Cliff Richard v Vanilla Ice: what happened in the strangest battle for Christmas No 1
In December 1989, Cliff Richard’s publishing company, Patch Music, held its annual Christmas party – a lunchtime shindig to which singer-songwriter Chris Eaton came armed with a cassette tape. On the tape was a demo of Saviour’s Day. Just one year later, the song would battle for the Christmas No 1 spot in one of the most surreal festive showdowns of all: Cliff Richard v Vanilla Ice.
Eaton had already been writing songs for Cliff for several years. He penned, among many others, the 1982 Christmas tune Little Town, which reached No 11.
Gifting Cliff with a song had become a festive tradition of sorts. “I would go down for the Christmas party every year,” says Eaton now. “It was common for me to go with a new song to play to Cliff, to see if he might be interested in recording it.”
Cliff – already a 30-year veteran – was enjoying a career high. In 1988, he beat Kylie and Jason’s Especially for You to the Christmas No 1 with his jingly croon-fest Mistletoe and Wine, and he topped the album chart with a best-of record, Private Collection.
“His success was pretty much unprecedented,” says Eaton. “Mistletoe and Wine was number one, the album was number one, the video was number one… right across the board, he was the man.”
Cliff’s success continued into 1989. In May he reached No 2 with The Best of Me – his 100th single – and followed with a No 3 hit, I Just Don’t Have the Heart. He’d technically been Christmas No 1 that year too, as part of Band Aid II’s revamped Do They Know It’s Christmas? collaboration.
So successful was Cliff at the time that his label EMI had already mapped out 1990 and lined up his hit for the next Christmas to come. Eaton recalls being met at the Christmas party by Cliff’s secretary. “She said, ‘I suppose you’ve got a song to play Cliff? I’m sure he’ll listen to it, but he won’t be recording it next year,’” Eaton says. “EMI had a meeting literally three days before and planned the whole year ahead. The next Christmas single was going to be From a Distance.’”
Eaton was unperturbed by Cliff’s already-packed schedule for 1990, and decided to play the tape to him anyway. Cliff found Eaton at the party. “Have you got a song for me?” Cliff asked him. “Your car or mine? Tell you what, let's go in mine. It’s a Rolls-Royce, it’s got a better stereo.”
“We went downstairs and sat in his Rolls,” Eaton says. “We listened to a minute – to the first chorus – and Cliff stopped the cassette. He turned to me and said, ‘This is a Christmas No 1.’”
Those were big words coming from Cliff Richard, whose status as one of the kings of British Christmastime was already well established. And Cliff, in that kingly wisdom, was right about Saviour’s Day.
Eaton conceived and wrote the song in little more than an hour. The demo he played for Cliff, though simpler, had pretty much everything that would go into the finished version.
“It was a gift, if you like, that God had given to me,” says Eaton. Non-believers might scoff at the Christian sentiment, but Saviour’s Day is a divine Christmas pop cracker.
To the contemporary ear – and like most pop classics which make up the sound of the Great British Christmas – it’s joyously naff stuff: a grandiose hymn-turned-anthem with thumping, Celtic-inspired production, one of the all-time great Crimbo key changes (see also: Shakin’ Stevens), and infectious pan-pipes. (I can attest to the infectiousness: in the course of writing this article, the melody has been piping its way around my brain for the best part of a week.)
And rarely has a music video been so in tune with a song: Cliff, swirling around the rocky peaks of Durdle Door, decked out in a patterned jumper and scarf, waves crashing below him, as he leads a congregation in chorus of song and textbook Cliff-style swaying. The song truly comes to life.
“It was June!” laughs Eaton about the video. “All the people were on this big hill, trying to make it look like it was winter.”
Eaton admits that Cliff's previous Christmas hit, Mistletoe and Wine, wasn’t entirely to his tastes. “For me personally, a bit creamy and sentimental,” he says. But it was a tough act to follow. Mistletoe and Wine (the swayiest of all Cliff’s Christmas tunes) spent four weeks at No 1 in December 1988 and sold a whopping 750,000 copies. “I remember thinking I wanted to write a song that was more of a Christmas anthem,” says Eaton.
Eaton cites his favourite Christmas song as Greg Lake’s magically-stirring I Believe in Father Christmas. “It’s got this amazing atmosphere,” he says. “I thought about writing something like that, with a musical atmosphere that I would like to listen to at Christmas – with the shifts in the chords and that bursts into life in the chorus.
“The song title Saviour’s Day just came to me. The link to that faith aspect was very important to me. It’s something that’s real to me and millions of people. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the true message of Christmas right at the heart of the song?’”
Eaton wondered at first if Cliff would record it – “It might be too gospel for the pop world that he was in!” – but Saviour’s Day, released on November 26 1990, became one of Cliff’s highest new entries.
“It went straight into the chart at No 6,” says Eaton. “Nowadays, it’s all about download power. These were the days when you had to release a single weeks before, just to make sure it had a chance to build momentum.”
As Saviour’s Day climbed to No. 3, there was a three-way race with Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby and Madonna’s Justify My Love, which led Cliff in positions 1 and 2 respectively. But the week before Christmas, Saviour’s Day overtook Madonna to take the No 2 spot. Cliff and Vanilla Ice were now unlikely Christmas combatants.
Eaton – who recalls the December chart battle with impressive and dramatic detail – felt the tension in the build-up to Christmas week. “Tension in a good way,” he says. “It was excitement!” But he recalls being so overwhelmed with the early success of Saviour’s Day that he would have settled for a runner-up spot. Vanilla Ice looked tough to beat. Ice Ice Baby was a global hit: it topped the Billboard Chart in the US and had already spent four weeks at No 1 in the UK.
“The midweek chart came out on Thursdays, which gave you an early sign,” says Eaton. “My publisher called me and said, ‘We’ve just had the midweek chart… they can’t call it, it’s neck-and-neck! We’ll have to wait until Sunday unfortunately.” (Both Saviour’s Day and Ice Ice Baby were released by EMI, so the label was onto a festive winner either way.)
Just two days before Christmas, on Sunday December 23, Saviour’s Day overtook Ice Ice Baby to nab the No 1 spot. Eaton puts it down to Cliff’s last-minute buyers. “Once Christmas starts to loom, his fans come onboard,” says Eaton. “He’s such an iconic figure at Christmas.”
On that Sunday, Eaton was scheduled to perform Saviour’s Day in a carol service at his church. “I heard it had pipped Vanilla Ice at about 5:30pm,” Eaton says. “I went in knowing it was No 1, but the chart didn’t come out until 6 to 7 o’clock. I got up to sing it live just before 7pm and let everyone in on the secret.”
The notion of Cliff Richard v Vanilla Ice now seems brilliantly surreal, but is typical of bonkers Christmas chart battles from over the years. Just as there’s no formula for what makes a Christmas hit – the disparate likes of Jimmy Osmond, The Human League, The Flying Pickets, the Spice Girls, Bob the Builder, interchangeable X Factor winners, and (shudder) Ladbaby have all claimed the top spot – the race to Christmas No. 1 has been similarly un-formulaic.
The public consciousness tends to think of battles between undisputed Christmas classics: Slade v Wizzard in 1973; Band Aid v Wham in 1984; or East 17 v Mariah Carey in 1994. But more bizarre battles include Mr Blobby – whose mass hysteria-induced popularity could only result in a novelty record – beating Take That’s dreary ballad Babe in 1993; Michael Jackson’s Earth Song holding off Mike Flowers Pops’ kitsch cover of Wonderwall in 1995; The Darkness’s Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) v Gary Jules’ sombre Tears for Fears cover Mad World in 2003; and – most hilarious of all – Rage Against the Machine breaking the curse of The X Factor (temporarily) by shouting down Joe McElderry’s The Climb in 2009.
The success of Saviour’s Day also speaks to the curious, almost supernatural appeal of Cliff Richard at Christmas, and his power to fend off younger, far trendier artists – something of a festive tradition itself.
In 1988, the year of acid house and rave culture, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were hardly cutting-edge cool, but the 20-year-old Aussies were major mainstream stars. Between them, they’d had five Stock Aitken Waterman-produced songs in the top 10. But Cliff still held them off the Christmas No 1 spot with Mistletoe and Wine.
Two years later, in another race against Cliff, Vanilla Ice was at the peak of his breakout success – perhaps the trendiest, most down-with-the-kids mainstream pop star in the world at that time.
In 1999, Cliff's Millennium Prayer was just beaten to the Christmas No. 1 spot by young croon-sters Westlife. But Cliff had already held the No 1 for three weeks, and fended off breakout garage track Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta) by Artful Dodger (feat. Craig David, of course).
And, just last month, the 80-year-old Cliff Richard entered the album chart at No 3 with Music… The Air That I Breathe. (It includes Chris Eaton’s co-written track, Falling for You.) It fell to No 20 but this week climbed back to No 12. Is it Cliff's last-minute fans getting in the spirit again?
The star’s enduring Christmas success is perhaps a testament to the power of middle-of-the-road England; to the religious aspect, often forgotten by those of us whose Christmases are an exercise in mass consumption; and pure festive nostalgia for Cliff.
“Cliff’s a very normal, human guy,” says Eaton. “He’s very personable. He invites himself, because of his music, into your living room. His warmth with his audience continues through the music. It’s an iconic voice. It comes from his faith and his heart – it also comes from his manners. He’s not your sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll star. He’s a clean-living guy and more power to him for being that. It’s trendy to be the opposite, but that trend wears off the older you get.”
Being Cliff, Saviour’s Day was always going to be divisive. “Over the years, people love to love him, or love to hate him!” laughs Eaton. He admits that, like other Christmas tunes, it likely annoys people with its relentless airplay in shopping centres throughout December.
In 2009, for instance, a poll placed Saviour’s Day at No 9 in the 10 most annoying Christmas songs. “It’s all part of the fun of having a Christmas tune, absolutely,” says Eaton. Much like Cliff, you either get into the spirit of Christmas songs or you don’t. Being played endlessly alongside classics from Slade and Wizzard, says Eaton, is “a privilege.”
Looking back at the 1990 chart race, it’s amusing to wonder if Vanilla Ice and his entourage were watching as closely – and whether they were miffed by Cliff beating them to the top spot.
“I doubt very much whether they were,” says Eaton. “Vanilla Ice had been No 1 for so long, you’d think he’d be happy to give it up.
“Having said that, Christmas No 1s were pretty hot to handle in those days. It was a treasured spot.”