341. Slade – Merry Xmaƨ Everybody (1973)

‘IT’S CHRISTMAAAASSSSSSS!’. It’s not. It’s currently mid-August 2020 and we’re coming to the end of a blistering heatwave, which, if you know the story behind Slade’s final number 1, you’ll know is how the song was recorded. Little did they know it would become not only the most famous of their six number 1s, it would become perhaps pop’s greatest festive staple.

And yet, in summer 1973, the future of the band looked in doubt. While Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me was at number 1, drummer Don Powell was in a car crash that killed his girlfriend Angela Morris and left him in a coma for nearly a week. Luckily he successfully recovered, although he still suffers acute short-term memory loss and sensory problems.

Back in 1967 when Slade were The ‘N Betweens, Noddy Holder had written a song called Buy Me a Rocking Chair, with the very psychedelic chorus ‘Buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by/Buy me a looking glass, I’ll look you in the eye’. Despite liking the chorus, the verse needed work, so they scrapped it. Speaking to the Record Mirror in 1984, bassist Jim Lea recalled he was taking a shower in New York in 1973 when he came up with ‘Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall?’. Lea remembered Holder’s chorus and thought the two could fit together well, and producer and manager Chas Chandler had been nagging them to write a Christmas song. Holder thought the idea had legs, and penned the lyrics at his mother’s house in Walsall in one draft. They played the finished song to Chandler on acoustic guitars.

As hinted at earlier, Slade recorded Merry Xmaƨ Everybody in the middle of a September heatwave in New York while on tour there. Powell had returned to the fray at the Power Plant, where John Lennon had just finished recording his album Mind Games. Lea didn’t look back on the recording fondly, claiming the others weren’t as interested in him at rehearsing, though he did acknowledge Powell was still recovering and his memory was shot. Lea put in the most work, laying down the bass, piano and harmonium (the latter on loan from Lennon). They weren’t happy with the first completed mix as they wanted a bigger sound for the chorus, so they re-recorded it down a corridor, getting baffled looks from passers-by (Slade were virtually unknown in the US). After five days, the song was complete.

With several months to go until they could release their hopeful festive number 1, Slade released a compilation, Sladest, and new single MY FRIEИD STAИ (which looks slightly satanic). For the first time since Christmas 1972, they didn’t get to number 1. It was a departure from the usual Slade formula, but they had to change tack at some point, and it’s a nice little song. So, were they going to miss out on the Christmas top spot for the second year in a row?

Of course not. Merry Xmaƨ Everybody became the first Christmas-themed Christmas number 1 since Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957, and couldn’t have come at a better time. As everyone knows, the UK was going through a particularly grim time in late-1973. You’ve only got to look down at the ‘Meanwhile…’ section to see the Three-Day Week was about to begin, and the first post-war recession had started. Plus there was the OPEC oil crisis, and the IRA could strike at any moment. Glam acts like Slade and Wizzard were sorely needed to keep spirits up, and they did the job then and still do close to 50 years later. ‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’. How we could do with some of that optimism in winter 2020.

One of the most important factors that explains the magic of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is its inclusivity. It’s less rocking and more poppy than previous material. It’s aimed at all the family, with mentions of Granny ‘up and rock and rolling with the rest’. ‘ In 1971 Lennon asked ‘So this is Christmas, and what have you done’, in 1973 Slade said ‘everybody’s having fun’. There’s a nod (pardon the pun) to Christmas songs of old with the reference to ‘momma kissing Santa Claus’.

In 2017 I listened to every Christmas number 1 in one sitting and wrote about it here, and came to the conclusion Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is the best festive chart-topper of all time. I pointed out the production is lacking all the trimmings such as sleigh bells etc, and I think that’s another reason it’s stood the test of time so well. It doesn’t need them, as Holder’s ‘IIIIIITTTTT’S CHRIIIISSSTTTMMMMMASSSS!’ at the song’s conclusion gets the childhood joy of Christmas Day across like nobody has before or since.

Slade won the chart battle with Wizzard, who actually only reached number four in Christmas week, but nevertheless the sense of competition between the two glam rock outfits helped to create the battle for christmas number 1 that the media have latched on to ever since. The singles chart for Christmas week was now an event, and that’s thanks to Slade. Which is entirely appropriate, when you consider how glam’s low-budget sense of fun, bordering on the tacky, is Christmassy like no other genre.

Slade’s biggest seller was also a great way for the band to finish their run of number 1s. Six within just over two years is pretty impressive and puts them up there with some of the biggest acts of all time. Their fall was slow and steady, but there were also unexpected twists and turns.

1974 began with the release of the LP Old New Borrowed and Blue, which showcased a more piano-led sound and even a ballad as a single, Everyday, which went to number three. Much of the year was spent filming their film Slade In Flame, a surprisingly gritty drama about the rise and fall of a fictional group called Flame, played by the members of Slade. It was released in November, and although it was critically acclaimed (it has gained somewhat of a cult following in recent years), and the first single from the soundtrack Far Far Away reached number two, the theme song How Does It Feel only made it to number 15. Thanks for the Memory (Wham Bam Thank You Mam), in 1975, was their last top 10 hit of the 70s.

Understandably feeling they had peaked in the UK, in 1975 Slade decided to move to the US and try and hit the big time there. They toured with rock acts like Aerosmith and ZZ Top, and released an eclectic album. Nobody’s Fool, but not only did they fail to make much of an impact, their UK fans accused them of selling out.

By the time they returned to the UK in 1977, punk and the subsequent new wave rendered Slade very unfashionable. Their contract with major label Polydor had ran out and instead they signed with Chandler’s Barn Records. They performed single Gypsy Roadhog on Blue Peter and found themselves banned by the BBC due to its drug references, but the notoriety couldn’t help them up the charts. The next album, Whatever Happened to Slade, was an all too appropriate name.

As the band slid into irrelevance they would release singles based on football chants (1978’s Give Us a Goal) and covers of cheesy party classics (Okey Cokey in 1979) and some material failed to even reach the top 200. Disagreements between Lea and Chandler resulted in the former and Holder producing their back to basics album Return to Base in 1979. It was another failure, and the band briefly went their separate ways. Lea formed a new group, The Dummies, with his brother Frank, poor Hill resorted to driving couples to their weddings in his own Rolls-Royce to make money (it didn’t work), and Holder was briefly considered as AC/DC’s new singer following the death of Bon Scott, but he still thought Slade may have a future and reportedly turned the Australian rockers down.

In 1980, Slade had some luck at last when Ozzy Osbourne cancelled his headlining appearance at Reading Festival late in the day. Organisers rushed around looking for a last-minute replacement, and asked Slade. All but Hill were keen, but the only way he could be persuaded was when Chandler visited him at home and pointed out it could be their big farewell gig. To Hill’s surprise, they went down a storm. The split was forgotten about, and they acted fast to keep the momentum going. Showcasing a sound more in keeping with heavy metal, therefore pleasing the Reading Festival crowd, 1981’s We’ll Bring the House Down (title track to their next album) became their first top 10 hit in six years, and they returned to larger venues after years of touring small clubs and universities.

Slade and Chandler finally parted ways and they signed with RCA Records, who released their heaviest material yet, Till Deaf Us Do Part. That Christmas saw the first of many re-releases of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody, which reached 32. RCA began to demand hits from the band, and set them to work with producer John Punter. The resulting album, The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome, was released in December 1983, and featured two decent tracks. Power ballad My Oh My very nearly gave them their second festive chart-topper, but was held at bay by The Flying Pickets’ version of Only You. It was followed by Run Runaway, a fair stab at a Celtic-flavoured, Big Country-style sound.

Unfortunately, Holder wasn’t keen on Punter, and troubles in his private life resulted in a cancelled tour. They tried again for another Christmas single, All Join Hands (an inferior retread of My Oh My), but it couldn’t crack the top 10. And the final decline began, with a mainly synth-led album in 1985, Rogues Gallery, followed by a cheap Christmas cash-in LP, Crackers – The Christmas Party Album, along with the umpteenth release of their final number 1. It would take more than returning to deliberately mis-spelling their material to return Slade to form, and You Boyz Make Big Noize, released in 1987, was their final album. They did (sort-of) return to number 1 with Wizzard and lots of other festive hits, courtesy of Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ sampling them on Let’s Party in 1989.

In 1991 the Slade fan club organised a 25th anniversary show, and it was the last time they played live. Radio Wall of Sound, recorded for a compilation, was their final chart hit. In March 1992, Holder finally called it a day, and Lea, his much underrated songwriting partner, couldn’t see a future for Slade without their singer. He retired too, leaving Hill and Powell to form Slade II.

Slade II have continued since with various other members, and made the news in 2003 when convicted serial killer Rosemary West announced her engagement to bassist Dave Glover. Glover claimed this was a misunderstanding and he had only written to her about her case, but Hill of course sacked him. In February 2020 Powell claimed he had been sacked by Hill via a rather cold email, which Hill denied. He was all set to start Don Powell’s Slade but suffered a stroke, and with live music practically comatose post-lockdown, it remains to be seen if we end up with two separate Slades on the road.

Lea has largely remained out of the public eye, other than making solo album Therapy in 2007, and revealing he had been treated for prostate cancer.

Holder became a national treasure following Slade’s demise, taking up acting and making a decent job of it in ITV comedy drama The Grimleys. He has presented radio shows, documentaries, and made numerous cameos on TV. He reportedly loved Vic Reeves’ portrayal of him in the Slade at Home sketches on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer in the early-90s, but Hill wasn’t so fond of Bob Mortimer’s portrayal of him as a disapproving mother figure.

All four members of Slade attended Chandler’s funeral in 1996, and in 2010 had a group meeting to consider a farewell tour, but nothing came of it. It’s unlikely they will ever play together.

Slade deserve more credit. Yes, this final number 1 is the best Christmas chart-topper of all time, but before then they released some excellent singles too. Holder had one of the best rock voices of all time, and together with Lea, they wrote several classics. The flamboyant Hill was mainly responsible for their showmanship, and Powell fought back from a near-death experience and continued to belt out the beat. They may have lacked in innovation, but like all the best glam acts, they sparkled and rocked the nation during stormy years.

1973 was by and large very similar to 1972 for number 1s, but better. There was still some old-fashioned pop doing very well, and Donny Osmond and David Cassidy catering for the teens, but there were also glam classics that have stood the test of time.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 5 (15 December 1973-18 January 1974)

Births:

Historian Lucy Worsley – 18 December
Comedian Paul Foot – 24 December
Matt Tebbutt – 24 December 1973
Spice Girl Melanie C – 12 January 1974
Radio DJ Edith Bowman – 15 January
Model Kate Moss – 16 January

Deaths:

Princess Patricia of Connaught – 12 January 1974

Meanwhile…

19 December: The 17.18 Paddington to Oxford express train was derailed between Ealing Broadway and West Ealing. 10 died and 94 were injured.

31 December 1973: As a result of coal shortages caused by industrial action by the miners, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s energy-saving measures, the Three-Day Work Order, came into effect at midnight, making for the darkest New Year celebrations for decades. Commercial consumption of electricity would be limited to three consecutive days, TV broadcasts would end at 10.30pm on alternate nights for BBC and ITV, and most pubs were closed.

1 January 1974: But it wasn’t all bad news, as New Year’s Day was celebrated as a public holiday for the first time.
Also that day, the Northern Ireland Power-sharing Executive is set up in Belfast.

337. Wizzard – Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) (1973)

Glam rock’s debt to rock’n’roll continued apace in the autumn of 1973, as Wizzard enjoyed their second number 1 within months with Roy Wood’s lesser-known paen to his 50s youth with Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad).

I mentioned in my blog for See My Baby Jive that Wizzard’s debut album, Wizzard Brew, wasn’t anything like their singles. Released just before that single, it wasn’t very much like anything before or since. A lo-fi kaleidoscopic trawl through psychedelia, blues, rock, brass, metal, it’s a much underrated piece of work and I urge you to find it.

Inbetween Wizzard’s two number 1s, Wood also released solo album Boulders. Recorded between 1969-71, he wrote every song, played every instrument and drew the artwork. This is also considered a lost classic.

Although all Wizzard’s singles harked back to the 50s, Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) is Wood’s most overt tribute. The clue, not that you need one here, is in the bracketed part of the title. The lyrics are full of romantic 50s teen imagery, including Wood driving a motorbike to a cafe, a Dion poster on his girlfriends’s wall, a record playing… It’s as if Bruce Springsteen grew up in Birmingham in the 50s.

Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) may not be as instant as See My Baby Jive or I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, but it’s a lovely track with a real yearning quality, as Wood strives to capture the feeling of young love, rock’n’roll and those magical teenage years. It’s also slightly less cluttered, which gives the poignancy more of a chance to shine through. Spector would be impressed. Or would have threatened to shoot him, depending on how much cocaine he had in his system.

And then came I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. One of the best festive songs of all time, Wood took See My Baby Jive and added extra tinsel, in yet another tribute to Spector’s Wall of Sound. Unfortunately for Wood, it was up against one of the other greatest yuletide anthems, and Wizzard lost out to Slade. Incredibly, it wasn’t even number two in the top 10 that Christmas, lagging behind Gary Glitter and The New Seekers. This is very, very wrong.

It’s worth noting that nobody hears the 1973 version of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday anymore. It doesn’t exist. In 1981, EMI contacted Wood to say they wanted to give the single another crack at the Christmas charts, but they couldn’t find the master tapes. They were never found, and Wood had to re-record the song in a week with Muff Murfin producing. Murfin recalled Wood painstakingly recreated the original, and played every single instrument. The original choristers, from Stockland Green Bilateral School in Birmingham, were replaced by pupils at Kempsey Primary School. So the only way to hear the original is if you have a copy of the original 1973 vinyl. And if the versions on YouTube that are 1973 versions are real, there is no discernible difference. Which makes Wood’s remake an amazing feat, really.

1973 was intense for Wood, and it took its toll the following year. Several live dates were cancelled and the single Rock’n’Roll Winter (Looney’s Tune) was delayed until the spring. Second album Introducing Eddy and the Falcons was another tribute to the 50s, a concept album about a fictional band, inspired, no doubt by The Beatles. It was supposed to be a double LP, with the second half an experimental jazz-rock collection, but this material didn’t see the light of day until 2000’s Main Street.

The early momentum of Wizzard soon dissipated. Wood struggled to afford such a large line-up and ran up huge studio costs. Bassist Rick Price once recalled a rumour that the group spent more time recording their last number 1 than Paul McCartney & Wings spent on the whole of the Band On the Run album. Cellist Hugh McDowell departed in 1973 to return to the Electric Light Orchestra, and keyboardist Bill Hunt left a year later. In 1975, Wood split Wizzard up. Farewell single Rattlesnake Roll failed to chart.

Saxophonist Mike Burney went on to work with The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and The Old Horns Band, which was a joint venture with other former Wizzard members. He was also a session player for a wide variety of stars including Chaka Khan, The Beach Boys and Cliff Richard. Burney died in 2014. After ELO, McDowell joined new wave group Radio Stars and featured on albums by Saint Etienne and Asia. He died in 2018.

Price joined Wood in his short-lived project Wizzo Band after Wizzard, a jazz-rock project that was ill-received critically and commercially, with only one album, Super Active Wizzo in 1977. They split the following year. He married Diane Lee of Peters and Lee in the 90s, and they tour performing hits and new material. He’s also a member of The Rockin’ Berries.

Wood released a second solo LP, Mustard, in 1975, which featured Phil Everly. It wasn’t as successful as his first however, and his third, On the Road Again, didn’t even get a UK release in 1979. After The Wizzo Band’s demise he largely disappeared from the public eye. He led Roy Wood’s Helicopters between 1980 and 1982, and the following year recorded with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Chas Hodges as The Rockers. 1986 saw him record the ABBA song Waterloo with Doctor and the Medics. In 1987 came another solo album, Starting Up, and then another group, Roy Wood’s Army. Two years later he recorded with his former ELO bandmate Jeff Lynne, but the songs never saw the light of day.

Like Slade, Wood will always be associated with Christmas, and it helps that he looks rather like Santa Claus. There was a remake of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday in 1995, credited to Roy Wood’s Big Band. Weirdly, he and Mike Batt’s The Wombles teamed up in 2000 for an ill-advised mash-up called I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Everyday. It was awful. Seven years later, thanks to his appearance in an Argos Christmas advert, it reached number 16. In 2010, Wood featured in a cameo on the Christmas special of ITV comedy drama Benidorm.

Wood’s most recent troupe of musicians call themselves The Roy Wood Rock & Roll Band. In 2018 they made the news when their touring equipment was stolen in a ram-raid on a warehouse in Leeds, but it was later recovered. Sadly, it transpired that he was a hardcore Brexiter. So much so, he joined The Brexit Party in 2019. Ah well, everyone has their flaws, even a musical genius.

It’s a shame Wood is only remembered for one song, even if it is a bona fide classic. From his days in The Move, to forming ELO, to Wizzard, Wood was an eccentric musical magpie in the 60s and 70s, able to turn his hand to most forms of music, but always with an eye for a winning pop tune. Perhaps his unassuming nature and inherent shyness are further reasons he is underappreciated. He’s not bothered about reminding the world about his number 1s Blackberry Way, See My Baby Jive and Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) and his other classics like 10538 Overture, he’s content to show up from time to time at Christmas and then he’s gone again. I imagine it will sadly take his death before his resume is reappraised, but until then, the UK remains grateful at least that Wizzard kept the UK smiling during The Troubles and the Three-Day Week.

Written & produced by: Roy Wood

Vocal backing: The Suedettes & The Bleach Boys

Weeks at number 1: 1 (22-28 September)

Deaths:

Peeress Barbara Freyberg, Baroness Freyberg – 24 September
Labour Party MP George Porter – 25 September

Every Christmas Number 1

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The Intro

I’ve been blogging my reviews of all the UK number 1s in order for four months now, and have reached the end of 1957. Despite not being a fan of 50s music in general (maybe that’s a bit harsh, I should say I’m not too knowledgeable about it), I’ve found it more interesting than expected. Hopefully, some of the readers I’ve gathered are enjoying it too.

Anyway, I decided a nice addition for Christmas would be to work my way through every Christmas number 1 to date. Now, I love music, and I’m also fond of Christmas, so initially it sounds like a no-brainer. However, Christmas number 1s are a complete wild card. No matter the decade, no matter your musical taste, it would be impossible to enjoy them all. Indeed, after a first glance, I realised there are far fewer festive songs than you’d maybe expect. From children’s songs, to rock’n’roll and psychedelic classics, to total, utter dross, the Christmas number 1 offers examples of the mammoth highs and terrible lows of pop music over the last 65 years. And although sadly pop is no longer the cultural force it once was, the Christmas number 1 is still considered important. So much so, they even bring Top of the Pops back especially for it.

So, 69 songs (if a number 1 was a double A-side, I’ve included both), 4 hours and 15 minutes of seasonal chart-toppers, broken down into decisions on the best and worst of each decade, and then one overall winner. With two young children in my house, it would be impossible to take on this task in one sitting. So I decided to do it while working my day job, which today is working on, appropriately enough, the Christmas TV listings for TV Times. I think I already know which song will win out. Let’s see if I’m right…

The 50s

The 50s songs went by in a blur. This could be because I started listening at 7.30 in the morning and didn’t have enough caffeine in me, but it’s also because the charts didn’t start until 1952, and most tracks were pretty concise back then. In fact the first ever Christmas number 1 was the first ever chart-topper – Al Martino’s Here in My Heart. With pop music in its infancy, the yuletide number 1 wasn’t yet an event, and there wasn’t a festive-themed chart-topper until crooner Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet in 1955, which is a slight but charming enough number. You could perhaps argue Winifred Atwell had kicked things off the year previous, with the piano knees-up Let’s Have Another Party – it contained a snatch of When the Red Red Robin. Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957 was the last explicitly Christmas song to reign until Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, 16 years later.

Elvis-mania changed pop forever and rock’n’roll ruled the roost in the late 50s. For me, this is where music started to get interesting, so it’s probably no coincidence that one of my favourites of the 50s was the last – Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ clever and cocky What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? (1959), later covered by Shakin’ Stevens.

The Best:

Johnnie Ray –Just Walkin‘ in the Rain (1956): One of rock’n’roll’s pioneers, the eccentric, troubled ‘Mr Emotion’ sang this melancholic yet strangely cheery song written by two men languishing in prison. It’s not seasonal in the slightest, it’s just a great song by an influential but under-appreciated talent. One listen and you won’t be able to resist whistling the refrain. I can’t whistle, but this is one of the few times I wished I could.

The Worst:

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Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Answer Me (1953): The hardest part of blogging about many of those early number 1s was wading through the sea of near-identical overwrought ballads. The majority of them leave me cold, and despite Frankie being able to hold a note well, this did nothing for me. Hilariously, the BBC banned it at the time due to the then-shocking mention of God in the lyrics, which only increased its sales. The BBC clearly never learnt its lesson, as this wasn’t the last time this happened to a future number 1.

The 60s

Pop music evolved at a mind-blowing rate and came of age during this decade. Obviously the 60s were dominated by the best group of all time, The Beatles, and they also hold the record for most festive number 1s to date, with four in total – I Want to Hold Your Hand (1963), I Feel Fine (1964), Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out (1965) and Hello Goodbye (1967).  Never anything but a pleasure to listen to, John, Paul, George and Ringo played a large part in making this decade’s list pretty darn enjoyable. The classic Moon River, sang by Danny Williams, topped the charts in 1961, and Elvis also got a look-in, with one of his better tracks – Return to Sender, in 1962.

In the latter half of the decade, children’s records grew in popularity, and were obviously going to sell well in December, beginning the trend for novelty Christmas number 1s. The Scaffold’s Lily the Pink (1968) may be irritating but served it’s purpose, and my five-year-old seemed to love it recently. More problematic is Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys in 1969. Finding out what a pervert Rolf Harris was, under everybody’s radar, for so long was like finding out there’s no such thing as Father Christmas, yet this tune seems somehow still strangely moving, and now sadder than ever, because he’s bloody ruined it for everyone.

The Best:

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The Beatles – Hello Goodbye (1967): It was always going to be a Beatles song. I did struggle between Day Tripper and Hello Goodbye, though. Despite the former’s killer riff, I decided to go with the latter, as I’m a sucker for most psychedelic 60s stuff. Although it’s not the Fab Four’s best example of pyschedelia, I love it’s joyous simplicity, and especially the singalong at the end, which is lie-affirming pop at its best. I also think it would make for a hilarious funeral song.

The Worst:

Cliff Richard and The Shadows – I Love You (1960): Look at that title, it’s as generic as it gets, which at least sets the scene for the song itself. Tepid, basic and very forgettable, it’s no wonder it’s been largely forgotten. Cliff of course became a festive staple in the 80s. Whatever you might think of his later yuletide tunes, you’d find it difficult to argue that they’re not better than this.

The 70s

It was in this decade that the idea of the Christmas Number 1 really became an event, beginning with Slade and Wizzard’s battle for best festive anthem in 1973. An honourable mention for fellow glam rockers Mud’s Elvis tribute Lonely This Christmas (1974) – always had a soft spot for that one. Benny Hill’s children’s song Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) in 1971 was deceptively filthy – I’ve never realised just how smutty the lyrics were until today (although to be fair I probably haven’t heard it in full since I was about seven).

Several ‘classics’ also hit the top, and having long since grown bored of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (1975), I was impressed by it for the first time in years. It’s complexity and sheer oddness really made it stand out during my mammoth listen, and I didn’t mind hearing it again once I reached the songs of the 90s (it was of course reissued following Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991). Wings’ Mull of Kintyre (the biggest single of the decade) seems to be either loved or hated – I just think it’s alright – but who remembers it was actually a double A-side, along with the long-forgotten rocker Girls School (which fared far better in the US) in 1977? Mary’s Boy’s Boy Child – Oh My Lord (1978) saw Boney M cover Belafonte’s 1957 tune, livening it up but increasing the tackiness tenfold.

I find it hilarious and brilliant that Pink Floyd’s dark disco classic Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) was 1979’s festive bestseller. I don’t know about you, but nothing says Christmas more than a choir of children singing ‘We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control’ with an air of menace.

The Best:

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Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody (1973): Overfamiliarity hasn’t dimmed my love of Noddy bellowing ‘IT’S CHRRIISSSTTTMMMAAASSS!’, and although I sometimes think I prefer Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, it was Slade that won out back then, so it was Slade I heard today, finally bringing some yuletide cheer back into my rundown, and doing it with such wit and a tune that still holds up so well. I think the fact the production doesn’t labour the festive theme, unlike some of the songs yet to come, only adds to its brilliance.

The Worst:

Jimmy Osmond – Long Haired Lover from Liverpool (1972): Jesus Christ. That’s the only thing I can say about this that’s remotely festive, but it’s not meant as a compliment. I know the Osmonds were huge back then but I fail to see how anyone ever found this remotely appealing. It’s memorable I guess, but so is a bout of diarrhoea. My ears were genuinely pained when Jimmy hit the high notes, and it seemed to go on forever.

The 80s

I was born in 1979, so it’s this decade that takes me back to Christmas as a child. One of my earliest memories is of clutching my copy of Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984) in the playground before taking it to a school Christmas disco, aged five. A landmark moment in music, it was of course the start of charity singles gunning for the all-important top spot, and it’s a classic, but it’s controversially not even in my top two 80s number 1s. And the less said about the Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced Band Aid II version (1989), the better. I wondered why it had been airbrushed from history and I was only 20 seconds in before realising why. It’s total crap.

The quality of the number 1s really jumped about in the 80s, particularly the first half. Special mention must go to The Human League’s electro classic Don’t You Want Me (1981). I really struggled to decide whether this was my 80s favourite, or the one that just pipped it to the post. It may not be seasonal in the slightest, but I’m not purely judging these singles on festive merit, which is why Do They Know It’s Christmas?, the highest-selling festive chart-topper of all time, isn’t the winner.

Warm memories of the reissue of Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite in 1986, originally from 1956, were rekindled. And although it’s terrible, I found myself amused by Renée and Renato’s Save Your Love (1982), because it’s damn funny and it reminded me of the Kenny Everett spoof. Plus I think my mind might have started unravelling by this point. You can certainly argue that Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine is tacky shit, but nostalgia can really affect critical judgement, so I won’t be agreeing, sorry.

The Best:

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Pet Shop Boys – Always on My Mind (1987): I feel this may be a controversial choice due to it having nothing to do with Christmas, and the fact it kept Fairytale of New York from number 1, but I picked it because it’s bloody brilliant, and for me, this cover of the ballad made famous by Elvis gets better with age. Taking a great song, transforming it and improving upon it is no easy task, but Nick Tennant and Chris Lowe did so without any of their usual irony, simply turning it into a disco juggernaut. There’s no wonder it often finds itself in the upper reaches of lists of best cover versions of all time. Joss Ackland didn’t half used to scare me in the video, though.

The Worst:

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St Winifred’s School Choir – There’s No One Quite Like Grandma (1980): Like Pet Shop Boys, this kept a festive classic off the top, namely Jona Lewie’s excellent Stop the Cavalry. However, unlike Pet Shop Boys, it’s wretched. And did a nation coming to terms with the murder of John Lennon really pick this over reissues of his work? A perfect example of Christmas chart insanity, like Long Haired Lover from Liverpool before it, this grates big time. And yet, I’d still take it over some of the ‘serious’ work that’s yet to come…

The 90s

The Christmas number 1s of the late 80s had marked the turning point, in which the standard began to fall, with occasional exceptions. I knew this before beginning my foolhardy task, but failed to appreciate how painful the job was going to become. Cliff had his third and final appearance to date (he was part of Band Aid II) with the execrable Saviour’s Day (1990) (The pan pipes! Not the pan pipes!), in which he came up with his own, duller version of Christmas. No thanks, Cliff, we’re happy with mistletoe and wine. Queen pared up Freddie Mercury’s farewell, These Are the Days of Our Lives, with a reissue of 1975’s Bohemian Rhapsody (1991), and I was tempted to award the best of the decade to the latter, but in the end it seemed unfair to let it have two chances.

By this point in my youth I was starting to develop my own tastes, and my music snobbery had begun. I hated the seemingly eternal reign of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You back in 1992, and it didn’t do much for me in 2017 either. I did appreciate Houston’s singing more than I used to, though. It’s the production that kills it. Mr Blobby (1993)… this track came up more than any other when I told people what I would be doing, as though this would be the ultimate form of torture. You know what? It wasn’t. I genuinely found myself laughing at it. The people behind it were sick geniuses, throwing every trick in the book to seemingly irritate and infuriate anyone who didn’t watch Noel’s House Party. In fact, after rehearing it, I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if one day it turned out to be yet another prank by twisted geniuses The KLF. Just as insane in it’s own way was Michael Jackson’s Earth Song in 1995. Fair play to the self-proclaimed ‘King of Pop’ for trying to highlight the damage humans have done to the world, but heavily implying he was some kind of Messiah-like figure while doing so was a bit daft.

Who would have thought that East 17 would be one of the decade’s few Christmas highlights with Stay Another Day (1994)? Then and now I found the Walthamstow gang ridiculous, but I have to hand it to songwriter Tony Mortimer, Stay Another Day is a great song, especially when you know it was written about his brother, who committed suicide. Poor old troubled Brian Harvey sings it well, too. He veers out of tune at times, but that fits perfectly in the context of this song. I admire the chutzpah of tacking on bells at the end, but it’s a shame it was then adopted by seemingly every other boy band aiming for a number 1 on 25 December.

The Best:

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Spice Girls – 2 Become 1 (1996): I have an inkling this may also be a controversial choice, mainly for people who know me. Back in the day I claimed to hate the Spice Girls. I was a huge Britpop fan and I blamed them for ruining pop music by not being ‘for real’. It didn’t occur to me that many guitar-bands were running out of steam, or becoming so experimental, they were never going to maintain their followings. Now I’m nearly 40, I’m less concerned with whether a song is ‘cool’ or not, and grudgingly admit the early Spice Girls singles were great pop songs. You have to make room for love ballads at Christmas, and 2 Become 1 is a great example of one. I’ve even been known to listen to it outside of Christmas. And you have to admire the fact it gets a cheeky reference to wearing a condom in there. Their next two yuletide number 1s, Too Much (1997) and Goodbye (1998), were tosh, though.

The Worst:

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Westlife – I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun (1999): This was the easiest choice to make by far. I hated Westlife for being the final number 1 ‘artists’ of the 20th century. Was this really what the last 50 years of pop had been leading up to?! Time has certainly not changed my mind. I’d forgotten this was coming up so soon, and as the Irish boy band’s tepid cover of ABBA’s I Have a Dream began, I wanted to punch my ears. Only problem is, that would have pushed my earphones further down my now long-suffering hearing vessels, and thus increasing the torture. The next two or three minutes were vacuous, contemptible, cynical pap, but at least it would soon be over. Fuck! It’s a double-A-side! And they’ve had a go at a song about dying! I think Seasons in the Sun is actually even worse! This single only deserves to be the final number 1 of the millennium because it signposts the downward trajectory in quality and worth of the charts in the 21st century to date. But I’d rather listen to There’s No One Quite Like Grandma than ever suffer these two songs again.

The 00s

Before Simon Cowell did irreparable damage to December’s charts with the X Factor, there were a few more years of oddities. At 21, I had no time for Bob the Builder’s Can We Fix It? back in 2000, but coming after Westlife in my marathon listen, it was actually easy on the ears. It’s quite funny to think Neil Morrissey has had a number 1 with a dance anthem. Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman’s Something Stupid (2001) seemed rather pointless, then and now. Girls Aloud had won Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, and Sound of the Underground still sounds like one of the few reality show songs that wasn’t a power ballad put together by a committee. Perhaps if talent show winners were still releasing songs like this, The X Factor wouldn’t finally be dying a slow death.

Michael Andrew and Gary Jules’s haunting cover of Tears For Fears’ Mad World (from the film Donnie Darko) seemed an appropriate choice after the conflict in Iraq in 2003, but strikes me as simply too downbeat now. Easily the most depressing track in the collection. The 20th anniversary of Do They Know It’s Christmas? brought about yet another version, and while Band Aid 20’s cover is better than Band Aid II, it goes on way too long and sounds too earnest. Speaking of earnest…

The second series of The X Factor in 2005 was where the Christmas charts were first hijacked. The next five years were wall-to-wall Cowell. Manufactured MOR with a revolving door of singers, some who have long since been forgotten about. Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah (2008) was the only remotely memorable one, and that’s undoubtedly due to me loving Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic, which was that year’s runner-up.

The Best:

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Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name (2009): By the close of the 00s, some record buyers had had enough of Cowell’s dominance. Beginning an internet campaign which quickly snowballed, Zack de la Rocha and co’s rap-metal call for revolution from 1992 was the perfect antidote to yet another lightweight pop ballad. After suffering so much tripe beforehand I was on the verge of shouting ‘THANK FUCK’ in the middle of the office. Although it wasn’t the end of X Factor number 1s, Rage Against the Machine had inflicted serious damage to their stranglehold of the charts.

The Worst:

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Leon Jackson – When You Believe (2007): Jackson won the fourth series of the X Factor with this cover of a power ballad sung by Whitney Houston & Mariah Carey for the animation The Prince of Egypt in 1998. Dreary and tedious, it’s a throwback to some of the very first number 1s of the early 1950s and the worst X Factor Christmas number 1. I don’t think Jackson has been seen since – another victim of Cowell’s ruthlessness.

The 10s

Rage Against Machine had given the list a much-needed kick up the arse, but I don’t think it was just the potential lethargy my ears were suffering that caused the remaining tracks to be a tough listen. In addition to further X Factor tracks, charity singles became very popular once more, beginning with Wherever You Are by Military Wives with Gareth Malone in 2011. Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir’s A Bridge over You (2015) was along similar lines, combining Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Coldplay’s Fix You. I don’t want to belittle charity singles, but the combination of these and yet more talent show winners made for a very musically uninspiring final few tracks.

Some potential hope for the future came with the last song of all. Rockabye (2016), by Clean Bandit featuring Sean-Paul and Anne-Marie, broke the malaise that had set in and was simply a modern pop song by a young group, just like in the old days.  It didn’t do much for me personally, but pop should primarily be for the young, not a man who’s nearly 40, so fair play to them. Here’s hoping there’s further life in the charts for years to come.

The Best:

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The Justice Collective – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (2012): Adopting the Band Aid approach and featuring an all-star cast of musicians and celebrities, The Justice Collective was assembled by Peter Hooton of The Farm, in order to raise money for various charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster. Covering the classic Hollies track was an inspired choice, and it would be difficult to not be moved by this, whatever your thoughts on charity songs.

The Worst:

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Matt Cardle – When We Collide (2010): Shock, horror – it’s another X Factor song! Matt Cardle won the seventh series and released a cover of rock band Biffy Clyro’s Many of Horror and renamed it, for some reason. That’s the most interesting thing I can say about this leaden waste of time.

The Best UK Christmas Number 1 Ever is…

Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody (1973): I predicted this would win beforehand, but I didn’t predict just how many non-festive songs it would be up against, so Noddy, Dave, Don and Jim almost won by default. That’s not to take anything away from their win though. If it wasn’t for their chart battle with Wizzard, would the Christmas number 1 be the annual event it still is today? Possibly not. Back in 1973, the UK was going through a rough ride, with strikes and power cuts, and Merry Xmas Everybody brought some light back into (literally) dark times. 44 years later, we need this song more than ever.

The Worst UK Christmas Number 1 Ever is…

Westlife – I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun (1999): I think I made my feelings on this clear earlier, but even thinking about the damage it did to my ears is making me angry all over again. Pop music at it’s very dreariest, and far more offensive than any of the novelty hits I’ve had to suffer. I expected my lowest-rated song to be from the X Factor conveyor belt, but I feel some degree of sympathy towards those artists involved. It’s the man behind them that’s the true villain of chart music.

The Outro

Well, that was quite an experience. Yes, you could argue putting myself through every Christmas number 1, only to ultimately rediscover my love for Slade and hatred for Westlife, was pointless, but, despite my forlorn face above, and lots of moaning within this feature, it’s made for a fascinating experience. Tracing the Christmas number 1s from the inception of the charts has been like following the history of pop itself, which is after all what this site is all about. And no number 1 single better captures the eccentricities of the record-buying public than the Christmas number 1, throwing some real curveballs in there. Of course, listening to a history of pop like this has highlighted how far chart music has fallen over the last few decades. But there is still some hope for the future. And while this four-hour-plus experience has left me somewhat scarred, I’m already wondering if next year I should make my way through every UK Christmas number 2… Maybe I have developed a form of musical Stockholm Syndrome?

Of course, everyone’s entitled to an opinion… why not tell me yours? Feel free to shout me down and leave a comment in the box below the list.

Every UK Christmas Number 1 (1952-2016) 

1952: Al Martino – Here in My Heart
1953: Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Answer Me
1954: Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – Let’s Have Another Party
1955: Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet
1956: Johnnie Ray – Just Walkin’ in the Rain
1957: Harry Belafonte – Mary’s Boy Child
1958: Conway Twitty: It’s Only Make Believe
1959: Emile Ford and the Checkmates – What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?
1960: Cliff Richard and The Shadows – I Love You
1961: Danny Williams – Moon River
1962: Elvis Presley – Return to Sender
1963: The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand
1964: The Beatles – I Feel Fine
1965: The Beatles – Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out
1966: Tom Jones: Green Green Grass of Home
1967: The Beatles – Hello Goodbye
1968: The Scaffold – Lily the Pink
1969: Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys
1970: Dave Edmunds – I Hear You Knocking
1971: Benny Hill – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)
1972: Donny Osmond – Long Haired Lover from Liverpool
1973: Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody
1974: Mud – Lonely This Christmas
1975: Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
1976: Johnny Mathis – When a Child Is Born (Soleado)
1977: Wings – Mull of Kintyre/Girls School
1978: Boney M – Mary’s Boy Child – Oh My Lord
1979: Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)
1980: St Winifred’s School Choir – There’s No One Quite Like Grandma
1981: The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
1982: Renée and Renato – Save Your Love
1983: The Flying Pickets – Only You
1984: Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?
1985: Shakin’ Stevens – Merry Christmas Everyone
1986: Jackie Wilson – Reet Petite
1987: Pet Shop Boys – Always on My Mind
1988: Cliff Richard – Mistletoe and Wine
1989: Band Aid II – Do They Know It’s Christmas?
1990: Cliff Richard – Saviour’s Day
1991: Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody/These Are the Days of Our Lives
1992: Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You
1993: Mr Blobby – Mr Blobby
1994: East 17 – Stay Another Day
1995: Michael Jackson – Earth Song
1996: Spice Girls – 2 Become 1
1997: Spice Girls – Too Much
1998: Spice Girls – Goodbye
1999: Westlife – I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun
2000: Bob the Builder – Can We Fix It?
2001: Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman – Something Stupid
2002: Girls Aloud – Sound of the Underground
2003: Michael Andrews and Gary Jules – Mad World
2004: Band Aid 20: Do They Know It’s Christmas?
2005: Shayne Ward – That’s My Goal
2006: Leona Lewis – A Moment Like This
2007: Leon Jackson – When You Believe
2008: Alexandra Burke – Hallelujah
2009: Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name Of
2010: Matt Cardle – When We Collide
2011: Military Wives with Gareth Malone – Wherever You Are
2012: The Justice Collective – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
2013: Sam Bailey – Skyscraper
2014: Ben Haenow – Something I Need
2015: Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir – A Bridge Over You
2016: Clean Bandit featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie – Rockabye