Article 2014 The Year in Review

The Christmas no. 1: an enduring British obsession

The race for the festive chart-topper is nigh once more. But why does it matter so much?

“Christmas. The season of Noddy and Roy and the time of my re-entry into showbiz. The Britpop hordes have clearly missed me, as have the press and the media, who, tiring of the current mindlessly cheerful pantomime, have taken the new Auteurs single, Unsolved Child Murder, to their hearts. Ah, you guys. I know the damn thing’s got a French horn on it, and it’s the festive season an’ all, but gentlemen, your love for me and my modest art is smothering me. Room to breathe, I beg of you.” - Luke Haines in his memoir Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall, speaking about his 1995 Christmas single, Unsolved Child Murder, which was beaten to the festive top spot by Michael Jackson’s Earth Song and 46 others.

Since the UK chart’s inception in 1952, the music industry has undergone myriad threats to its very fabric, from home taping to illegal downloads and streaming. Although the industry has attempted to adapt, allowing downloads (2005) and streaming (this year) to be eligible for the charts, overall sales figures for singles have dropped significantly in recent years. Although the figures are mitigated to some extent when digital formats are included, revenue from physical formats dropped from £64.5m in 2003 to just £2.3m a decade later. Yet sales over the festive period have remained consistently strong, with seven of the last 10 Christmas no. 1s having the strongest single week sales of the year.

The numbers don’t lie; in the UK the Christmas no. 1 matters. The first single to sell more than a million copies in the UK was Harry Belafonte’s version of Mary’s Boy Child in 1957 (Boney M’s cover would repeat the trick in 1978).

The first single to sell two million copies was Paul McCartney’s insipid 1977 Christmas no. 1, Mull of Kintyre. Somewhat ludicrously, this remains McCartney’s best-selling single of all time. Equally ludicrously, the aforementioned Earth Song is Michael Jackson’s biggest-selling single in the UK. So the Christmas no. 1 is important enough that the British public can collectively lose all semblance of rationality or taste. Of all the singles to have sold a million copies or more in the UK, 19 of them were Christmas no. 1, which represents some 15%.

The increase in general sales figures during the festive period is relatively easy to explain. In 2013, more than 30% of all physical and 20% of all digital music was given as a gift. It stands to reason, therefore, that a large proportion of these gifts would be given at Christmas.

Paul M. Hirsch, in his 1972 essay Processing Fads and Fashions, posits the following theory on the machinations of the entertainment industry:

“Artists and mass audience are linked by an ordered sequence of events; before it can elicit any audience response, an art object first must succeed in (a) competition against others for selection and promotion by an entrepreneurial organization, and then in (b) receiving mass media coverage in such forms as book reviews, radio station airplay, and film criticism. It must be ordered by retail outlets for display or exhibition to consumers and, ideally, its author or performer will appear on television talk shows and be written up as an interesting news story.”

Certainly this helps to explain why Christmas sales figures consistently buck negative industry trends; whether it be a charity single or an X Factor winner, the festive period provides more avenues for blanket coverage and the generating of that all-important “buzz”. But this applies to any record industry anywhere in the world. What it doesn’t explain is the UK’s singular obsession with actual, proper, Christmas singles, and why it appears entirely normal at this time of year to believe that it is not a logical fallacy to suggest that because Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe had summarily failed the people of Africa, it was therefore a worthwhile exercise giving Spandau Ballet and that bloke out of Ultravox a crack.

It wasn’t always like this, however. Although the 1950s saw overtly festive Christmas no. 1s from the likes of Dickie Valentine (Christmas Alphabet) and Harry Belafonte, this did not herald an immediate Christmas single conveyor belt. The subsequent 10 years were instead dominated by non-festive singles, with The Beatles unsurprisingly scooping four out of five no. 1s between 1963 and 1967.

The following year saw a pivotal change in the way in which we viewed the Christmas charts. No longer did an act have to be established to reach no. 1. In fact, no longer did an act have to be strictly musical to reach no. 1. The Scaffold were primarily a comedy act from Liverpool. Lily the Pink, their 1968 track about Lydia Pinkham was silly, but very catchy. It wasn’t overtly festive, but it felt it.

The seal had been broken, and the British public have frequently used Christmas as an excuse to indulge a collective silly side ever since. Other novelty Christmas no. 1s include Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys, Benny Hill’s masterclass of dairy-based double entendres Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) and the truly execrable likes of Mr Blobby and St. Winifred’s School Choir.

So why do we have this unique affinity for novelty records at Christmas? In Alan Bennett’s The Old Country, Hilary (a spy who has defected to Moscow) describes the English (who make up more than 85% of the UK music buying public) beautifully:

We’re conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb … Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.

Hilary’s words are similarly apposite when examining Rage Against the Machine’s implausible 2009 Christmas no. 1. A Facebook group was set up in early December 2009, in protest at the fact that the Christmas no. 1 seemed destined to be from the winner of the X Factor for a fifth successive year. The Californian rap metal band’s 1992 single Killing in the Name was selected as the group’s alternative, primarily for its altogether festive refrain of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” (apart from buy this single because some people on social media tell me to, obviously).

By mid-December, it was reported that the Facebook group had already accumulated an impressive 750,000 members. Although the single was not officially re-released, it nonetheless stormed to no. 1 on downloads alone.

The recent change in chart rules, which means that this will be the first year in which plays on streaming sites such as Spotify count towards the Christmas chart, would appear to provide greater opportunities for future mischief-making, but the sudden announcement of Band Aid 30 has put paid to this for at least a year; campaigning on a pro-Ebola ticket is a tough sell, no matter how cack-handed you find Geldof et al.

So the British public’s love for all things silly and mischievous contributes to the enduring importance of the Christmas no. 1. So too does the simplicity of the UK chart. Unlike the American Billboard charts, which are made up of a combination of sales and airplay (and are also split into genres), the UK Top 40 is compiled simply from volume of sales/streams.

Bob Stanley, who released his own Christmas single with his band Saint Etienne and has written about the art behind creating Christmas records, argues in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop that the launching of a singles chart (in the NME in 1952) “had a special appeal to the British sensibility. It meant competition, excitement in league-table form, pop music as a sport”.

The demise of the weekly version of Top of the Pops in 2006 means that, for many people, the Christmas chart is now the only one that they are aware of; their only chance to get interested in the “league table”.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the British public have a general association with the festive period that differs from most. This is perhaps not unrelated to the majority of the country being drunk for several weeks, but overall cynicism drops to levels at which all but the most closed-minded can accept that Merry Xmas Everybody and Lonely This Christmas are just exceptionally good pop records. There is an uncharacteristically jolly but telling quote from the world-class curmudgeon John Lydon, taken from a BBC documentary about a Christmas gig that the Sex Pistols played in 1977 for the children of striking firefighters, which personifies the general shift in British outlook that occurs in December:

Christmas TV. Let it babble on infinitely. Sometimes it can be fun!

The same is true of the Christmas no. 1. Whether it be festive cheese, charity records or even tepid reality show spin-offs, bring it on. Mr Blobby can piss right off, though.

Olly’s Twitter: @OllyRicketts

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