Bob’s Badges

Rolling The Jack

I only knew my great-grandfather for a vanishingly brief amount of time.

Robert Aitken Masterton was his name, and for much of the early part of my childhood, he was all but invisible to us, living away in Belfast with his second wife. My younger sister and I only really became aware of him following the tragically premature death of his son, my paternal grandfather. He suddenly became a Grandad substitute,  a new kindly old man in our lives, one who we once visited at his home in Northern Ireland (where he’d lived since the end of the Second World War) and who then became a frequent house guest of ours for the last couple of years of his life.

He passed away, well into his 80s, in the summer of 1983. I accompanied my father to the house near Edinburgh where he spent the final part of his life and kept him and his uncle company whilst they went over his personal effects. I’ve no direct memory of it, but I can only presume it was on that trip where I came into possession of an extraordinary collection of artefacts by which he is forever defined in my memory.

Tin Can Alley

Politis Creme de Menthe

They’ve lived for years inside this tin, itself steeped in history. From what I can gather from some rudimentary research, Politis Creme de Menthe Turkish Delight was sold in these green tins during the 1950s and 1960s. Even they are seen as collectables and intact examples such as this regularly trade on eBay for a few pounds each time. Even this is a container all of its own and surely a concept lost to later generations. These days if you have stuff you want to store, you go buy a plastic container from Robert Dyas. If you were a child in the 1970s and your parents didn’t have things kept for safekeeping inside repurposed sweet or tobacco tins, were you even there at all?

So what is inside, I hear you ask. Take a look:

The tin opened

Inside the tin are badges. 92 different multicoloured enamel badges, mostly representing crown green bowling clubs across Northern Ireland and Scotland. It was, and indeed for those clubs which still survive still is, a tradition to have lapel badges made of your club crest for sale to members and visitors. For many players, it became a tradition to collect one from each club you visited through league or cup competition as if to assemble a drawer or even a display cabinet full of playing memories. Quite how my Grandfather came to possess these is something of a puzzle. My father has no memory of him being a bowler and there was nothing in his personal effects to suggest he ever had been. He was however employed as a groundsman, and it is more than possible he was responsible for the upkeep of bowling greens. An avid collector of trinkets, it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he took the opportunity to acquire a collection of badges from visiting teams. Maybe in the hope one day they would be of some value.

Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Maryfield Bowling Club DundeeSome have a simple design, such as this Scottish one from Dundee. Although the gold thistle alone makes it quite the work of art as it is.

Coleraine Bowling ClubOthers are more ornate, the Coleraine Bowling Club in Ulster (suffering from flash glare sadly) featuring a more colourful crest.

Windsor Bowling ClubHere’s the crest of the Windsor Bowling Club in Belfast.

The location here is important, as there are a number of “Windsor Bowling Clubs” across both the British Isles and across the world, as a quick google search reveals. Interestingly all have the stag and shield logo in common, although the castle motif seems unique to this Belfast-based badge.

My Grandfather’s collection also contains some genuine curiosities too. Mementoes of what were clearly two visiting tours from teams predating sporting and cultural boycotts.

South African Bowling Tour

This pair of badges turned out to be quite useful in helping to date the collection. Whilst there’s the cliche that lawn bowls is only played by elderly people (leading to the awkward statistic of it being one of the most dangerous sports in existence due to its high proportion of in-game fatalities), dating these badges to the 1950s puts my Grandfather in his late 40s or at worst early 50s when he was collecting these. That’s also in keeping with the vintage of the tin in which they are kept.

Whilst sorting through them for this piece, I did stumble across one curiosity:

Civil Defence Bowling Club

A bowling club clearly formed back in wartime and centred around those men (and women) forming part of the civil defence. There are precious few clues online however as to who V Group were and precisely where they were based. No team of this name appears to still exist. Unless anyone reading this knows otherwise.

Eyes Right

Such collections are far from uncommon and sets are regularly traded by collectors on eBay. The badges themselves aren’t particularly rare, alhough they have some value for collectors and individual ones will often fetch a couple of pounds each on the traders market. I’m no trader or collector, but somehow it seems important to me that I have these and have hung onto them for 35 years. My link to a kindly old man who not only eased for me the transition of dealing with the first death of a close relative but who will always be the oldest living ancestor of mine who I was lucky enough to meet.

Also, there’s one final badge in the tin which isn’t from a bowling club but which has a greater significance than I used to appreciate when examining them as a child.

Royal Army Service Corps badge

His old regimental cap badge. To be pinned to the beret and worn above the eye. The inscription reads HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, the old French Maxim losely translated as “shame be to he who evil thinks”. It’s the motto of both the Royal Order of the Garter but also over the years that of various service branches of the British Army – in this case, the Royal Army Service Corps to which Robert Aitken Masterton was attached during his time as a soldier. He never saw active service, being too old to fight in WWI and too old by the time of WWII. But he was posted during the latter war to Belfast, which was where he met the lady who would be his second wife and how he came to settle there rather than back in his native Scotland. The badge is battered and careworn, but possibly close to a century after it was first issued to him, it has passed down to me.

Links To The Past

As a child, I’d sometimes spend time browsing through the contents of the tin, never quite appreciating how they had come to be in the possession of my Grandfather or indeed the historic link they represented. In truth, the act of writing this piece is probably the first time I’ve even contemplated their sentimental value. But they are my important link to the past of a kindly old man who appeared to treasure the time he spent with my sister and I in the final years of his life, as much as we were glad to know him.

For Robert Aitken Masterton, Royal Army Service Corps, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and, as it turns out, collector. These are the fruits of his hobby, and ones which mean I can retain a physical link to his memory.

Now Hear This

I think it was worth the wait in the end. Now! 100 is finally here.

Now That's What I Call Music 100

The dedicated band of people behind the production of the thrice-yearly Now That’s What I Call Music albums did a masterful job of not only building up the anticipation to the release of Volume 100 but also skilfully managing the PR campaign to ensure it was treated as a genuine major event. In the process thrusting the venerable compilations brand to the forefront of public discussion in a manner it hasn’t achieved for some considerable time.

Links Ahoy

One possible downside of the true extent of the coverage is that it exposed the way that the story behind a series of pop music compilations isn’t all that involved. Really there are only so many ways to spin the tale. Once you’ve heard one set of executives explaining about the Danish advertisement for bacon which hung on the boardroom wall at Virgin Records and which gave the collection its name, you don’t really need to hear it from five other people. But over the past week or so that’s precisely what has happened.

Amongst the many debates, discussions and documentaries that have appeared online there’s been:

A BBC Radio documentary on compilations, with a particular focus on Now!

A Virgin Radio UK documentary covering similar ground. Richard Branson telling the story of the pig poster included, naturally.

A Monocle 24 culture show on the same topic.

The BBC news website went behind the scenes to sit in on the process of putting together the celebrated 100th edition of the series. A piece which to my amusement and fascination featured identical contributions from the same individuals who appeared in the simultaneously published Guardian piece detailing the production of the 99th volume from earlier this year.

A search of online newspaper archives also turns up articles from past milestones, such as this one from a full ten years ago celebrating the series as it reached the 25th anniversary and which needless to say contains many of the same facts as the current swathes of admiring coverage. 2008 was also the last time I had cause to write about collecting Now That’s What I Call Music albums, prompted by a special CD re-release of the very first volume and one which I wrote about track by track on this very site. That re-release turned out to be so successful there were apparently tentative plans to continue with later volumes until it was noted that there was a Gary Glitter track on Volume 3 which was not so easily sidestepped. So plans were aborted, or so the rumour goes.

We All Have A Favourite

The Now! 100 hype has for me thrown into sharp focus the peculiar need for Britsh people to elevate the mundane to a beloved tradition, irrespective of whether it has ever been viewed that way. Aside from the one or two dedicated collectors, of which in all fairness I am one, I’m not sure anyone really had cause to fetishise the purchasing of a compilation album until this anniversary was released. Yet when prompted to do so, everyone can produce their own memories of the first one they were gifted, the volume which means the most to them for being the soundtrack of a particular time in life, or the particular moment all modern pop music started to sound rubbish and not like it was back in their day.

In that sense, Now That’s What I Call Music compilations kind of mirror the approach the average person has to the pop charts in general. Every single one of us intersects and engages with them at a certain point in life, and those are the only time that counts for us. We may not care much for the rest of our lives, but it is always nice to know they are still there. 35 years after the release of the first edition, suddenly everyone has been made aware that Now! is still around and in relative terms going strong. That may go some way to explaining the huge sale with which Volume 100 is set to debut at the weekend, early sales flashes suggesting it sold 105,000 copies in its first three days one sale alone. Compare that to its predecessor which posted 115,000 sales across the whole its first week back in March.

Disc 2 Disappointment

Not that the production of Now That’s What I Call Music! Volume 100 hasn’t been without its critics. I was amongst the many voices who reacted with some bemusement at the announcement that only the first disc would be filled with contemporary chart hits, the second featuring a selection of what you might call “Now’s Greatest Hits” with selected tracks from the collections from the last 35 years. This in spite of plans later in the year for a separate 100 track “Now That’s What I Call Now” retrospective. Which naturally will cover much of the same ground.

I suspect in the first instance this was done this way to broaden the appeal of the special edition. 100th volume notwithstanding, ramming it full of recent chart hits alone still would not have encouraged older generations to revert to old habits and make a souvenir purchase. It also allows the makers to sidestep what is fast becoming a major issue. The slow movement of the singles charts (despite best efforts to speed it up) meaning that locating 45-50 tracks to feature on each successive edition is becoming ever more of a struggle. By only having to fill a single disc this time around the compilers have more material to bite on for Volume 101 at Christmas.

Still, if it still meant the opportunity for my friend Bob Stanley to select his own playlist of the most eclectic deep cuts from the history of the series, who are we to complain? In any event, if those casual purchasers take the time to listen to Disc 1 they will discover that even the limited selection of current hits in contains just throws up how fabulous pop music is sounding right now. Shotgun, Solo, No Tears Left To Cry, 2002, I’ll Be There, If You’re Over Me, Flames, Better Now and Rise is a mouthwatering sequence of pop hits. Almost every one a Top 5 smash and every one of them the kind of single that will cause future generations to look back and mark the summer of 2018 down as a vintage era for pop music.

This Took Bloody Ages

As I admitted above, I’m a collector. Having been gifted the first volume and proceeded to obtain each subsequent one by fair means or foul ever since. How best to show off that collection? Well, three days before Volume 100 was released I decided to lay all the others end to end just to see how far around the house they would reach. It turns out I may need to buy a bigger one before too long.

1990 In Motion: Part Three

Bruno Brookes The Only Chart That CountsWhat do I remember about the start of July 1990? Well, I was 16 on the verge of turning 17, coming to the end of what in those days was referred to as the lower sixth, and as I recall this was a summer of some hot and sticky days. One of them was spent on a school away day to Newcastle where we university hopefuls were given tours of both the University and Polytechnic, the visits punctuated by my friends and me wandering around the Eldon Square Shopping Centre with me suffering from the mother of all hay fever attacks. On a positive note I also recall stopping at every electronics store (this in the day when you could find five or six on any high street) and worshipping the music centres on display – all of which oddly enough seemed to be playing this week’s Number 9 single.

I don’t think I ever actually applied to go to Newcastle either. Onward with the singles chart then as the broadcast of July 1st 1990 reaches a quite memorable climax.

10: MC Tunes vs 808 State – The Only Rhyme That Bites

Technically the “using an established act to promote a new one” trick dates back to the 1960s and the whole “Diana Ross presents The Jackson 5” billing, but this was a genuine example of one part of the Manchester scene giving a vital leg up to another. Thus The Only Rhyme That Bites starts with a voiceover announcement: “the ones who brought you…” followed by a snatch of the seminal 808 State track Pacific State before continuing “…now bring you..” at which point Tunes lets rip. A full six months before the whole Vanilla Ice sensation, Britain had a white boy rapper of his own, Moss Side resident Nicholas Hodgson who growled his way through a frantic track, accompanied by the now familiar squelches and bangs of the 808 State production style along with samples of the cascading strings from the start of Jerome Moross’ Big Country Theme. MC Tunes may not have been the most proficient, lyrically adept or technically sound rapper but the package as a whole made The Only Rhyme That Bites one of the most exciting and diverting British rap singles heard for some considerable time. Peaking here at Number 10, this debut hit sadly marked the high point of MC Tunes’ rap career, the follow-up Tunes Splits The Atom his only other Top 40 entry whilst his second album Damage By Stereo never saw the light of day until earlier in 2014. Hodgson would eventually branch out into singing, forming the band Dust Junkys and landing a Top 40 hit in early 1998. Their main claim to fame though? Recording the b-side track Rinse (Gearbox Wish) which a year later would form the core of the Fatboy Slim track Gangster Trippin’.

9: MC Hammer – U Can’t Touch This

A single so famous it barely requires an introduction here, suffice to say that in the summer of 1990 MC Hammer and his baggy pants dance were utterly and totally ubiquitous – as mentioned above to the extent of being heard on every stereo system the 17-year-old me was worshipping on that trip to Newcastle. Fresh from taking the US charts by storm, U Can’t Touch This had embarked on an extended UK chart run at the end of May 1990 and was at this point climbing into the Top 10 for the very first time on its way to a peak at Number 3 in early August. Two more Top 10 hits would follow from his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em album before the end of the year before it turned out his globe-buggering success was something of a lightning in a bottle moment which subsequent recordings failed to recapture. Stanley Kirk Burrell is today the punchline to an early 90s joke, the poster child for ‘too much too soon’ and a cautionary tale of believing your own hype after just one successful album. Perhaps more importantly though he was the first pop-rap megastar, the first man to drag hip-hop out of its credible and radio-unfriendly ghetto and instead dress it up in infectious, bubbly, party-friendly clothes which most crucially of all made him and his music a mainstream proposition in America. Every major worldwide hit from the likes of Flo Rida or Pitbull can trace its roots back to U Can’t Touch This and the musical ground it pioneered. To me, that is worth a thousand HAMMER TIME jokes.

8: Wilson Phillips – Hold On

A hit record which perhaps more than any other creation of its era practically screams “Californian sunshine”. Wilson Phillips were three second-generation musical ladies, sisters Carnie and Wendy Wilson (daughters of Beach Boy Brian) and their childhood friend Chynna Phillips (daughter of Mamas and Papas star John). The first single from their Glen Ballard-produced debut album Hold On was, depending on your point of view, the height of corporate blandness or an immaculate four minutes of liquid honey enveloping an inspiring life-affirming lyric. Technically it was hard to fault the single, polished to within an inch of its life and with the voices of the three women coming together in an almost angelic harmony. Their only flaw really was that they were better experienced in small doses, their album demonstrating that when the material wasn’t as strong as Hold On they became whiny and annoying very quickly indeed. Set alongside a music culture filled with Madchester beats, blistering house tracks and a feeling that British music was on the verge of something very exciting indeed, Hold On is like an injection of liquid glucose, so utterly out of place it seems almost extraordinary to see it here. Yet a major hit it was, probably because all sneering aside the record is so immaculately made and the sentiments of the song so lovely it could hardly fail whatever the prevailing circumstances. Hold On would peak at Number 6, the one and only Top 10 hit for Wilson Phillips who, as you might expect, struggled to find a large British audience for any of their subsequent material. 1992 release You Won’t See Me Cry was their only other Top 20 appearance. Nonetheless, if you want to in a moment be transported mentally to a place of golden sands, roller-skating bikini-clad ladies and cocktails at sunset all whilst being serenaded by a choir of angels, this is as good a place as any to start. Plus, the movie “Bridesmaids” would eventually immortalise the track in comedy forever.

7: Maxi Priest – Close To You

Reinvention. It can be a great career extender. Maxi Priest had begun his career as a reggae singer in the mid-1980s, starting out with some small-scale independent singles before moving to proper mainstream success in 1987, breaking through with cover versions of Some Guys Have All The Luck and Wild World. Yet his music was at best lovers’ rock. Calm, inoffensive and very middle of the road. Continuing down that path would have won him fans amongst housewives but that is pretty much it. Hence a change of label to Charisma records and a move towards what would become known as reggae fusion, in which elements of hip-hop and R&B were combined with the traditional Jamaican sounds on which he had built his career. Close To You was essentially a revelation, a Sly and Robbie-produced track which invited genre boundaries to go take a long walk as it stirred in new jack swing beats, Soul II Soul string accompaniment and perhaps, more importantly, a new vocal attitude. No longer was he Maxi Priest the hopeless romantic of his earlier hits, he was MAXI. Streetwise, dark and meaning it. The single was lapped up by British audiences who sent the track to Number 7, the second of only three Top 10 hits he would manage in his career. More extraordinarily the track found a ready and willing audience in America and by October 1990 he and his tale of “a Jezebel, this Brixton queen” were on top of the Hot 100 and on top of the world, along with UB40 one of only two British reggae stars ever to reach the top of the charts in America. Maxi Priest’s later chart form back home was still rather erratic but collaborations with the likes of Shaggy and Shabba Ranks would give him further smash hits over the next few years.

As for the next record, well as if to indicate that World Cup fever had indeed spread to all branches of the media, Bruno Brookes took time out on the chart show that week to introduce it as being by the side who were, in his words, going to “smash the Cameroons later tonight”. En-ger-land!

6: Englandneworder – World In Motion

To put it mildly, the England Football Anthem industry was in the middle of a crisis. The template for World Cup celebration records had been set back in 1970 with the seminal Back Home, establishing the principle that a strident military-style march was the best participatory medium for a group of men for whom singing was low down the long list of their celebrated talents. Although a 12-year gap between qualification for World Cup tournaments ensued, the same template was re-used in 1982 for This Time (We’ll Get It Right) and which came close to emulating the chart peak of its now legendary predecessor.

Then the wheels came off in 1986 as the England Football Squad’s single We’ve Got The Whole World At Our Feet, written and created by Brotherhood Of Man creator Tony Hiller and sounding like the theme from ‘We Are The Champions’ crossed with Black Lace bombed out at Number 66 and was gone from the charts before the squad had even left for Mexico. A quick-fire attempt to right the wrong by teaming with “the sound of” Stock/Aitken/Waterman for the official anthem for the 1988 European Championships was almost as disastrous as the team’s performance at that tournament, although the single did at least give us this never to be forgotten live performance by some very big names indeed on ‘Wogan’:

So as the 1990 World Cup approached it was clear that in order to make the official song even close to worthwhile something rather special was needed. Enter then New Order, at the time riding high on the acclaim handed to them by their Technique album and theoretically too cool to get involved in something as naff as a cheesy football anthem. Except that the football-mad group had a different idea and succeeded beyond anyone’s wild imagination in making the coolest and most credible football anthem ever. Not that the production wasn’t without its struggles at times, early plans to call the track E For England were nixed by the FA who weren’t so out of touch as to spot the blatant drug reference.

Technically World In Motion wasn’t a completely original work, sharp-eared fans immediately spotting that the melody was that of the theme to the BBC TV series ‘Reportage’ which New Order had also performed. But this was a minor detail and went unnoticed by most in the joyful fervour which greeted John Barnes’ mid-song “rap” (well, more of a recitation really) that was apparently as a result of a brief talent contest between him, Gazza, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley. Although the entire England squad appear in the video, the sleeve suggests that the actual vocal work by the footballers heard in the refrain (Bernard Sumner actually sings the main song) is limited to a carefully selected handful of those who could most carry a tune. Make no mistake this record was a labour of love for all involved and born of a determination to, in the words of one of its predecessors, get it right.

In short, it could hardly fail. Released at the end of May 1990 three weeks before Italia ‘90 began, World In Motion crashed into the charts at Number 2 and the following week was at the top for a fortnight run – handing the England Football Team what was effectively their second Number One but but perhaps most crucially their new friends New Order their one and only British chart-topping single. Arriving as it did in a post-Heysel post-Hillsborough hooligan-blighted football culture, World In Motion was arguably the first gleaming nugget of football’s reinvented cool as the football side defied all expectations to reach that famous semi-final shootout and have the nation for a brief moment believe that we could once again be on top of the world.

5: Snap! – Ooops Up

The brainchild of two German producers, Michael Muenzing and Luca Anzilotti (who changed their names to the more familiar Benites and Garrett to counter what they saw as a prejudice against German dance music), Snap! were at the time of their first releases fronted by singer Penny Ford and most notably of all rapper Turbo B. They had landed a huge hit right out of the gate with debut release The Power which had stormed to the top of the charts with some ease both in Britain and across Europe and had even come close to duplicating that success in America, peaking there at Number 2. In an era when most dance acts were little more than faceless one hit wonders it was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to note that Snap! were a fully formed act with an entire album of material ready to roll. World Power was released in May 1990 and from that set Ooops Up became their second smash hit single. The track was based around lyrics and melody borrowed from the Gap Band’s seminal Oops Upside Your Head (as it was known in the UK), Penny Ford by strange coincidence having performed with the group earlier in her career. At the core, however, was another front and centre rap performance by Turbo B, this time recounting a comic tale of personal disasters “If it can go wrong, yes it will” and including the kind of eyebrow-raising lyrics that would become something of a hallmark of early Snap! singles. On this occasion, we learn he is “hard as Chinese math” prior to a condom-snapping encounter with the object of his lust – only a small step removed from the “serious as cancer” lyric which would pass into legend two years later. Also of note on the production is the squeaking sound which appears roughly every eight bars during the track, its origin revealed when the group performed the track on Top Of The Pops, Turbo B carefully squeezing a plastic duck toy into the microphone at the appropriate points. Were they the first hugely successful dance act to not take themselves completely seriously? Ooops Up was here sitting pretty at its Number 5 chart peak. Two more Top 10 singles would follow before the end of the year.

4: Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2: Mona

By this point in 1990, it was more or less a given that any star of Australian soap ‘Neighbours’ who embarked upon a musical career was guaranteed a rapturous reception. Kylie, Jason and to a lesser extent Stefan Dennis had all made the journey from TV to charts, setting the stage nicely for hunk du jour Craig “Henry Ramsay” McLachlan to make his own bid for chart glory. Except as far as he was concerned he was a proper musician with his own chops to prove, so he signed to CBS complete with his own band Check 1-2. By the time the record was released in Britain the actor had actually jumped ship from Ramsay Street to Summer Bay to star in rival soap ‘Home and Away’, but with Britain 18 months behind in the show’s chronology by that point the record was perfectly timed to cash in on his Henry Ramsay persona. In marked contrast to the bubblegum pop of his co-stars, this was a crunching balls-out piece of Australian pub-rock, a storming cover of an old Bo Diddley song that the artist had first released back in 1957. It was an oddly incongruous hit for sure, but such was the actor’s popularity that it was hardly going to fail, racing to Number 2 in short order upon release and setting the stage for the debut album by Check 1-2 to also achieve respectable sales. A follow-up single Amanda reached the Top 20 later that summer, but after a disastrous transformation into a smooth soulful singer for his second album in 1992, it took a move to stage musicals to return Craig McLachlan to the higher end of the singles chart.

3: Roxette – It Must Have Been Love

Strange though it may sound in retrospect, Roxette were in serious danger of being nothing more than one hit wonders in the UK. Whilst the Swedish duo’s breakthrough single The Look had made a respectable Number 7 in May 1989 on the back of its surprise American chart success, further single releases from their Look Sharp album had bombed. Now familiar standards, Dressed For Success and Listen To Your Heart had been resounding flops and presumably left their label scratching their heads over what to do next. Salvation came from the unlikely source of the film Pretty Woman which had become a smash hit all over the world at the start of the year and called attention to its rather brilliantly curated soundtrack which was stuffed with otherwise throwaway tracks from several well known and upcoming artists. David Bowie’s Fame ‘90 and Natalie Cole’s Wild Women Do had already reached the charts before the decision was made to release It Must Have Been Love which soundtracked the movie’s climactic romantic scene.

The track was by this time three years old and was originally written as a Christmas single, released solely in Sweden at the end of 1987 and becoming a Top 10 hit there. Released as a single worldwide for the very first time to tie in with its use in the film, the song swiftly became Roxette’s third American Number One and perhaps most crucially of all restored them to the business end of the UK charts, rising to a Number 3 peak to end up as the duo’s biggest ever British hit. This was the spark that was needed to resurrect their British chart prospects and a re-issue of Listen To Your Heart in August led to the single reaching Number 6, a similarly reactivated Dressed For Success also going Top 20 before the end of the year. It Must Have Been Love remains to this day the most famous of all Roxette’s hit singles and indeed would return to the charts three years after its first visit when an opportunistic re-release to coincide with the TV premiere of Pretty Woman saw it reach Number 10 in early October 1993.

2: Luciano Pavarotti – Nessun Dorma

“You’ll be singing along to it within a week..” warned Des Lynam as he cued in for the first time the classical piece which would act as the theme to the BBC’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup. He wasn’t far wrong either.

The commercialisation of Italian opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti had actually started in earnest earlier in 1990. His label Decca had put together the album The Essential Pavarotti containing selected highlights from the many recordings he had made for them during a nearly 20-year association. The sleeve notes even contained an essay from the unlikely choice of then Radio One DJ Nicky Campbell who recounted an occasion when he dropped in a Pavarotti track unannounced during a late night show and was inundated with calls from people begging to know just who owned the spine-tingling voice. The Essential Pavarotti had been released in March 1990 and had made the Top 20 with some ease, coinciding with the also unexpected commercial success of Nigel Kennedy’s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and prompting talk of a classical music renaissance. Little did anyone know.

Meanwhile, thoughts had turned to the theme songs for the World Cup coverage of both BBC and ITV, something which had become something of an unofficial race between the two networks ever since the BBC had landed a Top 20 hit with Argentine Melody in 1978. No Top 40 hits had resulted from the themes selected in 82 and 86 respectively, but it was still considered a badge of honour to be the team that landed the most popular music. The choice of Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun Dorma (taken from Turnadot) was reportedly that of BBC presenter Des Lynam himself. Surely unaware of just how iconic the music would become.

Most people were probably unaware just how old the recording was, the cut actually lifted from a full recorded performance of Turandot which had been issued in 1972. But at the end of the day most classical recordings are timeless, and as the interest in the World Cup reached fever pitch and schedules were cleared to show as many matches as possible – especially when England were playing – Nessun Dorma became close to an official national anthem as the tournament progressed. Released as a single it became the most astonishing and unexpected hit of the year, leaping 21-3-2 where it lodged for three weeks and in the process dragging The Essential Pavarotti up the charts as well. Number 2 was enough to match the peak of Hooked On Classics by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1981 to become the highest charting classical single of all time. The presence of the album at the top of the charts made Pavarotti the first ever classical star to have a Number One record. As chance would have it the singer himself was already booked to play a part in Italia ‘90, the first of what would become a series of Three Tenors concerts taking place on the eve of the World Cup final in early July. From this point, the larger than life singer would go on to enjoy a level of mainstream popularity unsurpassed by any opera singer since the days of Mario Lanza, a position he maintained until his death in 2007.

Oh yes, and the ITV theme for World Cup 90? Tutti Al Mondo by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke which peaked at Number 81. By a strange coincide these were the titles shown the same evening as this chart show, albeit the ones nobody watched as by this time the BBC had torn up the gentleman’s agreement not to go head to head and were showing the match as well…

1: Elton John – Sacrifice/Healing Hands

Elton John and Bernie Taupin intended to be the 1989 Sleeping With The Past album to be their equivalent of Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man six years earlier. A tribute to the musical heroes that both men had grown up with and with all songs written with a musical nod to classics gone by. The only problem was that it was released at a genuine low point of Elton John’s career, hard on the heels of the disappointing Reg Strikes Back album in 1988 and at a time when the flamboyant singer looked to be a relic of a bygone age, his career winding down rather than set for a dramatic rebound. Despite copious airplay, the album’s two lead singles had been resounding flops in Elton’s home country. Four Tops pastiche Healing Hands made a mere Number 45 in September 1989, swiftly followed by the even more disappointing Number 55 peak for the Aretha Franklin tribute Sacrifice two months later. They were two of the lowest charting singles of Elton John’s career.

The impetus for their release came largely from Steve Wright, at the time in his pomp as the host of the afternoon show on Radio One. He utterly adored Sacrifice, played it regularly despite its chart failure and all but demanded that it be re-released to prove it could still be a hit, a sentiment that had some sympathy in the John/Taupin camp who saw it as one of their strongest compositions ever and whose failure had come as a huge disappointment to them. As it happened summer 1990 coincided with Elton’s decision to make all his singles charity releases, donating all revenues hereafter to the AIDS charities that he supported. To launch the campaign it made perfect sense to re-bundle the two underperforming hit singles from the previous year as a Steve Wright-sponsored re-issue. Second time around (and possibly helped not a little by the tactical withdrawal of the album from sale a few weeks earlier) magic happened.

The new double A-side of Sacrifice/Healing Hands entered the charts at Number 26, rocketed to Number 5 the following week, and then seven days later ascended to the very top of the singles chart. To say this was a significant moment was something of an understatement, for the lack of a solo Number One for Elton John in what was rapidly approaching a 20-year musical career was the great chart anomaly. Yes, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart had made the top in 1976, but that was a duet with Kiki Dee and for whatever reason wasn’t viewed as counting (possibly because British Hit Singles at that time listed even one-off duets as separate artist entries and so the entry for ‘Elton John’ solo was indeed devoid of Number One hits). With this one single a celebrated two-decade duck had been broken and the monkey was well and truly off his back.

Sacrifice/Healing Hands would spend a total of five weeks at Number One (this was its third) and although subsequent singles from Sleeping With The Past also failed to make the Top 40 its success paved the way for the end of year release of a new Greatest Hits double album collection, allowing for a re-appreciation of Elton’s life work. The momentum arguably only carried him so far, and by the time of 1995’s Made In England album he was arguably on his way back to irrelevance, elevated only to true national treasure status by the Bloody Diana Record two years later. By a strange coincidence, Elton’s last chart single before that had been the Number 9 single Live Like Horses, a rather turgid duet with the man whom he had denied an equally celebrated Number One single in the summer of 1990 – Luciano Pavarotti.

So that was the chart of July 1st 1990, broadcast on the night England beat Cameroon in the World Cup Quarter Final and the current hit parade on the night of that famous penalty shootout against Germany in the Semi. As chance would have it this was actually a rather vintage set of records, maybe not as full as million-selling blockbusters as some I’ve written about in the past, but rammed with records that were in their own way rather memorable and with a cultural significance which lasted long after they had been relegated to the bargain bins.

For the curious, here is the full Spotify playlist of every song from this Top 40, even the ones not broadcast – plus as a bonus Bruno Brookes with the full chart countdown.

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