Some moments in culture just happen; certain things seem to take on an impetus of their own and break big, and often there's no single, obvious reason for it.
e saw it recently with Normal People - a perfectly fine novel transfigured into a bona fide televisual phenomenon. Memes are another example: who, today, could even begin to explain The Dress going viral in 2015, or the insane success of 'Gangnam Style' and its endless adaptations?
This isn't new. Two full decades ago, in an Ireland that is recognisable yet markedly different to the 2020 version, an album by a struggling English singer-songwriter went supernova: first here, then in his home country, and eventually around the world.
Even now, over the phone from what he jokingly describes as "the wrong side of the Irish Sea", David Gray feels that "these things can't always be explained". "White Ladder sold so many copies or went so many times platinum, but it doesn't feel very real," he says. "Trying to make sense of it is hard."
The story of this charming man, and that record, is retold in David Gray - Ireland's Greatest Hit, a sweet and entertaining one-off documentary airing on Thursday. Reared in England and Wales, Gray was 30 when he recorded White Ladder - folk and rock songs with a soupçon of electronic beats - in his home studio and released it, in November 1998, on his own IHT label.
This was his fourth push for success and, like the previous attempts, it failed. Then a new millennium dawned, the album was reissued in May 2000 on the American star Dave Matthews' label ATO, and a fuse began to burn, slowly but inexorably.
Ireland was where White Ladder first took hold of the public consciousness.
"It just developed this unstoppable momentum," Gray recalls. "It wasn't like I was over in Ireland working the channels, out at RTÉ, sitting down with Gay Byrne to keep the record moving. It just kept going, it was incredible thing."
Gray describes how this success felt especially "clean" - that it had happened "for all the right reasons, it wasn't a con trick on any level. It was something that was made by the people and by us. The record just seemed to chime with people, the fact that it was genuine, and I credit the Irish with having the heart and soul to acknowledge and relish something like that."
A nationwide tour that year gave the record a hearty push, as did frequent plays on RTÉ TV's hugely influential music show No Disco. (In a neat loop, the documentary has Colm O'Callaghan, creator of No Disco, as executive producer; original host Donal Dineen designed White Ladder's cover image and had arranged David's first trips to Ireland, alongside Donal Scannell, this programme's director/producer.)
Making the film, Gray watched some old footage of his 2000 gig at the Witness Festival, held at Fairyhouse Racecourse, just after he had played Glastonbury.
"Everything was coming together," he says, "we couldn't make a wrong move. And watching back, I was really struck by how much it meant to us; how innocent, almost naïve, we were. The things we said from stage were really heartfelt; we hadn't begun to take any of it for granted. It really meant something, and still does."
Interestingly, he also credits the Celtic Tiger - sort of - with White Ladder's unlikely triumph. It was, he remembers, a "very optimistic period in Ireland, and there's nothing like a bit of money swilling around to change the mood. People were thinking more broadly, culture was happening on different scales. I could sense a big difference between the early 1990s and when White Ladder was taking off: this crazy roaring Celtic Tiger, an undentable optimism."
We had no budget, no plan; all we had was our commitment and the music
Where Ireland led, the world followed, and the figures are mind-blowing. From being a musician whose third album's title - Sell, Sell, Sell - felt like a dismal ironic joke, White Ladder has sold more than seven million copies globally and spent three full years in the British charts. It produced five smash-hit singles - 'Babylon' and 'This Year's Love' the most notable - and is still much-loved today.
Here, White Ladder remains the bestselling album of all time: certified platinum 20 times, by 2002 it had sold a staggering 350,000 copies in a population at the time of 3.9 million. The old joke about every Irish home containing "a picture of the Pope and a copy of White Ladder" had, like all the best ones, a grain of truth to it.
The album's legacy endures: in February we had a 20th anniversary remastered reissue, and the accompanying European tour was due to play here in late March/early April (those gigs are now pencilled in for next year, though Gray accepts that "it's impossible to know if that's realistic"). He has also rightly pointed out that White Ladder partly enabled the stratospheric rise of "one man and his guitar" acts such as Ed Sheeran.
It's all recaptured in Ireland's Greatest Hit, peppered with reminiscences from Sheeran, Glen Hansard, Marc Almond, Orbital's Phil Hartnoll - Gray's brother-in-law, incidentally - and, in a funny interlude, his mother, proudly producing some excruciating photos of the young David and his chronically uncool hairstyle.
"I have enormously affectionate memories of the whole thing," the man himself says now.
"It was a stupendous story that was difficult to explain, and it was a magical time. We didn't design it; how could we? It just happened, like most of the richest things in life seem to do. It felt like something that already existed, and people were seeing it in front of them. We had no budget, no plan; all we had was our commitment and the music."
There were downsides, of course. Success, Gray says, "is an impossible thing to sustain. You get trapped in it, and contending with the aftermath is a problem for everyone; negotiating success is tricky, it takes a while.
"It's not so much how you see the world, more how the world now sees you. You're mainstream, and that ubiquity seems to sand the edges off. You get pigeonholed; the detail has been lost. At the same time, it doesn't look dignified to fight against it. You just have to find a way through, and the best way is to really believe in the music."
Ultimately, the good far outweighs the bad: the "upsweep" of White Ladder's rise, that long curve of ascendance, was "incredible to experience. It was a record made for everybody, we knew we had something that was capable of carrying across to people, not just in Ireland but the UK, America… These places we'd been banging our heads off the wall for bloody years, and now could actually get somewhere. Then the view began to open up, and that sense we got at Glastonbury: 'Oh my God, this is actually happening…'
"It felt like much more than a weight coming off your shoulders. It was more like, you can put down the body armour; the snipers can't hit you. All the Kevlar you'd been wearing to protect yourself against the naked cynicism and indifference: you can drop it. Something wonderful is happening."
David Gray - Ireland's Greatest Hit, RTÉ One, Thursday, June 11, 10.15pm.