202. The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)

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What is it with these legendary songs that were supposedly written in the sleep of their composers? Paul McCartney has always said Yesterday came to him in a dream. He rushed to the piano in the Asher household the following morning to play the melody, and was convinced at first that somebody else must have written it. But Scrambled Eggs, as he originally called it, was a Lennon and McCartney original.

And in the same year came (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had written their first number 1, The Last Time, earlier in 1965, although how much they can lay claim to that is debatable considering they pinched the chorus from the Staple Singers. Nonetheless, their songwriting was improving. The fact this song came soon after makes that a hell of an understatement.

Richards claims he woke up one morning and had a half memory of recording himself trying out a song that had come to him in the night. Playing back the recording, he heard himself playing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction on an acoustic guitar for two minutes, singing the song’s title, followed by the sound of the pick hitting the floor and then him snoring for 40 minutes until the tape side ran out. Like McCartney, Richards was sure someone else had already written this song. He was worried it sounded like Martha & the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street in particular.

Are the stories for these songs true? Did two of the most memorable pop songs of all time appear in their creators’ subconscious? Or did they lie to add to the legend? I guess we’ll never know, but if both are true, it’s fascinating.

The Rolling Stones entered Chess Studios in Chicago to record (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction on 10 May. Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics four days beforehand by a swimming pool. Apart from the aforementioned line, that is. The original recording wasn’t the version we know and love, and feature Brian Jones on harmonica. This version was the first the public heard of the track, however, when they debuted it on US telvision series Shindig. Two days later they tried again at RCA Studios in Hollywood, with Charlie Watts adding a new beat, and Richards performing the famous riff through a Gibson fuzzbox. This hadn’t been done on a released record before, and added a scratchy rawness to their sound. But that was fine, because he had no intention of it appearing on the released single. It was only there as a guide for what he wanted a brass section to perform.

What else can be said about (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction? How many superlatives exist? This was more dangerous than pop and rock’n’roll and to me, it’s one of the first singles you can call rock, along with You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Richards’ riff is like the musical equivalent of the big bang, it’s so important and incredible. And although it’s impossible to imagine a time in which it never existed, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction never, ever, sounds boring. That fuzzy riff is so primitive, it’s somehow meant the song has remained fresh in the same way the base raunch of You Really Got Me has. It’s such a fantastic riff, it would have no doubt sounded great from a brass ensemble, but would it be as immortal as the version we know? I doubt it.

Lots of credit should also go to Jagger, whose lyrics fit perfectly. This really spoke to his generation, and it’s hard sometimes to think a song that encapsulates feelings of alienation brought on by advertising could come from a man who later became obsessed with money like Jagger did. Despite all the plaudits the Stones have had thrown at them over the years, I don’t think Jagger has ever really got the credit he deserves as a lyricist. Some of his songs from 1965 through to the early-1970s are as sharp as pop and rock music gets. There’s a real dry wit on display here. It’s only now that I discover that although many people found this song dangerously sexually charged at the time, the filthiest lyric of all escaped most people, including me. When Jagger sings: ‘And I’m tryin’ to make some girl/Who tells me baby better come back later next week/’Cause you see I’m on a losing streak’ the ‘losing streak’ in question is the girl’s period. Clever, Jagger, you filthy beast. As great as the lyrics are though, I guess that riff overshadows, well, nearly everything. Bill Wyman’s bass also complements it brilliantly though.

Once the track was completed, everyone bar the songwriters was convinced it needed no brass overdubs, and that they’d hit upon something truly special. Luckily for everyone, Jagger and Richards were outvoted, and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was quickly released a month later in the US, a well as featuring on the American version of their third album, Out of Our Heads. A month later it was the US number 1. UK buyers had to wait a while longer, as Decca were already about to release a live EP by the Rolling Stones. Released in August, the song divided public opinion. To older people and the BBC, it was disgusting. To pirate radio and teenagers and young adults, it was fucking brilliant. We know who was right. The BBC relented and on 9 September it began an all-too-short fortnight at number 1.

The Rolling Stones were suddenly in a new league, and rightly considered on the same level as the Beatles. Jagger and Richard had gone from blues copyists to premier songwriters. Although the whole band stood to benefit from this, 1965 marked the year in which Brian Jones began to feel sidelined.

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is up there with She Loves You as one of the songs that defines music, let alone the 60s. There have been countless covers from the good, the bad and the downright odd over the years, including Otis Redding, Devo, Britney Spears, the Residents, Samantha Fox and Cat Power.

I was one of the lucky ones who finally got to see the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury Festival in 2013. I’m not a superfan, and was expecting dips in the set, but overall it was a triumph and well worth the wait. Their final song was (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. I’ve had many amazing monents at Glastonbury over the years. That ranks as one of the best.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 2 (9-22 September)

Deaths:

Cricketer JW Hearne – 14 September
Geologist Arthur Holmes – 20 September 

193. The Beatles – Ticket to Ride (1965)

23 April saw the opening of the Pennine Way. The National Trail runs 267 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District, up to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Three days later, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. In other football news, Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Leeds United 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on 1 May. Elsewhere, on 7 May the Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, won a landslide victory in the general election in Rhodesia.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were at number 1 for the seventh time, with their most adventurous single to date.

In February, they had begun filming, and recording the soundtrack album, for their second movie (their first in colour), provisionally called Eight Arms to Hold You. Just as weird as the title was the film itself. Once again directed by Richard Lester, this was a more surreal, loose, knockabout comedy than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and with a bigger budget, too. Intended as a spoof of spy films, it essentially became an excuse for the Fab Four to travel to exotic locations. The Beatles spent most of the time stoned out of their minds, and would often struggle to stop themselves laughing while filming. In some scenes, their eyes are bloodshot from all the smoking they indulged in. Lads.

Fortunately for everyone, the Beatles on marijuana didn’t result in self-indulgent dribble. It made for their best film. That’s nothing compared to the impact on their music, though.

Ticket to Ride was the first track worked on for their fifth album. In 1980, Lennon claimed in Playboy that the song was pretty much his own. He also proudly stated it invented heavy metal. The jury’s out on both, but it began one hell of a creative patch. None of their singles had sounded like this, musically or lyrically. He said Paul McCartney was only responsible for Ringo Starr’s drum sound, whereas McCartney later stated they wrote it together in three hours.

Even if Lennon was right, you can’t underestimate the drums on Ticket to Ride, so McCartney clearly made an important contribution. Making Starr play in such a stop-start fashion created an epic, proto-pyschedelic sound, which isn’t that far removed from the still-startling Tomorrow Never Knows, created a year later. George Harrison once said that the drums were also influenced by the equally important jagged guitar riff, which he claimed ownership of, having played it on his Rickenbacker. Whoever came up with what, this track was breaking new ground.

Although the Beatles were innovative with their songwriting from the start, those first few years were often full of basic lyrics about love. Not this time. The combination of an adoration of Bob Dylan and drugs made the words in Ticket to Ride more adult, oblique and interesting. A woman is leaving the narrator, that much we know. So far, so ‘blues’. But where to? Some suggest the woman has become a prostitute. McCartney once claimed she’s simply off to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I find the former more likely. The prefix of ‘I think’ adds so much to the song, without explaining itself. And although the narrator isn’t sure exactly whether he’s upset or not, he says his baby definitely isn’t. It was rare at the time to allow a woman in a break-up to have the upper hand in a pop song.

Ticket to Ride was also a first for the Beatles for the way in which it was recorded. They were taking an increased interest in the way their songs sounded, and from now on they would tape rehearsals and concentrate on backing tracks, before overdubbing more instruments and the vocals.

Although most of the rest of the album it came from was fairly straightforward, Ticket to Ride marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, and that’s easily my favourite era of my favourite band. The slow pace of the drumming, combined with the drone of the guitars, gives it an Indian feel. It seems this was a coincidence rather than by design, as it was later, during the making of the film, that Harrison became interested in Indian music (it seems the decidedly un-PC comedy Indian characters in Help! had their uses after all). The middle-eight was your more standard Beatles fare, but I can still find the switch back to the main riff spine-tingling, even after all these years. The ‘My baby don’t care’ refrain in the coda is a thrilling climax, with great guitar licks from McCartney.

Ticket to Ride enjoyed a lengthy (by 1965 standards – most number 1s only lasted a week) three-week stint at the top. It was their longest track to date, running for over three minutes. Singles were getting longer, hair was getting longer, things were getting weirder. They promoted the song on Top of the Pops, and a brief clip of the performance was also shown on Doctor Who in May, as part of the story The Chase.

The most famous performance of the song was in their second movie. By the time of its release it was known as Help!, and Ticket to Ride featured in a sequence in which the band learned to ski in the Austrian Alps while also avoiding the assassins attempting to steal Ringo’s ring. A highly influential part of the film, some say it was a big influence on the idea of music videos and eventually MTV.

As I mentioned in my blog for I Feel Fine though, the Beatles were already making promo films to save them having to be everywhere at once. That November, they made promos for their next single, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, and also made one for Ticket to Ride to feature on a festive edition of Top of the Pops. The foursome mimed in front of a backdrop of large tickets, with John, Paul and George sat in director’s chairs.

She Loves You is perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, but I think Ticket to Ride may be my favourite song of the early years of the Beatles. Time will never dull its magnificence.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 April-12 May)

Births:

Actress Anna Chancellor – 27 April 
Television presenter Alice Beer – 1 May 
Wrestler Darren Matthews – 10 May

Deaths:

Welsh novelist Howard Spring – 3 May

187. The Kinks – Tired of Waiting for You (1965)

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23 February saw the death of a clown. One of the most famous of all time. Stan Laurel had lit up cinema screens as one half of one of the most influential double acts of all time alongside Oliver Hardy. Laurel had officially retired after his partner’s death in 1957. On 19 February he had suffered a heart attack. Four days later he told his nurse he wouldn’t mind going skiing. When she remarked she didn’t know he was a skier, he replied ‘I’m not! I’d rather be doing that than this!’. A few minutes later he had died in his armchair.

Following the groundbreaking rock of their third single and first number 1, You Really Got Me, the Kinks recorded their debut album. Released in October 1964, the patchy Kinks consisted of their hit, new material and covers. Faring far better was their follow-up single All Day and All of the Night. Okay, this may have been a rewrite of You Really Got Me, but I happen to think it just might well be better, once you get over the similarity. It reached number two. Set Me Free differed from their previous work in showcasing a softer sound, but it was average at best.

Far better was their first single of 1965. Tired of Waiting for You began as one of Ray Davies’ first ever songs, written while he was at art school. Davies was beginning to worry he was already running out of new material, so returned to the tune for inspiration. Unfortunately he had forgotten the lyrics. Something was also missing from the music. The band were happy to be trying something gentler, but also felt it was missing something. That key ingredient was Dave Davies’ guitar. Once this was added to the mix, albeit reined in from the last few singles, the track was coming together. Ray quickly penned new lyrics on the train journey to the studio. His younger brother felt they had written the perfect pop song.

While I don’t agree with that, Tired of Waiting for You was a fine track and after narrowly missing out on the top spot with All Day and All of the Night, a deserved number 1. Ray’s vocal really gets across the sense of lethargy and irritation he’s singing about. It’s as though the initial raw sexuality of his feelings for the girl in You Really Got Me have eroded over time into boredom and annoyance. Dave was right to add his guitar to the mix too, as it gives the production some extra weight.

Tired of Waiting for You proved the Kinks were no one-trick pony, and was a sign of things to come from the group. Ray was about to blossom into one of the decade’s finest songwriters when it comes to social commentary.

Written by: Ray Davies

Producer: Shel Talmy

Weeks at number 1: 1 (18-24 February)

Deaths:

Comic actor Stan Laurel – 23 February 

177. The Kinks – You Really Got Me (1964)

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14 September saw the final edition of the left-wing newspaper Daily Herald. The paper had supported the Labour Party since its inception in 1912. IPC relaunched it as The Sun the following day. In these pre-Rupert Murdoch days, The Sun was also left-wing. How times have changed. On the same day, Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home called a general election for 15 October. He had put it off for as long as possible, as the Conservatives were performing badly in opinion polls. Now, he and new Labour leader Harold Wilson were due a showdown.

Meanwhile, in the charts, those future classics kept reaching number 1 and pushing boundaries. What a run of chart-toppers the latter half of 1964 had seen. There seemed to be a growing fashion for seeing how simplistic and basic a hit single could be. The most groundbreaking and influential of this period has to be You Really Got Me by the Kinks. One of the most important bands of the 1960s were struggling and finding their feet until Ray Davies hit upon that gargantuan life-changing riff and created the first number 1 that could be classified as rock, and an early prototype of heavy metal.

Ray and Dave Davies were the youngest of eight, and the only boys in their family. Ray was born in June 1944 and Dave in February 1947. They were raised in Muswell Hill, London. Music was everywhere in the Davies household – their parents loved music hall and their sisters were into rock’n’roll. The Kinks would use both genres as inspiration. Ray and Dave would fall out like any brothers do, but they bonded over music, particularly skiffle, and both learned to play guitar. They formed the Ray Davies Quartet at secondary school with Pete Quaife and his friend John Start. They struggled to find a permanent vocalist, and a fellow student called Rod Stewart was one of many who came and went during 1962. Stewart went on to form a rival band, Rod Stewart and the Moonrakers.

Later that year, Ray left home to study at Hornsey College of Art. While there he joined  a couple of groups, including the Dave Hunt Band. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones was briefly their drummer. He left Hornsey in spring 1963 with the intention of studying film at the Central School of Art and Design, and around that time the Ray Davies Quartet, of which he had remained a member, changed their name to the Ramrods. After several name changes, including the Pete Quaife Band, they settled on the Ravens. They decided to try and make music a professional career, and among their early managers was former pop star Larry Page, and they were already working with American producer Shel Talmy, who had co-produced the Bachelors’ Diane. The Ravens failed at several auditions until Talmy secured them a contract with Pye Records. Shortly before then their second drummer Mickey Willet had left, so the band invited Mick Avory to complete the legendary line-up. Avory’s background was in jazz drumming, and had played one gig as the drummer in the Rolling Stones. Yet another connection between two of the most famous 60s groups.

The Ravens were all set to release their debut single in January 1964, but first they decided they needed a new name to stand out. Several versions of how they ended up as the Kinks exist, but Ray insists it was Page’s idea and he was referencing their ‘kinky’ fashion sense. Ray has never been much of a fan of the name. A cover of Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally was their first single, but it wasn’t great, and sank without trace. The Beatles version on the Long Tall Sally EP later the same year was much better. The Ray Davies-penned second single You Still Want Me fared no better, and was also lacklustre.

You Really Got Me, one of the first five songs Ray Davies ever wrote, was written at his piano that March. It was originally intended as a light, jazz-oriented piece. Ray intended for the mighty riff the tune was built around to be performed on saxophone. The lusty lyrics were influenced by an encounter with one of the group’s first serious female fans. It was his brother Dave that suggested taking the song down a heavier path by arguing it would sound much better if the riff was played by his guitar. The brothers also apparently had in mind the Kingsmen’s classic version of Louie Louie.

The Kinks laid down a bluesy-style demo that summer. A full studio version of You Really Got Me was slower than the single release, but after recording it in June, they ran into problems. Pye were unhappy with the group’s sales and refused to fund any further recording on this track. It was at this point that Ray’s refusal to back down established him as leader of the group. Due to the stalemate, Talmy agreed to cover the costs, and the Kinks went to an independent studio and recorded their third single in two takes.

This time, the Kinks captured the essence of the song. The lyrics were pure full-on sexual frustration, and thanks to Dave Davies they created a sound that would match. It was the guitarist’s idea to distort the sound by slicing the speaker cone of his amplifier with a razor blade and poking it with a pin. What a sound. It was sleazy, nasty and like nothing heard before. And amazingly, where so much rock music has dated, You Really Got Me never ceases to sound anything but fresh to me. With this song, the Kinks were as innovative as the Beatles and as dangerous as the Rolling Stones. And is that the best guitar solo yet to feature in a number 1? I think so. It’s certainly the wildest and most freewheeling. Perhaps because Davies never recorded a solo this good again, it has been a rumour ever since that Jimmy Page is the man behind it. However, the Led Zeppelin axeman has stated many times, to some annoyance, that Dave Davies was the man on the recording. There are session men on there, however, namely Bobby Graham on drums, with Avory relegated to tambourine, and Arthur Greenslade on piano. Graham played on many number 1s over the years, by artists including Englebert Humperdink, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield.

You Really Got Me is also, as far as I can gather, the first number 1 to contain a swear word. I always thought this accolade went to Hey Jude, where you can clearly hear someone say ‘fucking hell’ after making a mistake at 2:58 (I always thought this was Lennon, but Lennon claimed it was McCartney). But in Ray Davies’ autobiography The Storyteller (1998), he says Dave shouts ‘Fuck off.’ at him at the drum break before his solo. Apparently, Ray had shouted across at his little brother to gee him up, but it just threw Dave. When he recorded his vocal, Ray deliberately tried to cover this up, and that’s why you hear him shout ‘Oh no!’. However, despite Ray claiming in his book that you can still clearly hear Dave, I can’t. Special mention should also go to those foreboding backing vocals, the rising ‘aaahs’ as Ray approaches the chorus. Genius, all in all.

Demand for You Really Got Me became so high that Pye put all their over releases on hold so they could produce enough copies. The Kinks had proven their record label wrong, and how. The song proved highly influential, most directly for a new band called the Who. After years of bad blood, it was this song that the Davies brothers chose to perform together in December 2015, which set into motion a likely Kinks reunion.

Written by: Ray Davies

Producer: Shel Talmy

Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 September)

Births:

Author Simon Singh – 19 September 

Deaths:

Art critic Clive Bell – 18 September 

105. Johnny Kidd & the Pirates – Shakin’ All Over (1960)

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When I first saw that Shakin’ All Over was a number 1 in 1960, I was surprised. I’ve always admired the song, but I’d never looked into it and assumed it was recorded around the height of Beatlemania, sometime between 1963-65. I also thought that Johnny Kidd & the Pirates could perhaps be American, as the song has an attitude and energy that British artists often struggled to achieve back then. So I was even more surprised and impressed to discover that an English group was capable of such a great song upon working my way through every UK number 1. Finally, a homegrown group that could achieve a rock’n’roll sound without sounding like a pale imitation of Elvis Presley, or the polite pop sound that was prevalent at the time. Shakin’ All Over is a brilliant achievement, and the best number 1 by a UK act up to this point. Johnny Kidd & the Pirates also put some effort into their look – their pirate regalia giving them a unique, distinct appearance. These rough and ready rockers were exploring unchartered waters.

Johnny Kidd was born Frederick Albert Heath in Willesden, North London, in 1935. He began playing guitar in the skiffle group the Frantic Four. Heath quickly established himself as a prolific songwriter, crossing over genres such as skiffle, rock’n’roll and rockabilly. In 1959, Freddie Heath and the Nutters, as they were then known (unfortunately) signed with HMV and recorded their first single, Please Don’t Touch. This slice of dirty rock’n’roll ultimately proved influential – Lemmy was a fan, and later chose to cover it in a collaboration between Motörhead and Girlschool (under the name Headgirl), but at the time only made the top 30. Record buyers in the late 50s simply weren’t ready for a noise like this is seems. Before its release, HMV understandably insisted on a name change, and it seems they bestowed the name Johnny Kidd & the Pirates upon them. They struggled through another couple of singles, adding and losing members along the way.

By May 1960, the group consisted of Johnny Kidd, with Alan Caddy on guitar, Clem Cattini on drums and bassist Brian Gregg. They were scheduled to record a cover of Ricky Nelson’s Yes, Sir That’s My Baby, but were told they could come up with the B-side. The day before the session, Kidd, Caddy and Gregg decided to write ‘any old rubbish’. Kidd later claimed that if he and his mates saw a stunning girl in the street, they would say she gave them ‘quivers down the membranes’. They got up early the next morning and created the song in Gregg’s living room before hitting the studio. Somewhere along the way, Caddy called session guitarist Joe Moretti in to perform lead guitar, and it was he that came up with that brilliant chiming guitar sound, sliding a cigarette lighter up and down the fretboard. Needless to say, Shakin’ All Over was soon promoted over Yes, Sir That’s My Baby.

What an inspired piece of music Shakin’ All Over is. It’s seedy, raunchy, dangerous and heavy, like nothing that had ever come before from England. The guitar work is perfect and innovative, but the bass is also turned up louder than anything I’d heard up to this point, so credit must also go to producer Wally Ridley. And Kidd wipes the floor with other British vocalists, proving rock’n’roll didn’t have to sound like a poor man’s imitation of other artists.

Shakin’ All Over deserved a long run at the top, but was perhaps too much too soon for most record buyers, and Please Don’t Tease returned to number 1 a week later – but which track is now considered a classic? Kidd & the Pirates developed a stage act that had a big effect on audiences, with Kidd donning an eye patch and waving a cutlass around. Watching the band on stage was enough to persuade guitarists Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of the Detours to sack their singer so Daltrey could become a showboating singer. The Who later returned the favour by covering Shakin’ All Over on their seminal live album, Live at Leeds. Kidd also used an echo unit to process his live vocals, a rare occurrence at the time.

The Pirates soon splintered, with several members jumping ship and creating so many spin-off groups it’s hard to keep track. Several years went by and a debut album was being worked on, but the Beatles had changed the pop landscape, and Kidd couldn’t regain momentum. On 7 October 1966, he and new bassist (and future Deep Purple member) Nick Simper were returning from a cancelled gig in Bolton when they were involved in a car accident. Kidd was killed, aged only 30. He remains sadly a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was.

Surprisingly, Shakin’ All Over was only a UK hit, until Canadian group Chad Allen and the Expressions decided to cover it. Their version, extremely similar to the original, was hyped by their record label, who had decided to create some intrigue. Was this by one of those British bands that had become so famous around the world? They credited the single to ‘Guess Who?’. Disc jockeys mistakenly thought that was the name of the group, and so they became the Guess Who. Allen and co hated their name, as it got them mixed up with another act that were on the rise, who also performed Shakin’ All Over. Guess Who?

Written by: Johnny Kidd & Guy Robinson

Producer: Wally Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 August)

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 1950s

The 1950s 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 Checkmate’s 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 Walkinin 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 1960s

Pop music evolved at a mind-blowing rate and came of age during this decade. Obviously the 1960s 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 1970s

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 1980s

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 Elvis ballad (written by Willie Nelson) 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 1990s

The Christmas number 1s of the late 1980s 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 2000s

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 2010s

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 tough 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