The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 12)

The Story of Pop: 2002. It’s the weekly series that looks back to the songs hitting the top of the charts – and the hitmakers behind them – all the way back in 2002. This week: more huge sales antics from the runner up of the first series of Pop Idol

  • Artist: Gareth Gates
  • Song: Unchained Melody
  • Released: 18/03/2002
  • Writers / Producers: Alex North / Hy Zaret / Steve Mac
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 38

Looking back at that ground breaking first series of Pop Idol, it was evident that, even with Will Young’s incredible success that we revisited three weeks ago, that the show arguably didn’t just find one new pop idol, as it did several all at once, many of whom we’ll be meeting on the rest of this series to come.

After all, there was still 4.4 million who had voted for and were thus immediately invested in the career of the man that Will beat to the title of winning the whole show. And it’s to him that our attentions now turn this week. Gareth Gates‘ musical career had begun at the tender age of 9, when he was a chorister at the cathedral in his hometown of Bradford, West Yorkshire, eventually becoming head chorister there by the age of 11.

He’d also done a few shows and musicals at school, as well as appearing on Steps To The Stars – a CBBC talent show hosted, appropriately enough, by H and Claire from Steps – and had a reserve place at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, all before Pop Idol came calling.

His audition was one of the first to be shown when the series started, and it was one of its most memorable. With his impish good looks – who could forget his famous spiky hair? – he certainly had the look of a popstar about him.

And then there was the fact that, despite having a quite severe stammer that meant he was barely able to get his words out, he had an effortless singing voice that could best be described as angelic. There was no question therefore, that he would be in the competition until the end.

As we touched on at the entry for “Anything Is Possible / Evergreen“, Simon Cowell was especially fond of Gareth, and was backing him all the way. During the quarter finals, where the theme was number ones week, he gave what was to be one of his defining performances on the show, with a song that is so synonymous with the history of the UK singles chart, it could almost warrant it’s own blog post.

Written by Alex North and Hy Zaret, “Unchained Melody” is, well, quite literally that. It was the theme from Unchained, a fairly mediocre prison film from 1955. Recorded for the soundtrack by Todd Duncan, Jimmy Young had then recorded it and took it to the top of the chart that same year. It also went onto hit the chart in versions by everyone from Leo Sayer to Liberace.

Fast forward to the 90s, and the song took on a life of its own, hitting number one twice more under versions by The Righteous Brothers in 1990 from the soundtrack of the Patrick Swayze / Demi Moore blockbuster Ghost, and then again in 1995 by stars of TV drama Soldier Soldier, Robson and Jerome. Both recordings were the biggest selling single of their respective years of release in the UK.

Robson and Jerome are the connector here, as their A&R guy at RCA Records was – yep, you guessed it – Simon Cowell. And it was Simon whom, upon hearing Gareth’s version on Pop Idol, rolled out what became a stock in trade expression of his on shows like this that followed, which was shorthand for his seal of approval: “I predict you will have a number one record with that song”.

Fast forward to the middle of March, and despite finishing second, Gareth had secured his own record deal with RCA/BMG. And after witnessing the record breaking sales that Will’s double-A-side debut had made, the record company shipped pre-orders of over a million copies to record stores, and stood back with bated breath to see what happened next.

And whilst it didn’t quite achieve the phenomenal seven figure sum that “Anything Is Possible / Evergreen” had notched up in its first week (in a twist, his versions of the two Will songs were the B-sides on the single), Gareth entered the chart history books with a still impressive first week sale of 850,535 copies, not only making “Unchained Melody” the first song to ever be a UK number one under four different versions, but at just 17 years old at the time of its release, it also made him the youngest British male solo artist to have a number one single.

It eventually spent an entire month at the summit, and over six months in the charts, on its way to becoming the second biggest selling single of 2002, as well as winning the Record of the Year prize on ITV that December. Like Will, we’ll be meeting Gareth twice more before this series is out, but the combined incredible success of both their debut releases following one of the year’s biggest TV shows is solid proof of why 2002 was – and still is – a special year for chart watchers and pop lovers alike.

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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