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UK Christmas Number One Hits: Time to Grow Out of Them

Many Singers Want a Christmas Hit - Raul654

Antithesis of seasonal goodwill, the Christmas bestseller is invariably controversial, often totally irrelevant to the season and now certainly out of date.

Often seen as a badge of honour for artists, the race for the Christmas Number One single dominates news and record company/artiste planning for months on end. The Christmas chart used to last for two weeks over the Christmas/New Year season, so it was much prized in commercial terms, if not artistic.

UK charts started in 1952, after appearing in New Musical Express; before that, figures were based on sales of sheet music. Once the charts began, the immediate controversy arose over how to measure the Christmas winner. The UK Christmas Number One was that at the top of the UK Singles Chart on the week before Christmas Day, based on Sunday to Saturday sales, but before 1987 results were released on a Tuesday through the need for manual calculations. A ‘week-ending’ measurement gave a slightly different chart.

In the late 1960s, the pirate radio stationssolved all these problems simply by creating their own charts all the year round, based on what was commercially astute for themselves.

The Chart List

Al Martino started it off with Here In My Heart in 1952, followed by Frankie Laine, Answer Me and then Winifred Atwell with Let’s Have Another Party. Dickie Valentine won it in 1955 with Christmas Alphabet; Johnnie Ray in 1956, Just Walkin’ in the Rain; 1957’s was Harry Belafonte, Mary’s Boy Child and It’s Only Make Believe from Conway Twitty topped the 58 chart.

1959 saw Emile Ford & The Checkmates, What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For ; 1960, Cliff Richard & The Shadows, I Love You; 1961’s was Moon River from Danny Williams and Elvis Presley hit it in 1962 with Return to Sender. The next three Christmases saw The Beatles top of the tree, with I Want To Hold Your Hand, I Feel Fine, Day Tripper/We Can work It Out. Tom Jones cut in front in 66 with The Green Green Grass of Home, and the Beatles came back in 67 with Hello Goodbye.

The comic song Lily the Pink (Scaffold) made it in 68, and Rolf Harris’ sentimental ballad Two Little Boys in 1969. In 1970 rock and roll had a go with Dave Edmund’s I Hear You Knockin’, before comedian Benny Hill inflicted Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West). In 1972 the public bought into cutesy child Little Jimmy Osmond with Long Haired Lover From Liverpool.

Birmingham group Slade came on in 73 with Merry Xmas Everybody, one that is regularly given an airing well into the 21st century, as is Mud’s Lonely This Christmas. Queen’s operatic masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody was top in 1975, but again, it had no seasonal value at all, unlike Johnny Mathis (1976), When A Child Is Born. Paul McCartney and Wings did Mull of Kintyre for 1977, and then it was back to something more relevant in Boney M’s version of Mary’s Boy Child.

Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall was 1979’s; St Winifred’s School Choir with the tear-jerker There’s No One Quite Like Grandma in 1980; The Human League, Don’t You Want Me Baby, Renee & Renato’s Save Your Love and the Flying Pickets made it tops in 1983, with Only You.

Charity and Christmas Records

The multi-performer group Band Aid, put together to have a hit and raise money for Third World Aid was a natural Number One in 1984, Do They Know It’s Christmas? The following year, rocker Shakin’ Stevens had Merry Christmas Everyone; Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite was 1986’s, a reworking of a tune from 1957 and The Pet Shop Boys got their electro version of Always On My Mind there in 1987. Cliff Richard scored his first solo Christmas top in 1988 with Mistletoe and Wine, and the next year Band Aid were back in revised form for Do They Know It’s Christmas?, followed by Cliff Richard back with Saviour’s Day in 1990.

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody coupled with These Are the Days of Our Lives was 1991’s, becoming the only song to have hit top twice by same artists. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You was 1992; the absurd Mr Blobby’s Mr Blobby was the joke success of 1993, and East 17 with Stay Another Day hit 1994. In tune with the environmental movement, Michael Jackson’s Earth Song was 1995’s. The Spice Girls then hit three years in a row with 2 Become 1, Too Much and Goodbye.

Westlife made it in 1999 with I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun; another joke in 2000, Bob The Builder, Can We Fix It? followed in 2001 by Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman with the old Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit, Somethin’ Stupid. Competition winning group Girls Aloud reached the top in 2002 with Sound Of The Underground; 2003, Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules in Mad World, with Band Aid 20 back again in 2004, revising Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Then began the era of the winners of competition show The X Factor automatically providing the Christmas Number One. Shayne Ward with That’s My Goal in 2005, Leona Lewis, A Moment Like This, in 2006, Leon Jackson, When You Believe in 2007, and the old Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah in 2008 by Alexandra Burke. A spanner was thrown into the works in 2009, when an internet campaign to deprive X Factor champ Joe McElderry off the top slot, gave it to the inappropriate Rage Against The Machine with Killing In The Name.

Geeky Statistics

That social networking campaign gave the prize to the first download-only single, and it was the most downloaded sales ever in a single week in UK charts. As technology advances, the ways of measuring chart success have to move too. In the meantime, stats lovers can revel in more data.

The Beatles are the only performers credited with 4 Christmas number ones; and Paul McCartney shared those four, plus further honours as part of Wings, Band Aid and Band Aid 20. The original version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? is the second-best selling single in UK chart history.

All well and good and very interesting, of course. But does it matter any more? In the age of more downloads than CD sales, more interest in albums than singles, more streaming of entertainment, isn’t the pop UK Christmas Number One single past its sell-by date?

First published on Suite 101, 9 October 2010.

Photo: Many Singers Want a Christmas Hit – Raul654

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