Over the last 12 months, we’ve bought you the weekly retelling every Thursday of all the big hits from the UK singles chart of 20 years ago with The Story of Pop: 2000. Today, we make our final stop on our nostalgic pop journey – with the extraordinary story of one of the most bonkers Christmas chart toppers of all time…
If there’s one proud tradition that used to set the UK singles chart above any others, it was the great British public’s love of throwing their weight behind a record which, in any other instance or country, just simply wouldn’t be hitting it in quite the same way.
Yes, we are of course talking about novelty records. And nowhere was that tradition more vividly realised than at Christmas time. Call it the time of year, or our unique – some might say weird – sense of humour, but it used to do funny things to the taste of the punters in HMV and Woolworths, in the process laying awry some carefully constructed plans of record companies and throwing up a massive selling record in the process.
The BBC had seen this three years previously in 1997, when they had scored a million selling number one with a remixed version of the theme from their big pre-school show favourite Teletubbies, who had topped the chart before that festive season, ultimately being usurped at the death by the Spice Girls.
And of course, four years before that, the omnipresent (and slightly Satanic) 90s icon Mr Blobby had sent Take That packing at their height for 1993’s Yuletide chart topper. And for the first Christmas chart of a new millennium, silly season was quite literally set to descend on the charts all over again.
1999 had undoubtedly been something of a purple patch for the BBC’s children’s TV and merchandising strands. Still flushed with the success of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po, they launched another two pre school favourites that year. One was the Tweenies, who themselves notched up a string of top 20 hits and sold out concert dates (as well as being the career launchpad for a pre-fame Justin Fletcher/Mr Tumble).
The other was Bob the Builder, a gentle series of 10 minute, stop motion animated stories about a friendly handyman and his team of construction vehicles, voiced by Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey. So far, so Postman Pat for Y2K. It’s slightly laddish, terrace chant theme tune, written by Paul K. Joyce, instantly saw to it that the show was an immediate hit with both young viewers and their parents alike.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that a single of the theme tune would follow. The initial plan had been to release it the previous Christmas, which for some reason or another fell through. But come a year later, the show was already onto airing its second series, and was attracting some of the highest TV ratings for a preschool show, and demand for all things Bob, from cuddly toys to books and video tapes was at an all time high.
It was this growing popularity that was undoubtedly to work to the advantage of “Can We Fix It?”, a remixed and extended version of the show’s theme, which even found time to throw in reference to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ in the intro and Liam Gallagher in the accompanying video, as well as throw a very early 00s 2-step UK garage beat underneath it all.
The signs that the BBC were onto an absolute monster of a hit were when, following its early December release, it debuted at #2 with unusually high sales behind the Eminem record we discussed last week. Cut to a week later, it had overtaken the sales difference to ‘Stan‘, and became the first record in just over a year to climb to number one, all the while increasing sales again.
This unprecedented climb was on the last chart before the big one: the first Christmas chart of the 21st century. Bob was suddenly a prime contender for the top spot, and his main challenge? Step forward Westlife. It had been theirs for the taking the year before, and as discussed on the entry for ‘My Love‘, they had broken records by reaching number one with every one of their seven singles to that point. Their stock had never been higher.
‘What Makes A Man’, their eighth single, was lined up as the one that would extend that chart buggering record further, as well as giving them a second consecutive Christmas chart topper. But as they were to discover to their peril, like Take That in 1993, the Irish boyband had met their match (and then some) in Bob. It registered the best first week sales of any of their hits (230,000 copies is the agreed number), but failed to advance beyond it’s #2 entry point.
In the end, it wasn’t just a win for ‘Can We Fix It?’ – which sold just under 360,000 copies that week – it was an absolute thrashing, as it held onto the top for a second and then third week to become the UK’s Christmas number one single for 2000. In just three weeks, Bob also managed to shift just shy of 900,000 copies, on it’s way to reaching million selling status – thus also stealing away the crown of All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores‘ at the eleventh hour of being the best selling single in the UK of that year.
So just why did an animated TV handyman go onto sell more copies of a single in 2000 than any by U2, Madonna, Oasis or even Eminem? Quite simply – it was a novelty single that appealed to absolutely everyone, from drunk students, to whistling postmen, to excited toddlers. Never again has the UK charts bore witness to a single like it. And it wasn’t even his last; a cover of Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No. 5’ was Bob’s second number one in September 2001.
And for all of the faults of the UK singles charts in 2000 – a sudden plateau in overall sales, a rapid turnover of chart toppers (43 in all), and a lack of long staying hits, ‘Can We Fix It?’ is the proof, if any were needed, that regardless of the record that hit as big as this did, you never quite knew what was going to happen next under the hands of the record buying public.
Thank you so much for reading along and following The Story of Pop: 2000 – we hope you’ve enjoyed it! Don’t forget you can revisit all the songs we’ve covered on the series any time you wish by clicking here, and listen to them again with our Spotify playlist above.
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