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