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The strange death of the Christmas number 1

28th November 2012

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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. No- not 1789; I’m talking about 1973 of course. Remembered for industrial disputes and the three-day week amongst other things, 1973 was also the year in which Wizzard released I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday and Slade released Merry Xmas Everybody and the Christmas number 1 was born.

Several Christmas corkers followed, from the Elvis-tinged saccharine of Mud’s Lonely This Christmas to East 17’s jingly-jangly Stay Another Day; the coats sported by the boys in its video an inadvertent advertisement for the culling of polar bears.

But what has become of that great tradition today? We’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re presiding over the death of the genre altogether, and it’s not only the X Factor to blame for this - though it inevitably bears a sizeable share of the burden.

The last Christmas number 1 to actually be about Christmas was in 2004 with Band Aid 20's re-recording of the original 1984 hit Do They Know It’s Christmas? It was also the last year in which The Christmas number 1 was not a song by an X Factor winner, until 2009 when the top spot was taken by the only slightly more soothing Rage Against the Machine. 

But let’s be frank: does anybody really care about the Christmas number 1 anymore? It’s not like the last decade wasn’t graced with a few strong contenders anyway; they just struggled to make it very far. Coldplay’s well-crafted ode to melancholia Christmas Lights was released in 2010 and despite their being one of the biggest bands in the world only made number 13 in the UK charts.

The Killers have made several attempts, most notably with Don’t Shoot Me Santa an, er, avant-garde look at the holiday season (which contains one of the best solos of the decade, by the way) which climbed all the way up to number 34. Cee-Lo Green’s Magic Moment, which includes Cee-Lo’s heart-warming but artistically compromised collaboration with The Muppets, was released in October to rapturous applause of just over 6,000 US sales.

Last seen propping up the modern Christmas classic were The Darkness in 2003 when Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), which reached number 3 in the charts. With the band now fluctuating somewhere between a meaningful joke and a non-entity despite the relative success of their last album Hot Cakes, people seem determined to treat it as either a fluke or a bad dream.

Meanwhile, golden oldies such as Rod Stewart and mature gentlemen like Michael Bublé can release ten tracks of half-baked Christmas cheer which racks up as the equivalent of drowning in Baileys and crack the top 5.

The conclusion can only be that our generation really isn’t bothered about Christmas songs - in fact, give them to our parents. But maybe there are other factors besides; there have to be, surely? Maybe the modern attempts just aren’t that good. Has there in the last decade been anything that comes close to the festive flavour of Slade, the inviolable synthetic cheese of Shakin’ Stevens or the get-yer-knickers-off bounce of Mariah Carey? Is it quite simply that they don’t make ‘em like they used to?

Another thing is publicity. Back in the days of Top of the Pops a steady stream of Christmas came to the nation every week, then in the 80s and 90s the radio and television was king of the charts. Nowadays with spotify and downloads and YouTube, where really is the market? The only artists who plan single releases with any real panache are the post-Take That boy and girl bands like One Direction and Little Mix. Could anyone really imagine such crowd-pleasing acts as Dizzee Rascal or Pink having a Christmas number 1, let alone one actually about Christmas?

But then maybe there’s hope. The X Factor increasingly resembles a chicken looking for its severed head and a recent penchant for charity singles seems to have injected something of the special and festive which the number 1 has missed for many years. Last year’s Christmas winner, The Military Wives, couldn’t fail to make you feel the Christmas spirit, albeit in a very solemn and sombre manner.

So who’s in contention this year? Apparently Kylie Minogue and Carly Rae Jepsen are in the running, as is whoever manages to come out on top through the X Factor’s tiresome machinations. Robbie Williams is even in there. But the Bookies’ favourite is The Justice Collective. Featuring Paul McCartney, Mel C, Paloma Faith and Paul Heaton amongst others, proceeds from their cover of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ 1969 hit He Ain’t Heavy...He’s My Brother will go towards the legal costs of a fresh inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy. Fingers crossed for that then. That, at least, would be in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

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