It’s Thursday, it’s midday, and – sadly – it’s time for the last installment of The Story of Pop: 1999. Over the last 12 months on this here blog, we’ve retold the story of the songs and the artists that were riding high at the top of the UK charts twenty years ago, but today we conclude our year long look back – with five Irish lads who both made the record books and scored the last Christmas number one before the new Millennium rang in…
After 50 songs, more than twenty different number ones and a whole host of artists covering French electronica, UK garage, country, boybands, Latino bangers and several ex-Spice Girls later, our review of the pop year that was 1999 reaches, rather suitably, a look back at the race to be the last Christmas number one in the UK for the 20th century, and indeed, that millennium (odd really given that the charts didn’t start until November 1952, but we won’t quibble over semantics now).
Many international audiences struggle to comprehend why the song that happens to be sat atop the UK charts on Christmas Day is such a big deal to us Brits, but it’s mainly because the music market is wide open at that time of year, with many of Joe Public who haven’t ventured into their nearest HMV or record store all year – or even cranked up their Spotify with regularity as the case now is – suddenly flock in their thousands to throw their weight behind a song or album that’s a perfect gift. In short, the Christmas number one is as sacred a festive British tradition as the Queen’s Speech and pigs in blankets.
In 1999, Sir Cliff Richard, who had himself been Christmas chart topper in 1988 with ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ and again in 1990 with ‘Saviour’s Day’, seemed to be the bookies’ safe bet to be at the top for that year, having already spent three weeks at number one and shifted half a million copies of his ‘The Millennium Prayer’, a song fusing together those celebrated bops ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the Lord’s Prayer, to the ignorance – and, in some cases disgust – of the mainstream music industry and press everywhere.
But he had competition – and some strong challengers at that too. Steps and S Club 7 were both releasing new double-a-side singles to try and grab the festive crown. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – re-released after being chosen to be played at London’s newest landmark, the Millennium Dome (now of course, the O2 Arena) at midnight on New Year’s Day 2000 – and the John Peel approved one hit wonders Cuban Boys with their reimagining of cult internet hit The Hamster Dance (‘Cognoscenti vs Intelligensia’) were in the running too.
And then there was of course the small matter of five boys from Sligo and Dublin in Ireland, who were toasting a year in which they had all but dominated pop as the big new boyband of the moment. After being scouted by some high trousered record exec called Simon Cowell, and being picked up by Boyzone’s then manager Louis Walsh, just a year previously, Shane Filan, Kian Egan, Nicky Byrne, Mark Feehily and Brian McFadden – then known as Westside – had picked up the prestigious ‘Best New Tour Act’ award at the inaugural Poll Winners Party for leading pop bible Smash Hits.
After a change to the name everyone knows them better as now – Westlife – success came fast and from the off. Debut single ‘Swear It Again’ had spent two weeks at the top of our chart in May. They then quickly followed this up with ‘If I Let You Go’ (which hit the top for a week in August) and the song that’s arguably their signature tune – ‘Flying Without Wings’ – made it a hattrick in October, as well as winning them their first of four Record of the Year titles on the annual televised ITV awards show.
It was inevitable they’d have a try at making it four in a row for Christmas, and initially that was just going to be via a cover of ‘Seasons In The Sun’, a 1974 chart topper for Terry Jacks. But it was following their performance of ‘I Have A Dream’, which had been #2 at Christmas 1979 for ABBA, for the ABBAMania tribute album and ITV show, that demand went through the roof for it to be a single, hence it’s promotion to a double-a-side release.
Once released on 13th December 1999, over 250,000 copies flew off the shelves – enough to see off Sir Cliff and ensure that ‘I Have A Dream / Seasons In The Sun’ was the final Christmas number one of the 20th century, and also give Westlife a run of four consecutive number one debuts with their first four releases – a record for a boyband that would expand even further into the new century and the new millennium. The luck of the Irish really was on their side.
Thanks for reading along with The Story of Pop: 1999 series of blogs – we hope you’ve enjoyed them! Our new series, The Story of Pop: 2000 – retelling the stories behind the UK chart hits from the start of the 21st century – will begin on Thursday, 2nd January 2020 at 12pm. Don’t forget you can revisit all the songs we’ve covered on this series anytime you like by heading here or clicking/tapping above to our specially curated playlist on Spotify.