The final furlong! No context-setting ramblings from me really, other than to note that as the tape of the chart show wore on, I started to grow more and more into the way Wes approached the hosting of the chart show. In the opening few minutes when his initial script was full of throwaway one-liners as he recapped the events of the previous week, I started to wonder if this was the reason he lasted but two short years on the show. Then by the end, he had settled down, this was his arena and he was in command. The “continuous countdown” aspect of the first half of the show, whereby with a quarter of it taken up with the album chart he was required to rattle through the lower half of the Top 40, skipping some singles at random and playing just 90 seconds of others kind of broke the flow a little, but the Top 20, featuring backstage chats with the stars and just the right amount of knowing cynicism about some of the singles made the whole thing an exciting and engaging show to listen to. Yet somehow he seemed so restricted by the format, you can understand why Radio One ultimately decided the experiment wasn’t working.
That was indeed a context-setting ramble wasn’t it? Bugger. Top Ten Time!
As we spend all our time these days falling over ourselves to praise the superstar achievements of the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce, it is far too easy to overlook just how massive Ashanti was in the R&B world at the start of the last decade. Granted, most of her success came in America where at one point in 2002 she held down three of the Top 10 singles on the Hot 100, the first artist since The Beatles to achieve that kind of chart monopoly. On these shores she still managed a credible and consistent chart career, appearing on four Top 10 hits during 2002, including Number 4 smash hit Foolish which was in such demand ahead of its release that it spent three weeks charting on import. Rock Wit U was one of the first singles to be lifted from her second album and the rather charming and mellow ballad made a comfortable Number 7 upon release in June 2003, even if it was her only Top 10 single from that particular release. She topped the charts in 2004 as a guest singer on Ja Rule’s Wonderful and scored her final Top 10 hit at the start of 2005 with Only U only to see her career dive into the doldrums almost as rapidly as it soared. Much of her success had stemmed from her association with Irv Gotti and his label The Inc records, but the pair parted company in May 2009 after her 2008 album The Declaration underperformed and the pair disagreed on her future musical direction. We’re promised a release this year for her own self-published album, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for any hits resulting.
The title track from what would be the 8th album from the speed metal specialists, landing here on the chart with what was still at the time Metallica’s customary efficiency and quite possibly to the utter bemusement of most casual observers. I’d be tempted to call St Anger “typical Metallica”, except that the most notable thing about it was that it was not, representing a shift in their style and a genuine and well-received attempt to fit in with the nu-metal sound which had torn up the rule book for rock music at the start of the 21st century. From a more entertaining political standpoint, this was the first Metallica release proper since they suffered a total sense of humour failure over the possibility of their work being spread on file-sharing networks, the band’s self-appointed crusade over the issue of online piracy almost certainly contributing to the continual head in the sand approach to the industry over the thorny issue of digital music and which held them back for the best part of five years. In a truly ironic manner, the release of the album St Anger was moved forward five days after the entire work appeared on file-sharing networks.
The most enjoyable part of any extended wander through the hits and happenings of a particular week in years gone by is the excuse to immerse yourself in the music of that time, and along the way alight upon the one track that you know practically defines the way you felt at that time and which virtually commands repeated plays and renewed appreciation. This single is indeed such a record.
On the face of it, Fly On The Wings Of Love seemed an unlikely basis for a Europe-wide summertime smash hit. The song had been the runaway winner of the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest as written and performed by the Olsen Brothers yet had only been a hit single in a selected few countries, coming nowhere near the singles chart on these shores. Over the next few years a handful of trace-inspired cover versions had been made of the song but it was the one by Spanish producers XTM which hit paydirt, topping the charts in Ireland and becoming a smash hit single which spent no less than two months diving in and out of the Top 10 – this here was its second of what would ultimately be three visits to its Number 8 peak.
Maybe it was the sheer contrast between the versions which made it work so well, the Olsen Brothers original a gently paced ballad performed by two middle-aged musical veterans, the XTM version an uptempo club track centred around the cute mewing of the lyrics by singer Annia. Whatever it was, a song which was already uplifting and heart-warming was made to soar even higher and become a genuine feelgood anthem which endured way beyond its initial burst of clubland success. So many raved-up versions of pop hits do little more than rip the heart and soul out of a track for the sake of nailing some beats to someone else’s creativity. Fly On The Wings Of Love avoided all these pitfalls to become something rather magical instead.
The main version on Spotify is oddly a rather toned down "pop radio" mix of the track and a long way from the club banger that become a Britsh hit. Best to revel in one of the other reasons the single was so successful, the astonishingly cute animated video made to accompany its chart success.
“Baby if you give it me, I’ll give it to you, as long as you want.”
You know it is funny, Mariah Carey’s wilderness years at the start of the 21st century – coinciding with her departure from Sony records and her expensively terminated deal with Virgin – was never really such an issue in this country, a territory where her music generally just did reasonably OK with the odd gigantic smash hit here and there. Hence 2001 single Loverboy, the track that convinced people in the States that she was finished, made a perfectly reasonable Number 12 and the Number 32 peak of follow-up Never Too Far was most probably down to both label apathy and the fact that it was shoved out with little fanfare in Christmas week. Nonetheless she needed something to put her on the comeback trail, and it was I Know What You Want that proved to be the perfect vehicle. In truth she was actually nothing more than the guest star on the single, one penned by Busta Rhymes for his eighth album It Ain’t Safe No More which he’d released in 2002. Even an on her uppers Mariah Carey was still too huge a superstar name to pass up for marketing purposes however and when released as a single the track was a global smash hit, charging to Number 3 in Britain to become Ms Carey’s biggest hit single for three years and Busta Rhyme’s first Top 3 hit in five summers. The track is the perfect crossover of the styles of the two artists, showing all at once that Mariah Carey could do hip-hop with ease, whilst Busta Rhymes could tone down the aggression and do smooth soul seduction – all in the space of one five minute single.
By the start of the 21st century the concept of Australian soap actress wants to become a pop singer was such a well-worn cliche that nobody would even think of using it as a marketing tool any more. Hence it was nothing less than a pleasant surprise that the recording career of the teenager previously best known for being Nina Tucker in Neighbours was such a glittering revelation. The truth of the matter was that she was always more singer than actress, having been signed in her native Australia when she was just 15. After her first single stiffed, she was actively encouraged to take up the soap opera role to boost her public profile and to ensure that she had name value before they tried again. Her first UK single Born To Try was released in March 2003 and was an instant Top 3 smash, followed swiftly by this second single which also encountered little opposition in racing to Number 4. Both were tender piano-led singles which showed off her near-perfect voice to stunning effect, the icing on the cake being that the album from which they were taken was almost entirely self-penned (although Lost Without You was a rare exception with no input from the singer herself). She was no manufactured teen starlet, but a genuine musical talent with a sophistication which belied her youthful years.
Frustratingly the momentum she built up was more or less instantly derailed just a week after this chart was published when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, resulting in both her withdrawal from Neighbours and the suspension of her recording career whilst she battled the disease. Whilst she successfully beat cancer and returned to recording in 2005, much of her success since then has been confined to her home country, her only visibility to the British public being her seven-year relationship with former Westlife star Bryan McFadden after she rescued him from the living hell of being married to Kerry Katona. I think.
Actually no, I was wrong. The defining sound of the summer of 2003 wasn’t one particular record at all, but a whole series of them – all based around the same handclap beat. The distinctive rhythm pattern, known as the Diwali Riddim was created by Jamaican producer Steven ‘Lenky’ Marsden in 2002 and during the course of the next 12 months ended up as the basis of so many different tracks that an entire album was eventually produced to collect them all together. Wayne Wonder’s track was actually the second Diwali Riddim-based hit to chart, the first having been Sean Paul’s Get Busy which had dropped out of the Top 40 just before this chart came out. Both Get Busy and No Letting Go were produced by Marsden himself which goes some way to explaining why the tracks were constructed the way they were. Both were swiftly followed into the charts however by Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh), a third Diwali track which had no link to the original producer at all.
As for Wayne Wonder himself, he is something of a two-hit wonder. No Letting Go was this week spending its second week at Number 5, a position it would hold for a third before dropping two places and then charging up to its eventual Number 3 peak. He followed it later in the year with Bounce Along which made Number 19 before fading into chart obscurity.
R Kelly is a genius, and in truth one of the few R&B stars who have, countless times, during his career made me want to stop and applaud the sheer brilliance of his work. At the same time, he conducts himself in such a manner that you almost feel bad validating his lifestyle by appreciating his music – best known as the Gary Glitter dilemma. The summer of 2003 was a time when these conflicting emotions threatened to come to a head.
Ignition Remix was easily the biggest hit single thus far in what had already been a pretty stellar chart career. Returning him to the top of the charts for the first time since I Believe I Can Fly in 1997, it stayed on top for four weeks and ultimately sold 478,000 copies to wind up as the third biggest seller of the year. The “remix” part of the title was actually slightly disingenuous as there was nothing remixed about the track at all. The single was actually the second of two tracks from his fourth album Chocolate Factory which were based on the same underlying backing track. Although listed as separate tracks, the two parts of Ignition flowed seamlessly into one another with the main track Ignition being a slow and slick seduction track whilst Remix was an uptempo let’s celebrate the weekend party track – their only link being the backing track and the “bounce bounce bounce” refrain which took on an entirely different meaning in the context of each song. That’s why R Kelly is a genius. He made two entirely different songs out of the same piece of music, almost without breaking a sweat.
Yet even while Ignition Remix was at Number One and crushing all the competition it was uncomfortable praising him too much. Hanging over his head at the time were the allegations of improper behaviour after a tape purporting to show him having sex with an underage girl circulated widely online. Yet despite the man on the video looking and sounding exactly like him and despite one of his former musical collaborators positively identifying the girl on the tape as her daughter, Kelly denied it all. It took a full five years for the case to come to trial, and somehow his lawyers managed to instil enough doubt in the minds of the jury that the man on the tape was Kelly that he was acquitted of all charges.
Still, the stain of the allegations remain, and any appreciation of the genius of the man who sang moving ballads like I Believe I Can Fly and The World’s Greatest as well as party classics like Ignition Remix whilst at the same time writing and performing the epic Trapped In The Closet tale always has to be tempered by the nagging doubt that he is a deeply unpleasant, vile individual. The Gary Glitter dilemma indeed.
What must it be like, being part of a large (17-strong) rap collective, performing in what you hope is a very credible style and very successfully too, yet despite this being considered naff and lightweight by true fans of your genre. The truth is that Blazin’ Squad represented the pop-friendly Smash Hits face of British rap music, a world away from the harsh streetwise realities of those nasty people from the So Solid Crew. So in truth, they were all pop stars making rap records rather than rap stars making hits, yet for a brief period the formula proved rather successful. After opening their account in 2002 with a Number One cover of Crossroads (as made more famous across the Atlantic by Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony) this breezy summery single was their fourth chart hit and the biggest since their debut, the highest new entry of the week here at Number 3, even if its chart career was to be short-lived as it plunged to Number 12 just a week later. There is very little actually wrong with any of Blazin’ Squad’s output, but they weren’t “urban” stars in any sense of the word.
Depending on your point of view, this record is either the moment when things really did truly start to go to shit, or possibly one of the most brilliant pop moments of the summer. The concept of the Fast Food Song was hardly original. Its central refrain namechecking various fast food brands had been a standard part of campfire doggerel for at least 20 years, possibly even more. My baby sister used to come home from Brownies chanting “a pizza hut, a pizza hut, Kentucky fried chicken and a pizza hut”. I’d be shocked if any British (or even American as the song originated there) child grew up in the 80s or 90s without knowing how to sing the song. Yet oddly enough the idea of making it into a pop record originated on the continent, via a series of different novelty acts. It was from there that Mike Stock imported the idea back to the UK, recruiting three brightly dressed and squeaky clean performers to form the Fast Food Rockers and have a smash hit single with an idea that was maybe so obvious it was amazing nobody had thought of it before. Needless to say that some commentators grumpily suggested such product placement of such unhealthy food brands was the thin end of the wedge and that it amounted to corporate indoctrination of the younger generation. Which was utter balls at the end of the day.
Sadly so was the idea of the Fast Food Rockers. When the single became a hit, plans were advanced for an entire album which did indeed hit the shops later in the autumn.
I got such pelters when this single first came out. The week Bring Me To Life hit the charts, entering straight at Number One I wrote:
Having crept into the lower end of the chart on import a couple of weeks ago, the US Top 10 single charges all opposition out of the way to become the record that finally ends R Kelly's four week run at the top of the singles chart. It is not insignificant that they are the first American rock act to top the charts since Limp Bizkit over two years ago. We are all witness this week to the chart success of what will be regarded in years to come as one of the all-time rock classics.
Was I really that far off? Eight years on, and the epic and intense production remains the biggest ever worldwide smash for Evanescence, a debut that they were always going to struggle to live up to and which did indeed prove to be the case, despite three more Top 10 hits in the three years after it made the charts. You’ll notice that I’m assuming that the Number One single of this week requires little in the way of introduction to a casual audience. The climactic duet between Amy Lee and guest singer Paul McCoy stands tall as one of the most arresting moments in rock music of the decade and it is a single which has its place as a true classic of its time. Indeed by a strange coincidence, at the time of writing this piece and for reasons I’ve yet to see explained, the eight-year-old Number One single is threatening to return to the Top 40 as a spontaneous download hit:
If that doesn’t prove how much it endures, then I don’t know what does.
What to conclude then from June 29th 2003? It may well indeed have been the moment just before music sales crashed and everything went dim for a while, yet at the same time there was plenty here to appreciate and refreshingly little in the way of filler. Pop music will always have its worthwhile moments, even if you have to wait for the proper historical context to appreciate them properly. That’s really why I still keep these things around: