The Story of Pop: 1998 (Chapter 19)

Giving you yet more retro chart action from a quarter of a century ago, every Thursday at 9am, this is The Story of Pop: 1998. This week: another film soundtrack chart topper with the third number one in a row from Denmark’s biggest Europop exponents…

  • Artist: Aqua
  • Song: Turn Back Time
  • Released: 04/05/1998
  • Writers / Producers: Søren Rasted / Claus Norreen / Johnny Jam / Delgado
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 10

The 80s had established a bit of a golden rule book that continued to be solidified throughout the 90s for pop groups; chiefly, that the third single off your debut album slowed down the pace and was a ballad. But whilst Aqua followed this rule in principle, “Turn Back Time” did anything besides play verbatim by the rules.

Although that’s partly because of what this single came to be known for. It found itself included on the soundtrack to Sliding Doors, a British set romantic comedy drama directed by Peter Howitt, starring Gwyneth Paltrow (with a terrible British accent) and John Hannah, in a film where the former’s lead character lives two parallel lives depending on whether or not she catches a Tube.

Also on the soundtrack were Dodgy, Jamiroquai, Elton John, and a track by a then little known singer called Dido, which would form the basis for another number one single altogether (which you can read about here). Considering that Aqua’s modus operandi was bright and bubbly Europop, it was hard to see how they would fit onto a soundtrack for such an adult leaning movie.

But any aspersions as to their suitability are immediately cast aside when the gentle piano chimes in on the intro, with a gently clackety sort of percussion track reminiscent of train stations late at night kicking in, as Lene Nystrom delivers a genuinely heartbreaking, wistful vocal: “Give me time to reason / Give me time to think it through / Passing through the season / Where I cheated you”.

And it’s when the chorus hits that her vocal really flies, but not in the perky, ultra exaggerated way that it did on some of their other singles: “If only I could turn back time / If only I had said what I still hide / If only I could turn back time / I would stay for the night”. There’s a hint of regret but also a sense of foreboding that’s a key component of all good Scandopop, that makes this sound like a baby version of “The Day Before You Came” by ABBA, accentuated by the grinding, menacing breakdown the song hits just before it gently builds back up to its final chorus.

The promo video equally reflects the toned down vibe of the song that positions it a million miles away from the day glo world of “Barbie Girl” or “Doctor Jones“. Intercut with footage from Sliding Doors, it depicts the band moving around Holborn tube station, all the while as the spirit of Lene that got trapped in the ticket gate at the start of the video moves around trying to reunite with her human body (which she does, at the end, but she also does so whilst prising the Tube carriage doors open, which any sane Londoner would tick you off for).

What it did undoubtedly do was surprise a lot of people who might have been wholly dismissive of Aqua up to that point (for whilst they had sold a hefty amount of singles, they were not without their detractors), but also afforded them some credibility that they could actually write and deliver a song as strong as this, reflected in the strong radio airplay it received that their earlier singles hadn’t.

Upon its early May release in 1998, “Turn Back Time” shot straight in at the top of the UK charts, thus making Aqua the first international act to have three consecutive number one hits with their first three singles (a record that would eventually be surpassed by an act we’ll be discussing mere weeks from now).

And whilst its 10 weeks on the chart maybe compared a little poorly, being less than half the mammoth 27 weeks that “Barbie Girl” had notched up or just a little over half the 18 weeks “Doctor Jones” had achieved, being the third single in from the Aquarium album – which had already shifted half a million sales here – meant the law of diminishing returns was always going to play a factor.

It was also their last such single to go that far; the pirate themed “My Oh My” broke their run of chart toppers, peaking at #6 in August, whilst “Good Morning Sunshine” rounded off the album campaign, peaking in the top 20 at #18 in December. And whilst they did eventually return for a second album, Aquarius, in 2000, which produced one more top 10 hit with “Cartoon Heroes”, Aqua truly never were as big again where the UK charts were concerned. “Turn Back Time” then, is perhaps the most fitting conclusion to the run of the peak of success they had in this country.

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 1998. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop1998.

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