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Thank God, Cliff's hijacked the charts

`It's all so damned absurd that I can't help being chuffed. We are idiotic, and our dominant culture is idiotic'
WORRYING THINGS are happening inside my head. First, I keep feeling pangs of compassion for Jeffrey Archer - for which, in my defence, I realise there is No Excuse. Second, I am pleased that Sir Cliff Richard has achieved the No 1 slot, so pleased that I have become certain in my own mind that this little victory is an important Pop Moment.

Until Saturday morning I hadn't been paying too much attention. I vaguely knew that Cliff had had ructions with his record company of 40 years because they hadn't wished to release his new single. I was aware, too, that the radio playlists - even the Radio 2 playlists - had not included Cliff's turn-of-the-millennium song, "A Prayer for Our Time", and that Cliff was rather hurt by this.

But I hadn't quite caught the extent of the hostility until I accidentally watched CDtv on Saturday morning. I was attracted by the spectacle of two young men called Ant and Dec making uncharitable remarks about Pop's Peter Pan, accompanied by Melanie Chisholm, the Spice Girl Who Can Sing, who vouchsafed that she very much hoped that this week's No 1 should not be, horror, Cliff.

But lo, it was Cliff. CDtv rallied by playing a tiny snippet of his video, then announcing that that was all they had time for. Apparently the pop- appreciating nation is now curdled with fear that Cliff will maintain his No 1 slot until Christmas, which would be some kind of musical travesty, as for several years standards have been maintained by a simple expedient whereby the British public opts for a Spice Girls' Christmas No 1 every time.

It is the absence of a Spice Girls contender for this all-important millennium birthday that has left the field wide open, allowing hopes to rise not just for Cliff but also for such notable pop divas as Frances Shand-Kydd. I find that a little confusing, because I thought she had a title already. Isn't the whole point of having a significant Christmas No 1 to get a knighthood? Cliff has one of course, while Paul got one for "Mull of Kintyre" and Bob got one for "Do They Know It's Christmas?" But Frances is already Grannie to the Future King. What does she need a Christmas No 1 for?

What, indeed, does Sir Cliff need one for? I suppose it's his bizarre desire to mark this Christmas out as specially religious, and one has to admit that his rephrasing of the Lord's Prayer so that it can be sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" does meld the two causes for celebration into a sludge of sentimental spirituality that has proved irresistible to many, even without benefit of conventional hype.

Nevertheless, Cliff's protest is no poorer than John Tavener's. This great composer's hissy fit over the lack of a spiritual dimension in the official millennial celebrations resulted in the word "Amen" being tagged on to the end of every line of the lyrics for the millennium anthem he is setting to music. This in turn was a stronger showing than that of Ronan Keating, whose band Boyzone was expected to fight off the Cliff threat this week but failed by 6,000 singles. Ronan was also contracted to produce a millennium anthem, but he has been too busy to get it together and will now be recording his opus in January of the next millennium. Is it too, too late, or awfully, awfully early? Only time will tell.

I fear, though, that Cliff's latest bid for pop stardom may have been awfully, awfully early. It is hard to believe that his Prayer will remain on everyone's lips until Christmas. Look what has happened to Liam Gallagher. A few weeks ago he was confessing to the press that he'd given up booze and that he and Patsy were talking to God of an evening instead. Now he has gone AWOL and the Oasis world tour is reckoned to be in jeopardy. It is a fickle world, the world of pop, I find myself wisely concluding. And the triumph of Cliff has come to show us just how fickle it is.

There is something hilarious about his hijacking of the pop charts at 59, when we all know perfectly well that this bastion of popular culture is generally dictated by people aged nine to 14. This week old folk and Christians went out and bought Cliff's single instead, presumably in the belief that they were striking a blow for spiritual values. In fact, they are merely illustrating the banality of all attempts to combine piety with pop, but that in itself is a cultural service.

I suppose it could be argued that it's quite nice that people are trying. While buying "A Prayer for Our Time" cannot really be seen as any more spiritual than buying overpriced crystals on a day out in Totnes, there's something touching in the idea that in these style-conscious times there are still so many uncomplicated souls who will defiantly, militantly, walk into a shop and purchase the thing (all proceeds to Children's Promise, as it is a well-known fact that nobody makes any money out of Christmas).

Except that the pity of it is that Cliff's "Prayer for Our Time" is not what he thinks it is, or what its purchasers think it is either. That is what is so interesting about it. It is not a meaningful record that swims against the tide of dreck in our pop charts, but simply more dreck in very much the style of the fin de the siecle that it marks. The lyrics are not original and nor is the tune.

As an artefact it is not challenging at all. It is just another triumph of the same old mediocrity dressed up in a different kind of packaging.

"A Prayer for Our Time" is just the same old nonsense from a different angle. While it seems to offer a damning critique of a culture whereby the country can become seriously engaged with the race for No 1 between Geri and Baby, but at the same time not indulge a household name when he wants to release a Christian song for the new millennium, it is instead the exception that proves the rule.

So why on earth should I be pleased that it is No 1? Primarily because it reveals the whole pop farce to be exactly what it is. The sight of these arrogant young presenters who believe that their endless procession of mediocre ditties peddled to children is exciting and meaningful, having to face the fact that It's Cliff This Week, is funny. And Cliff himself is funny, with his one-meal-a-day diet, his pounds 40 a week spending-money, his vast personal fortune and his inability to form human relationships or have a family, and his endless need to be at the top of the pop music charts even though he's six years off retirement age.

It's all so damned absurd that I can't help being chuffed. We are idiotic, and our dominant culture is idiotic. Young people today are idiotic and so are old ones. Of-the-peg spirituality in Christmas singles is idiotic, and the idea that Cliff's little ditty is something of any import is idiotic. Surely this can't go on. Whatever the No 1 record that spans the turn of the millennium, surely it can't be crass enough to capture the Zeitgeist of a culture that feels such things to be anything more than the most ephemeral of dross.

Sir Cliff Richard has already performed for us the service of graphically reflecting our own stupidity. Thank the good Lord that that little humiliation is over for another year.

Roll on Christmas 2000.