I have mixed memories of Christmas 1999. It happened to coincide with what is best described as a ‘career pause’ as I was out of full-time employment and scratching around for whatever bits and pieces of radio work that came my way. Some call it “freelancing”, I called it a living, breathing hell. Having in the past been a wild and enthusiastic participant in the materialistic orgy of the holiday season, to face one with next to no spare cash was quite the adjustment to make. Thus this chart is unique to me personally, the first parade of seasonal hits which doesn’t inspire memories of parties, carousing, joy and giving but instead a Christmas where I spent £10 each on presents for my family and where my biggest gift was as requested a giant food parcel which I would take away to Catterick to spend the post-Christmas fortnight broadcasting to a near-empty army garrison. This particular journey is if you like, a chance for me to learn to love these songs in a different context to the one in which they were originally presented. So far so good.
When sweet but troubled “Tiffany from Eastenders” stepped away from the soap to launch herself as a singer and entertainer I noted with some amusement at the way Martine McCutcheon’s previous life as the frontwoman of dire dance outfit Uno Clio had been airbrushed out of the career history which her label sent out. This despite the presence in all the chart books of Number 62 hit Are You Man Enough from November 1995 which featured her name front and centre. That aside, Martine McCutcheon’s debut single Perfect Moment was nothing less than a breath of fresh air when it shot to Number One in April 1999 and it became swiftly apparent that this was far more than just another soap actress trying her hand at a pop career but actually the work of a lady whose talent clearly came to her effortlessly. Her Christmas offering was the third single to be released from her debut album You, Me and Us and was presented as an equally-weighted double a-side with the slushy track Talking In Your Sleep (originally a hit for Crystal Gayle back in 1978) coupled with her cover of the Bee Gees song Love Me which was more famously a worldwide hit for Yvonne Elliman. It was on the latter track which most attention was focused with the track forming a core part of the promotion for the 1999 Children In Need appeal and with all proceeds from the single going to the charity. The single was a Number 6 hit in late November and was here at Number 30 in its fourth week on the chart.
McCutcheon’s singing career stalled after her third album in 2002 bombed, forcing her back onto the stage and into the world of film and ultimately it seems as the face of yoghurt adverts. Still, this single is a pleasant reminder of the time she briefly sparkled as the kind of star who gave the credibility of soap opera singers a major and welcome boost.
Take a look at the British chart fortunes of Celine Dion throughout her long and varied career and you may well spot something of a pattern. Although able to turn her hand to a wide variety of musical styles, by and large Britain only cared for the big power ballads. The likes of Think Twice and especially My Heart Will Go On were massive, enduring Number One hit singles yet upbeat pop stuff like Misled and Treat Her Like A Lady had chart runs which only just erred on the right side of indifferent. Hence she was always onto a bit of a loser with this single, released in support of a greatest hits collection All The Way – A Decade Of Song which was vying for space as a stocking filler that particular Christmas. That’s The Way It Is was far from the worst single she ever released but was similarly a long way from the best, a rather pedestrian mid-tempo track which searched desperately for an anthemic chorus which never quite managed it. Number 12 was as good as it got, two weeks before the Christmas chart although after dipping down to this position it would rally slightly over the new year and return briefly to the Top 20.
It is hard to remember a time when Westlife weren’t around, but they had to start somewhere of course. Launched in early 1999, the conceit at first was that this new Irish boy band “Westside” were co-managed by Ronan Keating, the idea being that they could instantly tap into the Boyzone fan base to get a head start on promotion and publicity, more so than if they had just appeared from nowhere. Plus, Louis Walsh was at this time far from a public figure outside his native Ireland and for now remained very much in the background. Whereas most pop groups mix things up with a variety of up and downtempo songs, Westlife (renamed after an American group claimed prior copyright on their original name) hit a power ballad groove from the very start and quite simply stayed there. Even by the end of 1999 I was noting that Westlife in truth only had one song, but what mattered was that it was a very good song and was causing them to hit commercial paydirt time after time. A relentless programme of releases saw them achieve a chart form which is still a benchmark to this day, Flying Without Wings had instantly become their third Number One hit in a row when released on October and – spoiler alert! – was by no means their last of 1999. The best single they had released up to that point, the track was by no means a huge seller with just a solitary week at Number One, but it had enough sales life in it to still be in the Top 30 by Christmas. Flying Without Wings as a song would go on to a new lease of life three years later, handed to the Ruben Studdard, winner of the second series of American Idol in 2003 and giving him a Top 10 smash hit in the United States.
News of the World (London, England)-November 28, 1999
Author: Jon Barnsley
GOOD golly! I can reveal pop's biggest secret-Lolly's REAL name. "Sting is just Sting and Lulu's just Lulu," she told me at the Pepsi Chart Show, where she sang fab new single Rockin' Robin. She looked really shocked when I cheekily asked: "So you won't be going back to Anna Kumble then?" She whispered: "How do you know that?"
Yes, in November 1999 the great pop secret of the age was finally out – Lolly’s real name. Strange though it may seem, she was something of a high-concept pop act in 1999 – pitched as a bright bubbly character who would sing pop records explicitly aimed at the pre-teen market. Extensive auditions were held to effectively “cast” her, with rumours to this day suggesting that Lolly was very nearly the professional role of Rachel Stevens from S Club 7. Instead, the part went to former model Anna Kumble who proved to be a perfect choice, effortlessly playing the role of the bubbly kid-friendly pop star with a neat line in annoying pop hits. Actually that is slightly unfair, for Viva La Radio was a fine ode to the joys of our favourite medium whilst her follow-up cover of the Toni Basil 80s classic Mickey breathed new life into an old favourite. Both singles had been effortless Top 5 hits earlier in 1999 and she rounded the year off with a double a-side featuring an inevitably chirpy (no pun intended) cover of the Jackson 5 single Rockin’ Robin but also the strikingly mature-sounding ballad Big Boys Don’t Cry which hinted that as a performer she was worth far more than the cheesy image with which she was saddled. Indeed in the hands of a rather more credible act the song had the potential to be a huge pan-European hit and maybe one day is ripe for rediscovery. After a second Lolly album in 2000 the hits dried up but Anna Kumble more effortlessly into children’s TV presenting and can be relied upon to pop up in pantomime every Christmas. Weymouth this year apparently.
The flipping over of the calendar and the ability to see the new year as a changing of an era had proved to be a potent songwriting theme over the years. When the occasion itself finally arrived, different acts had different attitudes towards the theme. Prince embraced it wholeheartedly, re-releasing ‘1999’ not once but twice during the course of the year (once at the start, and once at the end) whilst Pulp took a different view and withdrew any and all licences for Disco 2000 to prevent the track being appropriated for promotional purposes.
Will Smith? Well, basically he was shameless about the whole thing and so created Will2K, a party rap track which was more or less tailor-made to be a core part of any new year party playlist. Sadly for him, the track came right at the end of his personal imperial phase as in 1999 he slipped from being the personality-drenched all-round entertainer who was at the same time box office and singles chart gold to being a man who wasn’t always guaranteed to make the right decisions. Hence his big movie of the year Wild Wild West was a big-budget disappointment whilst his brand new album Willennium (see what he did there?) was stuffed full of tracks whilst playing to his usual safe formula of cheeky chappy raps over familiar pop grooves somehow seemed to lack the effortless magic of before.
One can be too harsh. Will2K was an instant Number 2 hit upon release in November 1999 (as indeed had the single Wild Wild West before it) but despite the knowingly self-aware lyrics and an otherwise inspired use of the main riff from the Clash’s Rock The Casbah for the musical base, the single for all the world came across as a piece of work trying just a little too hard to be infectious and bubbly. Plenty may disagree but the whole thing rather left me cold and indeed the album itself had a woefully short shelf life at the tail end of the year. The former Fresh Prince decided acting was his main love from that moment on and has released just two albums since, and indeed none since 2005. At your big new year bash on December 31st 1999 you doubtless got down and funky to Will2K but I don’t doubt for a minute that other records formed the soundtrack to the best memories of the night.
1998 was most definitely the year of B*witched. The four girls from Dublin – aided not a little by a familial connection to Boyzone – achieved something that was beyond even the Spice Girls by going straight in at Number One with their first four singles, all taken from their self-titled debut album. However after the debut must come the follow-up and like so many pop acts before them, they found that staying at the top is often harder than getting there in the first place. The first single from Awake And Breathe was the banjo-led Jesse Hold On, but despite being just as bright and breezy as their previous singles it became their first-ever to miss the top of the charts when it peaked at Number 4 in October 1999. Their Christmas offering was if anything their most mature sounding single yet, an intense and quite powerful ballad which meshed their usual Celtic instrumentation with a cameo role for South African legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo who thus could place the Lynch sisters alongside Paul Simon in the litany of musical talents with which they had served. I Shall Be There is in truth better than the chart position might suggest, but it landed on the chart at Number 13 with the sound of a giant bubble deflating and from that moment on the writing was on the wall for what was left of the career of B*witched.
Having made their debut two years earlier with pre-Christmas Top 10 hit Slam Dunk (Da Funk), boy band Five had become a regular fixture in the pages of Smash Hits and thanks to a string of ever-improving hit singles had established themselves as one of the more reliable pop acts of the era. They were it seemed destined however to never top the charts, watching in frustration throughout 1998 and 1999 as no less than three singles in a row stalled at Number 2, very often after leading the midweek figures shortly after release. Hence it was something of a relief to all concerned when the second single from their sophomore album Invincible finally broke their duck. Keep On Movin’ was a bright and chirpy pop hit, and infused with enough bubbly energy to ensure it formed the soundtrack of just about ever “getting things done” video montage on television for the next five years. Lowest common denominator stuff maybe but the kind of instant yet throwaway Number One hit it is hard to take offence to. Their career would last until 2001 and give them one more chart-topping hit before Blue emerged to take their crown as the leading Division 2 pop band in the nation.
At the core of every good dance hit is an idea, and better yet an idea that nobody else has ever had before. The genesis of Communication was one so obvious it was a genuine puzzle that it had indeed never been done before – using the staccato buzzing noises which speakers emit when a nearby mobile phone is about to ring as the core rhythm for a dance hit. Voila – a hit single is born. As his name suggests, Mario Piu is from Italy, the DJ hailing from Livorno. Communication marked his chart debut as a performer, the single peaking at Number 5 upon release in early December 1999. He’s not quite a one hit wonder either, following up the single with The Vision which was a Top 20 hit in early 2001. Curiously Communication wasn’t the only mobile phone inspired club track on the market at the time, although it fared slightly better than the tongue in cheek I Wanna 1-2-1 With You by the Solid Gold Chartbusters, another attempt by Bill ‘KLF’ Drummond to prove that you can have a hit with just about anything. Sadly this time around the theory failed and the single crashed out at Number 62.
1999 had been the year of the solo Spice Girls – the first of many in fact. Wantaway Geri Halliwell had surged out of the blocks with a solo album and accompanying Number One hits, whilst Scary Spice Mel B had restyled herself as “Mel G” thanks to her at the time short-lived marriage and landed herself a Top 20 hit with a cover of Cameo’s Word Up. The third member of the group to make her own way as a solo star was the lady who was arguably the best singer of them all – Sporty Spice Mel C. She’d actually made her extra-curricular chart debut a year earlier, duetting with Bryan Adams on the iconic When You’re Gone but it wasn’t until the autumn of 1999 that she took steps to release her debut solo album.
The most notable thing about the promotional campaign for the album Northern Star was the strangely low key approach that was taken. Rather than make a big impact with an immediate pop hit, Mel C chose instead to launch herself with the raw grunge-inspired sound of Goin’ Down, a single which did the trick of turning heads and picked up enough sales to land at Number 4 on its debut but which chart wise was very much a flash in the pan. Much more to radio programmers tastes was the title track, an emotionally sung power ballad which showed Mel C’s voice off at the very peak of her abilities. The problem was that the lukewarm reception to her first single meant radio stations were rather more wary of the single than might have been the case and its exposure was far more limited than a song of this quality deserved. Northern Star matched the peak of its predecessor in early December and had a rather longer chart run but for all that it remains something of a lost classic. Mel C’s label would finally get the project to “click” when she was recast as an R&B diva and a brace of Number One hits would follow later in 2000.
The craze for smuggling in air horns to nightclubs and raves and letting them off at moments of particular joy can possibly be traced back to this track, a creation of German (I think) producers Freek Fontein and Willem Faber and which was a new entry here as the obligatory party track of the season. Beyond which it is hard to add much more.
Halfway there on this marathon trek through the Christmas chart of 1999. Those puzzling at the lack of dance tracks for now will be pleased to note that there are plenty more Spotify-challenging one-off creations to come in the next segment.