How do you mark a millennium? British pop culture has its rituals to accompany a change of the date: fireworks, lists, and Jools Holland feature prominently. They’re geared for a shift in year. They can be scaled up, just about, to a decade. But a century? A millennium? We were, with hindsight, hopelessly and inevitably unequal to the event, however arbitrary it was. Schedulers flailed, putting together “best of the millennium” shows in which – and how could it have been otherwise? – 900 years went begging. In a milieu where “of all time” means a lifetime at best, a millennium is a preposterous span. Imagining people could think about it seriously was always folly. But in the gap between people’s sense of what the occasion ought to merit, and what was actually on offer, strange things could thrive. This is one of them.
Describing “The Millennium Prayer” is a lot easier than listening to it. Originally conceived for an evangelical musical, it’s a high concept record – the words of the Lord’s Prayer draped awkwardly on the music of “Auld Lang Syne”, a spoonful of castor oil holiness as the millennium party got underway. People have rightly pointed out that the record is a mash-up – anticipating an early 00s craze for song-splicings. Nothing could be more suitable – the millennium itself was a mash-up, an ill-synced bootleg of the annual, the familiar and the cosy with a once-in-twenty-lifetimes opportunity for who even knew what. And “The Millennium Prayer” reflects that perfectly, since – as a minute’s listen reveals – the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” appear to hate each other quite a lot.
And when you look a little more closely at the record, this constant mismatching starts to become a trope, repeating at every level. It’s mash-ups all the way down. Take the Lord’s Prayer itself, which comes in several different versions. Cliff starts with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer text (you can tell from all the “thys”) but then jumps to the English Language Liturgical Consultation version (which is where all the stuff about “the time of trial” rather than “temptation” comes from). Whether the arrangers are trying to broaden the song’s appeal, or salvage its capsized scansion, I’m not sure: it means what you get is a version of the Lord’s Prayer that his public will be almost, but not quite, familiar with.
But cutting and rearranging the text doesn’t solve Sir Cliff’s main problem: the Lord’s Prayer is a seventy-word spoken passage generally run through in twenty seconds or so. He is trying to make a four-minute pop record. Even torturing it to fit another song and running through it twice leaves him two minutes to fill. The solution – pragmatic in one light, audacious in another – is simply to write an extra bit.
Writing a second verse for the Lord’s Prayer is a tricky assignment on the face of it, but as a pop legend Sir Cliff had access to the highest drawer of talent. Naturally, he turned to Nigel Wright, formerly of megamixers Mirage. The crafter of Jack Mix ’86 – also the record’s producer – helps turn in a suitably high-flown verse – “Let every hope and dream / Be born in love again” – to turn listeners’ thoughts to the future. (Said future, represented by the Artful Dodger’s “Re-Rewind”, kicked its heels unhappily at number two.)
But how much future would there even be? One line of the new material stands out as authentically Biblical sounding – “every tribe and tongue”, a phrase popular with evangelical churches, if Google is any judge – and indeed it is Biblical, but it’s not from Matthew or Luke. In one last mash-up, it’s from Revelation, where it describes those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb – and, a bit later, those who worship the Beast. Let’s assume Cliff means the former.
So in “The Millennium Prayer” it works as a basic statement of inclusiveness, a dog-whistle for evangelicals that the record is on their wavelength, and even carries a faint hint of the apocalyptic, one strengthened by references to the kingdom come. This, after all, is what sets the millennium apart from simple ends of decades or even centuries – it’s a celebration that could also be doomsday: party over, oops, out of time. History had snatched away that promise, pushing signs of the apocalypse to the geekier margins of culture: TV serials, cultists, comic books. Replacing it was a wan corporate rebrand of the Festival of Britain, a doom that could be averted not by redemption but by sound information technology practise, and the National Lottery Big Draw 2000 with Dale Winton.
It’s no wonder some people wanted something more – something, however cack-handed (and “The Millennium Prayer” is a woeful, clunky, tedious record) that at least gestured towards the enormous. Sir Cliff saw the opportunity, and all the better that radio wouldn’t touch it – it created a narrative he loved, the aging national fixture against the hip young establishment. That sense of comradeship in the face of a fallen world is something the highly religious and the fans of unfashionable pop stars share – it paid off perfectly. The day of judgement arrived, stuck around for three weeks, and played out exactly as prophesied. Rapture for the believers; for the rest of us, purgatory.