Found That Soul Of 2001–Part Two

I’ve mentioned before that there is an unbreakable emotional link between the circumstances of your life and how you feel about the music of the time. I’ve written in the past about chart countdowns which mark deep personal lows and how the emotions flood back with every song. I suspect the affection with which I can view many of these songs is similarly based on fond memories of this particular period in my life. I was living the dream, newly embraced by London life, earning money again after a bleak financial period and in the manner of Homer Simpson at the bowling alley was merrily tripping to work in a dream job which combined my two loves of computers and radio. Throughout it all, the songs on the radio made this one of the most memorable times of the decade for me and to be able to relive them all once again is a positive joy. Only a crippling lack of sex prevented life from being total perfection.

Oh I’m sorry, did I shatter the reverie with an overshare? We should play the tape again, and keep a close eye on the Spotify playlist as a string of mainstream acts means there is once again a pleasing strike rate of these songs available for modern day listening.

30: Eminem – Stan

What a difference 13 weeks makes. When the promotion of ‘Stan’ as Eminem’s third single from his second album began and the track began to pick up airplay, the subject matter of the supposedly controversial track caused a great deal of soul searching amongst broadcasters. Uniquely Radio One approved it for daytime play but for the first few weeks preceded every broadcast of the track with an announcement to the effect that it is an important record that they though you should be able to hear, but that anyone who may be upset by it might like to turn the volume down for five minutes.

Was it all a fuss over nothing, or did time wither the impact of the tale of Stan the obsessed fan and his doomed pregnant girlfriend? Either way, come the spring of 2001 the single was still a Top 40 fixture and was still in regular rotation on daytime commercial radio – heavily edited to remove the nastier parts of the tale, naturally – without anyone batting an eyelid.

As a three month old Number One single here on the Top 40 chart doing a slow but steady burnout, a full account of the chart story of ‘Stan’ and just what its cultural impact was can wait for the day we do one of these for the close of 2000. At this point the track was spending its penultimate week on the Top 40, its significance by March 2001 not so much the way it took Eminem back to the top of the charts, but the way that in its wake it turned the lady whose sampled voice forms such a core part of the song into a huge mainstream star. Stay tuned, as they say.

29: Mya – Case Of The Ex

It was actually Mya’s second album which spawned her biggest international hit. The R&B singer had made her American chart debut as far back as 1998, hitting the Billboard Top 10 with the track ‘It’s All About Me’ but the first British audiences heard of her was as one of the multitude of guest voices on the Pras Michel single ‘Ghetto Supastar’ later that same summer. She broke through internationally as a solo star with this naggingly brilliant tale of relationship paranoia which stormed to Number 3 the moment it was released in early February 2001. Sadly neither this single nor the Number 11 follow-up ‘Free’ did much to help sales of their parent album ‘Fear Of Flying’ which barely tickled the Top 100 when finally released later in the summer. Her greatest singles chart success would come later in 2001 when she was part of the ensemble cast of stars who performed ‘Lady Marmalade’ on the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, a single which was Number One in most of the territories of the world including the UK. Her career fell off the rails following a lengthy delay in releasing her fourth album in 2007, but even by that time she had sadly dropped off the radar as far as Britain was concerned. Sad in a way… ‘Case Of The Ex’ remains nothing short of marvellous.

28: Backstreet Boys – The Call

To think we thought Anastacia had problems being huge in Europe but disregarded in her own country. The Backstreet Boys had this headache in SPADES. Making their debut in the mid-1990s, the first big American boy band since NKOTB found themselves ignored in their home country but feted as the next big thing in Europe with a string of continent-wide smashes. Britain took a while to catch on itself but by 1996 they were regular fixtures at the top end of the singles chart with tracks such as ‘We’ve Got It Going On’ and ‘Quit Playing Games With My Heart’. Whilst America finally took the bait a couple of years later it meant that for a brief period their album releases were badly out of sync, second European album ‘Backstreets Back’ having to be extensively reversioned as their Stateside “debut” in 1997.

Fortunately things had resolved themselves nicely by the time of their fourth album ‘Black and Blue’ in 2000 and the now worldwide hits just kept on rolling. The lead track from the album became its third single in Europe, ‘The Call’ dealing with the rather weighty subject matter of a man calling up to lie to his girlfriend about where he was about to be spending the night. Released in mid-February 2001 it made an easy Number 8 to become the 13th Backstreet Boys Top 10 hit. Whilst their hits may have dried up around 2007, they still actively record and tour to this day, making headlines at present for a dual header nostalgia tour with New Kids On The Block.

27: Dr Dre featuring Snoop Dogg – The Next Episode

The “first” episode was the seminal ‘Nuthin But a G Thang” from Dr Dre’s solo debut album ‘The Chronic’ in 1992. A pre-fame Snoop Dogg guested on that track too, ending by suggesting everyone chilled out until next time. The original idea was that the “next episode” of which they spoke was to appear on Snoop Dogg’s own debut album ‘Doggystyle’ but although it was listed on early pressings of the sleeve for the album the track itself never appeared.

Having kept the world in suspense for eight years, Dre finally delivered as he and Snoop finished the saga as ‘The Next Episode’ emerged on his 2000 album ‘2001’ and was duly issued as its third single. Here I have to once again expose my lack of complete appreciation for the entire hip-hop canon as I can document that the single is consistently ranked as one of the more essential pieces of work that the genre of gangster rap has offered over the years, although it defies my critical faculties to explain exactly why. Credit where credit is due though, ‘The Next Episode’ remains to this day one of Dr Dre’s most famous and biggest selling hits worldwide. Appropriately enough its British chart fortunes reflect its status, peaking at Number 3 it is easily Dre’s highest charting single in this country as a performer.

26: Divine Comedy – Love What You Do

Finally a new entry! And one from the very finest of British performers as well. The release of Greatest Hits collection ‘A Secret History’ in 1999 marked, at least briefly, a break from the past for Neil Hannon and the ever-shifting collection of musicians who backed him as The Divine Comedy. For his seventh album ‘Regeneration’ he took a step back from the ever more lavish productions which had characterised his recent work, recruiting Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for a more stripped-down back to basics sound. The relative success or failure of this approach is rather tricky to judge, for the new sound suffered from the same problem as many Divine Comedy releases, being long on critical acclaim but rather short on proper mass sales appeal.

Lead single ‘Love What You Do’ was a case in point. Arriving a few weeks before the album it made a perfunctory appearance inside the Top 30 chart before vanishing with rather brutal efficiency. Listening to it, it isn’t hard to see why. Hannon’s poetry and blissful crooning are present and correct but the clinking and chiming production appears oddly out of place here and is rather more reminiscent of, well, a Radiohead album track than anything else. Hannon continues to churn out Divine Comedy albums at regular intervals, which alongside soundtrack work and inspired side projects such as the acclaimed Duckworth-Lewis Method concept album he remains a genuine national treasure, albeit one absent from the Top 40 since 2004.

25: Joe featuring Mystikal – Stutter

Another American star who found European success before breaking through back home, R&B star Joe had opened his chart account as far back as 1994 with the Top 30 hit ‘I’m In Luv’. When debut album ‘Everything’ failed to sell in his home nation he was swiftly dropped, only to re-emerge in 1997 with the rather more successful ‘All That I Am’ album which saw his star shine slightly more brightly (single ‘Don’t Wanna Be A Player’ made Number 16 here that same year). By 2001 he was firmly established as a big name, meaning ‘Stutter’ had an easy path to the top of the US charts and in turn became his biggest hit single on these shores when it advanced to an easy Number 7 when released in mid-February. His hits dried up towards the middle of the decade but after two independently released albums in recent years, talk emerged last year of a potential Joe comeback. The space continues to be watched.

24: Caprice – Once Around The Sun

Here’s a fun game. Have a gander at the Wikipedia entry for Caprice Bourret and see how much attention is paid to her many attempts to carve out a musical career. It is in there, albeit as a two line paragraph under “Other Work”. That’s how much significance her “fans” attach to it. Yes, Caprice’s musical career is something everyone tries to forget, despite the marketing effort which was attached to it at the time. She first inked a record deal with Virgin Records in 1999, hitting Number 24 with her debut effort ‘Oh Yeah’. The lukewarm public reaction to that first release meant things were put on the backburner for a couple of years whilst the American star sought to expand her business interests and public profile. With that done, having reached the point where she was rather oddly a front page fixture in the Daily Star, it was time to try again with this pop lark – hence the presence on the chart of her second a final single ‘Once Around The Sun’. Listening back to it for the first time in a decade you can see just why things never took off. The song itself is far from unpleasant and is a genuinely uplifting country-pop track, spoiled only by the nasal whine of her voice itself which slices through the melody like an electric drill on metal. Caprice’s pop career makes that of Paris Hilton seem relevant and worthwhile. Small wonder it only gets two lines in an otherwise comprehensive online biography, although the fact that the damn thing is actually on Spotify is more extraordinary still.

23: Papa Roach – Last Resort

2001 arguably marked the commercial peak of the genre which came to be known as Nu-Metal. After years of resolutely ploughing its own furrow regardless of other prevailing musical tastes, rock music charged headlong back into the mainstream thanks to an inspired embracing of other styles. Suddenly the vogue was for crunching guitars combined with rap beats, vocals and instrumentation tweaked by studio trickery and a wholesale embracing of the idea that even the angriest of songs could be pop records as well. Yes, it made for music which was more or less impossible to reproduce live in sweaty underground rock clubs, but it turned the likes of Korn into stars.

Californians Papa Roach hit the ground running with their debut album ‘Infest’, with this lead single becoming a Top 3 smash in Britain seemingly almost from nowhere on the back of extensive touring by the group at the tail end of 2000. A decade on the track still possesses an energy somehow lacking in most other modern day rock tracks. This isn’t the last Nu-Metal track we’ll stumble over in this countdown either, as there are even bigger rock hits to come.

22: Debelah Morgan – Dance With Me

Very much a one hit wonder as far as Britain is concerned, this is the sole contribution to the UK chart history of American singer-songwriter Debelah Morgan. After moderate success back home with her first two albums, the title track from her third made her briefly a worldwide name to watch as it charted in many territories, landing at Number 10 here at the end of February 2001. The most notable aspect of the single is its wholesale borrowing (these days we’d call it “interpolation") of the melody from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, originally written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the 1950s musical The Pyjama Game. Despite the hit single, Britain remained otherwise unmoved by the music of Debelah Morgan. Its parent album failed to chart and neither hide nor hair has been seen of her since.

21: A1 – No More

Just what is it about boy bands which means one is elevated when others fall by the wayside? Luck of the draw perhaps, or just the good fortune to be handed some strong material. Created by Steps svengali Tim Byrne, A1’s main gimmick (if they had one at all) was that one of their members was Norwegian, Christian Ingebrigsten just happening to be studying at the LIPA academy in Liverpool when the casting call for the group was put out. After a strong start in the summer of 1999 which saw their first four singles all make comfortable Top 10 placings, they suddenly hit a sweet spot with pop fans, scoring back to back Number One hits with a cover of A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ and the original track ‘Same Old Brand New You’, both in 2000. This single ‘No More’ was the immediate follow-up to both of those, the third and final single to be taken from their second album ‘The A List’ and a more than respectable Number 6 hit in February 2001. Based on the usual half-life of boy bands they timed the end of their career more or less to perfection, breaking up in 2002 after a final album and the news that Paul Marazzi was leaving the band.

That might have been that, but for the extraordinary reunion of the remaining trio in 2009, starting a new journey which has seen them flirt with Eurovision candidacy (for Norway – not chosen), recording a new album for the Scandinavian market in 2010 and playing comeback gigs in Britain at the tail end of last year.  Whilst a chart comeback here seems unlikely (the only people who cared at the time have long grown out of pop music), A1 appear to be doing their best to make sure that their story isn’t quite over yet.

Found That Soul Of 2001–Part One

Why 2001? Well for a start it is the last remaining year of the last 25 or so from which I’ve yet to select a vintage chart show to write about. This seems as good a moment as any to plug that hole. However it is also the case that this year was actually a particularly memorable one in popular music. Every music fan feels the winds of change blowing through their tastes as they get older, reaching the point when pop ceases to be something that talks to them directly and is more for the benefit of other people. I would never wish to submit that everything that has arrived since is utterly without merit, but for me 2001 was the last truly “great” year in my life as a pop fan, when the charts were rammed with classics – some well remembered, some forgotten – and the memories are those of perpetual sunshine.

As luck would have it, a springtime Top 40 is a great place to test this theory. Make no mistake we are in for a belter for this is a singles chart which is nothing less than superb.

As ever, this recap is done with particular reference to the tape of the Radio One Top 40 show from this week which you can presume is playing in the background throughout. Specifically the show broadcast on March 4th 2001. Imperial phase Mark Goodier is the host and the production of the show is so tightly focused on the Top 40 chart that with little more than a brief recap of last week and a quick montage of potential new entries we launch straight into the brand new chart. For those who wish to experience the tracks in real-time (kind of) there is a Spotify playlist of as many of these tracks as physically possible.

40: Anastacia – Not That Kind

For a brief period at the start of the 21st century, American singer Anastacia Newkirk could lay claim to being one of the biggest selling artists on the planet. Blessed with striking looks and a rich, powerful voice which was six parts Taylor Dayne to four parts Tina Turner she hit commercial paydirt with her debut album ‘Not That Kind’ which was rammed with the kind of pop hits (most of them self-penned) which radio programmers and most importantly their audiences found hard to resist. For all their ubiquity, her singles weren’t the biggest of chart hits in this country but somehow they all seem instantly and comfortingly familiar from the moment their first bars ring out. Now that is quality pop music. Debut hit ‘I’m Outta Love’ had gone Top 10 in the summer of 2000 and this title track from the album was her second chart hit, making what could be considered a rather understated Number 11 in early February 2001. She bumped along with more mid-table hits before making a triumphant return from breast cancer surgery in 2004 with the Top 3 hit ‘Left Outside Alone’ only to see her British chart prospects fade away once more. Still incredibly popular in mainland Europe, the only country in the developed world immune to her charms is her native land where she has just one Top 30 album to her name (her last two remaining unreleased there) and bereft of major chart singles.

39: Westlife – What Makes A Man

The eighth Westlife single of their career and a track which was released with immaculate timing to ensure it would not only become their 8th Number One single in a row but also land them the Christmas Number One for the second year running. Except things did not quite work out that way as the moment we had been predicting for a while came to pass – a Westlife single failed to top the charts. Instead in a notable moment of pure poetry, fate dictated that they would be outsold by a TV actor putting a voice to a lump of plasticine as Bob The Builder swept all before him to claim the crown – this despite frantic promotional activity by the group and as many favours as they could manage called in to ensure their perfect chart record was not to be spoiled. In the end though this stands proud as the first true chart failure of their career, although a Number 2 hit at Christmas and a three month chart run after that is hardly something to sneer at. Notwithstanding the rather curious way all their singles flew to Number One with limp sales after never meeting any substantial competition along the way, the worst thing you could say about all their early work was that they were essentially the same lavish ballad reworked in different ways each time. Westlife only really had one song, but as I was at pains to point out, it was at the very least a good song until the point we all got tired of hearing it.

38: Girls@Play – Airhead

For every pop act which hits the dizzy heights of stardom, there are generally three more who fell by the wayside and are all but forgotten by musical history. For the lucky few there are at least some minor chart entries with which they have made their mark on posterity. Five piece girl group Girls@Play were the creations of Mike Stock and Matt Aitken and with a series of individual fashion gimmicks and what was hoped were an appealing set of songs they were launched on an unsuspecting public in early 2001 after a series of low level support slots for the likes of Steps the previous winter. Their debut single ‘Airhead’ (which I actually think was rather underrated even then – it is a long way from being as offensively bad as it could have been) was released in mid-February and stumbled to a slightly disappointing Number 18, causing a pause for a rethink until later that autumn. When their second single, a cover of the old Mel and Kim track ‘Respectable’ bombed out at Number 29 in October inevitably the entire project was canned before they had even got as far as scheduling an album.

The last remaining legacy of Girls@Play is the fact that amongst their number was Rita “Roxy Mitchell” Simons, although a quick search for the remaining four members shows that most have continued in showbusiness in one form or another. Vicky Dowdall currently runs music management company VDM Music, Lynsey Shaw lives in Los Angeles hosting burlesque nights and continuing to pursue her singing career and Shelley Nash refocused on her classic training and works as a wedding singer in the London area. Only Lisa-Jayne White appears to have dropped off the radar performing-wise. Not a bad strike rate all things considered.

Pretty face but a head full of air

37: U2 – Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Fresh from collecting an Outstanding Contribution gong at the 2001 Brits, U2 continued their back to basis renaissance with the second single from the ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ album. A mellow gospel-tinged ballad which called back to Bono’s sense of loss after learning of the death of Michael Hutchence, it was a worthy addition to the canon of most memorable U2 singles. Such was their newly renewed commercial power at this point, the track managed to sidestep the usual “second release from a band whose fans already have the album anyway” and the single shot to Number 2 upon release in early February 2001. Granted it was still a rather in and out chart performance (this Number 37 was a dead cat bounce up from 40 on its fifth week on the Top 40), but can you really argue that this wasn’t a worthy contender as one of their highest charting hit ever?

36: Rui Da Silva featuring Cassandra – Touch Me

The man who had the honour of becoming the first ever Portuguese star to top the charts was producer Rui Da Silva. A winsome blend of trance and deep house, the track ‘Touch Me’ was crafted around a sample from Spandau Ballet’s ‘Chant No.1’, something which caused a minor legal scuffle just before the single came out when it was discovered that no clearance had been obtained for this borrowing. Released as part of the usual batch of new year hopefuls, the single stood out as the best of the post-Christmas crumbs and bagged itself a week at the top of the charts in early January. Singer Cassandra Fox was more than just the hired help, writing the lyrics herself and subsequently finding herself on top of the charts. Deciding that dance music wasn’t her thing really she subsequently set out on her own yet met with rather limited success.

35: Spooks – Things I’ve Seen

If you believe in musical evolution, then The Spooks are technically the missing link between the Fugees and the Black Eyed Peas, for a brief period threatening to take the music style of the former to exciting new levels. The hip-hop and soul collective were based out of Philadelphia and after a shaky start hit commercial paydirt with the evocative and incredibly well crafted ‘Things I’ve Seen’, the second single taken from their debut album ‘S.I.O.S.O.S.’ and one which featured on the soundtrack of the Laurence Fishburne film ‘Once In The Life’. The track made a comfortable Number 6 upon release in January 2001 and was swiftly followed by the Number 15 hit ‘Karma Hotel’ although the album itself only made a minor sales impact. After their second album was largely ignored and following the death of founder member Water Water in a car crash around the same time, Spooks quietly disbanded. For apparently random reasons their flop second album is available in full on the Spotify catalogue whilst their hit first one isn’t. Have the video instead.

34: Usher – Pop Ya Collar

Whilst his career now effectively spans three decades (with a chart-topping single in each), this single was at the time a welcome comeback for R&B star Usher who had made a huge impact with his debut hit album (although it was actually his second to be released) ‘My Way’ and chart-topping single ‘You Make Me Wanna’. The three year wait for a follow-up was entirely down to his burgeoning acting career as Hollywood (and TV soap operas) came calling. Returning to the recording studio he appeared to have picked up where he left off when ‘Pop Ya Collar’ shot to Number 2 in the UK. In America however the single underperformed, and after an early version of the album was leaked online it was swiftly retooled with some brand new tracks added. ‘8701’ was finally released later that summer and became the first of Usher’s three Number One albums. Little did we know he was still only just getting started.

33: Safri Duo – Played-A-Live (The Bongo Song)

Sometimes the biggest hits aren’t the most obvious. The Safri Duo were percussionists Uffe Savery and Morten Friis who had been recording classically-themed albums in their native country for much of the 1990s. Having been informed they could make a killing by making club tracks they created the Bongo Song which received a rapturous reception when issued to club DJs in early 2000. Upon commercial release the frantic instrumental track became an inevitable Europe-wide smash and needless to say formed part of the soundtrack to just about every major event over the course of the next 12 months, from the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games onwards. A British release for the track came rather late in the day but that did little to stop it racing to a Number 6 peak in early February. Despite further releases over the course of the next decade, they remain one hit wonders as far as the UK is concerned.

32: Nelly – EI

The second UK hit for rapper Nelly, following up ‘Country Grammar’ which had made Number 7 late in 2000 and helped the album of the same name into the Top 20 upon its release. With many of Nelly’s later singles going on to bigger and better things (he would have two Number One hits to his name before the decade was out) his early work is oddly reduced to little more than a footnote, tracks like ‘EI’ all but forgotten. Or maybe that is just me caring as little for it now as I did back then.

31: Fragma featuring Maria Rubia – Everytime You Need Me

We finish this batch of ten singles with the track which returned Fragma to the charts under their own steam after they had a surprised but no less welcome Number One in spring 2000 with pioneering mash-up single ‘Toca’s Miracle’. Clearly the success of that track persuaded the German producers that a powerful female vocal over their trance noodlings means commercial paydirt, hence the recruitment of British model Maria Rubia for the vocals on this Top 3 hit which neatly coincided with the release of Fragma’s one and only hit album ‘Toca’ which reached Number 19 in late January. Rubia made a brief attempt at a solo career of her own later in 2001, limping to Number 40 with ‘Say It’ before vanishing from sight altogether.

70 Seconds To Define An Ambition

imageIt appears to be one of the great all but forgotten TV shows, untroubled by an endless cycle of syndicated repeats on high numbered satellite channels and undisturbed by opportunistic DVD box sets which end their life piled high near the checkouts in HMV at Christmas with stickers advertising a 70% discount on their originally listed price. Yet for some of us the late 1980s American TV show Midnight Caller retains a resonance which to this day has echoes in everything we do. OK then, to me it does.

First aired by NBC in America at the tail end of 1988 and picked up by the BBC who flung it out on Saturday evenings starting in spring 1989, the show told the tale of Jack Killian, a San Francisco policeman who had quit after the accidental death of his partner and reinvented himself as a late-night radio talk show host, taking calls from the public from midnight to 3am on radio station KJCM and in the process becoming embroiled in the very social issues his listeners were bringing to his attention.

The show lasted for three series before finally being cancelled as plot lines span out of control in an increasing spiral of silliness, but in its early years the show attracted huge praise for the depth of its approach and its willingness to portray issues such as stalking or even AIDS in such an uncompromising manner.

For a teenager whose mind had already generated the spark of an idea that what he really wanted to do above all else in life was to work on the radio it was naturally even more than that. Here was a TV hero who was living your own dreams, paid to do everything you yourself had dreamed of and living a lifestyle that seemed so impossibly glamorous and yet tantalisingly within reach.

Precious little of Midnight Caller exists on YouTube, unless you count a seemingly random selection of episode highlights dubbed into Japanese, but really the (admittedly rather cheaply made) opening titles are all that is required to bring the memories flooding back. They last 70 seconds, but the images they contain helped to define just why I wanted this kind of life for myself, even if the reality is sometimes slightly less gleaming.

First there was the theme tune, written and performed by Jazz trumpeter Rick Braun. A none more 80s smooth jazz piece led by the muted tones of the man himself underscored by a saxophone and steel guitar backing. Think Dire Strait’s ‘Your Latest Trick’ with added east coast authenticity Intended to conjure up the late night mood of the protagonist’s shows, to me it was always the soundtrack to my dream lifestyle. When I grew up I was going to live in a sleek modern apartment, furnished in black and with giant plate glass windows that looked out onto a gleaming cityscape below. My hifi would glow with precision LED and neon lights and every evening I’d be the King of all I surveyed.

image

Then there was Jack himself, played with career-defining aplomb by Gary Cole (years before all this Brady Bunch or Office Space nonsense). No cluttered desk for him, his working environment was defined by a man illuminated by a spotlight with few tools except for a handful of computer screens and his wits. The producers could never quite decide exactly how it was he communicated with the San Francisco audience and so he would alternate between staring down the barrel of a condenser microphone or wander around the room staring wistfully out of the window whilst addressing the headset device he is also depicted wearing here.

Years later I sat in the same kind of seat as he and contemplated the reality of the situation. Radio studios get as cluttered as everywhere else. Old scripts, yesterday’s newspapers and the coffee mugs left by the breakfast show. Microphones don’t float tantalisingly in mid-air but wobble on creaking anglepoises or heaven forbid goosenecks and the closest you get to a flashy headset is the frayed pair of DT100s which the engineers has screwed into place to prevent them going walkies.

image

Naturally being the product of a TV producer’s imagination, Jack Killian’s studio was the embodiment of how everyone imagined a radio studio should look. Walls were adorned with thrilling looking equipment, each with buttons which illuminated the gloom. Lights would wink on and off and giant tape spools would whir around for what to the casual viewer might appear to be no apparent reason. The message however was clear, a radio station was a busy, active place to be with a fragile existence which could only be sustained by a bank of gadgetry.

Whilst a real life radio studio might indeed have its fair share of equipment, it generally attracts dust in the manner which electrical items generally do. Banks of equipment with exciting looking switches do exist, but they are tucked away in a plant room elsewhere in the building (although sometimes placed in a glass fronted cabinet and made the focal point of reception). Jack just didn’t know how lucky he was.

image

As a talk show host (curiously on a radio station which played music the rest of the time – rigid formatting clearly having not reached San Francisco in 1988) Jack had the privilege of his own producer Billy. His work was possibly even more exciting than that of his boss. He sat in his own room, surrounded by a giant console of equipment along with TV monitors and tape players. He had his own line in extravagant hand gestures as illustrated above.

image

As producer, Billy was special. He actually got to press some of the magical buttons, tap at the dials and generally know what it all did. Frequently namechecked by the host, he was there as part of a double act and always made sure Jack knew it.

Years later I was to become Billy. I was the producer to the late night talk show host. I don’t get to make hand gestures and live in constant fear of having to tinker with any of the other studio gadgets. My life generally consists of grumpily telling presenters in full flow that it is time to break, that finishing your speech any later than the time I’ve put in front of you means the news starts late and sometimes taking the flack for when the highly trained individual in front of the microphone has said something stupid. There is however one job I’ve done which is at the core of Billy’s existence: the call screening.

image

Thanks to Midnight Caller this is how I imagined it would be. A sophisticated looking console into which the details of all the volunteering participants to tonight’s broadcast would be entered, giving the host a delectable menu from which to select. Even the screenshot used in the opening titles is tantalising… who knows what the “Law Stuff” Mike in Concord wants to discuss is. Don in Novato is discussing “murder”, is he reporting one or about to commit one (both were perfectly plausible MC plotlines incidentally). Better yet Frank in Marin may be a “serial killer”, or again wants to just talk about one. Most intriguingly of all Josh in South San Francisco has an open topic whilst Nick in Oakland is either in the process of being screened or even Billy cannot work out what he is on about.

Strangely enough one of the first jobs I ever did in professional radio (in the being paid to do it sense) was as producer/call screener on a local radio phone in. I was kind of gutted that the level of sophistication illustrated above simply didn’t exist at that level. Instead I’d scribble the names and numbers of callers down on pre-printed grid before promising to call them back. Once done I’d whisper on the talkback to the presenter “Terry, Halifax, line 5” and she would write the detail down accordingly. Calls were lined up in pairs – one to air, one on hold in an endless stream until the small hours.

This is actually one aspect of the job where things have moved on in a manner far beyond that which any TV producer could have imagined. This was my view on Saturday night when due to staff incompetence I was filling the phone operators chair at work.

phoneboard

No text based system this. Now I have an exciting graphical display showing not only the callers details but which even looks up where they are for me based on their telephone number. I can see how long they have been online for, who has been there the longest and at a single click can even refer back to their previous contributions to the radio station and to check the points they have made in the past. That I think is progress.

I’ve been privileged over the years to work on many late night radio shows of the kind Jack Killian used to host. On the inside it doesn’t feel quite as glamorous as the TV made it, there are no windows looking out onto neon soaked city skylines, no new adventures lurking behind each new voice taken to air and as we step outside our nondescript brick building onto the South Bank backstreet which houses the offices it can sometimes seem like just a job rather than the rather evocative fantasy which TV helped to create.

Even so, every time I turn on a microphone and make an exciting red light come alive, every time I gaze at a screen with the name of some person I will never meet and never know but whose innermost thoughts I am about to be subjected to for the next five minutes, every time I hear the highly paid host through the glass in front of me say something which may resonate deeply with someone clinging to the radio for some kind of life comfort I am still living the dream, still drinking in the Midnight Caller lifestyle. Those 70 seconds still define my life, and I am incredibly glad that they do.

It Oughta Sell A Million

It is for most performers the ultimate dream. Something which marks them out as something particularly special, yet at the same time is not so out of reach as to be a wild unattainable fantasy. Selling a million copies of a record, any record. For years it has been a badge of honour for any track, so much so in fact that before the totals were revised down in 1989, the only way to be awarded a Platinum disc for a single release was to ship a million copies of it. In the near 60 year history of the British charts, just 110 different singles have been officially noted to have sold a seven figure total, their numbers swelled just this last week by ‘Party Rock Anthem’ by LMFAO.

LMFAO’s accolade comes just a couple of weeks after million seller #109 was announced to the world, as ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera inched over the line to be officially certified as having shifted seven figures worth of product. I noted in many places online that this made it one of just a small handful of singles to have reached the magical figure without actually having topped the charts. For years this was the rarest of rare things, famously just one record in chart history had officially topped a million whilst peaking at Number 2, but since then the numbers have grown. Just how many are there? Five, I thought, starting a mad mental scramble to name them all.

Yet I wasn’t actually correct, because there are a handful more.

The waters of “total sales” are these days rather muddied thanks to the effectively constant availability of singles to be purchased. Back in the days when records dropped out of the charts, copies ceased to be pressed and stocks dried up it was possible to call a definitive halt to brand new sales of a record and thus tot up its final total. In the 21st century a single is theoretically available forever, and indeed many older singles whose sales had previously ground to a halt are suddenly finding themselves revived either as brief high end chart hits, or as catalogue product which continually bubbles under.

Therefore we should really draw a distinction between the singles which sold a million during their “regular” shelf-life (or inside a year in the case of more recent hits) and those which have crept over the line some time after their initial success. With that in mind then, this I hope is what is at the time of writing the definitive list of “unsuccessful” singles which have sold one million copies in the UK:

Last Christmas – Wham!

Total UK sale: 1,601,000

For a great many years it was famously the only single ever to sell a million copies and miss the top of the charts (although see below), this thanks to circumstances given that it spent the Christmas period at the end of 1984 locked at Number 2 behind the original Band Aid single. Although it easily passed the million mark during its original chart run, the single has also added to its total with a re-release the following year (upon which it made the Top 10 again) plus naturally an annual topping up of its total as it returns for a brief chart run as a seasonal download.

Stranger On The Shore – Acker Bilk

Total UK sale: 1,145,000

Now this is an interesting one. For years this 1961 single simply did not figure in countdowns of the biggest sellers of all time, the difficulty in pinning down exact sales for singles from that particular era just one of the reasons behind this. I don’t think it was until ten years ago when an attempt was made to compile a definitive list of the all-time biggest sellers in time for the 50th anniversary of the singles chart that it was noticed that the haunting jazz instrumental could be certified as having sold seven figures, and so into the best sellers list it went. It should therefore be noted that Acker Bilk actually beat Wham! to the honour of selling a million copies of a Number 2 single some two decades before they became the “first” to pull off the trick. Before then ‘Stranger On The Shore’ was at least notable for what used to be the longest unbroken chart run of all time, clocking up 55 weeks on the Top 50 chart without a break. All without being downloaded once.

Blue Monday – New Order

Total UK sale: 1,125,000

Another retrospective addition to the list as it is only possible to arrive at this total by adding up the three separate chart runs of the classic single. Its two spells on the Top 40 in 1983 were enough to make it the 18th best seller of 1983, whilst the Arthur Baker remix which saw it released as a seven-inch single for the first time in 1988 made it the 57th best seller that year. A further re-release in the summer of 1995 has further added to the number, yet for all that the single has never climbed higher than a peak of Number 3.

Ghostbusters – Ray Parker Jnr

Total UK sale: 1,080,000

A single which is contemporaneous with the Wham! track but which was actually only awarded its seven figure honour some years later. A Number 2 hit in September 1984, the track memorably dropped out of the Top 40 just prior to Christmas that year only to gain second wind as the popularity of the film for which it was written steadily grew. This led to a renewed burst of interest which saw the track return to the Top 10 early in the new year. For years its sales held film until the arrival of the download era which saw it become one of a handful of “ghostly” themed singles which ensured it shifts a couple of thousand more copies every October.  Add these to its original 1984 total and it is an easy million seller.

Torn – Natalie Imbruglia

Total UK sale: 1,075,000

Another latecomer to the party and a prime beneficiary of the download era. Natalie Imbruglia’s most famous hit, a cover of a Scandinavian single which had been doing the rounds for some years beforehand, the track peaked at Number 2 in November 1997. By the end of that year it had sold an impressive 810,000 copies, adding a further 157,000 in 1998 to take it to 967,000 copies in total. The 99,000 it has added since have all been as a result of downloaded sales over the last seven years.

Angels – Robbie Williams

Total UK sale: 1,060,000

Robbie’s most famous single was never a Number One you will note, its eventual chart peak being a mere Number 4 in February 1998. Released at the very back end of 1997 it had shifted 340,000 by the end of that calendar year, adding 467,000 in the following one. Total in its first chart run then, 807,000 which has since been topped up thanks to a constant demand for it to soundtrack funerals and weddings. Nobody listens to this dirge for fun surely?

Wonderwall – Oasis

Total UK sale: 1,050,000

Another track which spread the love across two calendar years initially, the bulk of its sales coming in 1995 when the ballad first peaked at Number 2. 653,000 units of the single were sold by December 31st that year, the track remaining available throughout 1996 when it added 270,000 to its total. Thus it was never going to take much for it to reach seven figures from a starting point of 923,000 and as Oasis’ most famous single ever, it seems certain to steadily add to that total for some time to come.

Love The Way You Lie – Eminem and Rihanna

Total UK sale: undetermined, but was confirmed to be over a million during 2011

The biggest selling single of 2010 is famously the only track ever to outsell all others in a calendar year without ever topping the charts, the track peaking at Number 2 in the summer of that year but hanging around the the Top 10 until well into October. We can argue until the cows come home whether this counts as a single which topped a million during its initial chart life – the track was only confirmed as having reached seven figures during October 2011, 15 months after it was first released.

Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera

…which is where we came in, the smash hit single selling its millionth copy over the Christmas period after just five months on the charts. Before the holiday it was also reported that Fairytale Of New York had been confirmed as a million seller too, but I think this was based on a miscalculation of its original 1987 sale as the claim has now been withdrawn. Best estimates are that it is about 100,000 copies short, a gap it should theoretically make up over the next couple of years if its popularity remains undimmed.

So it is confirmed. As of January 2012 there are nine of the (so far) 110 million selling singles which never actually topped the charts, of which three (or possibly four) did so during their first chart runs, the rest nipping over the line with downloads or as a result of re-releases some years later.

For those curious, the next million seller is likely to be one of either ‘Price Tag’ or ‘We Found Love’. The Jessie J single ended the year just 19,000 copies short, but may need a boost from something like the Brit awards or a talent show performance to edge over the line ahead of the Rihanna track, currently sitting pretty on about 933,000 sales but for the moment adding to them still to the tune of about 20,000 copies a week. Both, you will note are Number One singles. As for lower charting hits ‘The A Team’ and ‘Rolling In The Deep’ both have 800,000 sales to their name at the present time, but at their present rate it will be a long haul to cross the line.

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.

1992packshot

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:

image

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

image

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.