In Defence Of Christmas 1992–Part Four

Want to know what the odds were for the big Christmas Number One race in 1992? Well sadly the only clippings I can turn up are quoting prices as of Tuesday December 15th, which was during the week of sales covered by this chart. Nonetheless, it shows you where the thinking was at the time, especially as before these days of chart leaks and midweek updates, nobody really knew from one weekend to the next just how well certain singles were doing. The market lined up as follows:

  • 1/7 Whitney Houston
  • 3/1 Rod Stewart
  • 4/1 Michael Jackson
  • 16/1 Freddie Mercury
  • 16/1 The Shamen
  • 16/1 WWF Superstars
  • 16/1 Madonna
  • 33/1 Diana Ross

Yes, by then it really was all over bar the shouting… and the final countdown of the Christmas Top 10.

10: Madonna – Deeper And Deeper

The flap and publicity over the release of Madonna’s infamous “Sex” book in which she posed clunge out in a variety of artistic poses did rather overshadow the fact that it came out alongside her ‘Erotica’ album, a work which stands tall as one of her most consistent and impressively produced works of her first decade in music. After the blissed out house beats of the title track (A Number 3 hit back in October) came this rather more conventional sounding club track which even today ranks as a critics choice of one of her best releases of the 1990s. Shep Pettibone produced the track, just as he had done with global smash hit ‘Vogue’ back in 1990 and in a nice nod at what might otherwise have been its own derivative nature, ‘Deeper and Deeper’ briefly turns into the earlier hit towards the end. For all its popular brilliance, the chart performance of the track caused a rather uncharacteristic wobble in Madonna’s fortunes, peaking at Number 6 it became her first single to fail to reach the Top 5 since ‘The Look Of Love’ five years earlier.

9: Rod Stewart – Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)

After releasing what was possibly one of the best records of his career with a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’ in early 1990, the only surprise was it took over two years before Rod Stewart dipped into his extensive songbook again. His second Waits cover version was a track taken from his album of reinterpretations ‘Lead Vocalist’ – a reworking of a song originally performed by the American singer for his 1976 album ‘Small Change’. Just as on ‘Downtown Train’ this was a perfect example of singer and song working in perfect harmony, Rod imbuing the gin-soaked track with the perfect amount of regret and longing. Although not the most immediate of hit singles (or so it seemed), ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ became his first single ever to smash straight into the Top 10 upon first release, peaking eventually at Number 6 a fortnight before Christmas. Not quite the Christmas Number One it was touted to be, but a fine addition to the holiday soundtrack.

8: Gloria Estefan – Miami Hitmix/Christmas Through Your Eyes

What a horrible term. Once upon a time sequences of different songs were called “a medley”, in the early years of pop all performed live by the singer but as production techniques developed, cut together in the studio by creative producers. At some point in the 1980s though this term didn’t seem, well, EUROPEAN enough so a selection of songs jammed together in the studio became “megamix”, the kind of expression which can only conjure up images of naff continental DJs bellowing it over badly balanced microphones. Come the 1990s and the Greatest Hits megamix was seen as a great way of rounding up an artist’s career with minimal promotional effort required save to issue club DJs with extended versions of the same.

After the seasonal chart of 1991 paid host to both the ‘Joseph Mega-Remix’ and the ‘Jungle Book Megamix’, Christmas 1992 saw two of these badly made abominations clogging up the bestsellers list. The smallest of these was an energetic romp through some of the early highlights of Gloria Estefan’s career as old Miami Sound Machine tracks such as ‘Bad Boy’, ‘Dr Beat’, ‘Conga’ and ‘1-2-3’ were all paraded one by one. Longtime MSM re-mixer Pablo Flores collaborated with Florida DJ Javier Garza for the ‘Miami Hit Mix’ which took the curious step of removing much of the original production of the composite tracks in order to sequence them with a consistent set of dance beats. Bizarrely released to promote Estefan’s then-current Greatest Hits collection (which naturally featured all the original versions), the rather messy track did at least register a presence in the Top 10, with festive double a-side ‘Christmas Through Your Eyes’ strangely all but ignored by radio and record buying public alike – although that is at least the one track from this single which we can Spotify.

7: Boney M – Megamix

As to what this was doing here, heaven only knows – there was no new Boney M hits material in the shops at the time. A “megamix” of Boney M classics had raced up continental charts in the summer of 1988 but had never been granted a release on these shores (although something called the “Summer Megamix” did creep into the bottom of the Top 100 in September 1989). I’m unsure as to whether the rendition which finally graced us with its presence in the shops three years later was the same production or a brand new sequence, but suffice it to say they both saw all the usual Boney M classics given a quick spin in sequence, their choruses bolted together like bleeding chunks of Eurodisco. Hitting Number 7 with perfect timing for Christmas, the track did at the very least give Boney M their first Top 10 hit since ‘Hooray Hooray Its A Holi-Holiday’ was a Top 3 hit way back in 1979. To date it remains their last.

 

6: WWF Superstars – Slam Jam

Perhaps inevitably this was a Simon Cowell idea. He documents in his autobiography how he marvelled at the ability of the World Wrestling Federation to sell out Wembley stadium in mere minutes when they staged their Summerslam event on these shores in the summer of 1992. With Vince McMahon having long made good use of the links between his performers and music (remember Cyndi Lauper and the rock n wrestling connection?) he needed little persuading to buy into the idea of a concept album featuring the vocal talents of some of the Federation’s then stars. Fortunately the alarming prospect of Randy Savage or the Ultimate Warrior crooning away was never to be realised. Instead the WWF musical project consisted of a series of Mike Stock and Pete Waterman created club tracks, all loosely themed around the shouted utterances of a series of wrestling stars. Proving once more than Simon Cowell can turn the naffest of ideas into pop music-ruining commercial success, the opening single ‘Slam Jam’ did indeed slam its way into the charts, forever leaving a legacy of the likes of the British Bulldog, Bret Hitman Hart and The Undertaker featuring on a Top 10 single. ‘Wrestlemania The Album’ would ultimately come out in April 1993. Copies presumably in a charity shop somewhere near you, but nowhere near Spotify, naturally.

 

5: Shamen – Phorever People

Ah, proper music at last. The apparent furore over the Shamen’s Number One single ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ from September 1992 seems to be one of those legends which grows ever larger in the telling. Yes, the almost blatant drug references in the track caused a few furrowed eyebrows and airplay restriction, but nothing like the pitchforks at dawn outrage that clip shows ever since would have you believe took place. Nevertheless you get the feeling that subsequent single ‘Boss Drum’ (title track from their then current album) was raced into the shops out of sequence in an attempt to get some non-controversial Shamen product into the shops and onto the radio. It did appear though that this played havoc with plans to make ‘Phorever People’ their end of year offering, with the net result that the two singles arrived in the shops just six weeks apart from each other. ‘Phorever People’ arrived on the charts on December 7th at Number 7, just as its suddenly deleted predecessor dived down to the depths of the Top 75. Both tracks in truth would have made fine Christmas hits, but it was left to this single to be the standard bearer, a track featuring both Mr C and singer Jhelisa Anderson in equal measure and the sound of a group at what was arguably their commercial and creative peak.

4: Take That – Could It Be Magic

If you divide Take That’s career up into stages, then this is the final act of their pre-superstar years. Commercial breakthrough was a long time coming for the soon to be famous fivesome. A desperate cover of ‘It Only Takes A Minute’ had finally taken them into the Top 10, but a bizarre choice of follow-up in the form of the Robbie Williams fronted ‘I Found Heaven’ later that summer had dumped them back into mid-table. ‘A Million Love Songs’ may well have returned them to the upper reaches and given us our first clue that Gary Barlow was a songwriter of considerable merit but the truth of the matter was the initial hype of how they were saviours of pop was starting to wear off. Their debut album had appeared in the shops to little fanfare and the truth of the matter was that Take That needed to do something special to get the world on their side.

So they released this single. Yes, it was another cover, but their take on Barry Manilow’s 1975 Number 6 hit turned out to be an inspired move. Taking its cue from Donna Summer’s own disco version from the late 70s, this was an upbeat party smash hit – featuring an all too rare vocal duel between Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams who had now discovered his true singing voice and was ready to take a bow as the most charismatic performer of the group. ‘Could It Be Magic’ ultimately peaked at Number 3 to become their highest charting hit thus far. One year later and they missed out on Christmas Number One by the skin of their teeth.

3: Charles & Eddie – Would I Lie To You

A distinctly old-fashioned soul ballad by two upcoming American stars becoming a worldwide smash hit single yet only a minor chart entry in its home country? It happened. Despite virtually the whole of the developed world falling in love with ‘Would I Lie To You’, it made a brief Top 20 appearance in America, peaking at a mere Number 13. No matter, with this one single Charles & Eddie became global and award winning superstars. Just like ‘End Of The Road’ before it, ‘Would I Lie To You’ had an all too rare wander up the singles chart on its way to Number One, albeit moving in a rapid 34-14-2-1 arc which suggested it was only ever going to peak at the very top. Number One for a fortnight in mid-November, the single simply refused to go away and indeed this was the third of what would end up a four week stretch locked in place at Number 3, the single spending ten weeks in total in the Top 10. To all intents and purposes however the duo became one hit wonders in this country, follow-up single ‘NYC’ peaking at Number 33 early the following year and none of their other singles ever climbing higher than Number 29. When Charles Pettigrew died of cancer at the age of 37 in 2001, I don’t think I remember even reading an obituary.

2: Michael Jackson – Heal The World

When Michael Jackson’s long-awaited ‘Dangerous’ album was released at the tail end of 1991, much was made of the rather startling way it was sequenced. With all the Bill Bottrell- and Teddy Riley- produced swingbeat tracks banded together on Side 1 in a never-ending mush, the arrival of ‘Heal The World’ at the end of them hit you like an overdose of Sweetex. One of the more notable tracks on the album, ‘Heal The World’ prompted endless jokes about whether Jacko was going to sue himself for plagiarism, given that it was more or less a chord for chord copy of his work on the famous USA For Africa single ‘We Are The World’. I remember the Q magazine review of the platter musing that the two tracks would be banned from getting married in most countries as they were simply too closely related. Heck, they even performed a medley of the two tracks at his 2009 memorial service!

Composition issues aside, it was always inevitable that the sweet gospel ballad was going to be turned into a hit, and so with immaculate timing it was unleashed as Michael Jackson’s Christmas offering. Despite being the fifth single to be released from ‘Dangerous’ it became one of its biggest, charging to Number 2 and holding firm there for an impressive five weeks – denied the chance of becoming Number One (whether for Christmas or the new year) by a superstar of equal stature above him. Three years later of course he would have his revenge and become Christmas Number One for real, but for now ‘Heal The World’ simply fell agonisingly and frustratingly short. I can’t help but wonder though, had Quincy Jones still had a hand in matters, would he have had the courage to tell Jackson just what a blatant copy of his earlier work it was and suggest it be reworked to be a touch more original?

1: Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

Typical, just typical. Four days of waxing lyrical about semi-forgotten pop records and we climax with one of the world’s biggest selling singles of all time and thus a record which really needs no introduction. Let’s instead deal with the elephant in the room. Whitney’s cover of the old Dolly Parton song and which formed the centrepiece of her performance in “The Bodyguard” and in its own way helped it become the biggest film of the moment when it finally hit the cinemas just after the Christmas holiday. It’s not actually very good is it?

Call me hard hearted. Call me a musical ignoramus if you must, but ‘I Will Always Love You’ falls a long way short of being the most moving track on the soundtrack album, never mind the best record of Whitney’s career. It is under-melodied, lazily and rather shoddily produced and designed more to show off her prowess as a diva rather than actually being sung to the melody lines printed on the sheet music. I’m sure plenty of people get chills down their spine as her vocals re-enter after the bridge, but I can’t hear it without wincing as she howls and hoots and strips what was once a rather sweet C&W ballad of every last shred of emotion.

As has been noted by many people before me, the classic irony of ‘I Will Always Love You’ is that it stands tall as the most misinterpreted song of all time. People get married to it and I’ve presented love song shows on the radio where people phone up wanting it to become the soundtrack to a romantic proposal. Yet this all ignores the central point of the lyrics – the couple in the song are breaking up. She’s waving him goodbye with a tear and the knowledge that she will never be quite good enough for the man in question. Just try pointing that out to people though, just try.

To the facts then, and you could have asked as many experts as you wanted when it was first released -there was initially no way at all that Whitney was going to be Christmas Number One with this single. When the market was first formed, I believe prices of 33-1 were on offer. It had simply been released too soon, hitting the shops at the start of November. No matter than it had moved to Number One at the end of the month in its fourth week on the chart, there was little chance it had the legs to remain there until the end of the following one. Yet it did. This was in fact its fourth week at Number One, marking the first time any record had topped the chart in November and stayed there until the end of the year since ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ and the original issue of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the 1970s. In fact ‘I Will Always Love You’ would go on to duplicate another feat of those celebrated predecessors, remaining on top of the charts until well into February to eventually clock up ten weeks at the top of the charts.

In my original write-up of the 1992 Christmas Number One, I supplied some sales statistics which I’d presumably cheerfully lifted from Music Week that week. By the end of December 1992 it had sold a million copies in the UK, 4.5 million around the world, was Number One in nine different countries and was the second biggest selling single in American chart history (an accolade it holds to this day as the second biggest physical single of all time across the pond). Fast forward to 2011 and its total sales stand somewhere in the region of 1.37 million copies, enough to make it one of the 40 biggest sellers of all time in this country. I may hate every last note of it, but it is still justly one of the most famous records of the decade.

As I may have mentioned a few times, this particular chart came out during the very first weeks of my weekly British chart commentaries, posted at the time to the rec.music.misc newsgroup via a rather flaky email gateway from university. Although the Google archive for this period can be patchy, the original posting still exists in full – but be warned, intense analysis of each song is somewhat thin on the ground. I think I was in something of a hurry that day.

So as Bruno signs off and hands over to Pete Tong with the Essential Selection (opening track: ‘The Sun Rising’ as tonight’s Revival Selection) we can reflect on a Christmas chart which may not quite be as stuffed full of classics as some over the years, but did at least contain its fair share of cheerful novelties, popular club hits, legendary names and naturally one of the biggest singles of all time by a female artist. For that reason alone it has a worthy place in our memories, and I hope it stirred a few of your own whilst reading this.

Happy Christmas everyone, see you on the other side.

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In Defence Of Christmas 1992–Part Three

This is traditionally where a quick hunt around some of the news headlines of the week throws up the exact social context in which these songs were heard, or something. Being as it was the run-up to Christmas it was the mixture of the grim and the trivial. Back in the days when the international community used its military might to intervene in foreign conflicts without people aggressively living in tents in protest, Prime Minister John Major was at the forefront of agreeing a no-fly zone over Bosnian territory as the Yugoslavian civil war rumbled on. Closer to home, the tabloids were animated about one issue above all others:

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Bugger, sorry… wrong clipping. THIS was the big tabloid issue of the moment:

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Yes, showing no thought at all for the potential disappointment to grannies the nation over, The Sun had controversially splashed with the secret contents of the Queen’s speech after claiming to have been leaked a copy by a BBC employee. Meanwhile the world continued to turn, and we hit the ground running with the Christmas 1992 Top 20.

20: Lemonheads – Mrs Robinson/Being Around

After six years of slogging away on the college circuit, Evan Dando and (The) Lemonheads finally hit commercial paydirt with their album ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’, released in this country in the summer of 1992. Despite the hype, they struggled a little for mainstream reaction on these shores until this seasonal romp through the old Simon and Garfunkel track, originally penned for “The Graduate” and now an established classic of the era. After becoming a Top 20 hit in the UK (although they were still absent from the US charts for some mysterious reason) the cover version was swiftly added to a new re-release of ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ which saw the album reach a new peak early in 1993. Follow-up album ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads’ had the potential to make them bigger still but by then Dando’s drug problem was starting to make itself known. That said, he was big mates with Oasis in their early days – he knew talent when he saw it.

19: Michael Bolton – Drift Away

In writing up this new entry for what was one of the very earliest James Masterton chart commentaries (only the seventh in the series believe it or not – of which more later) I noted that my only experience of encountering genuine Michael Bolton fans had been hearing the two shop assistants in the off licence around the corner from my student house proclaiming it was their kind of music. It prompted one friend of mine to wonder if I wasn’t telling the internet that I spent far too long hanging around my local offie, bless him. Here at the height of his bemulleted MOR peak, this was the second single lifted from Bolton’s then current album ‘Timeless’ – a bellowed romp through the classic track originally performed by Dobie Gray but which had never actually been a hit single in this country before (it peaked at Number 5 in America in 1973). Bolton’s version had its full complement of synthesized drums and gospel choirs on the chorus but for a soul track it ultimately wound up rather strained and soulless. Make no mistake though, Bolton sold records by the barrel-load in the early 90s and singles like this populated the chart more or less by default.

18: Heaven 17 – Temptation (Remix)

One of those “was this STRICTLY necessary?” moments, a reworked for the 90s version of Heaven 17’s biggest and most famous hit single from 1983, dressed up to tease the release the following spring of their first and only Greatest Hits collection. As long as you weren’t totally wedded to the original (as some of us who owned ‘Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 1’ were) then this remix by Brothers In Rhythm wasn’t actually too offensive and trod the fine line between paying due respect to the original and re-inventing it for a modern day audience with a great deal of skill. The ‘92 version of ‘Temptation’ had peaked at Number 4 in late November and was still at this point gently drifting down the charts.

17: Stereo MCs – Step It Up

Whilst breakthrough single ‘Connected’ remains the most famous Stereo MCs track (and one which found a natural home a decade later promoting mobile telephones), their true contribution to every party DJs bag of tricks is the follow-up. ‘Step It Up’ is one of those rare singles which manages to marry true musical credibility with a straight down the middle pop record appeal which made it very hard not to love. The single peaked at Number 12 in early December, actually beating by six places the chart peak of its supposedly more famous predecessor, and to this day standing as their highest chart placing ever. It would surely be churlish to blame this state of affairs on the fact that they took NINE YEARS to release a follow-up to their breakthrough album ‘Connected’ – but that is a story for another time.

16: Cliff Richard – I Still Believe In You

This is it. Right here. THIS is the moment regular readers of my music-based ramblings will know that I have long pointed to, the exact point when Cliff Richard’s hit career jumped the shark, when the free pass he was given thanks to his long and storied musical career finally expired and he ceased to make singles which charted on their own merits as pop records. His mistake was to slip gently into the lazy routine of presuming that we were all clamouring for the “Cliff Christmas single”, thus reducing his work to little more than a seasonal cliche rather than something to be appreciated in its own right. Harsh? Well what else can explain the timing of ‘I Still Believe In You’, his only single of 1992 and the first since his special “new year” release ‘This New Year’ unveiled at the start of the year as a companion piece to ‘We Should Be Together’, his similarly ill-fated attempt to Top 10 the 1991 Christmas best sellers list. This track wasn’t designed to be a pop record for the ages, or a bold statement about where he was as an artist, it wasn’t even released to promote a current album. It was his Christmas single and one which was lazily assumed would race up the rankings just like so many before it did. Except the theory was wrong. ‘I Believe In You’ wasn’t a particularly bad record and viewed from afar its sentiments are actually rather sweet. It swiftly peaked at Number 7 in mid-December but by Christmas itself its star had faded and it was on its way out. From this moment on, Cliff Richard releases were (to his continual frustration) overlooked for being the work of an ageing star and because they were not Christmas singles, whilst his Christmas singles were overlooked because they were now reduced to the status of a semi-amusing novelty. Searching for the moment when Cliff’s latent credibility finally deserted him? It was this release right here.

15: Simply Red – Montreux EP

A genuine curiosity this, as after a year in which Simply Red had been quite correctly feted for their ‘Stars’ album and its subsequent string of hit singles, Mick Hucknall chose to see out the year with the festive release of a live EP of tracks performed by the group at the annual Montreux Jazz Festival earlier that summer. An all too rare chance to hear the band performing stripped of studio trickery and to allow Hucknall’s voice to shine through, this was a gift to the fans which potentially had appeal even beyond the core fanbase at whom it was aimed. Opinion was divided as to what the lead track from the EP actually was – the live rendition of old 1987 b-side ‘Lady Godiva’s Room’ found its way onto Now 24 the following spring, but the chart show here played their cover of jazz standard ‘Drown In My Own Tears’. Either track is immaculate, naturally and the ‘Montreux EP’ spent a frustrating three weeks at Number 11 upon release in late November 1992.

As far as tracking it down is concerned, well that seems rather trickier. For years the tracks were unavailable on any Simply Red album before they emerged as part of a DVD of their entire Montreux set which was bundled with a special edition of the ‘Stars’ album in 2008. As the concert wasn’t on CD however, the copy of the special edition on Spotify naturally doesn’t include them. The best I can do here is link to the following video of Hucknall performing the song on Jools Holland, also from 1992. The two sound fundamentally identical anyway.

 

14: Prodigy – Out Of Space

If 1996 had never happened, if the Prodigy had never smashed into mainstream consciousness with the likes of ‘Firestarter’ then it is more or less a given that this single would be regarded as their finest and most commercial moment on record. Hardcore rave tracks such as ‘Charley’ and ‘Everybody In The Place’ may well have had their chart runs and justifiably made their reputations, but it was the fun reggae vibes of ‘Out Of Space’ which opened them up to an audience which previously might have dismissed them as noise. At the heart of the single was a Max Romeo sample, lifted from an old reggae track called ‘I Chase The Devil’, lines from which have found their way into a surprising number of singles over the years. The sheer genius was in the construction, the track grinding almost to a halt for the sample before drums and bass are steadily layered over the top to wind things back up again. Unique amongst their older recordings, it is ‘Out Of Space’ which still has a prominent part in modern day Prodigy sets, such is the affection with which it is held. The single had peaked at Number 5 in early December, but by the time party season set in it was still pretty much essential.

13: Freddie Mercury – In My Defence

One year on from his tragically early death and after a twelve month period in which his legacy had been celebrated with events such as the Wembley Stadium tribute concert, it was deemed time to celebrate the solo work of Queen’s flamboyant lead singer. ‘Freddie Mercury – The Album’ was the result, a collection of odds and sods from his extra-curricular activities over the years, a release of which only the truly cynical would say was designed to ensure there was some kind of Freddie-related product in the shops for Christmas. To promote the long player this single was spun off, a slightly tweaked production of a track Mercury had recorded in 1985 for the official cast recording of the futuristic stage musical Time. The producers had originally offered to let the song be recorded with Queen backing him, but Freddie was apparently happy for it to be a solo work. A more fitting eulogy it would be hard to pick, to hear the tragic star bellowing from beyond the grave how he was “just a singer with a song” was enough to move even the hardest of hearts. Inevitably ‘In My Defence’ started the holiday season as one of the leading contenders to be Christmas Number One but after moving 11-8 in its second week on the chart it had made a surprise dive for the festive countdown to sit here, just outside the Top 10. It mattered not, within months Freddie would have a posthumous Number One single to call his own anyway.

Both ‘The Freddie Mercury Album’ and even the original ‘Time’ cast album are absent from Spotify, but happily the rather moving clips video is extant and can be watched below.

 

12: Diana Ross – If We Hold On Together

People familiar with the catalogue of Diana Ross over the years may well view the presence of this single with no small amount of confusion. What on earth was a track she recorded way back in 1988 for the soundtrack of the animated film “A Land Before Time” doing in the British charts over four years later? The answer was due to the hoops her British label found themselves having to jump through to promote her then current album ‘The Force Behind The Power’ which had given her international career a much needed shot in the arm at the start of the 1990s. Although she had stormed to one of her biggest hits in years with lead single ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’ in late 1991, a release of the harder edged title track had left her with a rather miserable Number 27 hit in early 1992 and the prospect loomed large that this brand new incarnation of Miss Ross would be just as much of a one hit wonder as the ‘Chain Reaction’ version had been six years earlier. Inspiration struck during the summer with the release of the ballad ‘One Shining Moment’ and a series of TV commercials proclaiming that ‘The Force Behind The Power’ was (and I quote) “an album of love”. Focus switched to pushing its more downtempo tracks and with the single reaching Number 10 and the album returning to the charts, the tactic appeared to be working perfectly. To keep the momentum going it was decided to turn to an older recording which had been bolted onto the running order of the album to ensure it finally had a home on a Diana Ross record. So it was that the movie hit gave Diana Ross her third Top 20 hit single of the year, four years after it was recorded and three years after it became a worldwide smash hit on the back of the film. For contractual reasons, the single still had to be sold with a subtitle that it was taken from the “Land Before Time Soundtrack”, resulting in the curious situation of a hit single promoting a film which had long since vanished from the cinemas and been banished to the video rental shelves.

11: Lisa Stansfield – Someday (I’m Coming Back)

With “The Bodyguard” the hit film of the Christmas holidays and with a certain song from the soundtrack doing all kinds of spectacular things on the charts worldwide, the accompanying soundtrack album was proving similarly successful. Although most of its tracks featured a certain second generation soul singer (of whom much more later), the rest of it was filled with new tracks by other contemporary artists. Hence the appearance on the chart of this single, actually one of Lisa Stansfield’s better offerings from a period when she was at her creative and artistic peak anyway. A single which would have been a smash hit regardless of its association with a hit film, the song was sat here on its way to an ultimate peak at the base of the Top 10 the following week to give her the bizarre honour of having a Number 10 hit in three consecutive years – 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Rather better that, wasn’t it? OK, there is more Cliff and Bolton than is normally possible to stomach in one sitting, but UK soul, US alt-rock, a late legend and an all-time enduring floor-filler make for an entertaining selection of tracks. Have you listened to the Spotify playlist yet? You should, really.

In Defence Of Christmas 1992–Part Two

My own memories of Christmas 1992? All a bit of a rush I think, a mixture of driving friends who were mobile DJs around to an endless succession of other people’s parties, mixed in with a holiday job working at a firm of accountants. I spent the the Christmas period wrestling with the mini computer network of a recently insolvent company, trying to get their accounts system to produce a list of their debtors whom we could chase for money. All very festive. I suspect the actual Christmas celebrations themselves were so unremarkable that not even the sound of Nirvana can stir any of them.

Speaking of which:

30: Nirvana – In Bloom

Timely, given that this year (2011) marked the 20th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’ and the moment Nirvana we are told stood the world of rock on its head. The fourth and final hit single mined from the famous album was inevitably the smallest but it made a respectable Number 28 upon release and gave us the most mime-able drum fill since the heyday of Phil Collins. At what point does it become acceptable to admit you never really “got” Nirvana? I read about what a massive influence they were, how they broke the mould and inspired a whole new generation of musicians, and how Kurt Cobain’s tragically early death only served to add to the mystique – and I get it completely. The only problem was that by and large it was rock music that was too noisy, too uncultured and too, well, amateurish for me to ever work out what made it so good. The Nirvana worship continued apace, but it was a party to which I never felt I was invited.

29: Undercover – Never Let Her Slip Away

A mini craze at the end of 1992 for tastefully club-friendly covers managed to somehow bring out the best and worst of the genre all at once. Truth be told, this was one of the best – a respectful and affectionate resurrection of the song originally written by Andrew Gold and who had a Number 5 hit with it in May 1978. Undercover were John Matthews, Tim Laws and John Jules and they had struck gold (no pun intended) earlier in the summer with a similarly affectionate reworking of ‘Baker Street’ which peaked at Number 2. The follow-up may have been a smaller hit but to me it was actually the better record with a cheeriness and charm which made it hard to hate, however much affection you might have had for the original. They followed this up with a third hit in early 93, this time taking on Gallagher & Lyle’s ‘I Wanna Stay With You’ but by this time the novelty had worn off and the Top 30 hit proved to be their final big chart single. This section of the chart has a better strike rate than last time, but history has still judged Undercover to be too obscure to have their output preserved for proper streaming.

 

28: East Side Beat – Alive And Kicking

On the flip side of the coin, this is how to get things badly wrong, even if it may have just been a matter of timing. East Side Beat were an Italian collective (six or seven blokes all with names ending in “ini”) who had arguably kicked off the whole “make a naff easy listening record into a club hit” genre with their take on Christopher Cross’ ‘Ride Like The Wind’ which had been a worldwide smash hit at the tail end of 1991, hitting Number 3 on these shores. The follow-up took a year to appear for one reason or another and truth be told it kind of bombed, peaking briefly at Number 26 before vanishing. There were theoretically a number of reasons for this. First was the usual problem of bad timing, released too close to Christmas and too late for anyone to care about it before the holidays began. Which is possible. Second was the fact that their rendition of the Simple Minds smash hit from the mid-80s was actually a bit rubbish compared to their first single, what was in theory a good idea of turning Jim Kerr’s stadium-filling anthem into a floor filler spoiled not a little by some rather lame execution. Again, another good reason why nobody in the UK really cared that much. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly I suspect the single failed as they were completely screwed over by the fact that the original version had returned to the British charts just two months previously, released not only to celebrate a Greatest Hits compilation for the Scottish rock band but also due to its use in a famous series of commercials for Sky TV, hyping the launch of their coverage of the brand new English Premier League. In short, everyone knew the original, and more importantly was comfortable with the concept of dancing to Simple Minds thanks to the re-release being bundled with a remix of their early single ‘Love Song’ with which it was a double a-side. By the time East Side Beat came to the party we had kind of had our fill of the song. East Side Beat continued to make cover versions until well into the 1990s, with varying degrees of success on the continent. ‘Alive And Kicking’ however killed their British prospects off for good.

27: Boyz II Men – End Of The Road

Winding its way gently down the chart after what had already been an epic chart run, this was arguably one of the most significant American singles of the year. The lavish romantic ballad propelled Boyz II Men to worldwide fame in a way I suspect even their creators hadn’t dreamed, in the process resurrecting the concept of a close-harmony vocal group and briefly diverting American R&B down a path of locating men with rich, deep voices. ‘End Of The Road’ had taken its sweet time to catch fire, entering the Top 40 at Number 36 in early September and then bucking what was at the time a prevailing trend by gently rising up the singles chart, moving 36-31-22-14 before suddenly exploding. Even then it took a while to wake up, spending a fortnight at Number 2 before finally enjoying a two week spell at the top. It gave Motown records its first British Number One since Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ a full eight years earlier and ultimately was to spend over six months on the Top 75. Heck, it was even hanging around long enough to collide on the singles chart with its follow-up… which we’ll come to shortly.

26: SL2 – Way In My Brain/Drumbeats

There may well have been a reason why it took so long for a follow-up to SL2’s smash Number 2 single ‘On A Ragga Tip’ to appear, but it escapes me for now and even their rather gloriously detailed Wikipedia page (they only had three hits!) makes no reference to the gap. Anyway, for whatever reason despite having been a springtime hit single, the next release from Slipmatt & Lime did not appear until December, a remix of a track which had actually first appeared in a different form on the flipside of their first single ‘DJ’s Take Control’ a full year earlier. ‘Way In My Brain’ appeared to pay dearly for their lack of musical activity – peaking here at Number 26 and in the process bringing the whole SL2 project to a grinding halt.

25: Dina Carroll – So Close

Some things just need heating for an extended period. The lady who can lay a bold claim to be one of Britain’s foremost soul stars of the 90s began her career as the guest singer on Quartz’s cover of ‘It’s Too Late’ back in 1991. Although she preferred to be a balladeer, her label and management knew that the only way to break her was as a dance diva, and so her first two singles ‘Ain’t No Man’ and ‘Special Kind Of Love’ were uptempo floor fillers, both peaking at Number 16 during the course of 1992. Her third single was her first ballad, ‘So Close’ was the title track of her debut album which eventually hit the shops in early 1993 and although the single did respectably enough, its Number 20 peak was still frustratingly short of the mainstream breakthrough everyone knew Dina Carroll deserved. True stardom wasn’t to be hers until a full year later and the release of what was eventually the album’s sixth single ‘Don’t Be A Stranger’ – but really that is a story for another time. For now Dina Carroll was just another dance diva trying her hand at a ballad for the holidays. Nobody quite knew what lay around the corner.

24: Arrested Development – People Everyday

A short lived but incredibly important act in the development of hip-hop, Arrested Development hailed from Atlanta and for a brief time in 1992 and 1993 were the most exciting group on the planet. Their concept was to be “alternate” hip hop, eschewing drum machines and samples for a more measured and organic approach which reached back to black music’s blues roots and span them into something which proved to be commercial paydirt. ‘People Everyday’ was their third single and their first to chart in this country, a reworking of Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ with new verses added by lead singer Speech along the way. Truly it was like nothing anyone had ever heard at the time and more than deserved its Number 2 peak in early November 1992. 1993 saw them become the first rap group to perform on MTV Unplugged but after a poor reception for their second album in 1994 the group had disbanded by the following year.

23: Boyz II Men – Motownphilly

Ah, here they are again. Proof that nobody was really sure just where Boyz II Men’s comfort zone was, their debut album also featured tracks like the harder edged R&B track ‘Motownphilly’ in which they bragged about their “East coast swing” and how they were fusing together two disparate genres of soul music. My honest opinion? As a pop record this truly isn’t half bad, but as the globe-buggering success of ‘End Of The Road’ proved, their future lay in the syrupy ballad and quite literally nowhere else. ‘Motownphilly’ suffered slightly from the unfortunate chart collision with its still in the shops predecessor, but at this peak position it did at least outsell it on the Christmas Top 40.

22: Slipstreem – We Are Raving – The Anthem

I never quite figured out if it was all done semi-ironically or whether it was somehow an important part of the culture for rave tracks to be created from the naffest sources possible. In 1991 it was all the rage for old childhood references to be draped in blissed-up beats, such as ‘Sesame’s Treat’ and indeed the track ‘Charly’ which originally shot the Prodigy to national fame. By 1992 this had mutated into a chart-bound form of the “replace x with rave” parlour game, whereby if a song had a word which you could replace with “raving” it was considered a suitable candidate for club treatment. Hence the Christmas Top 40 played host to this piece of nonsense, an air-horn drenched romp through a reworking of the Sutherland Brothers song ‘Sailing’ (as made famous by Rod Stewart) with the word “sailing” replaced by… well you get the idea. A quick trip to Discogs.com reveals that the single was the work of producers Steve Moore and Justin O’Neal about whom further details are rather sketchy, suffice to say they don’t appear to have been credited with anything else since. ‘We Are Raving – The Anthem’ clung on to eventually sneak into the Top 20 in the new year and in the most truly random manner possible is actually on Spotify to hear. Click above for the full horror.

21: 808 State and UB40 – One In Ten

“I have a one-inch head…” Not all dance remixes are utter rubbish. UB40’s early period rant at the nonsense of government statistics first appeared on their 1981 album ‘Present Arms’ and became their fourth Top 10 hit single in the summer of that year, peaking at Number 7. 12 years later it was back on the chart thanks to a surprisingly well done remix by Manchester pioneers 808 State who transformed the track into an absorbing hybrid of dub-reggae and what would in time come to be called jungle beats. Released in early December, the single had climbed to Number 17 before dipping back to rest just outside the Christmas Top 20.

A better strike rate than in Part One then, although three tatty cover versions and one remix does not a clasic list of songs make. Don’t forget the whole chart is compiled into a Spotify playlist for those with an urge to re-live these songs (almost) in full. Top 20 time tomorrow

In Defence Of Christmas 1992–Part One

Two confessions before we start. I’d originally “scheduled” this chart recap to be the big Christmas countdown a year ago, but certain baby related events got in the way and the opportunity to do writing of any kind just didn’t present itself in the run up to the holiday. Hence we’re winding back a rather random period of 19 years to the Christmas Top 40 of 1992, but I don’t doubt that the results will be no less entertaining for all that.

Secondly, looking at the line-up of tracks featured on this Christmas chart, at first glance this doesn’t appear to be a particularly vintage year. A selection of lame covers, throwaway dance hits and as we shall see some rather lazily made “megamixes” does not a parade of famous pop tunes make. That said, it can be an interesting exercise to peel back the covers of the music which history has forgotten. Buried in here are some rather memorable singles which I suspect have hardly had an airing on the radio since they dropped out of the charts first time around. So let’s roll the tape.

This then, is the Top 40 chart, as broadcast by Radio One on Sunday 19th December 1992. Your host for this show as is only right and proper is the one and only Bruno Brookes, restored to the chart show to see out the dregs of his Radio One career earlier that year, and so here presenting his first Christmas countdown since 1989. After a re-run (in full) of last week’s Top 3, we are into the meat of the countdown.

Oh yes, and with We7 have moved their focus away from on-demand playout of individual tracks, Spotify is our source of choice for as many of these singles as can be located in their catalogue, although as we will see there are some frustrating gaps along the way. Click any title to be taken directly to that track, or you can peruse the Top 40 playlist in full at your leisure.

40: Brand New Heavies – Stay This Way

Maybe one of the few acts in history to have never released a bad single, at the very least during their chart heyday, the Brand New Heavies were the commercial standard-bearers for  – well, that’s a debate in itself. The most high profile and commercial act on Acid Jazz records, you will find people prepared to argue the toss for hours over whether it was a genre and not just a corporate marque. Essentially some good old fashioned early 80s jazz-funk with dance beats grafted on, the Acid Jazz “genre” nonetheless ensured that music resembling proper jazz had a place on the singles chart for the whole of the decade – indeed the first version of their self-titled debut album came out in 1990 in an almost totally instrumental form, so rooted were they in music rather than song writing. 1992 was the breakout year for the Heavies as they made the Top 40 for the first time in February with ‘Dream Come True’ and breached the Top 20 later that spring. ‘Stay This Way’ is possibly one of their least-remembered hits, their fourth to make the charts that year and one which was here spending its one and only week amongst the bestsellers. They would return in 1994 and take things to interesting new levels.

39: Uncanny Alliance – I Got My Education

Depending on which way you look at it, this is either a strange tale of wasted potential or a fine example of record labels, even in the sales and financial nadir of the early 90s, desperately throwing money at what they hope is going to be the next big thing. Uncanny Alliance were New Yorkers Brinsley Evans and EV Mistique. They created ‘I Got My Education’ in early 1992 as a tongue in cheek response to the Crystal Waters smash ‘Gypsy Woman’, spinning out the tale of “Miss Thing” and how she wound up homeless due to her own personal uselessness. After developing into a club smash in their home state a bidding frenzy erupted around both the track and the pair who had made it for the right to release ‘I Got My Education’ and anything else they might come up with subsequently. Having shelled out a fortune, A&M records were rewarded with a 1994 album ‘The Groove Won’t Bite’ which duly bombed after several flop singles and the pair were never heard of again. The UK release of their wave-making track had the misfortune to be delayed until the end of the year when even its novelty value wasn’t enough to make it stand out in the holiday market. Number 39 was as good as it got for the track which was briefly quite famous, but now is simply notorious.

Almost instantly we hit our first Spotify-less track. Which means cue the video:

 

38: Louie Louie – The Thought Of It

Another act who frustratingly never quite became the name he should have done was Puerto Rican producer and singer Louis Cordero who performed as Louie Louie. After a first brush with fame as the object of a tyro Madonna’s affections in the video for ‘Borderline’ he re-emerged as a singer in the early 1990s with a Top 20 American hit at the start of the decade ‘Sittin’ In The Lap Of Luxury’. His one and only brush with the British charts came with a track lifted from his second album ‘Let’s Get Started’, and once more a track which wound up lost in the festive rush to do little more than poke its nose into the Top 40 at the end of December. My original notes from the time remind me that he was cleverly booked as a surprise guest on the televised Smash Hits Poll-Winners Party in an attempt to propel him up the charts. Clearly it didn’t work quite as intended. ‘The Thought Of It’ isn’t actually half bad, an energetic funk workout which would not have disgraced a Was (Not Was) album at any stage in their career. Sadly now all but forgotten, it feels good to have the chance to reappraise the single in this manner. Worth a listen – or at least it would be if it was available to be play-listed, and the only version anyone has bunged up on YouTube is a rather shocking remix. If the track ever surfaces anywhere subsequent to this, I’ll be sure to let you know.

37: HWA featuring Sonic The Hedgehog – Supersonic

Bandwagon alert. The mini craze for turning children’s TV themes into semi-ironic drug-laced rave tracks had by late 1992 morphed into adapting computer game soundtracks for use as club records. Leading the charge was Dr Spin with ‘Tetris’ (an idea believe or or not of Andrew Lloyd-Webber) to be swiftly followed by ‘Supermarioland’ from Ambassadors Of Funk, both hits in the autumn. This HWA (Hedgehog With Attitude apparently) track was the co-creation of former Hayzi Fantayzee performer turned superstar DJ Jeremy Healy who crafted it along with Mat Clark. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that ‘Supersonic’ actually originally existed in some form with no video game connection at all, but it was a simple matter for the purposes of marketing to remix it with a few noises ripped from a Megadrive, sign a quick licence agreement and release the track as the “official” Sonic The Hedgehog dance record.

On a serious note, the music industry slump of 1992 saw the first indications that the home console market was as much a spending priority for the young as pop songs used to be and it was with some horror that labels saw music stores clear huge swathes of shelf space for the latest electronic titles, in much the same manner that stores are turning themselves over to technology now. Releasing dance records based on video game music may seem rather quaint now but at the time it was a product of an urgent need not to lose an entire generation to music altogether.

 

36: KWS featuring The Trammps – Hold Back The Night

OK now this is interesting, as this is a fine example of what is surely a rather minor hit single triggering the perfect emotional response. Nottingham-based group KWS hit chart paydirt in 1992 with a club-friendly cover of ‘Please Don’t Go’, and followed it up with a similarly styled take on ‘Rock Your Baby’. By the time of their third hit of the year they had enough clout to be able to recruit the original hitmakers for a background contribution to their next cover, and so it was that the new recording of ‘Hold Back The Night’ had the honour of featuring the Trammps themselves treading all over their musical legacy. By this time the novelty had perhaps slightly worn off, or maybe it was the old “lost in the mix” syndrome again, who knows, but this single could do little more than reach Number 30 before dipping down to sit here on the Christmas chart.

Wait though, I remember this record. The moment it played on the chart show, I knew exactly where I was. I was dancing down the Headrow in Leeds City Centre, Walkman headphones plugged in, catching the bus home from my holiday job and feeling merry and seasonal as council’s festive light display illuminated my journey down the hill. ‘Hold Back The Night’ was playing on the radio and as the chorus washed over me I instantly acknowledged the joy of hearing a soul classic, even in such a lame new version and wrapped that up in the thrill that it was just a few days to Christmas. One song, just because it happened to be played at that moment, creating a snapshot of a particular second in time. That’s why I love music.

You know that Spotify playlist of all these songs? This isn’t on it either…

We interrupt this Top 40 countdown for an impromptu news bulletin.

Yes, this was the strange period where the expanded Top 40 show on Radio One didn’t quite dovetail with their public service commitments, meaning everything has to stop for the 4.30pm news at this point on the tape. Your newsreader on duty this evening is Mallary Gelb who left Radio One for America in 1995 and who is now a big name in current affairs TV back in Britain. The things you learn from Google.

35: U2 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses

To come back down to earth briefly, the fifth and final single from U2’s creative shot in the arm that was the ‘Achtung Baby’ album was this, its fifth track on the running order. After the genre-hopping stunt of the Paul Oakenfold remix of their last single ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, this single had a rather more conventional sound and release – flung out at the end of the year to wring one last gasp of sales from the album just in time for Christmas. Neither U2s greatest hit ever, nor one of their biggest, but it made a respectable enough Number 14 at the start of December and was at this point gently winding its way down and out.

34: Darlene Love – All Alone On Christmas

What should be in theory a throwaway single from a forgotten film soundtrack actually ended up something of a musical treasure thanks to the personnel involved. The presence of Darlene Love alone should be enough to set the pulse racing, one of Phil Spector’s favourite vocal muses and the voice behind ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ from his legendary Christmas album after it was decided Ronnie Spector wasn’t able to pull it off. She was the obvious choice then to sing this Spector-esque track for the soundtrack of “Home Alone 2” but it was the fact that writer and producer Steve Van Zandt simply invited the whole of the E Street Band along to perform the single with her which made it a thing of great beauty. Some of the greatest rock and roll musicians of all time coming together for an enthusiastic tribute to the music that all of them must at one time or another have fallen in love with as children. For all that it was perhaps out of place in Britain in 1992 and so the single limped into the Top 40 and is extraordinarily enough all but forgotten now – if you hear it on the radio at all this Christmas it will be in low rotation to break up the monotony of Slade or Mud. In actual fact ‘All Alone On Christmas’ is one of the most lovingly made retro-sounding Christmas records ever created. Surely long overdue for rediscovery, in this house it just isn’t the holiday proper without hearing it. Or watching it, as Spotify lets us down ONCE AGAIN.

33: Mike Oldfield – Tattoo

An almost forgotten part of the tale of 1992 is the brief creative and cultural revival of Mike Oldfield. Despite a regular release schedule in the intervening decades, his last Top 10 album had been 1983 offering ‘Crises’ and to all intents and purposes he was a forgotten man outside of a still loyal fanbase. Having parted in acrimonious terms from Virgin Records, he signed a new deal with Warner Bros who finally persuaded him to do something he had resisted for some time – revisit the work which first made his name (and indeed whose revenues formed the bedrock of Richard Branson’s entire empire). The result was ‘Tubular Bells II’, co-produced by both original collaborator Tom Newman and Trevor Horn who worked to do something nobody else had managed for a decade – make Mike Oldfield musically relevant. The album shot to Number One and sparked a renewed interest in the talents of the multi-instrumentalist with lavish concerts at Edinburgh Castle and Carnegie Hall staged to unveil the work to the public. It also resulted in Mike Oldfield’s first forays into the singles chart in a decade as well, with opening track ‘Sentinal’ reaching Number 10 and this second single landing here on the Christmas chart. ‘Tattoo’ wasn’t an explicitly festive record, but its lilting air and bagpipe led melody lent it a suitably seasonal air. Mike Oldfield’s new found profile didn’t last much beyond this release admittedly, and his subsequent need to revisit the Tubular Bells concept rather suggests and attempt to dip into the same well once to often, but subsequent releases showed a continual desire to innovate and embrace multimedia and new platforms in a manner which put him years ahead of his time.

Mike Oldfield’s work is well represented on Spotify, but bizarrely his most successful album in a generation is conspicuous by its absence. I did warn you this might get embed-heavy.

 

32: Guns N’ Roses – Yesterdays/November Rain

With two vast, sprawling albums to mine for hits, it is small wonder that Guns N’ Roses span the promotion of the ‘Use Your Illusion’ project out over a considerable period to time, removing the messy need to go back into the studio to record new material. ‘Yesterdays’ was the sixth single to be taken from the pair of albums, a gentle mid-tempo flag-waver lifted from Volume II of the pair. Released in mid-November it made Number 8 to become their ninth Top 10 single. An extra sweetener the single came with the ‘November Rain’ on the b-side, despite it having made Number 4 in its own right earlier in the year.

31: Kriss Kross – It’s A Shame

…and we end this first segment of the chart with the third and final Top 40 hit for child rappers Kriss Kross, the pair causing a mini-sensation earlier in the year with worldwide smash hit ‘Jump’ but whose novelty value had diminished somewhat by the end of the year, although they managed two further hit albums back home in America before their voices broke and they discovered girls or something. As ever, we should note that Kriss Kross’ greatest musical legacy is launching the career of producer Jermaine Dupri, himself no more than a teenager when he helmed their ‘Totally Krossed Out’ debut LP.

Ten down, another thirty to go, and be assured there is a similar mix of sublime and ridiculous in the rest of this chart. Along with slightly more hits on the Spotify catalogue. See you tomorrow.

Smells Like Military Wives

3625-official_number1_award_420x250

Say hello to my little friend on the left. Or rather say hello to the new little friend of the Official Charts Company. From this week onwards, the feat of making it to Number One on the charts will be marked with far more than just a place forever in the record books. Each artist topping the charts will be presented with a trophy like the one pictured here, a clever and in its own way quite inspired move by the OCC to further promote the idea that being at the top of their core product is actually something which should matter a great deal.

The timing of this new award is no coincidence – the first recipient of the trophy will be the act who lands the Christmas Number One of 2011.

I was trying to think back to when I first became aware of the whole concept of topping the charts at Christmas and why we all like to pretend that it matters. I’m fairly certain it was 1986 as I’d researched the history of the Jackie Wilson re-issue ‘Reet Petite’ and its close proximity to the top of the penultimate chart before Christmas and became very excited by the prospect that if it did make Number One for Christmas it would break all kinds of records. Deciding that honour would only be served by doing so, it ranks as my first of very few successful singles chart predictions.

Whatever your own first memory of it all may be, let us not kid ourselves that the Christmas Number One has always represented the pinnacle of pop. For every ‘Earth Song’ that topped the festive charts, there has been a ‘Mr Blobby’; for every ‘Don’t You Want Me’ there is a ‘Save Your Love’; for every ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ there is a ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ – right back to the dawn of chart history. The problem is now that the whole idea of the “Xmas No.1” has now been elevated to a thing in and of itself, almost totally divorced from the normal reality of the singles chart. The festive chart-topper isn’t ever just the big pop record of the moment which happens to have sold the most before the holiday, it is now a record released with the specific aim of grabbing what is perceived to be the biggest chart crown of all.

Yes, this is mostly down to the TV talent shows. The whole wheeze of aiming a winning song at the seasonal market was dreamed up by the producers of the “Pop Stars – The Rivals” show in 2002 who realised that the best way to resolve the battle of the sexes that they were dreaming up for the show (two groups would be formed by a public vote, one male and one female) would be to release both simultaneously in the week before Christmas and see who came out on top. History records that the final chart of 2002 saw Girls Aloud at No.1 and One True Voice at Number 2, as the series worked its magic but sadly brushed the rest of the chart contenders out of the way as if they didn’t matter at all.

That said, the Number 3 single of the week nine years ago was by the Cheeky Girls (failed auditionees on the show) with the titanic pairing of Blue and Elton John at Number 4, so maybe in a sense we were all done a huge favour.

Whilst the next two reality show winners missed out on top honours for Christmas due to being released just after the holiday, since 2005 it has been a more or less safe presumption that the X Factor winner would put to bed any chance of anything resembling a chart race. When Shayne Ward sold over three quarters of million copies of ‘That’s My Goal’ in Christmas week 2005 you knew this was a juggernaut which was going to be hard to slow down or even stop.

After a few years of this I was bemoaning this wherever I could, making the point that the main reason this “game” of the festive Number One had been invented was to drive the irregular music purchasers into record shops and let them discover the wonders therein. By creating singles which were aimed to be Christmas Number One and nothing else, there was the danger we were programming a set of consumers to buy one CD single a year and to ignore everything else. Hardly a healthy state of affairs for a record industry which at the time was nervously waiting for the digital consumer revolution to catch fire.

Others did share that frustration but elected to take matters into their own hands two years ago, resulting in the now infamous chart ambush which meant that even selling half a million copies of ‘The Climb’ was not enough as the British sense of humour was tickled by the concept of buying a track which was the polar opposite. ‘Killing In The Name’ by Rage Against The Machine duly became the 2009 Christmas Number One, forcing Joe to wait a week for his moment of glory.

To this day there are regular readers who cannot understand why I condemned this in the way that I did, although the point was I thought reasonably clear. It seemed to me to fail to serve the cause of music in any way at all by replacing a single curated to be the Christmas chart-topper with one engineered to prevent it from doing so. People didn’t buy the rock song because of the way it sounded (not in the first week anyway), they were doing so to try to score a social or political point, and I abhor that.

I’ve alluded many times to the fact that ‘Killing In The Name’ only made it to the top thanks to some wholesale cheating by those involved. Much of its sales were mass bulk buys, with some online supporters cheerfully claiming to have shelled out for ten, twenty or even thirty copies over the course of the week. To me that is taking a level of obsession with the idea to frightening new levels. Was it really so important that you had to spend the equivalent of a meal at a restaurant to make it happen? As I noted at the time, the rules designed to maintain the integrity of the singles chart countdown were focused on preventing labels and pluggers furtively trying to drive up registered sales of their product – it was never assumed that the general public would try to hype the numbers up themselves. Since then the regulations are slightly more robust, limiting the number of “gift” copies than an individual can buy of a digital track and still have them count for the charts. Even at the time though, the sales patterns for ‘Killing…’ were triggering alarms which might have normally resulted in the single being disqualified for breach of hyping regulations. I have a suspicion that on this occasion the red flags were manually taken down – the publicity generated from the single remaining on the chart almost certainly worth far more than the publicity which would have resulted from such a high profile single being mysteriously absent come the weekend.

One further piece of outrageous cheating which took place was the exploitation of a loophole which inadvertently allowed people living outside the UK to “buy” singles eligible for a UK chart, all thanks to one online retailer which was offering a free download for new customers but which made no attempt to verify the addresses they were claiming to reside at. I’m firmly of the opinion it was from this source (only discovered by the campaigners at the end of the week) which gave ‘Killing In The Name’ the surge it needed to overcome the X Factor single (which had moved into the lead by the end of Friday). Once again, this technical breach of the rules was almost certainly allowed to slide, but I do know that the store in question found themselves removed from the chart survey until they could show that they were no longer submitting sales for the British charts which had originated overseas.

The 2009 Christmas Number One is now a part of chart history, but don’t for a minute think there was anything legitimate about many of its sales. Without the cheating, Rage Against The Machine would have been nowhere near the top.

Fast forward then to 2011 and the issues all referred to above have now come to a head. In theory this should be a far more equitable race than normal, with the X Factor coronation single by Little Mix having been in the shops for a week already and in the process selling in a rather slower manner than we are used to. 200,000 copies in a week is damn impressive, make no mistake – but compared to X Factor winners of old it is a rather miserable total. Frustratingly though, the main alternative contenders for the Year 10 metalwork project trophy are singles released or promoted with the specific aim of being top for Christmas. The rest of the singles market can go hang.

Leading the way, and at the time of writing looking almost a dead certainty to top the charts is ‘Wherever You Are’ by the Military Wives Choir. Should that be the case, I won’t be all that offended as the track is undoubtedly a very popular and very moving piece of recorded music. But as a charity record, sung by a vocal choir and released at the last possible moment before the holidays, is is at the same time that worst of all worlds – a record that exists to be Christmas Number One rather than an artistic statement of itself.

Just behind are the singles which various interested parties have enthusiastically purchased to try to stage a chart ambush. To my amusement they are all for the moment being bested by Lou Monte’s ‘Dominic The Donkey’ novelty recording from the 1960s, this thanks to the patronage of Chris Moyles on Radio One who without thinking about it has managed in 24 hours to torpedo some chart ambushes that have been weeks in the planning. I’m loving every last moment of it.

Also in the mix (or at least he was briefly) is wannabe pop star Alex Day who has made the leap from YouTube to the iTunes Top 10 thanks to mass purchases of many of the 730-odd different “remixes” of his single ‘Forever Yours’. This is all thanks to an army of teenage girls who worship him online and whilst the single won’t be Number One, I’m welcoming its presence in the charts if only for the fact that anything which persuades the YouTube-watching generation to actually buy copies of the music they see then it can only be a good thing. Ever wondered why Justin Bieber hasn’t had a string of Number One hits yet? It is because the pre-teens who weep lustful tears and acne pus over his posters don’t actually buy his music.

Finally, bringing up the rear in a manner which is quite hilarious are the “worthy” campaigners, the alternative rock crowd who haven’t quite worked out that the 2009 campaign success was a lightning in a bottle moment which will never be repeated. Undaunted by the disaster of their ‘Cage Against The Machine’ chart foray in 2010, the wheeze this year has been to storm the charts with Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from 20 years ago. Browse the obligatory Facebook page and you will see the old tactics still in use, the encouragement to mass buy (and panting testimonials from those who have cheerfully done so), a “loophole” which they have found with which people overseas will be able to help (clue: it won’t work) and at the time of writing some hugely entertaining foot stamping as they realise they are not in contention. Tonight apparently they have decided amongst themselves that Chris Moyle’s promoting of ‘Dominic The Donkey’ is an advertising promotion which should not be allowed and their are complaining to the BBC in the hope that the record will be disqualified. This you may note a few hours after some expressed frustration that they hadn’t been “promoted” by Radio One as should be their right. Joined up thinking much?

So when the inaugural Number One trophy is presented this weekend, I’ll watch it happen with a mixture of enjoyment and regret. I’ll enjoy seeing the genuine grass roots popularity of the Military Wives single propel it to the top of the charts and raise thousands for charity in the process and I’ll chuckle wryly at the people who have spent a fortune on multiple useless downloaded copies of random singles that never stood a chance of making Number One. At the same time I’ll long for a return to the days when the Christmas Number One was something a pop record became because music fans wanted it to be so – not because it had been foisted upon us with that specific aim in mind.

The Corridor Had A Better Echo

NODDY

As my friend and colleague Ben so neatly illustrates above, Noddy Holder made a guest appearance at the office during the week. As painfully affable as the legendary rock singer is, I got the feeling that the endless parade of people wanting a photograph was something he was enduring rather than enjoying, and so passed on the opportunity to stand and grin and pretend he cared who I was.

His visit prompted an interesting debate amongst a few of us, given that it coincided with the annual saturation airplay for his most famous composition. My colleague Danny Kelly noted that ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was an extraordinary piece of work, given that there cannot be a single generation alive who have not danced to it at some stage during their lives, and indeed many do every year. The Wikipedia article on the track cites a PRS study from 2009 which estimates that up to 42% of the entire population of the world could have listened to the song.

I in turn put forward the opinion that it is all the more surprising given that the song itself is utter garbage.

I can remember more or less to the moment the day I first heard ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, or at least became aware of the significance of what I was hearing. The 12 year old me had discovered British Hit Singles in the school library in the spring of 1986 and after checking it out had devoted a considerable amount of time to committing its contents to memory. Perusing the records, it was hard not to notice a certain Christmas themed track by the band Slade which had become the Christmas Number One whilst I was filling nappies and struggling to focus and had reappeared in the charts several times in the intervening period. It was during the school trip to Bradford Ice Rink on the last Tuesday evening of term that the DJ in the venue played this raucous seasonal rock song, and whilst listening to the words and recognising the lead singer I realised that I now knew exactly what ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ sounded like.

Such a hardy seasonal perennial, and for a great many people I’m sure one of the defining sounds of the holiday period, cannot help but have a special place in musical history and is fully deserving of its place as one of the most famous pop records ever made. Yet look beyond the stomping, peer past the whiff of roasting chestnuts and taste of mince pies that it inevitably prods the senses into recalling and you will appreciate that as a piece of music, as an artistic statement, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ is actually a bit rubbish.

The entire genesis of the song shows this up to be true, assembled from off-cuts of older songs that both Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had never found an outlet for. For sure the chorus is beefy enough, inspiringly anthemic and in the clever way it drags the word “begun” out to four syllables with enough emotional clout worthy of a sing-a-long down the pub, on the terraces or even at home. Yet the main body of the song itself is weak. The verses plodding and devoid of melody, the instrumentation lame and rushed in comparison to their other works. Few of the 42% of the world’s population who have heard the song pay much attention to the lyrics – it is all about Look To The Future Now after all – but they are for the most part banal and lifeless.

Worse yet, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ ranks poorly in comparison with pretty much everything the famous group ever recorded. Assemble in order the greatest ever Slade songs and it is hard to imagine that the festive release even features in the Top 10. Noddy Holder and Slade are at the very least fortunate that they made so many classics in their time that there is no danger of them being recalled for that one single novelty hit, yet in a way it seems a crying shame that their pension plan is a piece of music that hardly represents their artistry and creativity at its very best.

The sad thing is that it very nearly didn’t have to be this way. Ten years later, during their post-Reading early 80s creative and popular renaissance, Slade released a seasonal single which ranked amongst their very best, an emotional sing-a-long anthem which tugs at the heartstrings and yet makes you feel ready to take on the world at anything. Released in November 1983, the track raced up the singles chart in fairly short order and spent three weeks at Number 2 over the seasonal holiday, denied the chance to be Christmas Number One by the Flying Pickets.

Just think, without the bloke out of Coronation Street and a Vince Clarke song, Slade might well have had their second Christmas Number One a decade on from the first, ensuring that yet another of their songs was able to take its place in the pantheon of holiday favourites and maybe, just maybe, ensuring that generations of party-goers to come would receive regular exposure to the work of this most celebrated of English rock bands at their very best, not their most painfully average.

A Freedom Of Speech Issue

gavel bangWas it ever going to be a good idea to challenge a ruling by the broadcast regulator? Back in July, when former national radio presenter Jon Gaunt lost his appeal over a court decision not to overturn the Ofcom judgement that he had breached the Broadcasting Code during an interview he conducted in November 2008, it was clear that this was an application of good old fashioned common sense by the three Court of Appeal judges. By handing down their verdict they finally brought to a close a rather sordid saga which had dragged on almost ever since the presenter was dismissed from the radio station he and I both worked for, for that self same interview.

In their judgement (which you can read in full here), the assembled judges described the interview with a local councillor over a recently introduced policy of not placing foster children with smokers in terms of its “…bullying manner, interruption, ranting and insults…”, making it all the more extraordinary that a supposedly professional broadcaster should even contemplate that calling his interviewee a Nazi was an acceptable form of debate whilst (with the backing of human rights group Liberty) insisting that his right to freedom of expression was being infringed by the sanction. Surely nobody could be so completely lacking in self awareness. But that it seems is Jon Gaunt all over.

I am personally of the opinion that this exercise in legal futility was more of a means to an end than anything else. Mr Gaunt’s stated desire to take legal action against his former employers for dismissing him was always going to be a non-starter with an Ofcom judgement against him for the very incident which cost him his job. By breaching the Code he was almost certainly in breach of contract and liable for summary dismissal. I think his only hope was to somehow make history and have the Ofcom finding overturned to clear the way for his vendetta, an attempt which as we have now seen has ended in rather inglorious failure. Indeed the whole affair has merely served to have his faults and failings as a broadcaster set out as a matter of public record. It is hard to see how any professional broadcast outlet would be willing to take a chance on putting him back on the air to present ever again.

There is a faint whiff of tragedy about what must surely be a rather sordid and humiliating end to the man’s mainstream broadcasting career, because close analysis of his life and work reveals that there is clearly an active and potentially rather brilliant mind at work, but sadly in use by a man whose very arrogance leads to his undoing.

When it was first published I was on record as praising Jon Gaunt’s autobiography ‘Undaunted’ as a quite fascinating read, and it indeed I stand by that analysis. In it you will find details of his past life as a champion of the arts, as a theatre manager and as a promoter of artistic talent. A great many comedians and performers from the West Midlands will grudgingly admit they owe him a genuine debt of gratitude for providing them with the platform from which they launched their careers. If you are paying close enough attention, Gaunt even appears in an unnamed cameo in Frank Skinner’s own autobiography as the theatrical promoter who rented the performer the Edinburgh stage for his first ever solo shows as a budding comedy star.

When he turned his hand to radio, Gaunt also managed to make an unexpectedly large impact. He repeatedly seizes on every opportunity available to refer back to what he was proud to call his “three Sony Radio awards”, all presented to him on the same night for a show he presented on local radio in Luton back in 2001. No matter that to this day there are grumbles that technically two of them were awarded to the production team working on his programme rather than himself personally as a presenter and that the three gongs were all for the same individual broadcast, hair splitting aside he can still legitimately claim to have hosted at least one programme which has been judged worthy of three of the industry’s highest accolades. That is actually worth shouting about regardless of who you are. It remains three more than I have ever won for a start.

When the upward career trajectory which resulted from this triumph finally brought him to national radio prominence on the mid-morning show on talkSPORT, it was hard not to be impressed – at least initially. Having witnessed myself at first hand the kind of tedious shows which had occupied that slot over the years, Gaunt was truly a breath of fresh air. On virtually every programme he did the switchboard was routinely jammed with antagonised or fired up listeners wanting to have their say on the topic of the day. If you judge a phone-in show by the level of response it generates from the listeners, then the Jon Gaunt programme was up there with the best. His audience figures shortly after his debut spoke for themselves, with Gaunt’s arrival almost doubling the listenership for that slot in one fell swoop in comparison with its previous incumbent. Love him or hate him (and plenty professed to do the latter as we shall see) he was clearly required listening for some.

I never had any particular personal axe to grind with him either. On the odd occasion when I covered a shift working on his programme it was possible to appreciate his focus, his careful approach to setting out the arguments he was presenting, and perhaps more importantly be in a position to spot the moments when there was a small element of self-parody in some of his more astounding pronouncements. The downside to this approach being naturally that it is hard to see a twinkle in the eye on the radio, and so to many listening he was simply sliding deeper and deeper into extremism as his views on his favourite subjects slid ever further into outrageousness.

I should also take time out to pay tribute to the one time when he went over and above the call of duty on his show. One day in 2007 I was saddled with trying to wrestle onto the air the radio station’s side of a charity appeal for the NSPCC which a bookmaking client had asked us to be involved in. Part of my brief involved allocating various spokesmen for the charity a slot on the air to discuss their work and to solicit further donations. Whilst most shows begrudgingly granted their interviewee a five minute chat, Jon Gaunt seized the opportunity to make the NSPCC the focus of the first part of his show, offering the charity spokesman an hour long slot as his studio guest and doing more than anyone else to make the whole appeal sounded like it mattered. It was a classy and professional thing to do, going above and beyond either what was required or what any of the other producers felt able to do that day, and I respected him enormously for it.

In fact more than many of the people he worked with on air, Gaunt was actually an extremely proficient and highly skilled broadcaster, particularly when it came to the core tools of the medium. In fact so good was he that during his tenure the radio station picked up the most bizarre Ofcom judgement ever when the regulators were concerned there was insufficient distinction between a commercial script he read and the programme surrounding it. Most of the other presenters had little clue how to deliver a scripted read in a manner which sounded natural and unforced. Gaunt’s delivery of the sponsored read was so seamless and so relaxed that it was nonsensically deemed to have breached broadcasting regulations. This may rank as the only time the presenter breached Ofcom rules and commanded universal sympathy around the office for the monstrous unfairness of it.

As good as all this sounds, Mr Gaunt’s radio work did suffer from a single but hugely significant flaw. Much of the “quality” was at best superficial. Probe a little deeper, study the shows for any length of time and you would discover just how true it is that empty vessels echo so much louder.

Not long after he started at the radio station in the summer of 2006, I had a brief conversation with his then producer, commenting that his new host appeared to have got off to a flyer, with the switchboard routinely jammed with eager contributors, as I mentioned in marked contrast to some of the shows in that slot which I had worked on prior to his arrival. “That is true,” he commented, “but in all fairness he has rather gone for tap-ins. Cutting edge it isn’t”. This was indeed the case. What we refer to as tap-ins are the tried and tested subjects on which every mouth-breather under the sun has an opinion. For football shows it is the old standing v sitting debate, or should Celtic and Rangers join the Premier League. For current affairs debates it was the usual – immigration, sex offenders, custodial sentencing, “broken Britain”. Yes it provokes a response, and yes you are guaranteed a full switchboard, but at the same time it is lazy radio. Everything that can possibly have been said on the subject has been debated already and there is very little to be learned from treading the same tired old paths again and again. Yet this was all too often the Gaunt strategy, homing in on his pet subjects, playing to the gallery and worse still establishing his own point of view on the subject as the unimpeachable truth, resisting all attempts by people to disprove his point.

This lack of depth all too often infested his one time weekly column in The Sun, an effort whose subject matter would often feed back onto the radio shows and in many cases vice versa. He was justly proud of the platform this gave him and clearly fancied himself as the heir to Littlejohn, a strident right wing polemicist who could eviscerate his enemies with a well chosen turn of phrase or better yet some rapier wit. The problem was that he just wasn’t that good a writer, his columns full of bland admonishments for some misdemeanour on the part of public servants or expressions of disgust about matters which will indeed have been viewed as disgusting according to the orthodoxy of the publication he wrote for. Anyone searching the prose for an elegant turn of phrase, a genuinely new insight on the matter at hand or even the tiniest spark of genius was bound to some away disappointed. It was possible to see a parallel between what I always saw as the frustrating mediocrity of his written work and the long-term quality of his radio show. Bereft of any new terrific new ideas or new bandwagons to leap aboard, he was reduced to singing from the same small hymn sheet of songs with the almost inevitable result that he ran out of constructive things to say and was reduced to red-faced ranting. That was never going to end well.

For a man defining himself by his strident and forceful points of view, he was furthered hampered by one of the thinnest skins I’ve ever come across, unable to take criticism on the chin and reacting to any negative point of view as if intended as an aggressive personal insult. This made his desire to expose himself to it at all times all the more bizarre. Before he arrived on the scene, texts and emails sent into the studio were processed by the production staff who would filter out the illiterate and the insane before presenting the written contributions to the presenter to deal with as they saw fit. Gaunt insisted that he was more than capable of digesting his own listener contributions and successfully lobbied for a computer terminal to be installed by the presenter desk where it remains to this day. This did sadly mean that there was subsequently no filter in place and he was exposed throughout the show to the seedier side of the listening public’s tongue lashings. The net result of this was that he would frequently become enraged by some particularly barbed piece of personal criticism sent in via text and waste precious on air minutes banging the desk in rage at the person who had dared to besmirch him in such a manner. Granted some people did indeed cross the line, going down the keyboard warrior path of threatening harm not only to the man himself but members of his family, but it was a button that his most vicious haters quickly learned to push. Often when a message came in that he found particularly offensive or threatening he would loudly insist on air that the police would be contacted, forcing the production team each time to go through the motions of alerting the (indifferent) local constabulary that some radio station listener had said something nasty about the presenter’s mother. I can neither confirm nor deny that during particularly quiet days on the office floor, we used to send our own insults through to the studio just to see which particular shade of purple we could make the ludicrous man go.

This lack of self awareness and fragile self-confidence even apparently manifested itself off air as it seems that Gaunt (or somebody purporting to represent him) would routinely trawl the internet for slights upon his person, firing off spittle-flecked communications to anyone he felt had defamed him by daring to suggest that he might actually be wrong about something. One friend of mine found himself on the receiving end of such a tirade when a message board which he ran happened to sprout a topic about something the man himself had said or done. The first he knew of any problem was an email which read:

threat1

Although even this was surpassed when despite repeated requests for clarification as to exactly what the offending material was, the entity who initiated the communication responded with:

threat2

Now I should stress here that there is absolutely no direct proof and nothing to suggest that the person emailing as “gauntyinfo” was Jon Gaunt himself (although colleagues regularly communicated with him via email addresses from that same unusual internet domain, if not that specific address) and indeed given the aggressive and threatening tone of the missives it seems highly unlikely that such rather sinisterly worded communications would have come directly from such a well respected broadcaster in a position of such national prominence. He does in that case have some rather obsessed and slightly unhinged fans or associates who are prepared to go to some rather extreme lengths to defend the name of their idol online and it can only be hoped that it makes him as uncomfortable to read of this as my friend was to be on the receiving end of these threats.

Gaunt’s thin skin even extended to being unable to deal with jibes from his fellow presenters. James Whale, when he occupied the opposite end of the schedule, used to take great delight in poking fun on air at what he saw as the man’s broadcasting shortcomings, going as far as to play Sweep puppet sound effects as an imitation of Gaunt’s rather high pitched tones and conducting an on air conversation with the noises. All good fun and all in the noble tradition of speech radio potshots as pioneered by Howard Stern and Don Imus back in the 1980s and in actual fact a rather superb piece of cross-promotion. Whether he intended it that way or not, Whale was merely ensuring that Gaunt was the most talked-about presenter on the station, a situation which could only result in ever improved figures for his show as people tuned in to see what the fuss was about. Rather than embracing this or laughing it off and trying to give back as good as he got as any sensible person would, instead the station management would regularly receive telephone calls from Gaunt’s agent complaining that their client disliked being undermined in this way and requesting that some action be taken to ensure it ceased forthwith. None ever was, to Whale’s oft-stated amusement.

Believe it or not, the man who would deflect criticism from listeners on air (and indeed from those he worked with off it) with the pompous expression “when I want tips on broadcasting, I’ll ask” eventually had the chutzpah to refute the radio station’s account of the events that led up to his sacking, protesting that “he disputed that the requirement to remain with the [Ofcom] Code was ever made clear to him …. stating that he had received no training in this respect.”

Perhaps he simply forgot to ask.

I mentioned above that the most positive aspect of the Gaunt show, particularly in its early months, was its healthy performance in the audience figures. With some small settling of the numbers this by and large remained the case right up until his demise – although this wasn’t without its downside. Close analysis of the measured figures revealed that although he did have an audience, his constant on-air references to “my listeners” (as if they were all some kind of club) was nearer the truth than anyone imagined. Gaunt’s audience grew increasingly unique to him as time went on, a slightly older demographic than that of the rest of the programming on the station. They were tuning in for him, and him alone and not actually sticking around for any of the subsequent presenters, regardless of how skilled Gaunt’s promotion of them was. Ask any radio programmer and they will tell you that this isn’t automatically a good thing. Your reach may go up, but your average listening hours plummet.

People used to wonder just how he managed to command an audience given the large numbers of people who cared to express an opinion declaring that they switched off in protest the minute he came on. If that was indeed the case, then it never really mattered as for every three who stayed away at 10am, two more came in to replace them. The problem was that once things returned to “normal” at 1pm, Gaunt’s audience by and large waved goodbye for the day, badly damaging the programmes which followed, which then effectively had to draw in an audience from scratch. He had a large audience, no doubt about it, but in the long term its value to the radio station was actually rather limited, and they weren’t missed when he finally left.

For my part, the moment when the scales fell from my own eyes and I saw the man as he truly was came just a few weeks before his ultimate departure from the radio station. In October 2008 we suffered what became known as the “weekend from hell” when an electrical fault knocked out our studios for three days. On that Friday morning we had been forced to decamp across town to the premises of another radio station from where we would be able to resume broadcasting. I was on duty at this temporary facility from early on, having been summoned from my bed to assist the breakfast show in getting back on air. Due on air after that was Jon Gaunt, who had travelled across town in a taxi along with his production staff who had been at pains to explain to him that they were about to do a show with limited resources and that it would be very much a case of improvising whilst guests and telephone calls could be arranged.

Gaunt arrived at the studio, took one look at the facilities available – a microphone, a few newspapers and his wits – and flew into a blind panic. At the door to the studio he refused point blank to go on air, throwing a tantrum and insisting that the breakfast team (already 20 minutes past their scheduled slot) would have to stay on until guests were arranged or until suitable telephone lines had been rigged up for him to take calls. In front of many witnesses (all of whom confirmed my recollections of the incident), both his own colleagues and the staff of the station who were generously hosting us, he behaved in a manner which was unprofessional, unedifying, embarrassing and which only served to make an already stressful situation even harder to deal with.

His attitude stood in stark contrast to that of a fellow presenter later that same day. After we had prematurely returned to our usual premises, the studios died once again and for a short period our only means of broadcasting was an outside broadcast kit connected directly to the transmitter network. At the height of the emergency and armed once again with little more than his wits and a fistful of the day’s newspapers, Danny Kelly was apologetically invited to wear a headset and keep the station on the air by whatever means he could whilst we re-established the link to the backup studios. This he did with good cheer and not a little style, conducting a monologue which must have lasted for at least ten minutes. All without complaint.

More than anything else, the events of that day exposed Gaunt for what he really was. The proud three-time Sony Award Winning broadcaster, national newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed voice of the common man was indeed exposed as a classic empty vessel, man whose talents had been measured and found wanting when it mattered the most and in my eyes a man whose ego wrote cheques his ability simply could not cash. The French have an expression for it: péter plus haut que son cul “to fart higher than one’s arse”. From that moment on it was hard to hear him talk without feeling the rush of hot air.

Perhaps it was inevitable that within weeks of this incident he finally span out of control, spat bile at a public servant taking the time out of their day to discuss their policies and effectively plunged his on air career and reputation down the toilet. It was in a sense, frustrating timing. His production team were only too aware that they needed to work with him to develop his radio show, move him away from the ranty right winger persona into a more mature and considered one. For the first time in his career take him to Act II and expand who he could be as a broadcaster, even if the man himself was convinced there was no particular need. This is really the core of the tragedy. He had it in him to be a shining star of the genre and a truly great communicator, but so convinced was he of his own infallibility that he seemed unwilling to put the time in to develop. And was then fired from his biggest gig ever before any plans could be put into practice anyway.

As one final footnote to this rather sordid tale, I thought it appropriate to offer up one final example of the shortcomings of Gaunt’s broadcasting ability. Just prior to Christmas 2006 I had been charged with preparing the specially recorded shows which would be broadcast over the holiday period. Pride of place in the schedule was the annual Clash Of The Titans show, which saw the biggest names on the station all put in a studio together and invited to argue with each other. All the weekday talk hosts had been invited to participate, with Jon Gaunt making his debut on the show having joined the station earlier that year.

Not long before the recording, an unseemly row blew up. At least one of the other participants was keen for other recent recruit George Galloway to participate in the show, but this had apparently vetoed by the management. Rumour circulated that Gaunt had blocked his inclusion in the programme and refused to participate if the MP was included, something directly stated as fact by Galloway himself when he came on air immediately after the broadcast of the show, seething after hearing himself described as a “guttersnipe” during one exchange where his name came up.

For the record, I don’t believe there was any truth in this whatsoever. As producer of the show, I was informed well ahead of time what the line-up was to be and was charged with ensuring they were all present in the studio on the appointed day. At no time was there ever any question that George would be included on the panel, and indeed given that he was scheduled to be on air with a live show immediately afterwards it would have sounded odd to hear him as part of the previous debate. The very idea that any one presenter had veto over the make-up of the panel was simply ludicrous and can be rejected out of hand as the ravings of some large egos who could still be capable of acting like small children when required.

Nonetheless the issue clearly still rankled with James Whale, to name but one, and he took the opportunity near the end of the recording to confront Gaunt about Galloway’s absence and his part in this. I was secretly delighted, as by and large I’d presided over the recording of a show which saw 90 minutes of four men sitting around agreeing with each other and this was genuinely the one moment where the Titans were actually Clashing as per the title of the show. Nonetheless word of this exchange filtered back to my boss (I’ve no idea how) who instructed me that under no circumstances was it to go out on air in that form and that the exchange instead should instead be edited from the recording. I pressed for its inclusion but sadly to no avail. “Do it, or else” was the unequivocal instruction. Getting a clean edit out of was a more or less impossible task and it meant that this particular segment of the programme sounded rather odd upon broadcast, with a swift cut to a commercial break out of nowhere and a slight under-run on the running time, but I had little choice in the matter. As it turned out the programme was only broadcast once, as after Galloway’s slightly unprofessional on-air rant afterwards, further planned repeats were pulled from the schedule and another show substituted instead.

Fortunately for posterity I kept all the studio rushes and with five years having now elapsed it seems a shame for the short segment not to finally receive an airing. With Mr Gaunt’s new-found enthusiasm for freedom of speech (as backed by his former nemesis Shami Chakrabati) I am sure he would welcome the 2006 Clash Of The Titans being made available finally in uncensored form. It is his basic human right after all.

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Love, Lust and Time

Musicals? I’m kind of indifferent to them to be honest.

I’ve a funny feeling this is linked to endless Saturday mornings spent as a child performing at the Wetherby Music Centre, tooting away on my flute as part of an ever changing series of musical ensembles which rehearsed and performed and endless succession of medleys and songs from popular stage musicals. The man who ran it was into his musical theatre in a big way, and so it is hard sometimes to hear any of the elements of A Chorus Line or Les Miserables without immediately being transported back to counting 12 bars of silence before our particular section of woodwind were due to join the cacophony again.

As an adult, I concluded that there was something rather unsatisfactory about musicals as a form of theatre. The need to shoehorn song and dance numbers into the structure of a dramatic story often mean that plot, placing and character are all sacrificed in favour of a five minute interlude where the principles get to sing their heart out about the pot of jam they’ve just finished (or whatever spurious life event is deemed worthy of song at that point in the libretto). This uneasy balance was never more apparent when about 15 years ago I was gifted free tickets to a touring revival of Grease which had pitched up at the Bradford Alhambra. The story is now so familiar and the songs themselves such audience favourites, that it appeared that this production had been designed to downplay the former in favour of the latter. Rather than engage me with the plot, the whole performance was little more than a string of audience set-pieces linked together by the briefest of stilted dialogue. There was no room to appreciate the acting or to be drawn into the emotion of the tale, we as audience members were there to sit for three hours in anticipation of You’re The One That I Want. Nothing more was required of us.

So even without mentioning the cosy tweeness and endless repeated musical figures of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, I can safely say I regard musicals as the lowest form of artistic expression.

Which is why I’m now about to recommend that you take time out to download and enjoy one.

Me Me Me is the latest creative opus from the popularly vilified Vile Pervert Jonathan King, a fascinating and engaging man whose works you will often find referenced here in my capacity as a fan and a friend of his. His first attempt at producing a musical film was the autobiographical Vile Pervert which featured the man himself playing all the characters involved. For this new production the stakes and indeed production values have been raised. Professionally shot, and with actual proper actors playing many of the roles, this is a musical film designed to be viewed on its own merits, and not simply as a passing curiosity. Best of all, you can stream or download it all for absolutely nothing.

Me Me Me spins the tale of Jonny Bambino, a graffiti artist who is turning heads all over London and who after being tracked down by a tabloid newspaper is turned into a pop star, complete with three straight Number One hits. When his final work of graffiti is deemed to have crossed a line, the previously benign media turns on their creation – all leading to a Shakespearian tragedy as star crossed lovers pay the ultimate price for media hysteria.

Let’s deal with the negatives first of all. Despite the best efforts of all involved and some extremely creative thinking in terms of staging and production, much of Me Me Me struggles to rise beyond the level of a student degree presentation. Some of the dialogue is stilted and clunky, scenes are present for no reason other than to shoehorn in an irrelevant song, and the pacing is so inconsistent you are sometimes fighting the urge to skip through the exposition to the next musical performance. Leading lady Scarlett Emmanuelle is acceptably pleasing on the eye and capable of voice but Red Light One duo Henry and Rupert Stansall who play the male leads are far better at looking pretty as they are musicians and far better musicians than they are actors. That much is obvious.

Yet for all these flaws, I found it hard to resist the charm of the film. What saves it is the overall vision, the salient points made about media created darlings and the inevitable downfalls which result, the sheer labour of love its production clearly was for everyone involved, but most importantly of all the music. The soundtrack to the film is crammed with memorable songs and productions, as I mentioned above not all of which are necessarily relevant to the plot, but all of which you find yourself humming for days afterwards. Most crucially for a film about a pop star, Johnny Bambino’s “singles” are believably radio and chart-friendly and stand head and shoulders above much pop music you may have heard this year. Plus you get the feeling that Mr King has literally been waiting 25 years to make full use of the recordings by failed rock supergroup Gogmagogg which now have pride of place in the film and prove that we are all indeed Living In A Fucking Timewarp.

Possibly the highest compliment I can give the production is that every time I watch it I’m instantly picturing it all on a West End stage, imagining sets and chorus lines, grand entrances and big production numbers. For a high quality but still endearingly amateur production, it all just seems to work and even the half interested viewer intent on staying for the first five minutes may well be surprised to discover they are still there at the end – even if the final dénouement is a little rushed and underplayed (although so was the final act of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and nobody ever seemed to mind).

My own personal favourite moment of Me Me Me comes at the close of what on stage might be seen as the first act, as impressario Ben Volio takes to the stage to show Bambino and crew just what makes him the man to propel them to pop stardom. A long lost track performed by a much younger King himself, this wound up being my favourite musical moment of the summer and a song which helped me see the brighter side of some very dark moments earlier this summer.

Me Me Me is available online to watch in full at its website, with the full soundtrack on sale on iTunes. A soundtrack which includes Penny, three minutes which will leave you with a day-long grin. Enjoy.

It’s What I’m ‘About’ After All

Have you been missing the weekly instalments of what used to be the Chart Watch UK column, absent from the net since Yahoo! Music shuttered its site in the UK? If so it is clear that you aren’t alone, as the enormous amount of traffic that this site has generated since the end of September has proved. My grateful thanks to everyone who has shown an interest in where I might end up next and who has expressed frustration that the chart column had come to temporary halt.

As you might imagine, I’ve not been able to discuss what has been going on behind the scenes over the last few weeks, but suffice it to say I’ve been in conversation with numerous music and entertainment sites about the possibility of picking the column up, impressing on them that an enormous worldwide audience was more or less guaranteed, and one which would return week after week. Nonetheless it has at times been hard work.

I’m still in discussions with some British based websites about appearing on their pages, but for those suffering Masterton withdrawal symptoms I am pleased to revel that I’ve been asked to contribute each week to the Top 40 pages of renowned American website About.com. The first of these pieces went online this week, and by bookmarking top40.about.com you’ll be able to catch up with the main chart headlines of the week every Sunday evening. Given the regular audience of about.com, the focus will be very much on explaining things from the point of view of an outsider, but I hope there will still be enough of the old opinionated me for people to disagree with.

Meanwhile the search for a proper home for the full Chart Watch UK column continues, for the moment keep listening to the weekly podcast for all the facts that don’t fit in the space available on About.

I Won’t Have It In The House

On the day of the Royal Wedding last April I found myself working first thing in the morning, covering for absent colleagues who had elected to take the bonus Bank Holiday off. As well as affording me the chance to witness the normally unlikely spectacle of the South Bank of London virtually devoid of people at 10am, it meant I arrived back home mid-way through the ceremonies. As expected my wife and mother-in-law were both watching events on television. On Sky News.

They are both foreign you see, so to them the most natural assumption was that such a newsworthy event would be on a news channel. Being British myself, I quickly put them straight and flicked over the cable box to BBC One HD where it remained for the rest of the day. For virtually anyone of my upbringing this was the only place to watch an event of this significance. No matter that the view the following day was that ITV’s coverage was usually superior, the BBC was an automatic choice.

Hence there is a strange irony in the fact that I’ve spent the last seven weeks (and last weekend in particular) heavily involved in broadcasts that many would normally expect to find on the BBC, and yet due to the modern era of rights issues were confined exclusively to commercial networks. The events covered two sports – Rugby Union and Football – and the differing attitudes between the audiences for both sports was a subject of endless fascination.

Let me start by reflecting that the past seven weeks being at the heart of radio coverage of the Rugby World Cup will long rank as one of the most exciting privileges of my career. Right from the start, the sense of event we gave the competition on air, and the reception the coverage received made it plain we were involved in something rather special and were providing a service and entertainment to an audience who were appreciating it enormously. Granted it is sometimes possible for your spirit to waver when you are rising from bed at 5am in order to travel to work to broadcast Tonga v Japan commentary to a small online audience, but somehow we powered through. We had demonstrated a commitment to the tournament and a willingness to devote airtime that no other domestic broadcaster of the event had done before. Perhaps best of all it wasn’t on the BBC.

Part of the fun, particularly for the big games such as England v Scotland was to scan online reaction and in the first instance reflect on the bemusement of people turning their radios on to listen and expressing confusion that they were not hearing the commentary where they would expect it. There was an inbuilt assumption that the coverage could be found on the BBC, and no matter how much pre-publicity had been circulated about the correct channel to tune into, some were left wondering if radio had chosen to ignore the matches completely. The BBC can and indeed should take some pride in noting that for many there is an automatic assumption that an event of major sporting significance will be broadcast in some form across their networks, even if modern day circumstances mean this is less and less likely to be the case.

Once the Rugby loving audience had located the correct channel for the coverage they all appeared to be extremely satisfied with what they heard. What helped was not only the quality of the on-air personnel we had assembled to cover the matches (big names such as John Taylor, Brian Moore and David Campese) but strangely enough also the high degree of criticism levelled at the ITV television coverage which seemed to be judged as rather poor by a large number of people. Not having watched much of the TV coverage myself, I’m in no position to judge, but a great deal of the social networking traffic during the matches, and indeed the comments we received directly in the studio, were of the nature of “the TV coverage is rubbish, I’ve turned the sound down and put the radio on instead – far better”. For what is supposedly the ‘inferior’ medium of radio this is high praise indeed.

Compare this attitude then with that of football fans, not the ones for whom consumption of sporting debate around the matches is a habitual part of their appreciation of the games, but instead those concerned solely with the actuality of the matches. The ones who tune in for the coverage, wherever they can find it. Over the last season and a half I’ve been privileged to be at the helm for something unique in modern day broadcasting history – huge high profile Premier League matches which have been wrenched from the bosom of the BBC and handed instead exclusively to a commercial radio network, and in the process it seems taking some of these radio listeners well and truly out of their comfort zone.

A perfect example of this came on the same day as the Rugby World Cup Final when talkSPORT followed its exclusive coverage of the Kiwi victory with the exclusive national radio commentary of Manchester United v Manchester City – a must-consume match for even the neutral fan. By keeping half an eye on message boards and on social networking sites, it was possible to trace a graceful arc of discovery amongst those who had still not cottoned on that the Sunday lunchtime games were not where they might expect.

Reactions ranged from anger at the way the BBC had “chosen” to ignore what was surely such a high profile game (presuming incompetence on the part of their controllers until put straight on the matter) through once more some astonished puzzlement as to where they might find the commentary given that it wasn’t on the BBC as they had expected, right the way up to indignant anger that such an important event was not on the BBC and was thus being soiled (as they saw it) by a commercial network.

It is the latter category of listener, or should that be commenter, which to me is the most fascinating of all. There were people genuinely incensed that the game was on the “wrong” channel, wondering if there was some kind of law which would ban commercial radio from taking the relevant rights. People half-seriously complained of having to lower themselves to tune elsewhere, as if moving over the commercial world was somehow rather dirty with some extremists announcing that they point blank refused to tune in to a radio station which was not their regular choice and would instead be “forced” to follow the match through live text updates.

I was reminded of the tales older friends of mine spin of the early days of commercial television, where in some circles (and in an attitude which was by no means confined to one particular social class), the newly forged ITV was seen as the grubby inferior. Programmes on the alternative channel were to be avoided at all costs, with tales abounding of some homes refusing to perform the necessary retuning of their sets. ITV they said, was not something we would choose to have in our homes.

Such attitudes these days seem quaint, antediluvian even, especially in this modern multi-channel age. Nobody would seriously admit to avoiding all programming except that of the BBC without inviting ridicule. Yet amongst radio listeners it seems this tribalism, this unswerving brand loyalty is still prevalent.

Maybe it is just a hard core of nutters, and football fans in particular  – given that as we saw above this attitude simply did not exist amongst the Rugby Union crown – who are so dogmatic in their choice of radio listening. Goodness knows how any of them would cope in a market such as America where radio rights for teams are traded back and forth between competing radio stations in a local market, each hoping for the edge over their competition which it will give them. Never mind, given that the big Manchester derby turned out to be one of the greatest matches ever, as City’s sixth goal slid into the net, I found myself wondering just how many of the refuseniks had succumbed to temptation and tuned in anyway. Who knows, they may even have enjoyed what they found. Wouldn’t that have been a scandal?