A few words before we get under way this week. I've been writing about the UK charts on the net for over seven years now and every December I receive curious emails from people overseas wondering just why such a fuss is made in this country over the race to be on top of the singles listing in time for Christmas Day. Really there is no simple answer to this, it is a legacy from the early 1970s fad of bands releasing Christmas-themed singles at this time of year and even though records which actually reference the season are now few and far between the race to see who will have the biggest selling single in time for the holiday now seems like an integral part of the festive traditions. Whatever the reason this is certainly the only time of year when people will flock to bookmakers to place bets on the singles chart and study keenly the newspaper stories of just how well certain songs have been selling. Ask anyone over the age of 30 and they will almost certainly tell you that "the charts don't matter" yet for a few short weeks in December they seem to matter to absolutely everyone.
So here we are then at the official Christmas chart, this year owing to the way the dates fall it is published earlier than ever and ironically isn't based on any record sales during Christmas week itself. As I have stated before, I'm a little surprised that the precedent set in 1988 wasn't followed here when the Christmas chart was presented to the nation on Sunday December 26th to take into account the sales of Christmas week itself. [It is because the labels like to have Xmas No.1 announced before Christmas so they can benefit from the marketing boost this gives a single in the remaining days before the holidays, simple really]. Since when did I make the rules though? Time to answer the question that has been at the forefront of people's minds since the first doors were opened on the advent calendars. Can Cliff cling on?
1 I HAVE A DREAM/SEASONS IN THE SUN (Westlife)
As it turns out he can't. Their lead wasn't a runaway one but by the time the weekend rolled around it was commanding enough and so the bookmakers early favourites ease the veteran out of the way to become the final Christmas Number One of the Millennium. This is surely the crowning glory on a phenomenal 1999 for Westlife as with this single they equal the record set earlier this year by fellow countrywomen B*witched and charge straight into the top with their fourth successive single, this at the end of a week when Flying Without Wings was voted Record Of The Year in a national TV poll. This is only the fourth time in the last 20 years that the Christmas Number One has been a cover. Whilst there is no doubting the excellence of the production involved, Westlife are open to the same criticisms levelled at their musical forebears Boyzone in that when covering records they do so in a rather bland and soulless way although this will hardly be an issue to their legions of fans. The songs in question will be familiar to most, I Have A Dream is one of Abba's best loved ballads and the original was sat at Number 2, 20 years ago this week, denied the chance to be Christmas Number One by Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall (which was itself recreated by Salt N' Pepa earlier this month). This is only the second time anyone has topped the charts with a cover version of an Abba song, Erasure of course managing it with four in the shape of the Abbaesque EP in 1992.
Seasons In The Sun has been top of the charts before. The name of Frenchman Jacques Brel may be unfamiliar to most of Westlife's fanbase but the French balladeer can rank as one of the most influential songwriters of the century, artists like Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie having cited him as an inspiration. Scott Walker recorded many of his songs in the late 1960s and more recently Marc Almond recorded a whole album of Brel covers and made the Top 10 with the song Jacky. Brel's most famous composition is probably Le Moribund, a man's eulogy to his dying friend. Poet Rod McKuen put English lyrics to the song in 1964 and the retitled Seasons In The Sun was first recorded by the Kingston Trio. Ten years later Canadian singer Terry Jacks tried to get the Beach Boys to record the track but when they refused, recorded it himself and ended up with a worldwide smash hit and a Number One single both here and in America. So it is that for Christmas 1999 Westlife take the song back to the top of the charts, incredibly enough the fourth different cover of a former Number One single to top the charts this year. The others were Boyzone's When The Going Gets Tough (Billy Ocean 1986), Steps' Tragedy (Bee Gees 1979) and the Vengaboys' We're Going To Ibiza, a lyrically tweaked version of Typically Tropical's 1975 Number One Barbados.
One final point of note is one that is worth leaving to the end as it is far and away the biggest. I Have A Dream is Westlife's fourth Number One single of the year and believe it or not this is something that has not been done for decades. Plenty of acts have topped the chart twice in a year, a few others have managed three. To do so four times is something that is beyond even the likes of Madonna, Abba and even The Beatles themselves. No, a fourth Number One in a year has only ever been achieved by two other acts. One was Elvis Presley who incredibly enough did it twice, once in 1961 (Are You Lonesome Tonight, Wooden Heart, Surrender and Little Sister/His Latest Flame) and then again in 1962 (Can't Help Falling In Love, Good Luck Charm, She's Not You and Return To Sender). The others (and this may shock you) are The Shadows who in 1963 hit the top with Dance On and Foot Tapper and were given full credit as Cliff Richard's backing band on The Next Time/Bachelor Boy and Summer Holiday. Elvis, The Shadows and Westlife. Quite a diverse collection of record breakers isn't it?
2 THE MILLENNIUM PRAYER (Cliff Richard)
Even during his three-week run at the top, I stood by my original comment about The Millennium Prayer, saying that it was unlikely to top the charts for Christmas. Sadly for Cliff's eager fans it proves to be the case, manufactured boy band schmaltz has won the day over Christian sentimentality. It means that Cliff has to content himself with a place in the Top 3 for Christmas rather than a Number One to follow on from Mistletoe And Wine in 1988 and Saviours Day in 1990. Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that Cliff has topped the charts during the seasonal period on one other occasion, that being back in 1960 when I Love You was listed as the final Number One of the year. Rather confusingly this wasn't the Christmas Number One that year as the chart in question was not published by Record Retailer until December 29th. This saga is far from over as the the possibility does exist that Cliff can climb back to the top next week to become the Millennium Number One although there is a chap a place below who may have something to say about that...
3 IMAGINE (John Lennon)
The re-release of this classic isn't as opportunistic as it might seem as John Lennon's masterpiece is set to become the nation's official Millennium anthem to be played at the Millennium Dome at Greenwich during the new year celebrations. The title track of Lennon's 1971 album, it wasn't actually released as a single in this country until 1975 when he announced his temporary retirement to raise newborn son Sean, the single reaching Number 6. In December 1980 the track was one of a number of Lennon singles that arrived on the chart in the wake of his murder at the start of the month and shortly after Christmas it ascended to the top, staying there for four weeks until it was deposed by Woman, another Lennon song. Imagine has had one other brief chart appearance since then having been reissued as part of a triple pack along with Jealous Guy and Happy Xmas (War Is Over) which made Number 45 in December 1988. So in spite of the fact that you wonder who is left to buy it the single arrives in the Top 3, not quite managing to be in the race for Christmas Number One but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could climb a few rungs to top the chart for the new year. Time will tell. Just for a change, credit where credit is due to dotmusic reader Marc Williams who beat my to the punch by pointing out that Imagine has thus become only the fourth single to make the Top 10 on three totally separate occasions. The others are a mixed bunch to say the least, the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Loving Feeling (1965, 1969 and 1990), Madonna's Holiday (1984, 1985 and 1991) and most curiously of all Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing (1975, 1987 and 1997).
4 COGNOSCENTI VS INTELLIGENTSIA (Cuban Boys)
With the Top 3 filled with ballads for Christmas this almost comes as a blessed relief. The noble tradition of seasonal novelty records is continued in the shape of this first ever hit single for the Cuban Boys. The exact origins of the track have been detailed in plenty of places already, suffice it to say that the central hook of the song is a re-creation of the loop that plays in the background when you visit cult website www.hampsterdance.com, itself sampled from the soundtrack of the 1973 Walt Disney film of Robin Hood. The track grew from cult beginnings on the net via airplay from the likes of John Peel (who has stated in all sincerity that it elicited the most enthusiastic listener reaction since he first played the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen). Now of course here we could get into an involved discussion about on which level the record is to be taken, the band insisting that the single is "ironic" and the title itself suggesting that the record is a complex intellectual joke and a piece of biting satire. To this I say bollocks. C vs.I is a Christmas novelty hit to be taken as a bit of fun and appreciated on the grounds of being a) not by Cliff or Westlife and b) far funnier than Fat Les' Naughty Christmas, last year's seasonal novelty offering.
5 TWO IN A MILLION/YOU'RE MY NUMBER ONE (S Club 7)
Never in serious consideration to be Christmas Number One but putting in a strong performance all the same, S Club 7 grab themselves a place in the Christmas Top 5 with their third hit single, the followup to Bring It All Back and S Club Party which reached 1 and 2 respectively in June and October. Laid back balladry is the order of the day here for the most numerous manufactured pop band around with the boys and girls crooning at each other on Two In A Million. I surely cannot be the only one puzzling at the concept of S Club 7 getting romantic with each other. After all there are four girls and three boys. Does one of them have to get left out or...?
7 SAY YOU'LL BE MINE/BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (Steps)
A year ago they were right up there in the race to top the chart for Christmas, their double a-side of Heartbeat/Tragedy having the last laugh and rising above the pile to top the chart at the start of the new year. This time around Steps are among the also-rans with the third single from their album Steptacular and yet again the decline in their chart placings is all to apparent, a Number 7 entry is their lowest since their debut 5-6-7-8 peaked at Number 14.
Their second Christmas Top 10 hit running is again a double-sided single and which features a rather intriguing choice of cover. Better The Devil You Know was a Number 2 hit for Kylie Minogue back in 1990 but going deeper than that it was a kind of turning point in the fortunes of its writers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. At the time the trio were the dominant force in pop music having reigned supreme for almost three years thanks to their seemingly magic touch, creating hits for the likes of Mel and Kim, Rick Astley, Bananarama and of course Australians Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. The main criticism of their work was that it was all rather formulaic, all their productions following the same basic musical structure. The trio themselves were only too aware that this formula was only good for so long and so set out to vary their style slightly. Better The Devil You Know was one of the first singles from the new S/A/W and actually received positive reviews at the time and was indeed a massive hit. It also marked the beginning of the end as subsequently the old magic just did not seem to be there, big hits became harder to come by and within a year the trio were on the verge of breaking up. Now comes the point to this story as it will not have escaped your attention that Steps are a Pete Waterman creation and when the story of the decade comes to be written they will be credited with rescuing him from the purgatory of licensing Europop records for UK release. Maybe I am reading too much into it but there seems almost to be a sense of closure about the way the PWL empire's most successful act since Kylie Minogue have been handed the track that marked the beginning of the end of their late-80s dominance.
8 MR HANKEY THE CHRISTMAS POO (Mr Hankey)
There was a time when one couldn't move for Christmas-themed records in the charts at the end of the year. These days genuine Christmas hits seem to be a rare occurrence and unusually there are two such tracks in the Top 40 this year. One is Daniel O'Donnell's A Christmas Kiss (this week at Number 33) and the second is this, the latest South Park offering. In the same manner as Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls (the first Number One of 1999) and the film soundtrack this summer, the song of Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo ("small and brown, he comes from you") plumbs new depths of juvenalia whilst at the same time managing to remain funny even after you have heard it a several times. Those who simply don't get South Park will hate this just as much as everyone else will love it. Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo you will note is the sixth new entry inside this week's Top 10 making the Christmas chart quite fittingly one of the busiest of the year. It isn't quite enough to break the record of seven new entries inside the Top 10, set back in November 1998.
18 A LITTLE BIT OF LUCK (DJ Luck and MC Neat)
What is this? A dance single entering the Christmas chart? Room for all tastes you see, including this garage single which first surfaced in clubs earlier this year and now gets an official release. Just don't try singing along. [The 2-step era is well and truly upon us].
19 IT'S ONLY ROCK N' ROLL (Various Artists)
Two years ago two producers at the BBC came up with the idea of recording an ensemble single, recording a dizzying array of stars each singing one line of a classic song and then splicing them all together. The result was Perfect Day, an acclaimed version of the Lou Reed song which topped the chart in November 1997 and raised thousands of pounds for the BBCs Children In Need Appeal. Earlier this year legendary producer Arthur Baker was charged with repeating the experiment, this time being filmed for a documentary about the making of the track. As a result he has spent most of the year chasing artists as diverse as Jamiroquai, Status Quo, The Spice Girls, Natalie Imbruglia, The Corrs and of course Mick Jagger, all of whom feature on this rendition of It's Only Rock And Roll which first hit Number 10 for the Rolling Stones in 1974. This time for some reason the magic isn't quite there, maybe it is the choice of song, maybe it is the rather limited timescale Baker was given to actually throw it all together. Either way this time the result is less than the sum of its parts and the single (whose proceeds like those of The Millennium Prayer are going to the Children's Promise charity) which was expected to be challenging for the Christmas Number One slot ends up at a rather disappointing Number 19. By the way, is that really the synthesiser line from The Who's Baba O'Reilly buried deep in the mix?
21 HORNY HORNS (Perfect Phase)
Some more dance amongst all this sentimentality and novelty? Why not. From Europe, like so many dance hits this year, comes this track which has inspired people to start smuggling airhorns into clubs to sound along with the beat. Almost certainly made with one eye on the party season.
34 JUST WAVE HELLO (Charlotte Church)
13-year-old Charlotte Church has crammed so much into her short life already you almost feel she could start writing an autobiography tomorrow. The prodigious soprano has had smash hit albums, performed in front of some very important people and now charts just in time for Christmas with her first ever hit single. At the end of a year which has seen many advertising-inspired hits it is only appropriate that there should be at least one of these on the chart at the year end, Just Wave Hello familiar to many as the soundtrack of the epic Ford advert which aired simultaneously around the world last month. Church's success prompts memories of the last child soprano to carve out a relatively successful chart career, namely Aled Jones who himself had a Top 40 hit for Christmas 1985 with his version of Walking In The Air. Aled Jones' career came to a halt when his voice broke and only in the last few years has he taken steps towards re-establishing a musical career. Charlotte Church of course will have no such worries and it is surely only a matter of time before circumstances and good marketing give her a massive Top 10 hit. [It will take a move to pop, but give it six years or so].
39 THE FINAL COUNTDOWN 2000 (Europe)
Believe it or not, there was a time when Europe were one of er.. Europe's biggest acts. Certainly when I was 13 years old I thought they were the best band in the world. The Swedish rock group, all with extraordinary heavy metal perms had a brief 15 minutes of fame in 1986 and 1987 thanks to their album The Final Countdown whose title track topped the charts in many countries around the world, including Britain where it spent two weeks at the top just prior to Christmas 1986. Of course with Millennium fever upon us the lyrics of the song are sort of appropriate. Lead singer Joey Tempest certainly thought so and seeing an opportunity to resurrect his career has returned to promote this new mix of his most famous composition. If anything the techno beats added to the track serve to make it sound even more ridiculous than ever before but it has certainly guaranteed the track a few airings in clubs shortly before midnight a week on Friday and at the very least gives Europe their first chart entry since Halfway To Heaven made Number 42 in March 1992. What the heck, it is Christmas after all and I could hardly close by being too rude about one of the first singles I ever bought. I'm off instead to play air guitar to Rock The Night and see if I can afford a pair of leather trousers in the new year. Happy Christmas to all dotmusic readers.