves more than to be the soundtrack to a wank fantasy about a flat chested Australian, ‘Main Offender’ is two and a half minutes of raw blues rock perfection, a sparkling antithesis to every over-polished pop record that it nestled up against. I’d hate for all music to sound this way, but it represents part of the balance of the universe that at least some small part of it does.

23: Oasis – The Hindu Times

I remember one day in the office in the week that ‘The Hindu Times’ was released, Hilary one of our entertainment reporters approached me with a strange request:

“Can you come into the car park and sing the new Oasis single for me?”

Lacking anything else to say about it, the newsroom were out to prove that the single could indeed be performed by anyone with even half a musical ear. I’d barely paid the song any attention before that point, but armed with just a quick listen on a walkman and a sheet of lyrics, I was indeed able to perform the song almost note for note. The point (I think) was that this was possibly the laziest record that Oasis ever released, a track that might as well have been presented by a bunch of music students as the most typical Oasis track they could generate in half an hour. The first single released from their fifth album ‘Heathen Chemistry’ it was possibly the best indication so far that musically Oasis’ glory days of the 90s were well behind them and they were by and large starting to run on fumes creatively.

For all that the single was at the very least a Number One record. The first brand new Oasis material it could hardly not be, but its swift debut at the top of the charts and its equally rapid dislodging and subsequent plummet demonstrated that the track was a hit more or less by default. Oasis tracks are notoriously absent from online jukeboxes, so have a listen for yourself below. In no sense is ‘The Hindu Times’ a bad record, far from it, but it is most certainly a long way from being the best thing they ever recorded. Was this the moment the most famous British group of their era began to play to the gallery.

22: The Cooper Temple Clause – Who Needs Enemies

The second hit single for the six piece alternative rock band from Berkshire whose three album career spawned some eminently listenable music, even if none of their singles ever quite made it to full mainstream attention. ‘Who Needs Enemies’ was their third chart record and second to make the Top 40, entering and peaking here as the follow-up to Top 20 hit ‘Film Maker/Been Training Dogs’ which had been released three months earlier. The chart show noted that the band had just been guests on the Jo Whiley show during the previous week, their role being to officially launch the “1Music” website which gave guidance to young people on how to break into the music business. As a test, I typed in the url given in the show to see it if still worked, and curiously it does, redirecting automatically to the BBC Introducing website devoted to the discovery of unsigned bands. Same concept, different approach I guess.

21: 4 Strings – Take Me Away (Into The Night)

The halfway point is reached with something of a throwaway, the one and only Top 20 single for 4Strings, a production alias of Dutchman Carlo Resoort. It is four minutes of disposable trance nonsense, that is all you really need to know about this one.

Halfway there, and that last lot was all much of a muchness really wasn’t it? Stick with it, the Top 20 gets a bit better. In the meantime, aside from the singles referenced above, everything can be heard on Spotify or We7.

May 18

One Step To 2002 – Part One

Eight years. No small amount of time when you think about it. Eight years ago there was no such thing as the Iraq War, only the earliest of early adopters had even heard of this thing called an iPod and petrol was about 70p a litre.

Despite this I’m still curious to see how this turns out – looking back at a Top 40 chart from what seems like only yesterday, that of May 12th 2002. Has pop music really changed since then? What acts have evolved from the sounds of that era? More importantly will I be able to get my head around where dance music was at during this period, and just how many of the tracks will we find to playlist on streaming services?

These questions and many more will be answered over the next few days. Let’s roll the tape, a diligently preserved copy of the Radio One Top 40 show from that date – still presented at this time by Mark Goodier who by the middle of 2002 was just a few months from his eventual departure from the network. I think by this time the Sunday Top 40 show was practically the only regular show he had on Radio One, his position on the show still reasonably secure and with a generation of listeners having grown up hearing nobody else but him present the Sunday afternoon flagship programme.

40: Kosheen – Hungry

The dying embers of Bristolian trip-hop were briefly fanned to a smoulder at the start of the early 21st century thanks to Kosheen, a still active quartet from that city who were fronted by the silky vocals of lead singer Sian Evans. Their first album ‘Resist’ was home to some of their biggest hits – ‘Hide U’ going Top 10 in September 2001 contemporaneously with its release. ‘Hungry’ was their third single to reach the Top 40, hitting Number 13 in early May the following year. Eight years later it still sounds utterly gorgeous, Evans’ vocals riding a wave of acoustic guitars and blissed out beats and ensuring that this particular retrospective has been worth the trip even before it has started.

39: Marilyn Manson – Tainted Love

Far and away the biggest hit single of Marilyn Manson’s career, outstripping every other single he has released to date, ‘Tainted Love’ stands out as a marvellous oddity in his discography. The occasion was his contribution to the soundtrack of ‘Not Another Teen Movie’ which featured some original interpretations of 80s classics alongside some of the cheesier choices featured in the tongue in cheek parody film. Hence Manson’s version of ‘Tainted Love’ takes its cue from the most famous Soft Cell version, borrowing wholesale some of the electronic effects on the original production whilst applying his own unique style to take the song in an unexpected new direction. As I noted when originally reviewing the single, it is amazing how the most innocuous of songs can take on a totally different meaning when certain people perform then. Manson changed virtually nothing about ‘Tainted Love’ and yet by drawling “don’t touch me… please!” in his trademark groan he somehow elevates the 1960s song into an ode to sadomasochism. It remains today as it did then, a moment of joyful inspiration.

38: Shy FX and T-Power featuring Di – Shake UR Body

A rare mainstream hit for Drum N Bass producer Shy FX, his usual frantic style here tempered by a collaboration with fellow producer T-Power who was known for his more experimental temperament and a willingness to make tracks that had a lighter, party friendly vibe rather than the more aggressive style that his contemporaries favoured. ‘Shake Your Body’ is regarded to this day as a shining example of how well what you might term pop n’ bass could work. Singer Di’s languid vocals sit prettily atop a jazz piano tracing out a descending chord that at time sounds for all the world like a slowed down version of the Sex And The City Theme. About to exit the Top 40 here, the track had peaked at Number 7 in early April. Once more a terrific pop record that I genuinely can’t recall hearing again since.

37: Anastacia – One Day In Your Life

This was the second single lifted from Anastacia’s second album ‘Freak Of Nature’, a release that struggled to quite live up to the explosive success of her debut release ‘Not That Kind’ whose hits such as ‘I’m Outta Love’ and ‘Not That Kind’ shot her to Europe-wide stardom. Not that ‘One Day In Your Life’ was a bad record, far from it, just that for the most part it was more of the same from the small lady with the huge voice and without anything in the way of sensation she was for the most part playing to the gallery with her singles selling to a rapid fanbase pretty much by default. A Number 11 hit in April 2002, she would not hit such chart heights again until two years later after her breast cancer scare and a brief enforced career break. It remains one of pop’s more amusing oddities that the Chicago born singer commands a special place in the affections of music fans worldwide except in her own country where she remains a virtual unknown and resolutely hitless.

We appear to be fair sprinting through these songs so far, although this may have something to do with the fact that all four records were played back to back on the Top 40 show with no links between them. Our host finally breaks his silence to recap the four fallers that have gone before, teases the tracks yet to be played and directs us to the Radio One website where we can all participate in the core feature of what passed for online interaction in 2002 – the chatroom! My abiding memory of said chatroom was Easter Sunday 2002 and the Top 40 show which had the misfortune to be aired 24 hours after the demise of the Queen Mother. Not wishing to show disrespect, the producers of the show dropped all features and indeed half the songs on the chart just in case any of them were either too frivolous or mentioned death in any way. All Mark Goodier could do on the show was fill time by encouraging participation in the self same chat room – filled entirely with disgruntled listeners marking each skipped track with a cry of JUST PLAY THE BLOODY RECORDS.

36: P.O.D. – Youth Of The Nation

Just to prove that Xtian music isn’t all happy clappy and gleeful, presented here as the first new entry of the week is one of a handful of hits for American god-metal band P.O.D. – the initials cheerfully standing for Payable On Death. The group had made their UK chart breakthrough earlier in the year with the Number 19 hit ‘Alive’ and this was the only week of Top 40 glory for the follow-up single. As you might expect, ‘Youth Of The Nation’ had a message behind it, a wry commentary on school shootings such as the Columbine Massacre three years earlier. Both tracks were lifted from the album ‘Satellite’ and although the group continued to release singles here throughout the 2000s, their two hits of 2002 remain for now their only mainstream success.

35: Mad Donna – The Wheels On The Bus

Only in Britain could you get an oddity like this – a novelty record inspired entirely by an online viral video. ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ was the creation of American writer and director Richard Snee who hit on the idea of updating nursery rhymes and children’s songs by remaking them in the style of modern day pop records and parodying the artists who performed them. The project came to be known as Mother Goose Rocks and their website claims hundreds of thousands of CDs sold worldwide. Many of the tracks had flash videos made to accompany them, and it was the widespread circulation for the animated video for ‘Wheels On The Bus’ (as performed by a Madonna soundalike all to a backing sounding uncannily like ‘Ray Of Light’) which prompted one British label to sign the track up for single release. Launched into the world in early May 2002, the single shot into the Top 20 and promptly charged back out again, proving perhaps that it was a one shot joke that wasn’t necessarily an essential purchase. Nonetheless for a brief time the TV music channels were airing this track in heavy rotation, complete with the “click to play again” caption still intact at the end.

Needless to say this kind of novelty is absent from streaming services, but really it is a track that exists only for its video, so it seems only right to include it here.

 

34: Blue – Fly By II

Blue’s fourth single and the final one to be lifted from their acclaimed debut album ‘All Rise’. Simon, Lee, Duncan and Antony had a great deal to live up to here, having topped the charts with their two previous singles ‘Too Close’ and ‘Come Back’. As its title suggests, ‘Fly By II’ was a reworked version of a track that appeared in its original form on the album, the single version having been dramatically remixed with a few Herb Alpert samples sprinkled here and there. The track reached Number 6 upon release in April 2002, really all it deserved given that melodically it was a straightforward retread of their first hit ‘All Rise’ a year earlier and was little more than a final roll of the dice on their debut release. The continuing antics of some of their members and their at times ever more desperate attempts to remain famous are still to this day a source of some amusement, but Blue were always more than just another boy band, their ear for soul and some well produced records ensuring their career stretched until late 2004 with a 100% strike rate of Top 10 hits.

33: Enrique Iglesias – Hero

The single which arguably rescued Iglesias Jnr from the dumper at a time when it looked as if his 1999 hit ‘Bailamos’ would forever mark him as a one hit wonder – on these shores at least. ‘Hero’ was on the face of it a fairly straightforward love ballad but it took on a whole new meaning in the USA at the tail end of 2001 when it was paired with footage of 9/11 firefighters and other suitably “heroic” images, the metaphor extended still further by radio stations which remixed the track to include soundbites from people involved in the aftermath of the WTC attacks. Upon release in this country the song shot to Number One, turning Enrique Iglesias into a bone fide star and enabling him to emulate the chart success of his father just over 20 years earlier. As a pop record ‘Hero’ simply shouldn’t work, the lyrics filled with every cliche imaginable and with Enrique delivering each line as if he is about to burst into tears any moment. Somehow the production just manages to press the right buttons, lending the song a suitably epic feel and one which in an instant you just knew merited its sensational debut at Number One the moment it was released. ‘Hero’ remains one of those which can tug at even the most cynical of heartstrings and catch you out just when you are least expecting it.

32: Will Young – Anything Is Possible/Evergreen

Oh yes, the song that pretty much started it all. Everyone kind of knew that the first single released by the winner of Saturday night TV sensation Pop Idol was going to do well. After the original documentary format of “Popstars” created Hear’Say and propelled them to Number One in their first week, it was kind of a given that the follow-up series which introduced the innovation of having the public vote week by week for their favourite singer was going to connect with an even wider audience. What happened in the week after Will Young was crowned the series winner however surpassed all expectations. The double-sided ‘Anything Is Possible/Evergreen’ became only the second single in history to sell a million copies inside a week (1,108,269 to be exact), blasting the competition out of the water and setting a benchmark which will surely never come close to being equalled. We all knew that television was the most effective promotional tool the music industry had – Pop Idol simply took this to the most logical conclusion.

This CD single was arguably the final exclamation point on the singles boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, one final rush of glory before people got out of the habit of buying singles and left the industry frantically scrabbling for a new format. As for the track itself, the record was the first of what has now become the standard formula for coronation singles by TV show winners. Although the Cathy Dennis-penned ‘Anything Is Possible’ was theoretically the lead track it was really just a supporting act to ‘Evergreen’, a song from three Cheiron studios writers that had originally appeared as a Westlife album track but which was instead handed to the Pop Idol winner. The lyrics fitted perfectly after all, with lines about taking the moment and making it last forever. Think back to your memories of the record and the chances are they are synonymous with the moment in March 2002 when Will Young stood centre stage, surrounded by all the other eliminated competitors and sang the song with glitter raining down on him from above. There is more Pop Idol related music to come before we are done with 2002, but it seems only appropriate that our first encounter with a song from the series is the biggest one of all.

31: Lasgo – Something

So to finish this first quarter of the chart, the first of four hits in 2002 from Belgian trio Lasgo, whose singles are typically unremarkable Eurodance but which found their own modest degree of success at the time. Is this me flannelling for something constructive to say about the most inconsequential track we’ve heard on this chart so far? Damn right it is. ‘Something’ at the very least made a creditable Number 4 upon release in March 2002. Given that I have all the dotmusic articles from this time on file, it seems only appropriate to look this one up and see if I had anything particularly insightful to say about it back then:

On Positiva, so you suspect it is going to be good, comes this bubbling piece of Belgian euro-trance complete with the obligatory female vocal. Evi is the name of the lady on the track, better known back home than she is here and indeed a singer with a vocal style that is eerily reminiscent of Kim Wilde. The truth of the matter that Something is really just an Ian Van Dahl track with a little more energy but it sounds great on the radio and is more than worthy of its place in the Top 5. Which is all that matters really.

Hooray, I didn’t so much, and what a twatty thing to write really “better known back home than she is here” – of course she bloody wasn’t it was her first hit after all. Cut me some slack, I’d just written six paragraphs on the Will Young single which had hit Number One in the same week.

That’s 40-31 then, and the obligatory Spotify and We7 playlists are in place and growing nicely. Surprisingly pretty damn good isn’t it so far? I always argued that 2002 was a far better time for pop than it was often painted. See youy shortly for Part 2 – there’s a football song in there somewhere. I knew it couldn’t last.

May 12

“Gilo, You’re Ruining The Take”

It only took me 16 years of working in the radio industry, but on Monday night I finally got to sip from the same cup as the elite. The 2010 Sony Radio Awards ceremony was a night where I could truthfully say “I was there”, along with a great many other of my most valued colleagues.

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I’ve blown hot and cold about the Sony Awards for a great many years. It is always the same story, people sulk about ceremonies when they are not involved but see them as the greatest thing in the world when they actually are. The judges apparent inability to see past both celebrity and the lure of the BBC has meant that it is all too easy to see Sony gongs as a bit of a joke. I remember back in 1999 my then colleagues and I painstakingly assembling a high quality Best Breakfast Show entry featuring the best bits of a show that was warm, funny, relevant to its audience and getting superb ratings on limited resources. Instead of being nominated, we just watched the Gold award go to Zoe Ball for presenting a show that was almost entirely scripted for her and for which she often slept in and failed to turn up for. What was the point of even trying?

This year to their credit, the organisers had taken steps to try to correct the inbuilt bias that normally dogs these nights. The judges were deliberately drawn from a far wider pool of brains than the usual industry suspects, and the entry criteria was changed to limit each tape to six items only, preventing the entries being dominated by the kind of slick 50 item packages that only the BBC have the resources to produce properly. I’m sure this resulted in the far more evenly spread set of nominations – and the fact that just for a change we set off for the night thinking we stood more than a fighting chance of being decorated.

I’ve been to a handful of awards ceremonies in the past, most recently a Sports Writers event a couple of months ago, but the sheer scale of this one was a different experience altogether. The number of celebrities involved made just entering the building quite intimidating. Arriving towards the end of the drinks reception, I somehow contrived to walk up the road to the Grosvenor House Hotel in Central London at the same time as the car carrying Richard Madeley arrived, with the direct result that I hurried up the stairs whilst the road outside was illuminated with a blizzard of flashlights from the assembled masses of photographers.

As an ordinary member of the public it wasn’t hard to feel just a little bit lost amongst the galaxy of names who were also milling around on the balcony, this feeling of intimidation not helped by the cheerful figure of manager and impresario Jonathan Shalit positioned tactically at the top of the stairs so he could greet every name that walked past with unabashed enthusiasm. Did I really belong here, a man in a hired tuxedo who was only in the building thanks to the altruism of his boss in dishing out the invites?

Fortunately once downstairs in the main dining room the balance of power shifted somewhat. The 150-odd tables were by and large packed with presenters, producers, writers and directors from radio stations and production companies the nation over. On my way down the stairs I heard my name called out by an old colleague Dave Lambert (now of Absolute Radio) who just happened to be making his way to the tables at the same time.

“I hear we are up for the same thing tonight.” he told me, “The Station Of The Year gong.”

“So we are,” I replied. “Sorry you didn’t win.”.

With opening toasts out of the way, host Chris Evans took to the stage for the first set of awards. The dining tables covered just about every inch of the vast ballroom, so the stage had been set up in the centre of the room with large screens relaying the proceedings to those of us stuck at the side who had to peer around pillars to see everything taking place. This did mean that for most of the night we were treated to a strange three-way view of whoever was speaking. Almost enough to put you off your seemingly never-ending bottles of wine.

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It was during his opening monologue that Evans dropped what would turn out to be his second biggest clanger of the night, turning a brief gag about the presence of his old employers Absolute Radio and their ever-declining audience figures into a series of digs that swiftly crossed the line from humorous into unpleasant. Joking “have you brought your audience with you as well?” is fine, but to follow it up with a series of jabs about just how many million fewer listeners they have since he owned the station kind of left a nasty taste in the mouth. Still, he would go on to top it later in the night.

The first award to be presented before starters were served was the Rising Star gong, presented to a widely applauded Jarvis Cocker for his show on a doomed radio station. It was here that I started to worry that the night was going to descend into what I could only described as a 6Music wank-fest as he asked for the audience’s indulgence and then launched into a five minute tirade about how wonderful his employers were and how wrong it was that the BBC should even consider taking the axe to the service. Granted my boredom at this was mainly down to the fact that I disagree completely with the incessant whining about the proposed closures, the bigger picture of the BBC showing it can be leaner and provide better value for public money in harsh economic times a far more compelling argument in my view than the usual “the music they play is well wicked innnit” comments that have a habit of clogging up Twitter feeds. Nonetheless most people just sat and listened politely. Given that most of the people in the room worked for other radio stations and had spent much of the previous year looking at balance sheets nervously and wondering if their station would be the next to go out of business, the words of a millionaire musician rambling about the unfairness of his minimally listened to publicly subsidised service being under similar threat of closure rang more than a little hollow. Thankfully this bout of self indulgence was the only one of the night on that topic.

Starters duly consumed, the first batch of the awards were presented. For each a specially selected celebrity was invited onto the stage to listen to the nominations and announce the winners of each award. This first part of the evening turned out to be the most productive one for our station, as we picked up a silver award for Best Sports Programme and a much to be welcomed Gold award for “Best Promo” – giving the talkSPORT Creative team their moment of glory onstage.

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These are the same people who wrote the now celebrated Porky Face trail (as seen a few postings below) which may well end up winning awards in its own right next year. This particular trophy was for the “Dear Stan” promo – the full version of which you can listen to below.

 

The trophy itself was passed around all three talkSPORT tables, including the one I was sat at alongside some of the other members of the production team. It meant we could all take turns to pose holding the perspex block. I took the view that it may be the closest I ever get to a Gold award – best to take the opportunity whilst it is there.

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Maybe it was the warm and pleasant atmosphere of the ceremony, or maybe we were just too drunk to notice but the habitual and inbuilt BBC bias of the Sony Awards either failed to materialise or passed by without anyone really noticing. Most of the awards went either to big names who clearly deserved them or to unsung heroes from smaller radio stations around the country who were getting their well received five minutes of fame.

Here and there we were permitted a few wry chuckles. Nobody mentioned it out loud on stage, but the sight of Absolute Radio and Christian O’Connell accepting the “Best Competition” award for a feature that was dreamed up by the people at his previous radio station was a source of some wry chuckles.

The much maligned Absolute Radio also pleasingly scored an award for “Best Live Event Coverage” for the live Blur concert they broadcast last summer. The man behind it all was producer Phil Critchlow who I always had a great deal of time for at Unique and who can always be relied upon to think out of the box and consider new ways of presenting things such as music concerts. I’m glad I had the chance to catch up with him afterwards and tell him this too. Better still was the fact that the tired old ‘Test Match Special’ failed to capitalise on its nomination – especially as our entry was some far superior and easily more progressive live Twenty20 commentary which sadly did not catch the ear of the judges.

There were very few long and self indulgent acceptance speeches on the night, most recipients taking heed of Evans’ warning at the start that we had 37 gongs to dish out and it would be nice to get out of there before the next election was called. The only seriously bad offender was a lady from the World Service who seemed to drone on for hours, paying tribute to everyone from her parents to the cleaners who emptied the studio bins. After every sentence there was a smattering of applause in the hope that she had finally shut up only for her list to gain second, third and fourth winds.

During lulls in the proceedings much entertainment could be had by scanning the seating plan handouts which helpfully listed every person in the room and where they were sitting. Clearly at times some creative licence had been taken with the exact names of some of the specially invited celebrity award presenters. From now on I am going to refer to the two members of one particular folk-rock group as follows:

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Our next moment of excitement came just after the dinner interval with the “Speech Radio Personality Of The Year” award possibly out next crown of the night. Alas it was not to be, but there was still the satisfaction of not being bested by one of the other nominees, a notorious turd of a man whose greatest claim to fame at present appears to be an unshakeable belief that rules on taste and decency do not apply to him. Our table indulged in some sotto voce ironic booing at the mention of his name and we were slightly taken aback to notice that approximately half the room had exactly the same idea.

“Now now,” admonished Evans onstage, “he means well I’m sure.”

No he doesn’t.

The biggest gongs of the night prompted some of the more pleasing results of the evening. The Capital FM breakfast show often gets overlooked in the regular tit-for-tat battle of London ratings figures, squeezed out between the offerings on Magic and Heart. Johnny Vaughan actually does a far better job than anyone expected when he first took over, so it was a welcome sight to see both him and the ever alluring Lisa Snowdon be recognised in the “Best Entertainment Programme” category. Similarly Zane Lowe’s award for “Music Broadcast Of The Year” was warmly received and the sight of the normally effortlessly cool Radio 1 presenter struggling to keep his emotions in check on stage was a touching one.

The “Speech Broadcaster Of The Year” went to the unlikely figure of Sir David Attenborough, who must surely have felt as lost as I was amongst the sea of glamorous bright young things who populated the crowd. I’m not sure his standing ovation was really for his radio award rather than out of a sense of “wow, he is easily the most famous person we have seen tonight” but at the end of the day one does not get the chance to give Sir David Attenborough a standing ovation every day of the week so it seemed rude not to participate.

Then it was time for the big one – the “UK Station Of The Year” award and the one for which our bosses had so generously made sure so many representatives of the station were in attendance for. This was however the moment that awards host Chris Evans dropped one of his largest clangers for some time.

His only crime was to turn over two pages of his script. As the victorious Planet Rock team departed the stage after receiving their own “Digital Station Of The Year” trophy, he addressed the crowd and proudly read his next line:

“Congratulations then to Five Live”

I’m not sure most people grasped what had just happened immediately. We had all drunk a great deal by then after all. Evans however knew instantly what had gone wrong, and chewed the end of his microphone in shame as the jeers slowly rang out around the room. Had he really just blown the big reveal of the Sony Awards’ equivalent of the “Best Picture” gong?

“Look, this might be the biggest rib of all time…” he noted, attempting to rescue things. But there was no rescue, BBC Five Live were indeed the winners of “UK Station Of The Year” and all the organisers could do was to quickly mumble their citation and invite the winners onto the podium to celebrate.

The reaction of all around me was more than a little entertaining. Our MD was rightly quite furious. Never mind that we hadn’t actually won, the error had meant the ceremony had skipped even reading the list of nominations which would have flashed the name of the station and our achievement in just being there up on the big screens for everyone to appreciate. All around me at our table everyone sat with long faces, either struggling to take in what had happened or sucking up the disappointment at losing out to our bitter and far better resourced rivals.

Call me perverse, but I found the whole thing utterly hilarious. It was the kind of spectacular cock up that goes straight to the heart of my sense of humour, the kind of comedic error that you simply could not script and one that ensured even the moment of losing was an incident you could treasure in the memory for a long time to come. Yes indeed it was an unprofessional end to proceedings, yes it did indeed royally piss off the two big commercial stations who had come all the way to at least be mentioned in dispatches but for me it was a shining example of the way the best moments in life are not those that are scripted or planned or which run to a timetable. They are the spontaneous ones, the unpredictable flashes of fate that makes each day different from the last. I’ve always said that my favourite radio is the truly live stuff, the programmes where all but the last page of the script read “dunno what will happen here” and Evan’s announcing cockup was straight from that particular page of life. I raised a glass to it with pleasure.

bubbly

Lest we think the evening ended on a total downer, there was just time for the usual surprise “Gold Award” which was handed to Trevor Nelson to the acclaim of all the room. He was serenaded to his prize by the raucous tones of a gospel choir, a performance so uplifting I had to switch the camera to video mode just to capture half of it. Thank goodness I don’t pretend to be professional at these things, otherwise I could have decked my drunken colleague Gilo who stumbled over halfway through the video to wonder just what was going on.

With that it really was the end of my first ever Sony Radio Awards ceremony. However much we criticise the criteria for selection, grumble about the merits of the winners and complain about the little guys that are either forever overlooked or included as a token gesture, I finally understood just why it is rightly always seen as the high point of the industry calendar. It may not feel like it sometimes, when we work at funny hours of the day or in an environment badly in need of some love or for what so often seems to be poor reward or very little immediate recognition, but we are all of us participating in the creation of an artform that reaches out beyond social and geographical boundaries and which has the power to touch and move and even motivate people to think and hear things in ways they never would have considered. Just about every person in the room that evening was someone who cared deeply about radio and for whom it was always more than just a job but actually a lifelong passion that drives them to be creative and to be part of the wonderful human art of communication.

My name in small print below that of the nomination for a far more famous broadcaster than I am might be the closest I get to holding such an award for real and for all I know I might be sacked tomorrow and never work in the industry again, so for this one night at least I believed in the Sony Radio Awards and was incredibly privileged to be there.

nomination

May 04

The Joke Was On “Tim from The Office”

The habit irritates me at times, but just once in a while my inability to spend a morning at home without randomly browsing items all over the net can occasionally turn up something joyful. Those great YouTube moments when you discover that some random stranger has uploaded something you only vaguely remember existing and haven’t actually had any visual proof of for years.

In a week when it seems very likely that Fyfe Dangerfield is about to land the solo hit single that had until now eluded him with a paint by numbers cover of an old song from a TV advert rather than one of his own more superior compositions, it seemed appropriate to think back to other occasions of rather serious minded acts unwittingly becoming famous thanks to nothing more than a throwaway novelty. It happened to Faith No More in the early 90s, yet the tale of how they dealt with it despite being one I’ve cited many times in writing in the past yet rare are the occasions when I’ve met someone who remembers the incident in question.

The song at issue is ‘Easy’, a tongue in cheek cover of the old Commodores song that the group recorded as a late addition to their ‘Angel Dust’ and then watched as it went on to become their biggest ever hit single in many major markets (including the UK where it went Top 3). A world away from the inventive, intoxicating alt-metal with which they had made their name, I always got the feeling it was a source of irritation to the band that wherever they went this was the song that most casual audiences associated with them the most.

Hence, I suspect, this moment of live TV petulance. It was at the end of what turned out to be the last ever edition of the Channel 4 TV series ‘The Word’ which Terry Christian’s autobiography ‘My Word’ documents as having been broadcast on March 3rd 1995. Having been guests on the show the band were invited to close it with a rendition of their most famous hit, but after playing the first few bars of the song they stop dead with an out of tune chord and launch instead into a world-weary rendering of the old Bee Gees song ‘I Started A Joke’.

A deliberate inside joke by the producers? Or a genuine moment of TV spontaneity by a band who had a new album to promote but were instead being asked to deliver a ratings-friendly performance of a two year old cover version they intended as a b-side in the first place? Either way it was glorious to watch, not least for the nonplussed reaction of the crowd who didn’t really understand what it was they were watching.

 

A proper studio version of ‘I Started A Joke’ became a bonus track on their 1995 album ‘King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime’ but it did not become a single until 1998 when their label issued it as a standalone to promote their farewell Greatest Hits release.

To accompany the UK release, a video was filmed that featured hardly any members of the group but instead cast a selection of well known (and soon to be well known) British actors in a mini kitchen sink drama. The single flopped, so the video went pretty much unseen by most people. God bless the YouTube uploader who has shared it however, giving us all a chance to see Martin Freeman in one of his earliest “regular bloke” roles.

Apr 29

Idol Winnersox

It is time to confess. I think I have a new obsession,

No, not those. I’ve always had that one.

What makes watching the seemingly endless parade of TV talent shows so worthwhile is the all to rare moment when you realise you are witnessing the birth of a star, someone who is stepping into the limelight for the first but who is clearly so outstandingly talented that he or she blows just about everyone else in the competition off the stage. On the current series of American Idol we are witnessing just that moment.

Idol results can be perverse however, and the nine year history of the show is littered with occasions when the most obviously talented performer has wound up in second place – although for the likes of Reuben Studdard and Adam Lambert this hasn’t been to their disadvantage. Hence it would be wrong to predict a guaranteed win for this particular lady, but if she isn’t there weeping tears of joy come the final announcement next month then something has gone very wrong indeed.

The singer in question is 24 year old Crystal Bowersox who hails from Ohio and who as a quick trawl of YouTube will demonstrate has a strong track record of performances in her local area. What makes her such an outstanding contestant on the show isn’t just her voice and her musical abilities but the little details that make her such an unconventional joy to watch every week. For a start she commits a litany of image sins, being a less than perfect shape, with two-tone unwashed hair and worst of all daring to appear on prime time American television without a perfect set of teeth. Yet for all this she lights up the screen each with with a deeply luminous beauty, a heartbreakingly attractive woman with a warm smile and a huge heart. A video package during the series noted that her fellow contestants all call her Mamasox, not just because of her young son who visits every week but for the way she insists on making sure everyone has someone they can talk to.

Normally I’d be very cynical about the insistence of the producers on filling time with endless behind the scenes interviews that give us the chance to “meet the real person” behind the singer – but here it all makes perfect sense. Not only are we watching someone with a very special singing and performing talent but under it all is an incredibly genuinely lovely person who you feel good about supporting and wanting her to achieve everything she dreams of.

Enough of my rambling though – what does Crystal Bowersox actually sound like? Well wonder no longer.

It was her first performance on the very first live show that really got the Crystal bandwagon rolling. Not that her rendition of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was all that spectacular really, but it was comments afterwards from both the judges and the public that she seemed almost to be treating the contest as already won that made her turn it up a notch. Ever since then every single Bowersox performance has been a moment to treasure.

In week 2 theme for the night was Billboard Number One hits, and what better choice for a husky voiced southern gal than to take a Janis Joplin track and make it her own. This was surely the moment that Crystal stepped forward as a star as what could so easily have been the kind of tired karaoke renditions most wannabes trot out on these occasions instead became nothing less than a show-stopper. Warning: video contains unacceptable levels of Miley Cyrus.

 

Still, the one thing that dedicated Idol watchers will know is that the judges hate to see contestants rest on their laurels, and you can bet that the response to any great performance will be a challenge of “what else you got?” This time it was Kara Dioguardi’s turn to throw down the gauntlet: “I want to see you lose the guitar next time” she said. So Crystal did, delivering on her promise during the debrief to come back with a surpriuse – even if guest mentor of the week Usher managed to guess her gimmick in seconds.

You’ll note that the judges’ comments at the end of the video demonstrate the oft-cited truism that Simon Cowell knows nothing about music, complaining that the backing singers were old-fashioned and brought the performance down and thus demonstrating ignorance of the fact that ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ is as much about the story told by the backing singers as it is the lead vocal. Fool. He at least makes up for it at the end by practically begging her never to change who she is.

If you are still not yet convinced and still haven’t had your heart captured by Mamasox, then I offer you finally her rendition from the Top 7 a week ago. The theme was Inspirational Songs as it always is for the annual Idol Gives Back charity edition. The story of this take on ‘People Get Ready’ is not simply her picture perfect vocals but also the moment of unguarded unfettered emotion at the end as she dissolves into tears and which makes you realise even more just how much she opens up to the audience with every single song.

 

Yes, there are still several weeks of the contest to go and yes, as I said at the top the voters on American Idol seem to take a perverse pleasure in ditching the very best contestants right at the death. Nevertheless, presume for now that you have read it here first – American Idol 9 has another potential global superstar on its hands. Until the end of the series comes, I’m spending an important part of my week savouring the joy of her every new performance – and Twittering loudly and strongly just what a fan I have become.

Apr 25

Back To The Future (Of Pop)

Today I did something that might cause people to judge me. Certainly I run the risk of being “diminished in the eyes of right thinking people” as the libel laws might have it and it calls into question not only my own personal judgement but my ability to function as an active member of society. There you have it anyway, what is done is done and there is simply no going back.

I fired up my We7 account and listened to McFly’s Greatest Hits. Worse still, you might say, I rather enjoyed it.

Looking back at the story of the last decade, pop group McFly are nothing short of a fascinating riddle. Statistically speaking they were huge. During their imperial period between 2004 and 2007 the four piece group had an unbroken run of 13 Top 10 hits, 11 of which made the Top 3 and in total they had no less than seven Number One singles. Yet stop any random stranger in the street and ask them to sing one of these hits after being given the title and you may very well draw a blank. More to the point challenge people in a pub quiz to name more than three and virtually every table in the place will fail to score points. Somehow McFly are amongst the most successful chart acts ever, and yet very few people can name any of their songs.

There is actually a simple explanation for this. I once famously branded the group “the most useless pop group in chart history” due to the way their chart hits were such dramatic flashes in the pan. In and out within a matter of weeks before anyone had a chance to notice. The truth was that they and their label were masters of marketing, corralling their enthusiastic band of fans like eager pens of training bra wearing cattle. They knew the exact moment each of their singles was made available and perhaps even more importantly knew just where to buy the music in bundled deals, paying a discounted rate for as many as five different versions of the single, all of which counted as individual purposes for chart surveys.

This tight focus meant that virtually every McFly single opened with a bang, a strong and powerful sale that propelled them all to the very top end of the charts. What happened in week 2 almost didn’t matter, which was unfortunate as week 2 was traditionally where McFly singles struggled. By 2007 their fanbase was so well organised that the group were regularly breaking what were previously thought to be unmatchable records for chart collapses. Of their seven Number Ones, four of them fell from the top straight out of the Top 5. One in particular – ‘Baby’s Coming Back/Transylvania’ from 2007 is the only fully available single in chart history to plummet 1-20 in a single week, spending just four weeks in total on the Top 75 to equal the record as the shortest lived Number One in history.

That is why nobody recognises any of their songs or can conjure up the tune from their titles. They just weren’t around long enough to penetrate mainstream consciousness. That is in fact the biggest shame of all, because as my experience with their Greatest Hits album shows, McFly made some of the most fantastic pop songs of their era.

At the heart of the group were/are lead singer and chief songwriter Tom Fletcher. Originally recruited as one of the members of Busted, he was ousted from the group for numerical reasons but retained instead as a songwriter. When it became clear that his songs were the key to the success of the project, Fletcher was more or less given a free run at forming his own group for a run at chart success, fellow member Danny Jones actually being found after turning up for an audition for short lived boy band V.

Fletcher’s songs are universally magnificent – breezy three minute power pop anthems that enthusiastically and unashamedly evoke both mid-60s surf rock and late 60s bubblegum, all packaged up in a manner that made their teenage girl target audience swoon with delight. Best of all though you don’t have to be a 13 year old girl to appreciate just what fun they are. McFly’s 2004 debut single ‘5 Colours In Her Hair’ (notably their only single to spend more than a week at the top) is a mini masterpiece in itself, combining a Lennon-esque guitar line with a melody lifted straight from the finest moments of The Hollies. It is 1965 dressed up as 21st century pop and not sounding a beat out of place.

Follow-up ‘Obviously’ is an acoustic guitar and handclap rhythm mid-tempo ballad that is straight out of the Noel Gallagher school of retro rock anthem. No seriously, teen romance lyrics aside, the song would not sound out of place on any Oasis album made any time during the last decade, but whereas the Mancunians are lauded as high level artists and the greatest musicians of their era, McFly are a throwaway pop group who sad to say made records that only little girls cared about.

 

 

Later albums saw the group take advantage of a ready built audience that practically guaranteed chart success to push a few boundaries and create music that for a pure pop band is quite breathtaking in scope. Very often it was their most spectacularly unsuccessful chart hits which were the best records of all. Their 2005 Christmas single was a huge miscalculation, released in the week of the seasonal chart itself but only reaching Number 9 to wind up as their smallest hit of the era, yet ‘Ultraviolet’ was a deceptively sophisticated pop record, combining a psychedelically orchestrated verse with a singalong blues-rock chorus that once again you can imagine Liam Gallagher belting it out onstage with ease. Similarly one half of that celebrated 1-20 diving single ‘Transylvania’ is a four minute prog-rock narrative which sounds like a bleeding chunk torn from a rock opera such as ‘Tommy’ or ‘A Teenage Opera’. This is well crafted pop music created by a bunch of 20 somethings which reaches back to some of rock’s finest moments for inspiration.

 

Once again, these are all songs which were as far as the record books are concerned all monster chart hits yet they remain something of an enigma to all but the most dedicated chart follower. Part of the problem may well have been the era in which they were all released. Looking back, the middle part of the 2000s was the time when pop music fell into something of a cultural black hole. The CD single was dying a death, yet the digital download era was the domain still of the early adopters. Top Of The Pops broadcast its last edition in 2006 and with it went the last regular berth on television for pop music and effectively the only way for a wider casual audience to tune in to what the kids were buying and to formulate their own opinions accordingly. The problem was self evident and self-perpetuating. McFly’s music never stayed in the charts long enough for people to take the time to appreciate it properly, and without anyone other than their fans to appreciate it properly the singles stood no chance of having long chart runs.

The sole exception to this is the one song in their catalogue which was not only in a position to gain attention outside of the Top 40 show but which also sold more and for longer than any of their other singles. The track in question is ‘All About You’ which briefly benefitted from being the official anthem of Comic Relief day in 2005. History does record that even this single was rather swept aside by Peter Kay and his gatecrashing of the event with his patronage of Tony Christie and ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ but even this was not enough to stop the McFly track embarking on a quite uncharacteristic three and a half month chart run and a seven week Top 20 chart life. Another three minute classic that it is, ‘All About You’ is actually oddly atypical of many of their songs, featuring little in the way of 60s aping production, 40 piece orchestra aside.. Nonetheless it remains the one single for which they are best known and loved, so it is still worth including here for illustrative purposes. Warning: contains what some people may regard as unacceptable levels of both Graham Norton and Kate Thornton.

 

Before anyone rushes to correct me, the McFly story is far from over for now, with the group set this year to release the second album following their 2007 departure from Island records and their new life as a self-released independent act. The initial post-split swipe at their corporate control in ‘One For The Radio’ did kind of suggest that by the end their song writing ambitions were being hampered by the need for the label to promote them as a teen pop outfit. The mixed fortunes of new era album ‘radio:ACTIVE’ in 2008 despite the eyebrow raising newspaper giveaway of the entire CD actually suggest they have an uphill struggle to be accepted on their own merits, their chart placings taking on a more realistic outlook away from the world of marketing budgets and loss-leading singles bundles. Even so, I’m now waiting with interest to see just what they do next.

Maybe McFly are ripe one day for an un-ironic rediscovery. I never tire of pointing out that throughout the 80s even the mighty Abba were viewed as the epitome of cheesy 70s naffness, their rediscovery only kicking into life in 1992 thanks to a neatly timed set of Erasure covers. The McFly songbook is thankfully ignored by X Factor producers and hardly essential reading for new bands hoping to turn local gigs into music sales, but these are songs of such quality, fun, and for many people a still important enough part of their childhood memories to ensure that one day someone will take time out to look at this group who had more Number One singles than most but who many will confess to never really having heard much of.

Apr 19

Porky Face

To lighten the mood a little, I thought I’d take the opportunity to gratuitously share with you something which has achieved the near impossible. Our ever innovative creative department at work have managed to craft a programme trail that makes the entire office stop in its tracks every time it is aired. Not only that but almost uniquely every presenter on the station has stopped their show dead after hearing it and asked when the next chance to hear it again will be.

In my book that amounts to something pretty special. Presenting then, for anyone who hasn’t tuned into talkSPORT for the past week and heard this liberally scattered around the schedules, I present: Porky Face

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The trail was created by the talented people at talkSPORT Creative who can work similar magic for you if ever the mood takes you. Visit their site to give them a try.

Apr 18

Crashed My Car, Gone Insane

Looking back, it all seems kind of quaint. With the commercial radio industry now almost totally dominated by one large group (Global Radio) which appears to have a stranglehold on just about every market still capable of turning a profit and leaving an increasingly desperate bunch of small companies all fighting over the scraps that remain, it is easy to forget that in the 1990s there were a number of different players in the world of local radio, all eyeing each other up and waiting for the latest relaxation in the competition rules that would allow them to grow even further.

By accident or design I’ve spent much of my career working for the same small group of stations, joining one that was part of the Metro Radio Group before being spun off in a management buyout into The Radio Partnership which was then itself sold to the Wireless Group and which now forms UTV Radio, of which my spiritual home talkSPORT is the national flagship. Back in the mid-90s as a presenter you watched nervously the growth of The Borg – or the GWR Group as it was then known.

The nation-hugging behemoth that is Global Radio is in fact the final triumph of the aggressive radio company which through a series of acquisitions and takeovers had grown from its humble origins in the west of England to one which was in a position to (for good or ill) define the very shape and sound of local radio in this country. The reason we as presenters viewed it suspiciously was that GWR were notorious for taking a cookie-cutter approach to any station they ran. Back then daytime FM networking was rarely allowed and still technically challenging, and in the absence of this their management instead worked to a set formula for their stations, one they were determined to stick to it at all costs. Any new station that came under their control was swiftly turned into a “better music mix” with a carefully researched playlist imposed from above. Whilst the voices on the air may have varied from region to region, the music was the same minute by minute and listeners who could pick up two GWR-ised stations at once would wryly note that tuning over to avoid a hated song was pointless, as the station down the road was airing exactly the same track.

For presenters it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand the group represented a stable economic environment in a company that supported its staff and encouraged progression into management as a clearly defined career path. On the other hand, outside of breakfast it was tricky to express any kind of personality or personal style. The format called for the music to be foremost. Not even a single note was to be talked over and the jock was there to link the records, and most certainly not to get in the way. A clever radio industry parody of ‘The Sunscreen Song’ that circulated in mid 1999 summed up the dilemma nicely: “work for GWR at least once, but leave before it makes you soft”.

I was only ever briefly exposed to this regimented regime myself, attached in February 2000 to an RSL in Huddersfield which was being run by GWR as the testbed for their application for the new regional licence that would eventually become Real Radio. 106.6 The Edge was a rock station but our instructions as presenters were clear. We were to talk for no more than 30 seconds at a time, at six defined points in the hour. Every link had to start and end with the name of the station and we were also to continually encourage feedback to the email address set up for the purpose. It did not give one much room to breathe. I actually found it quite exciting and liberating for a short period. If I had something to communicate I had to concentrate on the most effective way of doing it. Random rambling was out. I opened the mic, delivered the line and got out of there as quickly as possible. Believe it or not this was for me an exciting, powerful new way of doing radio. I’m sure had it gone on any longer than a month I would have been beating the walls with frustration, but for a short period it was enormous fun. Good job I could indeed leave before it made me soft.

Music on the network was always a curiosity, particularly when it came to the choice of catalogue material that was played. The main problem was that the most senior managers were the forefront of the Australian invasion of UK radio. Hence the cookie cutter approach, the need to impose a strict format and the centralised control of everything from the jingles to the station logos. Their problem was that their knowledge of the British music scene only stretched back to 1992 when they had first landed in the country. Colleagues who came to us from The Borg were often surprised and delighted at being able to play tracks such as ‘Pure’ from The Lightning Seeds (1989 vintage) which were alien to their old managers. One famous anecdote centred around one boss hearing a track on the regular “Top 9 at 9” feature and bellowing “what the hell is this shit and what is it doing on my station?” only to be assured that ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers was actually one of the most famous records of its era and whilst they did not have a clue what it was, on this occasion they had to trust that the audience most certainly did.

This cultural clash would flow in the other direction too, the festive playlist often containing songs that were totally unfamiliar to British audiences but which were included as the managers knew them as seasonal favourites Down Under and presumed the Brits would grow to love them as well. Every so often however the Australians who ran UK radio would try to use their cultural connections as a force for good, bringing over antipodean hits which by sheer force of playlist they would try to turn into a success over here. In one famous example, it is actually something of a shame that they failed.

Bachelor Girl were a duo from Melbourne, consisting of good friends Tania Docko and James Roche. Formed in 1992, they made their breakthrough in their native country in early 1998 with the eminently hummable ‘Buses And Trains’, a song which would become their signature and a smash hit they never were to better. International promotion was hardly high on the agenda of the small label which had signed the pair, but their hand was forced early the following year when one of the GWR upper management brought the CD over to England and slotted the song into heavy rotation on their stations. I possibly would never have heard it myself but for the fact that by 1999 The Pulse was leasing programming from GWR, taking their Classic Gold network for their AM service and using the generically branded “The Mix” as an overnight sustaining service. As breakfast co-host and producer my first job in the morning was to deactivate the networking and put us back live on air, and so was one morning captivated to hear the insanely pretty song blaring out of the office speakers. Perhaps just like everyone else listening, I longed to know what it was and crucially whether I could buy it.

Had such an event happened today the track would have been made available to the UK within weeks. As it was, it took several months for the single to be licensed for UK release, RCA records arranging to distribute the track for the UK on behalf of Gotham records in Australia. Tragically by then the moment had passed, and with GWR having bored their audience into submission with the song six months earlier, airplay for the formal release of ‘Buses and Trains’ was minimal and the single sank without trace, charting at Number 84 here in July 1999 and thus sinking the UK career of Bachelor Girl before it had even begun.

People reading this from Australia will know the song as one of the biggest hits of 1998 and a justifiably famous pop classic and will be more than a little amused that I am here bemoaning it as an underrated lost classic. For indeed virtually everyone in the UK this song is an unknown and I maintain to this day that it is a crying shame. ‘Buses and Trains’ could still be a hit – maybe in the hands of a group such as The Saturdays if done respectfully enough. The managers of GWR may have gone on to ruin the UK radio industry, sowed the seeds for the fully networked Heart FM branded destruction of some famous radio names, contributed to a paucity of broadcasting talent by their refusal to let young presenters develop even the merest hint of a personality and dragged even the once mighty Capital FM in London down the toilet, but had they managed to make this one classic song into a hit, it is possible we might have forgiven them everything.