The Strange Tradition of the British Christmas No. 1
In the closing weeks of every year, newspapers speculate, DJs postulate, talking heads chat on TV and bookkeepers offer odds over the U.K.’s Christmas No. 1 single. It’s been that way for nearly five decades, and despite the massive changes in the music industry over those decades, the seasonal chart-topping spot remains highly coveted.
Before 1973 there was less interest in Christmas No. 1. The first, confirmed soon after the New Musical Express began publishing official record sales charts in 1952, was Al Martino’s “Here in My Heart.” The first to feature a yuletide theme was Dickie Valentine’s “Christmas Alphabet” in 1955. From 1963-65 the Beatles locked up the top spot with, respectively, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper”/“We Can Work It Out,” returning for a fourth and record-retaining time with “Hello, Goodbye” in 1967. (It should be noted that the Beatles’ hits were standard releases, although the group did record Christmas songs for its fan club, meaning that, at the time, the chart position didn’t mean as much. The Fab Four’s seasonal success, added to that of Wings and Band Aid, also means that Paul McCartney has been at least partly at No. 1 eight times, another still-standing record.)
Six years later the prestige exploded when glam-rock legends Slade and Wizzard launched a race to No. 1 with “Merry Xmas Everybody” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” respectively. The glam movement had begun as a friendly rivalry between groups that appeared on the BBC’s chart show Top of the Pops, even developing outrageous costumes in an attempt to outdo each other. When that rivalry translated to the chart itself, it set minds thinking, and from 1973 onward there has always been a Christmas race.
“We were on Top of the Pops so much we almost became the house band,” Slade frontman Noddy Holder told The Guardian in 2015. “Our record company used to smuggle a crate of beer in, so we were usually half-pissed.” That was a good platform to start from, and Holder didn't deny the suggestion that “Merry Xmas Everybody” still brings in several hundred thousand dollars a year. “It’s a good pension plan, put it that way,” he said. “We had 40-odd hits, and people still think the Christmas record was the one, but it’s been good to us. … People think I live in a cave all year and come out in December, shouting, “It’s Chriiisstmasss!”
For his part, Wizzard mastermind Roy Wood didn’t hold a grudge. In 2013 he told the Birmingham Mail about the experience of recording “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” in August 1973, in a studio decked out in cold-blowing fans and seasonal decorations. “I’m proud," he said. "I know it could be a storming record. What I don’t know is that Slade are making a Christmas record, too. We’ve all been holding our cards very close to our chests. … We have to be content with getting to No. 4. But in the years to come, my Christmas song will rarely be out of the charts at that time of year.”
Watch Slade Perform ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’
As Wood’s experience shows, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. Notable trend breakers include Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” which no one expected to be a hit in 1979 and made it impossible for McCartney to score another No. 1 with “Wonderful Christmastime,” and Jona Lewie’s seasonal anti-war song “Stop the Cavalry” being shut out of the top spot by a children’s school choir singing “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma” the following year. Other strange results include comedian Benny Hill – who enjoyed a level of success in the U.S. that bewildered many British observers – scoring with “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)” in 1971 and the sudden surprising rise of Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” in 1986, thanks to a Claymation video made 29 years after the track was recorded and two years after Wilson’s death.
Novelty songs became more of a thing as time passed, reaching its generally agreed lowest ebb in 1993 with deliberately kitsch TV puppet Mr Blobby and a song of the same name, and then “Can We Fix It?” from children’s TV show Bob the Builder in 2000. Meanwhile, acknowledged holiday classics like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” the Pogues' “Fairytale of New York” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” have never been holiday No. 1s in Britain.
The perception of the achievement changed again in 1984 when Band Aid, the charity project that led to Live Aid, released the all-star song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Welsh rocker Shakin’ Stevens, who’d had a long-held ambition of having a Christmas No. 1, went as far as to hold his release of his song “Merry Christmas Everyone” until the following year, which worked out for him.) “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was remade two more times after its initial release, featuring a different range of big names of the time. And since its '80s success, it has spawned a number of similar charity singles.
Watch Band Aid's ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Video
In the early ‘00s, a Christmas No. 1 became the goal of music game-show winners, after Girls Aloud – created via the Popstars TV show – hit with “Sound of the Underground” in 2002. Eventually the formula became so predictable that in 2009 a rebellion was staged in the form of a social-media campaign to prevent The X Factor winner from reaching No. 1 for the fourth time in a row by pushing Rage Against the Machine's “Killing in the Name” to the top instead.
The battle looked head-to-head until RATM played live on BBC Radio and singer Zack de la Rocha decided not to self-censor the line “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” polarizing pop interests against punk ethics as show producers cut them off. Guitarist Tom Morello had warned before the performance: “The people in the U.K. are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another, and they want to back their own charts. We’re honored that they have chosen our song to be the rebel anthem to try to topple The X Factor.” The campaign’s success – leading to Rage Against the Machine staging a free concert in England – meant that every year since, British social-media users are bombarded with Christmas No. 1 campaigns.
Listen to BBC Radio Cut Off Rage Against the Machine
Michael Mulligan, author of The Official Christmas No. 1 Singles Book, told Super Deluxe Edition that he believed artists remain attracted to joining the race because the position is so identifiable. “I think only half a dozen of the Christmas number ones have also been the best-selling singles in that given year,” he said. “So there’s a lot of years where something has sold more, and yet it’s probably relatively forgotten, compared to the Christmas No. 1, which people could identify more easily. ... Unless it’s a key release, or the biggest hit of the year, it’s unlikely you’ll remember a specific No. 1. But lots of people can name Christmas No. 1s.”
Mulligan said there were still possibilities from seasonal success, despite how the industry has changed. “It’s not a stocking filler any more … you don’t get the 7" or CD single in your Christmas stocking,” he explained. “But there’s obviously still something special attached to it. … There are shops, supermarkets, clothing stores, who will only play music once a year, and that’s at Christmas, because they want you to feel comfortable in there. So you’re probably subliminally having [Christmas songs] injected into your head [while] you’re buying your Christmas T-shirt.”
He offered another suggestion as to why artists kept playing the game: “Can you get a hit that scrapes into the Top 10 and then gets used in an advert, which then gets used in a rom-com, which then gets covered?”
Since 2018, vlogger and charity activist LadBaby has made Christmas No. 1 each year with a series of sausage-themed spoof covers, focusing on the U.K.’s desperate need for food banks (despite its official status as the fifth-richest country in the world, nearly 4% of the population live in food poverty). Elton John and Ed Sheeran, who are hoping for 2021’s Christmas No. 1 with their song "Merry Christmas," noted that they've teamed up with LadBaby to help the cause, suggesting that after decades of friendly rivalry, the future could involve even friendlier cooperation.
Listen to LadBaby Cover Journey for 2020’s Christmas No. 1
But with the 70th Christmas No. 1 set to be determined soon, Mulligan wonders if it’s all set to end in the near future. “First of all, radio play doesn’t count towards the U.K. chart, so that can’t influence it,” he said.
“And then in the U.S., they have a separate holiday chart. Now, I suspect that the record companies have been looking at the Christmas Top 10 for the last few years and seeing Wham!, Mariah Carey, et al., going back in again and again. … [They’re] thinking, ‘Hang on, we’re investing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds on Adele, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran … and I can’t get them into the Top 10 because of all this stuff!’ So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the chart gets reconfigured more along the lines of the American model at some point in the future.”