Credit: GG Photography and Illustrations Manager Allison Campbell

The battle for Christmas number one

By Flora Ritchie

Has Spotify killed the radio star?

“So, this is Christmas, and what have you done?” 

Advent is approaching, albeit with an unaccustomed absence of theatre audiences chorusing “he’s behind you!” and unseasonably shuttered shops and stalls. The solid traditions we associate with yuletide are thawing. But one tradition’s prominence withered before “lockdown” or “self-isolation” became part of our everyday lexicon: the once fiercely fought, festive fight for the chart-topper on Christmas Day. 

In 1952, New Music Express published the “Top 12” best-selling singles, compiled from sales in around 20 record shops. Now, the familiar 40 comprises downloads and streaming stats. Since these charts began the (most wonderful) time of the year, most highly favoured of all 52 weeks was the number one spot on Christmas Day. Despite the 50s and 60s hosting celebrated classics – Jingle Bell Rock, Run Rudolph Run and Santa Baby, among others – Al Martino’s Here in my Heart topped the first Christmas charts and kick-started the pattern of crowning non-Christmassy songs. Four of these years lacked festive spirit as Beatlemania possessed 60s Britain. During these decades, a measly two Christmas songs were top of the tree: Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet and Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child, which earned a subsequent place in the sun (or should that be snow?) with Boney M’s 1978 mashup.

Like Americans, the charts came of age in their 21st year, when the first charge in a battle for top spot was initiated by the close combat of Christmas songs released in 1973, by glam-rock groups Wizzard and Slade. This battle culminated on Top of the Pops with a jovial custard pie in the faces of frontmen Roy Wood and Noddy Holder. Ultimately, Slade made mincemeat of Wizzard – but no commiserations need be offered, as both have become firm festive favourites, keeping the cash register ringing for Roy Wood and producing agreeable royalties for Noddy.  

From 1973, the UK feasted on a surfeit of merry music much of which has become part of the classic Christmas canon, including Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens and Lonely this Christmas by fellow glam-rock band, Mud. 11 years later the UK witnessed another close – but not exactly cut-throat – competition between Wham!’s Last Christmas and the famous flock, shepherded by Bob Geldof, Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? Despite failing to reach the snow-capped summit, surely George Michael was saved from tears upon discovering Last Christmas was the biggest selling Christmas number two of all time. Following 1984’s fight against famine in Ethiopia, three Band Aids formed (1989, 2004, and 2014) – the last being the only one not to claim the coveted title. These set a charitable precedent in the season of giving, evident in contemporary winners such as LadBaby’s sausage roll single and Wherever You Are by The Military Wives. 

Christmas number ones embody a multifarious madness matched only by Eurovision; from a Roman Catholic school choir singing about grandma, to innuendo-ridden rhymes about the fastest milkman in the west. All logic is tossed upon the fire and set ablaze when Bob the Builder and Mr Blobby beat beloved boy bands Westlife and Take That. Captivation with the chart’s chaotic character continued until that Goliath, The X Factor, eclipsed any glimmer of hope for an underdog. Although Cowell purports he did “everyone a favour”, the domination of power ballads from reality television winners was enough to initiate an anti-X Factor campaign in 2009, endeavouring to reclaim the charts from Cowell’s clutches. The internet-led protest had the unlikely frontman of 90s American rock band, Rage Against the Machine with Killing in the Name, which possessed neither tidings of comfort and joy nor heralded peace on earth and goodwill toward men: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

We cannot exclusively blame Cowell for ruining the riveting holiday ritual – streaming presents us with unceasing access to the charts and has made listening to music a more passive act. With fewer people purchasing tangible singles, is it any wonder we’ve become disengaged? If anyone wishes to achieve number one nowadays, it appears a cause and campaign are necessary. 

Why should artists care about conquering the Christmas charts, when it’s the duration of their stay that matters? John McKie, former editor of Smash Hits and The Glasgow Guardian, proposes that it’s increased sales, induced by collective gifting, which make the Christmas number one desirable: “Popstars are competitive. ABBA sing about feeling like a number one, Tina Turner doesn’t sing about second best. So, they want to be number one at the busiest time of year for sales.” 

Even tracks sans festivity, save for some silver bells, enjoy a far greater afterlife through their association with Christmas thanks to their position. You need only look at East 17’s Stay Another Day to realise the spot’s significance; a song about a family suicide is considered as much a Christmas classic as All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey, whom the group outsold in 1994. 

In the year prophesied as the antithesis of a Wonderful Christmastime, the charts are beginning to look a lot like Christmas earlier than ever, with sales and streaming of festive favourites up 51% in November. The nation is utilising music to bring some joy to the world. Could this premature injection of holiday spirit restore the charts to their former glory and encourage a novelty Noel number to victory? All that’s left to do is find out.


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