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Has Covid killed off the cheesy Euro summer holiday hit?

Covid travel restrictions have dealt a serious blow to the import of holiday tunes from the continent

Kaoma on German TV show Wetten, dass?, September 1989 - Credit: Photo by Peter Bischoff/Getty Images

There may be an unexpected cultural side effect of the decimation of the holiday industry over the last two summer seasons: The absence of European pop hits from the UK charts.

These tracks, seeping into the subconscious as they play around the pool, on beach bar radios, or during package resort evening entertainments, have long been brought back home, along with the holiday memories and the sunburn, to triumph in the UK charts, often as the weather turns colder and holiday nostalgia peaks.

Since a recent report from Travel Weekly found that over 10 million fewer Brits than usual intend to take an overseas holiday this year, the chances of upbeat, sun-drenched European pop tunes crossing the Channel to become hits here this autumn are minimal.

The European summer holiday hit has a long pedigree. The success of Marcello Minerbi’s recording of Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorbas’ Dance – a No. 6 in September 1965 – was not just down to the Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek (1964). It came towards the end of a period when the number of Britons going abroad more than doubled, and that year British Pathé reported on the tourist colonisation of even the furthest-flung Greek islands.

By the 1980s package holidays in full technicolour had arrived in the form of Club Med and Club 18-30, and there was the music to match. At first there was British pillaging of European pop, with Black Lace’s Superman (1983) based on a favourite in the Spanish discos, the Italian hit Gioca Jouer (1981), while Agadoo, never out of the UK Top 5 in August 1984, was a cover of a French single which had been popular in the Mediterranean resorts. But the continentals soon exacted revenge.

Italian act Baltimora’s anthemic Tarzan Boy was all over the European charts in the summer of 1985 before peaking at No. 3 in the UK in September proving that, as Black Lace suspected, Brits often preferred their European pop with English lyrics. Fellow Italian Sabrina – the Club 18-30 holiday made flesh – saw her hi-NRG Boys (Summertime Love) (1987) top the charts in France and become a major hit across Europe before it finally peaked at UK No. 3 in July 1988.

French-Brazilian group Kaoma’s Lambada was a French No. 1 in the summer of 1989 and, despite being wholly in Portuguese, reached the UK No. 4 in December, when its beach-set video featuring plenty of thong bikinis and pelvis-to-pelvis dancing transported Brits far from their grey island.

The next decade was one when the launch of budget airlines may have transformed our holiday experiences but the naff holiday hit carried on just the same. Middle-aged Sevillian duo Los del Río’s Macarena, as remixed by Miami record producers the Bayside Boys, bubbled under for a full year before it became the hit of the summer of 1996 and the biggest single of the year globally. The tongue-twisting Spanish lyrics were leavened with English verses and the accompanying dance was of course without language. It proved its irresistibility and longevity when a video of officers dancing the Macarena at a Paris police station in defiance of Covid rules surfaced earlier this year, landing the gendarmes in hot water.

The Spanish-made Latin sound continued to soundtrack our European holidays as Enrique Iglesias emerged to superstardom in the late 1990s. He had already had 10 No. 1s on the US Latin chart, but his first English language single, Bailamos (1999) was his European breakthrough, even in his native Spain. The Spanish guitar-soaked song was inescapable if you were in Spain that summer, going straight in at No. 1 in late May, staying there for five weeks and then remaining in the Top 10 until October. It was at UK No. 4 by the beginning of September as the British autumn hit.

While the Ibiza anthem began to take over in the late 1990s, from French house act Stardust’s Music Sounds Better With You (1998) to Italian DJ Spiller’s Groovejet (2000), the silly European one-hit wonder did not go away. Las Ketchup, whose name was a nod to being the daughters of flamenco guitarist Juan ‘El Tomate’ Muñoz, saw their The Ketchup Song (Aserejé) become a No. 1 in Spain in May 2002 and go straight in at UK No. 1 in October. In 2004 Moldovan trio O-Zone repeated the feat as their Romanian-language hit Dragostea Din Tei spent the whole summer in the UK Top 10 a year after its domestic release.

Today the pop hit that screams ‘holiday’ is more likely to come from Latin America and embrace the all-conquering reggaeton sound – witness the unstoppable success of Puerto Rican artists Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s Despacito in the summer of 2017 – but as we return to the Costas in coming years with a renewed appetite for fun, perhaps unserious European pop will again wield its power on our shores.

FIVE SONGS CELEBRATING THE SUMMER HOLIDAY 

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Summer Holiday (1963)
The song, accompanying the film where Cliff and chums drove across Europe in a red London bus, came at a time when British tourism to the Continent, “where the sun shines brightly”, was on a rapid upward trajectory.

Sylvia, Y Viva España (1974) 
Originally written in Dutch, this celebration of the Spanish holiday had appeared in several other languages by the time Swede Sylvia hit UK No. 4 in September 1974. Ironically, economic downturn following the three-day week was dealing a blow to tourism that year.

The Vengaboys at the 1999 MTV Europe awards – Credit: Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Vengaboys, We’re Going to Ibiza! (1999)
A cover of the Trojan Records hit Barbados (1975), the Dutch Eurodance act’s hit cashed in at the height of the clubbing island’s golden era.

Dizzee Rascal, Holiday (2009)
This Calvin Harris-produced track celebrated aping the jet-setting lifestyle of speed boats and champagne, even as it poked fun at the British tourist: “I know that my Spanish is so-so/ But let’s try keep that on the low-low”.

Harry Styles, Watermelon Sugar (2020)
Styles’ celebration of summer, complete with a beach-set video that declared itself “dedicated to touching’”, defied Covid on its release in May last year. Sun-starved Brits kept it in the Top 10 for two months.

Now listen to the playlist. Search Spotify for New European: Summer Holiday Hits or go direct to tinyurl.com/TNEsummerhits