Nostalgia Jukebox: Christmas number ones

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A regular series delving into my musical archives to look back at tracks which are at least 20 years old.

To kick off my Nostalgia Jukebox series, which explores various connections linking classic tracks in my music collection, let’s start with a topical theme: Christmas number ones. 2012 will mark the crowning of the 60th seasonal singles chart topper. After two days’ sales, it already looks certain that the Military Wives Choir’s Wherever You Are will topple X Factor winners Little Mix’s cover of Damien Rice’s Cannonball on Christmas Day.

Hard as it may be to believe there was a time when the machinations of Simon Cowell did not determine the identity of the UK’s Christmas number one. For five of the past six years, the winner of Cowell’s X Factor contest has topped the charts at Christmas. Only Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name broke that sequence, after a successful online campaign to prevent 2009 winner Joe McElderry’s The Climb ascending to the coveted top spot. (It still made number one the following week, though.)

In times gone by, the race for the Christmas number one was a genuine competition and one of the highlights of the pop music calendar. However, in most of the last 20 years the identity of the Christmas number one has been largely pre-determined, if frequently a little depressing for real music-lovers. As evidence, I cite the eponymous Mr Blobby (1993), Bob the Builder’s Can We Fix It? (2000), the hat-trick achieved by the Spice Girls juggernaut (1996-8), not to mention the sequence of six reality show winners in the past nine years, from Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground (2002) to Matt Cardle’s When We Collide (2010).

And it’s not just that the Christmas number one spot is a prestigious title – it is also lucrative. The week leading up to Christmas is traditionally the one with the highest sales volumes. Three of the top four singles of all time in the UK were Christmas number ones, and several others have topped the million mark in terms of sales. Being top of the charts on Christmas Day is a big thing, no matter how you look at it.

Anyway, looking back to earlier, less manufactured times, here is my selection of Christmas number ones to treasure.

1. Mary’s Boy Child – Harry Belafonte (1957)

This million-selling hit from 1957 is a rare example of a proper seasonal nativity song that doesn’t have me reaching for the sick bag. It is simple and beautiful and doesn’t try too hard to tug at the heart-strings, and provided the silky-voiced Belafonte with his only UK number one.

Winding forward two decades, the track was rolled into a medley with the original song Oh My Lord to give Eurodisco group Boney M their second and last number one in 1978, staying at the top of the charts for four weeks. Their performance on Top of the Pops is one of my oldest memories of watching music on TV. It is also the tenth best-selling single ever in the UK, moving nearly 1.8 million copies.

2. Two Little Boys – Rolf Harris (1969)

From the decade that brought us the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the peak years of Motown, there was something ironic about the fact that the last number one of the Sixties (and indeed the first of the Seventies) was this twee little parable by the bearded Australian artist and singer who brought us Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Sun Arise and would later murder both Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody. I should really, really hate this song. Secretly I quite like it, though.

3. Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade (1973)

The song otherwise known as ‘Noddy Holder’s pension fund’ is pretty much impossible to avoid if you walk into a shop, turn on the radio or attend a party any time in the month of December. In terms of singles sales, Slade were the biggest selling British band of the Seventies, and this was their sixth and last UK number one single. It is variously described as both one of the best Christmas songs ever and also one of the most annoying, on account of its familiarity and over-exposure.

I will admit to grimacing after the opening bars of the second or third hearing every year, but there is something about the relentlessly upbeat, singalong tune and the distinctive vocals of the fabulously hirsute Holder that explain why the song is rightly regarded as a Christmas classic. Incidentally, one of the songs it kept off the number one spot was Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, another seasonal track which continues to receive endless heavy rotation even now.

4. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1975 & 1991)

This song surely needs no introduction, being the best-known track by one of the best-known bands in the history of pop music. It holds the unique distinction of being the only song to have held the Christmas number one spot  for the same artist twice – on its original release in 1975 and then after Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991. (Mary’s Boy Child was, of course, number one for two different artists, and although Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? was number one three times, the line-up was almost completely different on each occasion.)

In another statistical quirk, Bohemian Rhapsody was both Queen’s first and last UK number one (their fourth in all), and stands as the third best-selling single of all time in the UK. Yes, it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It doesn’t matter one iota, as it is a track which has become immortalised in both musical and popular culture, featuring heavily in the cult film Wayne’s World and receiving the ultimate accolade that any song can receive – a cover version by the Muppets. It doesn’t really get any better than that, does it?

5. When a Child is Born – Johnny Mathis (1976)

Mathis released an incredible 73 albums in his career but is best known in the UK for this 1976 cover, which spent three weeks at number one, the only one of his 14 top 40 singles to reach the top spot. The song was originally performed by German singer Michael Holm, but the Mathis version is by far the best known. Depending on your point of view, it is either incredibly cheesy or one of the great Christmas standards. I fall on the side of the latter, to a large extent by the fact it’s one of my father’s favourite seasonal songs and one I will forever associate with the family Christmases of my youth.

6. Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) – Pink Floyd (1979)

If Two Little Boys was a quirky way to see out the Sixties, Pink Floyd’s lone number one single was equally memorable as the final number one of the Seventies. The track is perhaps as well-known for its animated video featuring an army of marching hammers as it is for its distinctive disco beat and school choir refrain. Like Bohemian Rhapsody, there is nothing seasonal element about the song – it’s just a brilliant, classic rock track.

7. Don’t You Want Me – The Human League (1981)

Again, a song that has nothing to do with Christmas, but the band with the best asymmetric haircuts in pop topped the charts for five weeks with this synth-pop classic. The fourth single from their triple-platinum album Dare, it was famously released against the wishes of lead singer Philip Oakey, who felt that the British record-buying public had had enough of the band already that year. It became the group’s most lucrative single, and has subsequently established itself as the UK’s 25th highest-selling single ever (one place ahead of Wham’s Last Christmas).

8. Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid (1984, 1989 & 2004)

It took the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – courtesy of Elton John’s re-release of Candle in the Wind – to remove this track from its position as the best-selling UK single of all-time, but it remains the only song to be crowned Christmas number one on three separate occasions, spending a total of 12 weeks at the top and selling over 3.5 million copies, making it the best-selling Christmas single ever. Inspired by Bob Geldof after he had seen a TV report on starving children in Ethiopia and co-written with Ultravox front-man Midge Ure, the recording featured 44 participants, was produced in a single day and became the catalyst for the Live Aid global fundraising event the following summer. In truth, it’s not a great song lyrically, but it still packs an enormous emotional punch every time I hear it.

So there you have it – a personal selection of eight of the tracks which will be blasting out of my stereo on Christmas morning. Do they make you want to smile or be sick? And what other songs would you have included on your own personal list?

Look out for more Nostalgia Jukebox posts in the near future.

The Nostalgia Jukebox

Introducing the Nostalgia Jukebox