Yes, this has indeed taken a while, so thanks for bearing with me. Unless you are reading this all in one go in six months time and pay no attention to the dates at the top of course. Welcome to our final march through the chart of October 25th 1998 and in this final rundown of songs we discover just what it was that made this particular singles chart so very unique.
Long before Secret Diary, way ahead of the Dr Who years and before even she was “that bird who married Chris Evans”, Billie Piper was plain old “Billie”, the bright teenage pop sensation of 1998. Long before anyone knew what her voice sounded like, we all knew her face thanks to her selection earlier that year as the face of a high profile advertising campaign for Smash Hits magazine. It made for a nice neat hook to hang the marketing of her pop career on and so it was at the tender age of just 15 she was signed to a record deal and unleashed upon the charts. Debut single Because We Want To was released in June and was an instant Number One, making Billie the second-youngest female star ever to top the UK charts (a record held to this day by Helen Shapiro). Proof that turning a child of that age into a celebrity was fraught with danger came the day after her Number One was announced, pictures in the press of her enjoying a celebratory glass of what appeared to be champagne at a celebratory party causing a few furrowed brows at her label.
Moving past that minor wrinkle, Girlfriend was her second single release and it too was an easy and instant Number One and heralded the release of her debut album Honey To The B. What caught the eye the most, however, was the list of credits on the album and in particular the fact that it was produced in its entirety and partially written by Jim Marr and Wendy Page. Nice years earlier pair were the leading lights behind indie-pop act Skin Games who were the darlings of the music press in 1989 and indeed made one of the best albums of the period, only for the British public to ignore it totally and for the band to fall apart shortly afterwards. Their association with the Billie album kicked off a flurry of hit songs penned by the pair at the turn of the century with Page herself performing vocal duties on the Tin Tin Out single Eleven To Fly in 1999.
Billie’s career as a pop star has been all but eclipsed by her work as an actress as a rather less fresh-faced adult. The work of Skin Games is equally as forgotten but perhaps more tragically so. It seems only appropriate to refresh memories of it here, especially as their album The Blood Rush is more or less impossible to find.
Extraordinary to think that someone once thought of naming a boy band after the US emergency number, but there you go. 911 were a three-piece boy band formed of Lee Brennan, Jimmy Constable and Spike Dawbarn whose work was slightly less throwaway than your average pop act thanks largely to Lee Brennan’s own talents as a contributing songwriter which meant that hits such as Party People (Friday Night) and The Journey had a charm all of their own and were worthwhile works in their own right. Sadly by the time of their third album There It Is, the group were reduced to little more than a covers band and their final few singles were nothing more than adequate retreads of older classics. Not that it did their chart positions any harm mind, this cover of the Bee Gees’ More Than A Woman hit Number 2 upon release in October 1998, at the time their biggest hit to date. They would go on to top it early in the new year with a version of Dr Hook’s A Little Bit More which went all the way to Number One, but for the boys themselves you suspect the fun had gone out of it. They famously split in early 2000, picking the Chris Moyles show on Radio One as their platform of choice to announce it truly was the end.
A brand new entry, but by no means the biggest. Not by a long way, which perhaps was ultimately to its detriment as history has all but overlook it since. One of those singles which sits forlornly as a lost classic, the dreamy Little Bit Of Lovin’ was the first of just two major hit singles for East End girl Kele Le Roc, her exotic-sounding performing name covering up the fact that in truth she was just plain old Kelly Biggs from East Ham. Showered with Mobo awards for her debut album Everybody’s Somebody, she more or less fell off the radar shortly afterwards – listen to this record and realise that this was actually a crying shame. Both this single and follow-up My Love were utterly amazing.
It is surely one of the most bizarre, messed up and truly perverse facts in music that in a career which stretches back to 1973 and with some all-time classic rock hits in their catalogue, Aerosmith’s biggest and most famous worldwide smash hit ever is a rather limp Diane Warren MOR ballad which they recorded for a film soundtrack. Even back in the day I watched the success of I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing with a mixture of horror and fascination. It was great that one of the biggest rock acts of all time were suddenly household names and a radio staple with this single, but their greatest record ever it most certainly was not. To this day I can’t quite fathom just what the hold this song has over people is. Diane Warren wrote far better songs and indeed far better love anthems for hit movies in her day and only the most charitable of critics would argue that the register and tone of the song suited Steve Tyler’s vocal range and abilities down to the ground. Yet for all its shortcomings the song from the “Armageddon” soundtrack stands proud as Aerosmith’s biggest ever UK hit single, a Number 4 hit which bucked the prevailing chart trends by entering low and climbing high and which sustained its sales long enough for a nine-week run inside the Top 10 – again at a time when even the biggest chart hits struggled to do better than 3 or 4. Perhaps reduced now to a cliche thanks to the insistence of at least one X Factor contender each year insisting on attempting the song, for good or ill this is one of the defining moments of late 1998 in music.
6: Spacedust – Gym and Tonic
Ah, now this is my favourite kind of random dance single. One that has a genuine pull up a chair and listen story behind it. The diverting fusion of club beats and exercise workout instructions was created by a Frenchman – a Paris nightclub DJ called Christophe LeFrient who styled himself “Bob Sinclar” in tribute to the famous James Bond spoof film “Le Magnifique”. The writer of the track was a certain Thomas Bangalter- he of the Stardust record we stumbled across earlier. The pair built the record out of samples from an old Jane Fonda workout album overlaid over an old disco track called Bad Mouthin’ and generated enough interest from white label pressings to persuade labels to start sniffing around for the rights to release it properly. Whilst the track (originally titled Gym Tonic) came out in France under Sinclar’s name, clearance for UK release was rather trickier to obtain. Bangalter was reportedly rather unhappy with the track to begin with, feeling it detracted from his own productions under his own steam. To make matters worse Jane Fonda’s vocals were a further sticking point, with the UK rights holders of the original “Workout” series declining to co-operate and Fonda herself threatening legal action for breach of copyright.
Hence it came as little surprise to see a version begin to circulate with the Fonda vocals removed and a soundalike inserted in her place. What was more curious was that the credited artist on the track was now “Spacedust”, the identity of whom was a mystery at the time – and indeed right up until the official release of the single the assumption was that this was simply Sinclar and Bangalter operating under a new pseudonym to distance themselves further from the illicit original. Needless to say, it wasn’t. This new version was the creation of Englishmen Paul Glancey and Duncan Glasson (erroneously credited on the initial pressings of the CD) who had put together their version with an eye to being formally asked to remix the original. Instead, the rights to their version were snapped up by East West records who realised they could steam in with a hit whilst the original was tied up in a copyright dispute. Their reward was an instant Number One hit, albeit one which was swiftly bumped down to Number 6 a week later. The track is now a little too obscure to appear on streaming sites, which is odd because follow-up mid-table single Let’s Get Down is itself online. Have the video anyway, just for the fun of it.
The reason for its swift 1-6 chart decline? Not actually because its sales crashed to that extent, but it came up against something unique in British chart history – a Top 5 made up entirely of brand new entries.
Bringing up the rear so to speak was this, the first single from Alanis Morrissette’s album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and her first new material since the Jagged Little Pill album had shot her to stardom three years earlier. Trading on that reputation both the single and album were inevitably going to be her commercial highpoint, and so it proved. The wistful Thank U – the lyrics bizarrely recounting a tale of Delhi belly she got on a promotional tour – shot straight to the Top 5 to become her biggest ever UK hit single. Mention has to be made of the video for the track which saw a naked Alanis (with the interesting bits blurred out) being embraced by strangers in a variety of urban settings. The subsequent French and Saunders parody was if anything just as memorable.
Once upon a time, bands from the 1980s didn’t reunite every five minutes for a nostalgia tour or a TV special, so when one did so it was a very special thing indeed. The first Culture Club reunion after they broke up in 1986 actually came in 1989 when a series of songs were written and recorded for an album that was ultimately never to be released. Boy George was more interested in reinventing himself as a dance music star, this work manifesting itself in the Jesus Loves You project in 1991 and in particular the hit single Bow Down Mister which somehow turned the Hari Krishna mantra into a mainstream club hit. Having spent most of the decade as a highly regarded club DJ, George was finally persuaded to put his differences with the rest of the group (Jon Moss in particular aside) and reunite with them for a reunion tour. To help an accompanying hits collection based around a performance for the VH1 show Storytellers on the way, the group returned to the studio for the first time in 12 years to produce a handful of new songs, with the lilting Just Wanna Be Loved, featuring the band well and truly back in the Do You Really Want To Hurt Me groove selected for single release. The song wasn’t necessarily the greatest Culture Club single ever, but crucially it was a long way from the worst and it more than justified its existence by flying straight into the Top 5 upon release. Part of it may well have been for the nostalgic buzz of hearing Boy George singing lovers’ rock once again but the simple fact was that Just Wanna Be Loved was their biggest hit single since The War Song 14 years earlier. A group who had barely been on speaking terms for the best part of a decade sounded for all the world like they had never been away. It was hard to resist that kind of charm.
It was Greatest Hits time for U2 in 1998, the band suffering from the slight commercial wobble that had resulted from the rather experimental sound of 1997 album Pop. Whilst both the album and lead single Discotheque had given them Number One hits, even the most die-hard of fans could not escape the feeling that for the first time ever the seemingly unassailable Irish superstars had made a record that was, for the most part, a bit rubbish. Hence a retread of the glory years of their first decade in music was the perfect way to remind the world just what made them so good in the first place. The Best Of 1980-1990 came in two versions – one with an extra disc featuring the b-sides of their singles during this period. The Sweetest Thing was itself originally a b-side, having featured on the single release of Where The Streets Have No Name in 1987 and with a new version featuring a gospel choir finding its way onto Rattle and Hum a year later. Bono always felt the song (an apology to his wife Ali for missing her birthday) deserved more attention than it first received, so the track was re-recorded to promote the new compilation and issued as a single. It could well have been Number One, but for the fact its release coincided with the flurry of big hit singles which made up this record-setting Top 5. Even as a Number 3 hit it stands tall as one of U2’s best singles of the decade. Heck, it even had Boyzone in the video.
Back in the days when George Michael had a sense of humour about himself, even he had to admit there were probably more dignified ways to come out of the closet. His arrest for exposing himself to an undercover police officer in a Los Angeles public toilet made headlines across the world but also, in turn, served as the perfect publicity for his planned Greatest Hits collection at the end of 1998. Showing a self-awareness that stood any criticism of his misdemeanour on its head, the album was cheerily titled Ladies and Gentlemen – The Best of George Michael and divided his solo work into a disc of ballads and a disc of floor-fillers. It was from the latter that this newly recorded track came, a sizzling funk workout in which George put on his best “Mr Sex” voice and attempted to extol the virtues of al fresco loving. Coming after the soulful introspection of 1996 album Older the track was a breath of fresh air and was hailed widely as George Michael back to his best. Massive chart success was almost guaranteed, and its failure to add to his tally of Number One singles was down to nothing more than there being an even bigger track ahead of it in the queue. History may well record that as the century turned George lost his artistic mojo and was reduced to turning out singles that were essentially carbon copies of this one, but if we are focusing on the now of this particular chart then it is enough to recall Outside as being one of the freshest, funkiest pop records of the year and another offering from a man who voice could bewitch us all, regardless of who he waved his penis at.
It was a bold step turning Cher into a dance star. Her solo work for the previous decade and a half had been firmly rooted in rock music and it was as a leather-clad guitar heroine that most of the world knew her, notwithstanding the rock and roll nostalgia of The Shoop Shoop Song with which she had topped the UK charts in 1991. Nonetheless, it was believed that a change of direction would be the shot in the arm that the then 52-year-old star needed, and at the behest of then Warner boss Rob Dickins, Cher was teamed up some up and coming British producers to make the pop record that would hopefully revive her career. The song Believe had been floating around as a demo for some time, much to the frustration of its writers, amongst them a then-unknown Brian Higgins. With the help of other Warner staffers, all but the chorus was ditched and the hit song took shape, hence the presence of no less than six different names on the song-writing credits.
Yet it wasn’t the writing of the track that made Believe the near-legendary track it became. It was all down to the production by Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling which transformed the song into something special. The magic ingredient was what Terry Wogan termed “Sparky’s Magic Piano”, the processing of Cher’s voice with what everyone assumed at the time was an old fashioned vocoder and which everyone “in the know” identified as a tribute to Roger Troutman, congratulating ourselves on our musical insight in the process. The vocal effects were greeted with horror by Cher’s label when they first heard the track, but they remained in place when the artist herself insisted they were her favourite bit. In fact, it wasn’t until several years later, after the creators of the track formed the now-famous Xenomania production team and label, that the producers revealed that the effect came from running the vocals through Autotune with all the settings turned up to 11. Without meaning to they had invented a production trick which ten years later would come to be the defining sound of transatlantic pop music.
Believe and its use of Autotune actually remained a one-off novelty until ten years later when Kanye West hit on the gimmick of using it to turn himself as a rapper who manifestly could not sing into an actual singer for the track Love Lockdown. Nonetheless the 1998 single has its place in history as the first-ever Autotuned pop hit – and one that at the time was a global sensation. Believe slice through chart records like a butchers knife. This was the first of what would become seven weeks at Number One, the single selling 107,000 copies in its first week and a phenomenal 205,000 a week later. In a year of no less than four million sellers, Believe ended it as the biggest seller of them all. Its total sales to date of 1.7 million are enough to make it the 16th biggest seller of all time in this country and far and away the biggest ever by a female artist. It extended Cher’s span of Number One hits to 33 years, dating back to the 1965 success of I Got You Babe and at the age of 52 she set a record as the oldest woman ever to have a Number One hit in the UK – one that persists to this day. As I commented at the time, it was enough to make Cliff Richard’s grumpy protestations of “ageism” seem a little like sour grapes. All you had to do was make a record that enough people wanted to hear, and nobody cared how old you were.
So there you are, the hits of October 25th 1998 and thank you for your patience as we finally got there.