1999 was one of those years when the calendar didn’t quite co-operate to ensure the “Christmas chart” was a meaningful summary of sales in the run-up to the holiday. Broadcast on Sunday 19th December 1999, it covered sales from Sunday 12th through to Saturday 18th and so missed out most of Christmas week itself altogether, those sales instead counting for the new year chart. Thankfully it made little difference, once the Number One single of the week was there it was not shifting for anyone until mid-January, aided in no small way by the fact that due to extended new year holidays, plus the still genuine fear that the fabled millennium bug would cripple businesses come the start of the new year, the UK music industry gave itself an extended holiday and did not plan any new activity until well into January. Hence the large number of hits which found a new lease of life in the first weeks of the new year – including the first hit in our Christmas Top 10.
Admit it, when The Vengaboys first emerged at the tail end of 1998 they were painfully bad. The brainchild of two Dutch producers Danski and Delmundo, they flooded the dancefloors of Europe with the inanities of the mostly instrumental Up And Down and the easy to hate annoyance of We Like To Party! (The Vengabus). Both singles were duly good size hits in this country as well (Number 4 and Number 3) respectively – but then slowly but surely they underwent a transformation. Beneath the banality and the bubbly synths was a desire to turn the costumed foursome who fronted the tracks into something approaching a proper pop group. Hence when their debut album Up & Down – The Party Album hit stores in the spring of 1999 it contained something rather unexpected – some perfectly serviceable pop songs. The next Vengaboys single, the fun Boom Boom Boom Boom shot to Number One in the summer, swiftly followed by a cover of the old Typically Tropical hit from the 70s Barbados with the lyrics changed so the holiday destination and even the title of the song changed to We’re Going To Ibiza. With a second easy Number One hit in the bag, the Vengaboys were red hot and amongst the biggest stars in Europe.
To see in the new millennium the producers moved on to a second album, one which turned to be full of songs which were even better, not least this introductory single. Kiss (When The Sun Don’t Shine) was a fun and rather charming tale of the party girl who only goes romancing after dark and rejects all would-be suitors during daylight hours, reasoning that she’s too busy for “full time love”. A guaranteed hit at any time of the year, the fact that it came out for Christmas somehow made it all the more magical. Although theoretically in contention to be Christmas Number One, the single entered the chart at Number 3 upon release, bringing to a close the Vengaboys’ run of Number One hits, and took something of a tumble to here the following week. As mentioned above, the new year gave the track a new lease of life and it would ultimately spend a total of five weeks in the Top 10, climbing back to Number 5 in mid-January. I cannot give a straightforward or rational reason for it, but I love this pop record to bits.
Over the course of a decade William Orbit’s career had taken him from the Guerilla Studios complex he helped run in London, through some highly regarded remix work, a show on a Californian radio station and perhaps most notably of all the Strange Cargo series of ambient electronic works. Yet for all that, his most high profile chart success had been as one half of dance outfit Bass-O-Matic who scored a Number 9 hit with Fascinating Rhythm in September 1990. At the close of 1999 he was set to explode into the mainstream and would start 2000 as the producer of the moment with work for the likes of Madonna and All Saints giving him back to back Number One productions. Just ahead of that however came his first-ever Top 40 hit under his own name, a track lifted from the album Pieces In A Modern Style which had been in the can since 1995 but which had languished in copyright and rights hell ever since. Culled from the selection of classical pieces performed electronically was his take on Barber’s Adagio For Strings, a stirring yet mournful piece made most famous by its use on the soundtrack of the Oliver Stone film ‘Platoon’. To muddy the waters slightly the version which became a Top 10 hit wasn’t the laid back album version at all but a nicely respectful Ferry Corsten remix which had the dual effect of both making a William Orbit track radio-friendly and also fooling many people into thinking its parent album was actually full of dance music. Whatever the circumstances it was a rather extraordinary sight to see even a dance remix of a piece of instrumental classical music in the charts. For William Orbit it was just the start of what would be his most lucrative 12 months to date.
“We’ve all heard of Rudolph and his shiny nose, and we all know Frosty who’s made out of snow. But all of those stories seem kind of gay, ‘cause we all know who brightens up our holidayyyyyy…”
Twelve months after they landed themselves a Number One hit with the delightfully rude Chocolate Salty Balls, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone attempted to drag the Christmas chart down quite literally to toilet level and very nearly succeeded. The character of Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo actually first appeared in the seventh episode of the first series of South Park which debuted in the UK in spring 1998, but it wasn’t until the following Christmas that the tongue in cheeky merchandising of the character kicked in and he made the British charts, coinciding with the airing of the third season episode Mr Hankey’s Christmas Classics which featured an entire album’s worth of satirically festive tracks. For the uninitiated, Mr Hankey is indeed a singing turd who comes to those (or rather out of those) in search of Christmas spirit and his theme song purports to be a recording from the 1950s by TV host Cowboy Timmy. All of which is really background material to cover up the fact that this is a juvenile yet achingly funny song about finding the true meaning of Christmas at the bottom of the toilet bowl. Released just in time for the Christmas chart it is the first of no less than six new entries inside this Christmas Top 10. Never really in contention for the Number One slot, but there will have been more than a few nervous glances at the odds table as people backed it anyway.
With their 1998 cover of Tragedy having ascended gracefully to the top of the charts at the start of the new year, Steps were firmly into their imperial phase as Pete Waterman’s last great pop creations spent the next two years sweeping all before them. Their Christmas offering for 1999 was another double a-side featuring Say You’ll Be Mine culled from their then-current second album Steptacular but perhaps more interestingly a cover version of the famous Kylie Minogue track Better The Devil You Know. One of Kylie’s most highly-acclaimed singles from her early Hit Factory years, the track does however mark the moment the cracks started to appear in the famous Stock/Aitken/Waterman production line as their efforts to mix the formula up a little seemed to result in ever-smaller hits. It was hard not to wonder if there was method in the madness of Pete Waterman getting his new charges to record what was actually an extraordinarily accurate cover version of the original – proving to the world that the hits he wrote during his rubbish period were still as strong as ever. Another new entry and a single which was clearly aiming for Christmas Number One, it was really just warming up and spent four weeks at Number 4 during the new year fallow period.
Yes, this one. An iconic single for maybe not always the intended reasons and the track which all at once established Artful Dodger as the two-step garage act of note but perhaps more significantly introduced Craig David to the world and gave a then-unknown comedian the catchphrase for an entire comedy franchise. Mark Hill and Pete Devereux operated Southampton and became aware of the work of a local singer, teenager Craig David who it appeared was being groomed for stardom. They took the vocals from an early demo he had recorded (the genesis of what would become David’s own track Last Night) and worked them into this slow-burning garage hit, transforming the song from a straightforward seduction piece into what effectively became UK garage’s first signature song. The partnership between the two acts would prove to be a worthwhile one, with Craig David appearing on a handful of other Artful Dodger tracks over the course of the next year whilst Mark Hill would go on to produce much of David’s acclaimed debut album Born To Do It including the famous Number One hit Seven Days.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Leeds, Leigh Francis listened to the track with amusement. All he needed now was a latex mask…
With just a couple of hits under their belt, S Club 7 weren’t quite the dominant pop phenomenon they would become, but it was hard to dispute that the launch of the project had been a success. TV series “Miami 7” was a success, their debut single Bring It All Back had shot to Number One with a further Top 3 hit following in the shape of S Club Party and the album S Club had made a respectable Number 2 in the charts to boot. So far so good then, and this was their Christmas offering – yet another double-sided single which paired two tracks from the album and TV series. You’re My Number One was the poppiest one, a fun Motown pastiche which hinted at party soundtrack glories to come, but the main focus was on the slushy ballad Two In A Million which showed off the vocal talents of Jo O’Meara to full effect for the very first time. A new entry but sadly once more one which didn’t have a sniff of being Christmas Number One, although the single would eventually peak at Number 2 a fortnight later to continue what would eventually be the group’s 100% strike rate of Top 3 hits from their first three albums.
Years before people attempted to fire lame novelty hits into the Christmas chart for the sheer hell of it, the chart of 1999 featured a random novelty which was there just because people loved it so much. Years ahead of its time, the track henceforth known as C vs. I was what would nowadays be branded an online viral smash, even if in 1999 most of its promotion came from more traditional sources.
The brainchild of John Matthews, who changed his name to the slightly more exciting sounding Ricardo Autobahn for production purposes, the Cuban Boys specialised in creating endearingly chaotic dance records, characterised by their use of a rapid-fire set of samples from some of the most unlikely sources. Widely distributed online in the early days of widespread internet popularity, some of the earliest Cuban Boys cuts found their way into the hands of John Peel who professed himself a fan of the group who at the time remained determinedly anonymous. However not even he could have forseen the public reaction to the track which would eventually become C vs. I.
At its heart the track was based around a popular online meme from late 1998, the Hampster Dance website which at the time was nothing more than a page featuring animated gifs of various dancing hamsters, accompanied by an endless loop of what was eventually identified as a speeded-up sample of Roger Miller singing the song Whistle Stop from the animated Disney film of Robin Hood (released in 1973). The Cuban Boys track took the sample and knitted it into a raucous, frantic and hard to dislike dance track, one which John Peel claimed had become his most requested single since the days of the Sex Pistols when he first aired it in April 1999. Clamour for a popular release grew and after some wrangling over the Roger Miller sample (which eventually had to be replaced by a re-recorded soundalike) the single was set for release as the first-ever Cuban Boys hit. Such were the endless delays which beset the project that C vs. I was at first slated for release in the new year, but when it was granted its first daytime Radio One play by Jo Wiley in November plans were changed and the record was raced out to make the Christmas chart.
One of those novelty hits which never gets tiresome no matter how many times you hear it, C vs. I had the hallmark of genius about it and indeed it is one of the greatest frustrations of the decade that further hits from Autobahn and his collaborators simply never emerged. An album Eastwood was released after many delays later in 2000, far too late to capitalise on the success of the single and the group blamed EMI records for losing interest and torpedoing their career, leading to later potential classics such as 2001 white label Drink Drink Drink lacking the kind of full release which would have also turned them into hit singles.
My favourite postscript to the tale though remains the fact that Ricardo Autobahn struck up a working partnership with deliberately cheesy pop specialist Darren Sampson, resulting in the pair not only having chart hits together as Rikki and Daz and The Barndance Boys, but also writing Teenage Life which Sampson performed as the UK’s Eurovision entry in 2006. As I noted at the time, the prospect of one of the Cuban Boys winding up as the winning songwriters of the annual festival was too delicious to contemplate.
The re-release of one of pop music’s all-time enduring classics wasn’t quite as random or opportunistic as it might at first have seemed as John Lennon's masterpiece had been officially anointed as the nation's official Millennium anthem and was due 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 of the charts, staying there for four weeks until it was deposed by Woman, another Lennon song. Imagine had 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. Even at the time I was wondering if it wasn’t the case that everyone who wanted a copy already owned one, but there was clearly little stopping one of the greats. Imagine smashed its way into the Christmas Top 3 and clung on to remain there to see int he new year in style, in the process selling enough copies to propel the track further up the list of the biggest sellers of all time (downloads since the mid-2000s have helped it now into the Top 20).
The original write-up of this chart for dotmusic took time out to credit the reader who emailed me one particular chart feat which Imagine notched up – the fact it had become only the fourth single to make the Top 10 on three totally separate occasions. The others – 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). Thank you for that nugget of information Marc Williams, any chance you are still a reader?
It was just what the final charts of the 1990s needed wasn’t it? A race for Number One which was nothing short of barmy. To begin to tell this story, it is best to go back to the piece I wrote for dotmusic at the end of November 1999 when The Millennium Prayer first landed at Number 2 on the charts:
The story so far: Cliff Richard is far and away the most successful chart star this country is ever likely to see having notched up 122 hit singles and topped the charts 13 times (second only to Elvis and The Beatles) in a career that stretches back to 1958, the only artist ever to have had a Number One single in every decade since the chart was first compiled in 1952. I could sit here all day and recount chart statistics that celebrate his achievements, but you get the picture. Lately he has been letting frustrations get the better of him, complaining about how he seems to be written off as too old to be making pop records and how nobody will play his songs on the radio any more, his last but one hit Can't Keep This Feeling In being a case in point despite the fact that it reached Number 10 in October last year. A few months ago EMI records declined his request to release his seasonal offering - a new version of The Lords' Prayer set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. This resulted in Cliff leaving the label, marking the end of one of the most enduring relationships between artist and record company the industry has ever known. Of course there were no shortage of labels willing to take the opportunity to release the song and with all the attendant publicity (along with a few public spats with certain well-known DJs along the way) you could almost stake your life on the fact that the single was going to make a big splash - as it turns out challenging briefly for the Number One slot.
In the middle of all of this it is worth doing something which few have thought to do and actually appreciate the record on its own merits. Believe it or not it is actually very good. However "uncool" it may be to release a fragment of The Bible as a pop record the track remains as touching a piece of work as Cliff has made in years. Cliff's Christmas Single may have become a chart cliché over the years but to hell with it, the choice of material is spot on, the production here is impressive and his voice sounds as good as ever. No wonder it is a smash hit. Funnily enough this isn't the first time he has turned a hymn or a prayer into a pop record, his 1982 Number 11 hit Little Town was a rendition of the old favourite O Little Town Of Bethlehem set to a new tune. Back to the present though, Christmas Number One this won't be (it has come out just a little too early) although the Children’s Promise charity will benefit nicely from the royalties. The future of Cliff Richard's chart career hangs in the balance - will he actually be able to have a hit record without the attendant "nasty record companies and radio stations are snubbing him" fuss? Time will tell. For now it is worth noting that the track is his biggest hit single since Saviours Day became the Christmas Number One way back in 1990 and his 64th Top 10 hit in all (far and away a record). Not bad for an old codger really is it?
Memory escapes me as to what the spat with a radio DJ referred to above was. It was either Moyles (Radio One Drive Time) or Evans (Virgin Radio Breakfast), had to be. But they weren’t the only names grabbing a cheap headline by sticking the boot in, oh now.
Back on track, my original piece above was so well received that I even got a thank you note from the International Cliff Richard Movement (based in The Netherlands)
Thanks for the correct commentary on the Millennium Prayer. Really appreciated.
Harry @ I C R M
“Many congratulations from all the team, James” was the tongue in cheek comment from the dotmusic editor after I forwarded the email on.
The apparently insane demand for the single was all thanks to some rather clever promotion. Lacking any kind of airplay for what was after all the most unconventional of pop hits, Cliff and his label seeded demand for the track by sending a copy to every church congregation in the country, suggesting to the ministers that they play it at their services. Thousands did, and this rallying of the Christian vote could well rank as the first ever chart campaign ambush in history. The following week the midweek charts contained the shock information that Cliff was leading the race for Number One, leaving the nation facing the very real prospect that a biblical prayer might end up on top of the charts. Come the Sunday this is exactly what happened. It became Cliff’s 14th (and so far, final) Number One and in the process giving him a 41 year span of Number One hits, the single hitting the top almost nine years to the week since he had previously been at the summit with Saviours Day. Amongst all of that his stated aim however was to be Number One for both Christmas and the new millennium, yet the single had actually been released in a rather old fashioned way – several weeks before the event. As I noted in the original commentary on the single, to become Christmas Number One The Millennium Prayer would have to stay on top of the charts for a massive four weeks – in a year when no single had spent longer than three.
The Millennium Prayer would eventually sell 861,000 copies to rank as the third biggest-selling single of 1999. Yet on the Christmas chart, it would ultimately have to succumb to a force even stronger than Christ. Louis Walsh….
Having swept all before them in 1999 with three Number One singles to their name, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Westlife would not only make a play for Christmas Number One but achieve it in some style. Given what we have already noted is the quality of their own material, it was maybe a shock to see them release a double-sided single of cover versions for their seasonal offering, but it was a cleverly calculated move – ensuring genuine pan-generational appeal for their most important single release to date. The two tracks were already classics in their own right. Seasons In The Sun was an English language remake of an old Jacques Brel track which Terry Jacks took to the top of the charts in 1974 after he’d failed to persuade the Beach Boys to record his lyrics. Meanwhile I Have A Dream had been released by Abba in 1979 and ended up stuck at Number 2 behind Another Brick In The Wall for Christmas 1979.
The single was Westlife’s fourth Number One hit in the calendar year of 1999, something which to that point only Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard had ever managed before. The feat is all the more extraordinary when you consider that Westlife’s debut single Swear It Again had only been released in April, meaning they had averaged a Number One hit every two months since then. I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun would eventually go on to become Westlife’s biggest ever chart single, spending a full four weeks at Number One (despite Cliff attempting to rally his fans to send him back to the top for the turn of the millennium itself). In the final two weeks of 1999 the single sold 479,000 copies, adding a further 144,000 in 2000. The final Number One single of any decade is always going to be subject to greater scrutiny and given more historical significance than any other, so despite it being in some ways a rather lazy pair of cover versions it is at the very least a record by a group who could at the time claim to be one of the biggest in pop music and bought by their fans for the sheer love of it rather than to prove a point or because they had won a talent show. For that reason alone it is a welcome memory of the days when Christmas Number One actually deserved the significance which was attached to it.
With the customary shot of the tapes, that is me done for this Christmas chart. I’ve been holding out on you for the past four days, but there is naturally a Spotify playlist of as much of this chart as possible, helped not a little by the number of double-sided singles included. Happy Christmas, and watch out for a development on this whole chart rewind theme in 2013. I’ve a feeling you may like what I have to reveal… [this was a cryptic reference to the chart annual books, the first of which came out later that year].