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Apr 14

OASIS – “All Around The World”

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#781, 24th January 1998

When “All Around The World” came out, it wasn’t yet quite clear that Oasis had peaked. Yes, the album was a folly, but they were still colossal, with no sign they wouldn’t come back stronger next time. This record felt belligerent: the pointless length, the Pepperland video – a band being deliberately, grandly lazy. Think what you like about us, it said, we’re going nowhere.

Which turned out to be true. And with hindsight, I can hear a different, far less triumphant record hidden in this one’s rolls and folds of overdubbed flab. To get to it, though, I have to ask: how on Earth did this thing get so big, anyway? What were they feeding it?

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Apr 14

ALL SAINTS – “Never Ever”

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#780, 17th January 1998

NeverEver You’re in the car with the radio on and no expectations, and suddenly you hear it: a song that stops everything around it, breaking through the playlist and announcing itself as a hit. More than a hit, a classic, a song you’ll be hearing for the rest of your life. And the feeling when it happens is a kind of classic itself, one of the iconic freeze-frame moments of loving music. As a self-conscious pop fan it’s something I knew was meant to happen, and every time I was listening to the radio a part of me was willing it to.

So when it did happen – when, for instance, I was in my girlfriend’s car at the end of 1997 and I heard a song start with the chords from “Amazing Grace” and a hesitant woman tiptoeing across them, talking out of the radio, asking for help turning fragments back into a life that might make some kind of sense – how much could I believe my reaction? I’d spent the back half of the year getting my own head together, and the glue I’d used was 60s pop and soul. I’d listened – a lot – to Motown, Philly, Spector, girl groups. I was ready for “Never Ever”. I needed it. Right then, I loved it.

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Apr 14

Popular ’97

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I give every entry a mark out of 10. Here’s your opportunity to tick the ones you’d have given 6 or more to.

My highest score of 1997 turns out to have been a solitary 8, for Hanson’s “MMMBop”. U2 and Elton both got 2s. Use the comments box to talk about the year in general!

Which Of The Number One Hits Of 1997 Would You Have Given 6 Or More To?

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SPICE GIRLS – “Too Much”

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#779, 27th December 1997

toomuch Their three Christmas number ones are as much to do with canny release date bagatelle as with enduring public love, but the Spice Girls still gave the impression of taking special care over their year-end singles. Or maybe they just had a knack for ballads. “Too Much” isn’t their most distinctive record – less lush than “2 Become 1”, less melodramatic than their later big weepies – but after the slapdash clatter of “Spice Up Your Life”, a bit of crafted stability might be no bad thing.

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Apr 14

TELETUBBIES – “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!”

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#778, 13th December 1997

ehoh My main point last entry was that “Perfect Day” saw the BBC applying its gift for pop spectacle to the demands of a more curatorial time. This would become – on broadcast TV particularly – an era of tighter demographics and multiplying niches, and the BBC would respond. BBC3, BBC4, 1Xtra, 6Music, CBBC, and in 2002 CBeebies, its channel for the under-6s, anchored for years by Teletubbies reruns.

In the old TV model, Top Of The Pops and the charts had enjoyed a happy symbiosis. With that show well along its slow decline, the charts were left without a centre. Instead they had new outlets – the supermarkets, and Woolworths, increasingly determined what reached No.1. As James Masterton pointed out in the comments for “Perfect Day”, this meant a dramatic broadening of the singles audience – the number of people visiting Tescos or Asda dwarfed the HMV or Our Price customer base, and included millions of musical impulse buyers. Put a tempting single in front of them and your sales could be colossal.

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Apr 14

VARIOUS ARTISTS – “Perfect Day”

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#777, 29th November 1997

PDay Charity covers as multi-artist jigsaw puzzles were a whiskery idea by this point, so it’s remarkable how startling and beguiling “Perfect Day” sounds. It’s a successful reinvention of the Band Aid concept that also more or less finishes it off: the next time I write about this kind of record, it’ll have explicit nostalgic overtones.

There are several things this record gets right. Firstly, it wasn’t a record. The “Perfect Day” collage was a video first – a promotional film for the BBC justifying its license fee – and it had a huge visual impact. Massive stars, enticingly shot, and – crucially – not collaborating. The point of Band Aid and USA For Africa was that the famine crisis had been big enough to bring all of pop together, but the BBC’s aim on “Perfect Day” was to celebrate its diversity, not its unity.

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Apr 14

AQUA – “Barbie Girl”

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#776, 1st November 1997

barbie Branding, unsurprisingly, started with cows. When it moved from livestock to consumer goods, it expanded from a mark of ownership to a mark of consistency, but also of quality. As Andy Warhol put it in 1965, “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” The same went for Barbie.

What this meant was brand owners could begin to decouple consistency and quality. If all the Cokes are good, they need not actually be the same. You can have Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke. You can have coke bottled in Bialystok and Bilbao. You can have squirts of Coke syrup mixed with nozzled soda water, and by the power of the brand, all of it is Coke. The material existence of the product and the symbolic existence of the brand become more separated than ever but also more mutually dependent. Marketing, advertising, research (and a chunk of Warhol’s art) is very often about understanding and exploiting the relationship between them. The product Barbie creates the brand Barbie, but the brand Barbie is what then makes the existence of Ken possible.

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Mar 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Spice Up Your Life”

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#775, 25th October 1997

spiceup The story writes itself: weeks of enforced grieving cast a grey spell across Britain that is broken – could only be broken – by the forces of Girl Power, in full returning cry. Pop is restored, joy is unconfined. And honestly the arrival of “Spice Up Your Life” did feel a bit like this. In just over a year the Spice Girls had become a touchstone in pop culture: Geri’s BRIT awards dress sealed that. There had been so many parodies, references and headlines that the group felt entirely familiar, looked on with the mix of fondness and complacency that gets people called “national treasures” in the long run. There would be a film, of course: nothing would seem more right and proper, except maybe the idea of their comeback single unseating Elton John and bringing the spark back to the charts. “Spice Up Your Life” enjoyed a tailwind of unusual goodwill.

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Mar 14

ELTON JOHN – “Candle In The Wind ’97″ / “Something About The Way You Look Tonight”

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#774, 20th September 1997

citw Every Popular entry starts with the same question: why this record? This time it’s especially loud. “Candle In The Wind ‘97” is the highest-selling single of all time in the UK, almost 2 million clear of its nearest competitor. This is as big as pop gets. But “why?” might strike you as a silly question here, because its answer is so obvious: Diana, duh. So reframe it: why Diana?

The death of Princess Diana is recognisably a global news event, in the way we experience them now: the sudden in-rush of information into a new-made vacuum of speculation; the real-time grapple for meaning; and most of all the flood of public sentiment, deforming the story and becoming the story. It was also inescapable in a way nothing in my lifetime had been. But there are elements which feel very distant, and this single is one of them. It pushed the machineries of pop – literal ones, like CD presses and distribution fans, and metaphorical ones, like the charts – to their limits. HMV stores carried signs warning of a limit of 5 copies per person, and still sold out. There were reports of people buying 50 copies – for a shrine, perhaps, or just because CD singles had briefly become, like flowers and bears, part of a currency of devotion.

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Mar 14

THE VERVE – “The Drugs Don’t Work”

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#773, 13th September 1997

verve ddw “Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert.” – Richard Ashcroft on “The Drugs Don’t Work”

The list of number ones is not a complete history of anything except itself: it’s an iceberg party, a throng of bobbing and jostling tips – rock, hip-hop, reggae, indie, cinema, politics, comedy, charity, marketing and more, each one an incomplete and distorted story. But sometimes – when a berg seems over-familiar – the tiny and partial story told by the tip can put a new spin on it.

So the rock and indie number ones of 1996-1997 have seemed to me to tell a story about anxiety, a crisis of legitimacy for rock music. “Setting Sun” brutally demonstrated that it was impossible simply to pick up where the 60s innovations had left off. “Discotheque” suggested that other musics could no longer be easily absorbed into the working practises of a rock band. And Oasis were a walking declaration that a traditional band line-up should be the centre of pop, simply by right and by confidence – and it had worked, until Be Here Now showed the limits of this fiat rock.