The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 9)

This is The Story of Pop: 2002. Our weekly look back at all the big stories that were making the UK charts two whole decades ago. And well, they don’t come much bigger than the one that we’re about to retell this week, for a star is born and a new age of the charts arrives with it. Read on…

  • Artist: Will Young
  • Song: Anything Is Possible / Evergreen
  • Released: 25/02/2002
  • Writers/Producers: Cathy Dennis / Chris Braide (Anything Is Possible), Jörgen Elofsson / Per Magnusson / David Kreuger (Evergreen)
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks On Chart: 23

We’ve made it eight chapters in without talking about this, but now’s the time to get ready to buckle in for one element of the charts of 2002 that we’ll be discussing a lot between now and… well, December. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the reality TV age.

2001. For the first time ever, viewers saw the search and making of a brand new pop act from auditions all the way through to their first release, with ITV’s Popstars, a docusoap format imported from Australia in 2000 by then head of the channel, and one of the show’s judges, “Nasty” Nigel Lythgoe, who was out there whilst his son was working on that country’s version of the franchise on his gap year.

As well as witnessing the euphoric highs and crushing lows of the audition and formation process, over 12m tuned in as Nigel, along with music management publicist Nicki Chapman and A&R exec Paul Adam, whittled down hundreds of hopefuls to the chosen five: Kym Marsh, Noel Sullivan, Suzanne Shaw, Danny Foster and Myleene Klass, otherwise known as Hear’Say.

The end result of three months’ exposure on primetime telly was their debut single, “Pure & Simple“, which when released in March of that year, shot straight to number one with, at the time, record breaking first week sales of 549,823 copies, whilst their debut album, also titled Popstars, raced to the top on sales of over 300,000 copies in one week.

Simon Fuller, the man who’d bought success to Annie Lennox, Cathy Dennis, and more recently, the Spice Girls and S Club 7, was looking closely at all that was going on with Popstars. And, not unlike many projects he’d worked on and had success with, was wondering how to take the best bits of this brave new TV format, and make it even better. Little did he know he was about to change the course of both TV and music history forever. Enter Pop Idol.

Launched in October of that year on ITV, and hosted by former Byker Grove stars and SMTV Live hosts Ant and Dec, as the title suggested, this time viewers were going to be seeing the audition, selection and ultimately making of a brand new solo pop artist. But unlike Popstars, this time the format would not be a completely passive one as that had been.

Making use of the growing popularity in mobile phones, and the expanding rollout of Broadband internet connections in UK homes, for the first time, the audience watching at home would be the ones to help decide the ultimate winner, week by week, through a series of public votes by phone, text and online. Pop Idol’s stroke of genius was that the power literally was with the people and their 10p.

It’s hard to emphasise how revolutionary this was; this for the first time was putting the destiny of the hopefuls in the hands of the public. Prior to the final 50 stages of the competition, however, came the tense rounds of auditions. Over 10,000 applied, as the judging lineup of legendary hitmaker Pete Waterman, Capital FM DJ Neil Fox, Nicki Chapman and – more crucially for Pop Idol – high trousered record label executive from RCA and official “bad cop” of the panel, Simon Cowell, sorted the wheat from the chaff. And in Simon’s case, brutally took down contestants as viewers watched dreams get shattered.

As the series progressed, contenders for the title started to present themselves as the numbers got smaller. But none more so than that which emerged during the final 50 stages of the competition, where each week, five groups of ten of the remaining 50 sang for public votes for the first time. Just about slipping through those first auditions almost unnoticed (it was suggested that he partly got through because there were fewer boys left and he was there for the numbers, in Pete Waterman’s words), Will Young was a quiet, softly spoken yet cheeky and witty 23 year old from Hungerford in Berkshire, who had just graduated with a 2:2 in Politics from Exeter University.

Having done work experience at Sony Music, as well as successfully auditioning for a boyband on ITV’s This Morning two years previously that had gone nowhere (Blue’s Lee Ryan and Andy Scott-Lee, brother of Lisa from Steps, and himself a Pop Idol finalist in its second run, were two of the other chosen few), he knew he wanted to pursue a career in music and so, at the time of auditioning for Pop Idol, he had enrolled at the Arts Educational College in Chiswick in London.

With an awesome voice that leaned heavily on jazz and soul roots, all were impressed by Will. All that is, except for Simon Cowell. Which led to an iconic bit of pop culture telly that would change the lives of all concerned – none more so than Will’s. Upon being told by Mssr Cowell that his final 50 performance was “distinctly average”, and spurred on by encouragement from Nicki Chapman to not take the criticism, Will calmly but firmly replied back “It is your opinion. I don’t think that was average, I don’t think you could ever call that average.”

The boy who had the courage to answer back to the show’s “nasty judge” suddenly became something approaching a national hero, and unsurprisingly found himself voted through to the final 10. The weeks went by as he continued to turn in one great performance after another, until eventually there was just two left standing; Will Young, and the finalist who many had been earmarking as the winner from his first audition, who we’ll discuss in three weeks’ time, 17 year old Bradford born Gareth Gates.

The whole of the UK promptly went Pop Idol mad, which had been steadily increasing in viewing figures, as all that week leading up to the final, both Will and Gareth embarked on an almost military campaign, traversing the length and breadth of the country in their ‘battle buses’ and appearing in just about every TV show, magazine and newspaper to drum up support for votes. I was in Year 8 at school at the time, and I vividly remember it being a talking point of my entire year group, and one of my teachers even had a “Vote Will” poster grainily printed off the net and taped to her cupboard door. That’s how huge it was.

Whoever would win was going to sign a £1m record deal with RCA/BMG, and secure a management contract with Simon Fuller’s 19 Management stable, releasing their debut single just two weeks after the final. The double-A-side single release in question would consist of two songs; the first, “Anything Is Possible”, was a midtempo number written by Cathy Dennis and Chris Braide (who had not long been at the top of charts writing hits for S Club 7 and Kylie Minogue), whilst the second, “Evergreen”, was a soaring – if slightly generic – power ballad that had not long appeared as a track on Westlife’s most recent album.

Speaking on a recent BBC Radio 2 documentary marking the 20th anniversary of the final to Kate Thornton (then host of spin off show Pop Idol Extra on ITV2), Will remarked that he knew exactly whom the latter song had been chosen for. Simon Cowell was backing Gareth, who had sung Westlife’s “Flying Without Wings” on his first audition, and who did Simon do the A&R for in his day job at RCA? Very good.

Will said “The song was in a key that I couldn’t reach, maybe because they didn’t have time to move it to a key I could sing in, I don’t know … But I was almost resigning myself to the fact I wasn’t going to win. I was looking for signs everywhere that it wasn’t going to happen.” What a shock Will was going to have come the night of the Pop Idol final, for the votes had actually been neck and neck in the preceding weeks.

9th February 2002. 16 million people tuned in to watch that final showdown between Will and Gareth. A host of famous faces, including Ricky Gervais and Annie Lennox were in the audience. The National Grid were even ringing ITV to confirm what times they were going to ad breaks, as they were worried that en masse kettle boiling would plunge the UK into a nationwide power cut. Quite simply, the country hadn’t seen anything like it, as front rooms and even pubs and bars the land over watched the final in nervous anticipation.

Of the 9 million votes cast – which was then a record for a TV phone vote – in the end, just half a million votes separated the last two standing. A nation waited on tenterhooks as Ant and Dec confirmed that, with 53.1%, 4.6 million had voted Will the first ever Pop Idol winner.

Whisked away the very next day to Cuba to film the videos for both sides of his double-A-side debut, just a fortnight later, he was back at the Pop Idol studios for a winner’s special show that would go out the weekend before his first single was due for release on Monday, 25th February. What happened after that was quite simply extraordinary.

The single hit the shelves, and it was selling. And not just selling, but at a rate of knots that was so far beyond what any normal single release usually shifted in an average week in any year, let alone back in 2002. The following Sunday, having accounted for 54.93% of all singles sold that week, “Anything Is Possible / Evergreen” had raced its way to number one on breathtaking sales of 1,108,269 copies.

That thus made it not only the fastest selling debut UK single of all time, but one of the fastest selling UK singles in its first week of release, surpassing the first week total of Band Aid (“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, 750,000 on its first week of release in 1984), but just behind Sir Elton John (“Candle In The Wind”, 1.5 million in its first full week on release in 1997). It outsold not just the rest of the top 10 but the whole of the top 40 combined for that week, and eventually went on to be not only the biggest selling single of the whole year, but also of the entire decade.

Quite frankly, the mind still boggles looking back as to how Will could even attempt to follow this up. We’ll meet him twice more this series, so we’ll get to discuss in detail what he did next. But even though he has acknowledged that he’s not fond of that first release musically, in the same Radio 2 retrospective show last month, he said he liked the single “for what it meant to people. It was a moment in time and it still takes people right back to where it all began on that final.”

Don’t forget to follow our brand new playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 2002. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop2002.

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