Question: What do the following songs have in common? ‘I Feel Fine’, The Beatles; ‘I Hear You Knocking’, Dave Edmunds; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Queen; ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Pink Floyd; ‘Don’t You Want Me’, The Human League; ‘Killing in The Name’, Rage Against The Machine. Answer: They all topped the UK singles chart at Christmastime. For the amateur Paul Gambaccini’s amongst you, the years concerned were 1964, 1970, 1975, 1979, 1981 and 2009 respectively.
None of those numbers are what could really be classified as ‘seasonal’; indeed, of the 63 singles to have been top of the charts on December 25, only 14 have been specifically Christmas or ‘party’-themed, and of those 14, three were the same song (albeit a trio of different recordings), Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ Lest we forget, last year’s fourth version was released so ridiculously early that we had a song about Christmas at No.1 during the last week in November, so it doesn’t count. The truth is the enduring appeal of ‘the Christmas song’ – at least if the supermarket playlists are anything to go by – is not necessarily complimented by a roll-call of chart-toppers. Some of the most popular hits wrapped in tinsel – ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday’, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, ‘Stop the Cavalry’, ‘Last Christmas’, ‘Fairytale of New York’ – failed to make the top spot. Many were prevented from reaching No.1 by records that had little to do with the time of year.
In the early years of the UK singles charts, a trio of what could be termed Christmas songs made it to No.1 – Winifred Atwell’s ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, Dickie Valentine’s ‘Christmas Alphabet’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Harry Belafonte; but there was no room for the Xmas genre at the top spot throughout the 60s. A trend of sorts was instigated at the very end of the decade when The Scaffold’s ‘Lily the Pink’ sparked the notion of the novelty Christmas chart-topper, something that was followed by the likes of Benny Hill, Little Jimmy Osmond, St Winifred’s School Choir and Renee & Renato in the 70s and into the 80s.
What we now view as the archetypal Christmas No.1 first appeared with Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in 1973. Something that had long been the province of cheesy, cardigan-clad crooners was now deemed a fitting subject for a contemporary rock act. John Lennon had coated the season in a credible musical sheen the previous year and Slade decided to give it a Glam makeover twelve months later.
Singles sales were so high in the 70s that a million-seller could occur at any time of the year, but as the 80s progressed and a gradual decline in the amount of sales required to top the charts set in, record companies latched onto the fact that Christmas alone was the one period when a single could still clock up a million, and they began to pour their resources into the month leading up to December 25. The Christmas No.1 then acquired the Holy Grail status it held for a decade or more.
When the first Band Aid record was launched in a blitz of publicity at the end of 1984 and subsequently became the biggest-selling single in the history of the UK charts up to that time, another ingredient was added to the recipe, the one that stated it was ‘all in a good cause’. The two other occasions that Geldof & Ure’s anthem claimed the Christmas top spot paved the way for the likes of 2011’s Military Wives and 2012’s Justice Collective. Criticisms of the records were beyond-the-pale, as they were for ‘charadee’.
What for many killed the element of surprise where the Xmas chart-topper was concerned – seasonal sing-along, charity plea or novelty dirge? – came in 2002 when Girls Aloud hit No.1 over the festive period with their debut single, ‘Sound of the Underground’; they were the first product of the Cowell industry to grab the top spot at Christmas and out of the twelve records to be No.1 on December 25 since then, seven have emerged from the same get-rich-quick/here today-gone tomorrow talent show conveyor belt.
Simon Cowell has been accused of buying the Christmas No.1 as though he somehow stole something precious from the nation; but it is the nation that buys the produce he produces, after all, and he is ruthless enough to exploit the gullibility of the nation without giving a toss if nobody can even remember who won ‘The X-Factor’ by time Easter comes around. An admirable rebellion against his dominance came via the newfangled protest vehicle of the online campaign in 2009, which propelled the least likely Christmas No.1 in the shape of veteran US rap metal act Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in The Name’ to the toppermost of the poppermost; but subsequent attempts to spike Cowell’s Christmas pud have failed.
The notion that the Christmas No.1 was once a platform for a song that united the country and kept the home-fires burning is largely a myth perpetuated by the Xmas edition of ‘TOTP2’ and all those 70s and 80s tracks on a loop in Sainsbury’s from the end of November till New Year’s Day. If Simon Cowell wants it, let him have it. The vast majority of his acts have a lifespan not much longer than the yuletide binge, anyway. They were made for each other.
© The Editor