Welcome to this week’s edition of The Story of Pop: 1999, our weekly look back at the all the big movements in the UK charts of twenty years ago. And I suggest you strap yourselves in for this week people, because we have not one, but TWO – yes, two – songs to cover. Prepare to revisit the last great chart battle of the 90s: the battle of the Solo Spices…
As we enter the last few chapters of this series, one thing we can categorically say is that looking back, the UK charts of 1999 were much busier and faster paced, with a culture of enter high and fall fast becoming the big story. But the level of competition to fight it out for a high chart placing week in week out meant it was also an unpredictable mistress.
All the promotion and hype in the world couldn’t control the punters investing in a record. Nothing was dead cert. And as the 90s clattered towards their firework strewn welcome into a new millennium, at the start of November the release schedules delivered us one last epic stand off for top honours for good measure – albeit one that perhaps hasn’t been properly reassessed until recent years.
As we saw earlier in this series, Geri Halliwell had thumbed her nose at her critics when ‘Mi Chico Latino’ gave her her first solo number one in August. As autumn drew into view, she had to think about her next single, and she was as driven as ever to ensure that what she chose next repeated its success. But even she couldn’t escape competition – including some that was closely tied to her old pop life as Ginger Spice.
1999 had been the first year since their launch that there was no new releases from what was now the remaining quartet of the Spice Girls. Instead, they were recording a much delayed third album, playing a series of Christmas gigs in London and Manchester, and they’d all taken time out to focus on marriages (Victoria), babies (Victoria and Mel G as she briefly was) and solo careers (all except Victoria).
In the autumn of 1999, it was Baby Spice – Emma Bunton – who was going it alone next. She’d kept herself in public view earlier that year duetting with Rod Stewart on his ‘Audience With’ special and Ronan Keating at a concert for breast cancer charities, but for her first release away from the girls, she was teaming up with Darren Stokes and Lindsay Edwards, aka the dance production outfit Tin Tin Out. They’d already enjoyed huge top 10 hits with Shelley Nelson on a cover of The Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends”, and on remix duties for The Corrs’ “What Can I Do” and “Runaway”. For their collaboration with Emma, they opted to do a faithful cover version of “What I Am”, a song that was originally a hit for Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians in 1989.
Meanwhile, Geri decided to hit the ballad button with “Lift Me Up”, her third single off the “Schizophonic” album. It was a sub-Des’ree kind of effort, full of lyrics about being well, lifted up spiritually or through love, but in retrospect was a song that even the most staunch Geri supporter would be hard pressed to say is among her best work, as it more readily exposes her limitations, but at least showed another side to her solo persona opposite to that of the first two singles, complete with a sign language dance routine and a ‘so-crap-it’s-good’ video with midget aliens.
The stage was now set for a head to head chart battle between Geri and her former colleague Emma for the number one spot. Emma and Tin Tin Out went about promotion in a very normal, understated way, with much stronger airplay, and nothing you could remotely describe as shady came forth from Emma when she was asked about the ‘battle’ in interviews. (Melanie C on the other hand is a different story, but more on that in a couple of weeks from now).
Geri however, was absolutely everywhere. You only need go on YouTube and type in a search query for ‘geri halliwell lift me up’ or see this clip here to witness the sheer volume of TV performances, interviews, record signings and public appearances she made in the run up to and on week of its release. Call it ruthless calculation (Geri’s even admitted in recent years that a lot of the early part of her solo career was an ego fuelled middle finger to the girls) but she made herself readily available for everyone and anyone who would have her.
At the first set of midweeks, the margin between ‘Lift Me Up’ and ‘What I Am’ was just a matter of 5000 copies between them. And then came the catalyst that all but settled the week’s result – or in this case, Chris Evans. As tabloids just about got over the fact that two Spice Girls were in a chart battle with solo singles, they now had the story of Geri and the other famous ginger person making sweet music together to whip themselves into a frenzy about. Some cried out ‘PR stunt’ almost instantly.
But a handful of tabloid front pages on its own isn’t necessarily going to make its readers head out and buy your single. What it undoubtedly did for Geri, however, was give her that last push she needed to almost watertight guarantee her success. By the time 7pm on that Sunday evening rolled around, Mark Goodier confirmed the news to the nation on BBC Radio 1’s weekly Top 40 chart show that she’d done it.
Tin Tin Out and Emma Bunton debuted at #2 with “What I Am”, whilst Geri sailed to #1 with “Lift Me Up”, beating her by a much larger margin of 30,000 more copies. She had now started her solo career with two number one hits, and another reaching #2. But her methods to pursuing it had undoubtedly left a bad taste in some people’s mouths – although that’s another story for another series.
Emma meanwhile, would eventually get her moment of chart topping glory eighteen months later in April 2001, with her still rather lovely solo debut proper “What Took You So Long?” spending two weeks at number one, making her the first solo Spice Girl to hold the summit for more than a week. But to this week, we remember the battle of the Solo Spices, in all its manic glory, and the power a good old fashioned chart face off could still command in a pre-digital age.
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