Dec 14

WESTLIFE – “I Have A Dream”/”Seasons In The Sun”

Popular40 comments • 3,012 views

#844, 25th December 1999

westlife dream In that other great Irish exploration of the experience of death, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, the protagonist endures an afterlife built on the principle of recursion. Having murdered a man to fund a quixotic and obscure self-published project – I can only sympathise – he finds himself subject to a string of comical and terrifying events which, the novel implies, he will repeat in minor variation for eternity.

What does this have to do with Westlife’s bizarre Christmas Number One cover of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun”, which brings the curtain down on the 1990s, and on the 20th Century’s charts? Only that, as the band tightened their apparent grip on pop, a dark suspicion grew that we had all been stranded in a recursive process – that time had looped round to the 1970s, an era of novelty hits, holiday imports, and doe-eyed crooners. Or even the 50s, when groomed, polite and stifling boys had made the pop running quite as much as rock’n’roll had. The style has changed a little since 1952 – gospel, doo-wop and soul are in Westlife’s mix, however faintly, and light opera is no longer a pop aspiration – but the manner has not. Between the first number one and the 844th, the level of smarm is depressingly constant.

To say that is only to repeat something which became obvious very early on in the Popular project – that the set of uses people find for pop singles stays largely the same. Dancing, loving, self-definition, and souvenirs – that covers eighty percent of it, I’d say. And that’s fine – the game is in the detail of each variation. What seemed different about Westlife was that they were so desperate to smooth out and file off such detail: occasionally, more often in their videos, you’d catch onto something that fixed them in time, but their records rarely had any such grain to them.

What wasn’t clear in 1999 was how the unbearable blankness of Westlife was only one version of a question set to haunt Popular for the next decade or more: what, exactly, does Simon Cowell like about music? What does he think pop should be? In his choices of what to promote and record, Cowell – still a backstage figure at this point – gives a strong impression that he thinks rock music was, all in all, a bad idea, that the most natural and profitable form of pop is the kind of light entertainment represented by big-voiced stars and impresarios, or at the sophisticated end bandleaders and crooners. If Westlife do hark back to 50s pop, I suspect it was partly instinctive.

Cover versions are a very obvious strategy for the group, and one that paid off at once: after “Flying Without Wings” had scraped a number one, “Seasons” and “I Have A Dream” did the job at Christmas easily, and held on for several weeks. The covers chosen for this single represent how the light entertainment tradition survived into the 1970s – they are the decade at its soggiest and broadest. “I Have A Dream”, children’s choir and all, is ABBA’s worst single – from an album where they sound wrong-footed by disco, second-guessing themselves, and then breaking their unsteady flow with this relative clunker. It sounds like it was a commission – UNICEF, or Children In Need before the fact – but as far as I know it’s just Benny and Bjorn trusting, as usual, that their melodic gifts will redeem their cornier impulses. For once, they get it wrong.

It’s pretty, though, and Frida – battening the hatches of faith to keep out the winter darkness of late ABBA – is as magnificent as ever. But Westlife’s version is no abomination. The inevitable boyband ad libs find a new, more celebratory, take on the song, breaking down the slight church hall prissiness in ABBA’s verses. Though in a song where almost every note is oversung, there’s no longer anything special about the original’s one beautiful moment, the held “I believe….in angels”.

But wait a minute. “I Have A Dream” is about finding strength in faith, but specifically the strength to conquer and meet the fear of death: “When I know the time is right for me, I’ll cross the stream”. Which brings us to “Seasons In The Sun”, in which, on the eve of the Millennium, Westlife conjure their own apocalypse by bringing the death ballad back to the UK charts. If it’s a startling move on the band’s part, it’s made even weirder by the professional gusto with which the lads approach “Seasons”. If “I Want It That Way” cut up boyband song lyrics to prove that resonance in them came from texture not text, “Seasons In The Sun” goes the only possible step further: after a sombre first minute or so, the fog of instrumental blarney clears, the group shake off their long faces and “Seasons”’ boyband moves run exactly against its supposed ‘meaning’. Lines about loss and death are sung in the precise way any love song would be: “Goodbah Michelle it’s hard to diy-iy-iy!”. Even Terry Jacks’ smash-and-grab job on Brel didn’t go that far.

Factor in the song’s own recursive stairway to heaven – those monstrous, tiered key changes piping you further up and further in to Simon’s Country – and you have a song that’s almost as awesomely wrong-headed as “The Millennium Prayer”. And this is how, despite Cowell’s efforts, pop music can fight back against his attempts to reduce it and iron out its creases. The seven weeks of Cliff and Westlife are, you could fairly claim, the darkest hour we have faced so far: two records where self-satisfied calculation meets cack-handed execution. They are terrible singles. And still some kind of oddness, some novelty, can poke through, even in Cowell’s home territory, the micro-managed world of Westlife. We had never heard Auld Lang Syne spliced with The Lord’s Prayer before. We have never heard a death ballad flambéed in insincerity, boyband style, either. It turns out that hearing these things is stupid and awful. But they are new. The charts can survive stupid and awful: predictability, the endless loop of pop’s Cowellian afterlife, will be the real enemy in the years to come.

Popular will return on February 1st. Let’s all meet up for the year 2000.



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  1. 26
    thefatgit on 31 Dec 2014 #

    ABBA’s “I Have A Dream” isn’t bad at all. Like others have mentioned, a “worst ABBA single” wouldn’t be kicked off the turntable in my gaff. It has a whiff of Svenska Dansband about it, which perhaps points to Benny’s tastes rather than Bjorn’s. One wonders what might have happened if “Waterloo” had not blown Eurovision wide open: the band might have been stuck in Folkpark obscurity forever. What Westlife did with it was rinse any trace of Anna-Frid’s dignity from it as the boys, especially Shane and Bryan (by this time the odd one out, just look at his cover mugshot) flattened the terrain for the urchins’ chorus finale. Even now, it still rankles that people willingly ushered in Cowell’s tin-eared pop hegemony with ham-fisted sludge like this.

    But even IHAD is more palatable than SITS. Terry Jacks’ torturing of Jacques Brel is an obvious low point for pop in the 70s. I suppose the death ballad trope is a metaphor of transition from one state to another IRL. A 20th Century ends. A 21st begins. Now to then. There to Here. As much as New Labour were willing to mark the event with the Dome and the pizzazz and the fireworks, with hindsight, the 21st Century didn’t really begin for another 88 weeks and 3 days from when the Tesco fizz stopped bubbling. A little foreshadowing won’t disturb the bunny.

    SITS is awful. Westlife doing SITS is skull-crushingly painful. I don’t need to expand any more than that. For the purposes of Popular, I’ll give IHAD 2 and SITS 1, giving an average of 1.5, which I’ll round down to 1, because it’s Westlife and I vehemently, unapologetically dislike Westlife. There, I said it.

  2. 27
    iconoclast on 31 Dec 2014 #

    And here is where we Iconoclasts throw in the towel, probably for good. The prospect of these two songs is bad enough, but we just can’t bring ourselves to listen to any of the first few dozen Number Ones of the 2000’s, much less rant despairingly about the steady decline of popular music since we were fourteen, or whenever. We guess we’re just not made of the necessary poptastic stuff.

    A very Happy Iconoclast-free New Year to all of Popular, and special congratulations to Tom for his perseverance and tenacity in the service of his mission.

  3. 28
    ciaran on 31 Dec 2014 #

    This lot again.

    A double A-side was a bit much at this point but they do suit each other in a cant have one without the other sort of way.Well positioned to take advantage of the christmas market after a hectic year commercially.

    Not having heard either for a long time I was expecting to be sour on one and in favour of the other.Except IHAD isnt actually as bad as I thought it would be. Not that it’s going to win me over or anything but it’s nowhere near their worst offence.The biggest advantage relatively speaking is that at least they look happy here instead of longing for that special someone who has left them. Does get a bit 5-pints-into-a-Temple-Bar night on the town for its own good but it sort of holds itself together.

    SITS was a right pain in the arse to sit through. It gets off to a bad start by showcasing Kian Egan who I can’t bear and then Brian Mcfadden whose already looking like a fish out
    of water. Worse still it never gets out of first gear and just pure Westlife by Numbers for a finish. The last thing the chart needed is another 911’s A Little Bit More reminder. Actually 2nd last after the Millennium Prayer.

    I’d be inclined to give IHAD 5 but dock it a point for being bloody Westlife and SITS is on a low scale. A 1 would be very harsh especially after Cliff so a 2 it is. 3 for the overall package.

  4. 29
    Shiny Dave on 31 Dec 2014 #

    Congratulations to Tom, and this skewering of “Seasons In The Sun” is a magnificent way to bow out for now – especially given how it looks ahead to what’s to come. Hope you follow through on the previously mentioned plan for double entries – I can see a couple of possibilities in 2000. (#852-3 is bleeding obvious for it, #856-7 and #866-7 could also be tied together. Looking ahead to early 2001, #893 is on one hand a significant enough record to deserve its own entry, but on the other hand is significant in a very particular context that #892 firmly ties into.)

    #7 I absolutely loved Orbit’s Adagio for Strings – almost certainly because the Barber was completely unfamiliar to me so I had no reason to treat it with reverence. (And it’s not Orbit who’s thrown a trance beat over the top of it – he produced it essentially straight as part of Pieces In A Modern Style, the chart version was a Ferry Corsten remix. The Tiesto version is horrid, but the Orbit-Corsten one is fabulous – out of context. The song’s use in mourning of the event lampshaded in #26 was my first awareness of the origin of Adagio for Strings, and I rather stopped liking it in Orbit-Corsten form after that. Nowadays, I get it out for occasional play, mostly at a very particular point in my rapid depression cycle where I’m wanting to wallow in misery and bounce around energetically all at once.

    (While thinking about the events of 2001, there’s a very big bunny that autumn whose enormity might well have been partly a product of being an outlet for escapism.)

  5. 30
    Shiny Dave on 31 Dec 2014 #

    Oh, and regarding SITS – where’s the H in that acronym? – I always had the assumption its post-70s life was entirely as a sporting chant. (I can’t really say “terrace chant” when this cover’s chart run encompasses the tenth anniversary of the Taylor Report…) Are Westlife – whose target market probably had less crossover with chanting fans than those who, with a little Tory press behavioural priming, thought they were probably all hooligans – tapping into that second life of the song?

    (I’ve just facepalmed at my own accidental joke in the context of this song…)

  6. 31
    swanstep on 1 Jan 2015 #

    @mapman, 22. Thanks for the correction, and, I agree that ‘Smooth’ isn’t terrible (so my ‘reign of terror’ was in jest). But I do remember being puzzled about the whole Santana-upswelling at the time and quite how Mr Matchbox 20 was in a position to facilitate that resurgence.

    In general too, while the top of the UK charts is ridiculously fragmented at this point the US charts needed an enema. Using Erithian’s lovely figures we can calculate that a similarly diligent US-Tom starting where Tom was a year ago (July ’96) would already be up to February/March 2005!

  7. 32
    mapman132 on 1 Jan 2015 #

    #31 Agreed. One of the reasons I’ve continued to take interest in the UK charts all this time is the Hot 100 moves way too s-l-o-w-l-y. And once a certain artist finds the Hot 100 sweet spot, they seem to dominate the chart 24/7/365 for a while (Santana in 99/00, Taylor right now, many other examples in between).

    Of course, 30-40 number ones a year is a bit extreme on the other end. One national chart that does have what I consider an ideal amount of turnover is Australia.

  8. 33
    Query on 1 Jan 2015 #

    I don’t know if this is more appropriate here or in the 90’s poll, but as we bid farewell to 1999 we can begin to make out, on the horizon, a development with even greater import for the pop landscape than the arrival of Simon Cowell: file-sharing. 1999 is the year Napster was launched, picking up millions of users practically overnight, with it reaching popular notoriety in the US as early as May 2000 (after the Metallica incident – which I’m sure we’ll discuss soon enough). The Bitorrent protocol was designed the following year, in 2001.

    And so we head into the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns…

  9. 34
    katstevens on 2 Jan 2015 #

    Blogging Without Wings determined that the Wezzas’ I Have A Dream is marginally better than the ABBA version (this still doesn’t make it much good) and Seasons In The Sun is our first real stinker.

  10. 35
    J on 3 Jan 2015 #

    #21 Mamma Mia! had premiered in April 1999 with IHAD the closing song of Act II

  11. 36
    James BC on 5 Jan 2015 #

    That reference to The Last Battle is incredibly apt for Seasons In The Sun. Both may be unrivalled in their spheres for crassness in the face of death, and if the Narnia film series ever gets that far, Seasons (Jacks or Westlife version) should absolutely soundtrack the “further up” scene.

  12. 37
    Mark M on 30 Jan 2015 #

    I was at a quiz tonight, and one of the questions was: what was the No1 record at the turn of the millennium? And I thought, I know I’ll know that… But I didn’t.

  13. 38
    enitharmon on 30 Jan 2015 #

    @37 No, technically and to the kind of people who compile pub quizzes it wouldn’t be this one.

  14. 39
    Mark M on 30 Jan 2015 #

    Re38: They weren’t pub quiz compilers – it was set by showbiz journalists. And if you mean NYE/D 2000/1 vs 1999/2000, they definitely meant this one.

  15. 40
    MUSICALITY on 24 Apr 2017 #

    Awful song and band and the first cover of many as they enter their new phase as the World’s most glorified covers band – WESTLIFE –

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