What’s your favourite Christmas Number One? Regular viewers of BBC4’s excellent comedy drama Top of the Pops 1976 will soon be treated to a Christmas Number One very dear to my heart – Johnny Mathis’s When a Child Is Born. Dear to my heart in that it was number one when I, much like Jesus, was born.
Although that is sentimentally valuable, I do think my actual favourite might be Mistletoe & Wine, because no matter what you think of Cliff, that is a fucking tune. A complete one-off, it sounds like Christmas: a carol caught in pop’s prism, both devotional and lightweight. And he almost, so very nearly, pulls off my favourite music video gimmick: doing it in one-take (the cut when he hits the gong is so bloody arbitrary, like it is there just to spite me). He couldn’t repeat the trick on Saviour’s Day, though the country duly put it to number one through a combination of dazed loyalty to Mistletoe & Wine and a general feeling that Cliff in some way should be number one at Christmas. We have some funny ideas about that sort of thing in this country, and I’m unshakeably of the belief that the Christmas Number One is one of our greatest modern traditions.
The race for the Christmas Number One is a highlight of the pop calendar. Indeed, it is one of the few marked events on the pop calendar, though I suspect ‘Death of Jimmy Savile’, ‘Whigfield Saturday’ and ‘DLT Resignation Day’ are on there. Novelty records, usually linked to some recent junk pop-culture phenomenon, vie with Big Serious Ballads from the biggest bands of the moment; opportunistic flashes in the pan rush out a single with jingly bells all over it to compete with the oddball wildcard, and everyone has a chance of getting there.
Looking back over the list of Christmas Number Ones, it’s hard not to be impressed by the variety, the familiarity and sheer weirdness of much of it. Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys was Christmas Number One? What? Wizzard’s amazing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day wasn’t? How did that happen? In fact, what we now think of as classic Christmas songs were routinely snubbed. Wizzard, Jona Lewie, Mariah Carey: none of them got Christmas Number One, but shopping in Woolworth’s wouldn’t be the same without them. Can you believe that Chris Rea’s mighty Drivin’ Home for Christmas was never number one? Instead we get Pet Shop Boys with Always on My Mind, or Pink fucking Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, because nothing says festive cheer like depression and ennui. The public and its whims; you can shake your head at the list but you can’t deny there’s something to it. Something that, in its own silly way, defines a certain kind of British eccentricity.
The last time there was a proper fight for Christmas Number One was back in 2003, with The Darkness (rock band doing self-conscious Christmas Song), Bo Selecta (novelty act), Kelly and Ozzy Osbourne (TV spinoff, don’t give me any crap about Ozzy being a serious artist and that), Pop Idol contestants (sappy cover of classic Christmas song) and Gary Jules (leftfield outsider). In the end, the outsider took it, and now we have a lame downbeat cover of a lame 80s’ song which turns up to baffle us, lamely, on Christmas chart retrospective shows. But for a while, it seemed like The Darkness, with their truly edgy lyrics about bellends and ringpieces, could actually take the top spot. More importantly than crass imagery, though, they were singing a song about Christmas, with jingly bells and a choir of children. The kind of Christmas Number One we should have, the kind of Christmas Number One we deserve.
Look closer at that list of Christmas Number Ones and a terrible picture emerges. In recent years, something has happened to our Christmas Number One spot. It is under siege; it has been bought out from under our noses, become a prize offered by one man to a select few. It is no longer a charmingly offbeat butterfly, it is pinned, dusted with cheap glitter, a game show gewgaw. And, seemingly, this is the work of one man.
Enter Simon Cowell, the Grinch who stole Christmas Number One. It started, I’m sad to say, with the untoppable Girls Aloud beating copper-bottomed duds One True Voice to Christmas Number One following a frenzied build-up throughout Pop Stars: The Rivals. Those of you too young to remember this show, let me explain that it was like The X Factor, only something something something… no, it was basically The X Factor. Seeing the salesgasm that this prototype provoked, Cowell clearly went back to his thinking shed for a year and came back with a precision-tooled marketing machine designed solely to own the Christmas Number One spot.
Over the last four months of the year, The X Factor builds a brand around a few acts, varnishing them with layer upon layer of entirely second-hand glamour until the final week when, bulletproof, they are propelled chartwards with a song about how they’ve come very far, got over some obstacles and now it’s their time (or a cover of something safely middle of the road). And, inevitably, they reach number one. How can they not? They have a built-in fanbase, hothoused by SYCOtv, and a sixteen-week advertising campaign behind them. And, if they’re a man, they are never heard of again. This would be fine if it was just about getting a number one single. But it isn’t. It’s about getting a Christmas Number One, and what rankles most is the sense that they will.
I’d love to know why. What is his motivation? Does he love the Christmas Number One so much that he must own it, place it under a glass and keep it for himself? Does he hate it, and want to kill it? In an interview with NME, he claims that ‘I think we all have this belief that the Christmas Number One was just amazing songs… but actually when you look at them over recent years it was Bob The Builder, Mr Blobby… there’s a tradition of quite horrible songs. I think I’ve done everyone a favour.’ Is it as simple as that? He just thought the novelty element was too much? The implication is that only music that he likes should get Christmas Number One, which is clearly too much power for one man to wield. It does suggest that he considers the Christmas Number One to be a special thing, though. That there should be quality control. It’s a compelling point, but who are we to decide what should be there, as individuals? Especially if our taste in music is as godawful as Cowell’s would appear to be. I’m hesitant to take as gospel the words of an interview, though, especially one conducted by a magazine so obviously hostile to Cowell. No doubt Simon Cowell’s motivation for his current course of action is complex and not well suited to soundbites. Or it’s simply to make a giant pile of cash upon which he can roll, naked and laughing.
Of course, the UK isn’t about to take this lying down. As well as talent, Britain’s got backbone. And a healthy sense of outrage. In 2009, a social media campaign put Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name to Christmas Number One, its adolescent fury spelling it out to Cowell quite clearly – ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’. Personally, I was against the campaign. I love the song, it was a big part of my youth, but it’s not exactly a Christmassy tune, is it? Why not Shakey’s Merry Christmas Everyone? But, fine, whatever. It stopped Joe McElderry getting to number one that week and that was something of a triumph. We cared about Christmas Number One again, for a bit.
At the time of writing, X Factor 2011 winners Little Mix are at number one. They may or may not still be there next week, and so become SYCO’s sixth Christmas Number One. Or maybe they will be beaten by this year’s Facebook darling, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. That one I really don’t get. Is it just that these campaigns are being run by those of my exact age? Those of my exact age but with absolutely zero fucking imagination. If you’re going to use a song from that era, why not compete directly with Little Mix’s cover of Damien Rice’s Cannonball by promoting The Breeders’ Cannonball? What has any of this got to do with Christmas Number One, anyway? The waters are becoming more and more muddied, not just by those who would own Christmas Number One, but by those who would fight to keep it free. Doesn’t putting yet another angsty early 90s’ rock track at Christmas Number One just destroy its spirit in exactly the same way as putting an identikit X Factor song does?
I probably shouldn’t worry. This too shall pass. In a hundred years, no-one will remember Matt Cardle’s 2010 Christmas Number One, or Killing in the Name. The words ‘Simon Cowell’ will be a footnote in the history books of music. In the long run, what we preserve is what is true to the spirit of Christmas. The choirs of the future will sing little of our music – it’s too disposable – but I can almost guarantee that one song will be in all choral repertoires, that one bauble from our tree will become an heirloom; the children of tomorrow will know Mistletoe & Wine.
 technically, there was a Cliff-less Christmas between Mistletoe and Saviour’s, but he did the lion’s share of the singing on the Band Aid (PWL Edition) piss-poor cover of Do They Know It’s Christmas? so he was really
 or wherever you do that sort of shopping nowadays
 Biffy shitting Clyro, FFS