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Mistletoe & Whine – The Xmas Number 1 Through History

December 8, 2016

The chase for a festive chart-topper is revving up again, so let’s look back at years past. Terry Staunton is reading a list and checking it twice…

Cliff Richard’s last realistic shot at a Christmas Number One was in 1999, with the pious fin de siecle Millennium Prayer. Standing in his way was a novelty record known informally as the Hamster Dance – curiously, a favourite among listeners to John Peel’s radio show.

Consequently, the seasonal media hullabaloo over who would ultimately bag the festive chart-topper was more fun than usual, spawning the infamous website headline Can Cliff Keep Hamsters In Number Two Slot?

As it transpired, both singles were trumped by a Westlife cover of an Abba song, but that hardly mattered. The joy was in the preamble, the month-long speculation assessing runners and riders, and what odds Ladbrokes or William Hill were offering for the most popular non-sporting bet in their calendar.

The race to the summit first became a “thing” in 1973, due to the unwitting rivalry between two veterans of the Midlands club scene, both of whom had already scored a brace of chart-toppers that year. “We were big mates, but we kept our Christmas songs secret for as long as we could,” Wizzard’s Roy Wood once told me of his friendship with Noddy Holder of Slade, who won the battle.

“It had been ages since anyone had done a decent rock ‘n’ roll Christmas record, you had to go back ten years to the Phil Spector album. Slade were thinking the same and started marketing before us.”

Roy had a point; surprisingly few Christmas Number Ones have actually been about Christmas, although Slade’s success was the first of four over the next six years (followed by Mud, Johnny Mathis and Boney M).

Novelty hits have traditionally done well, making unlikely pop stars of Benny Hill, Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder, and in recent times the accolade has all but been assured to go to winners of TV talent contests – a run briefly interrupted by the social media protest of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name.

Such foregone conclusions have tended to spoil the party, leaving little chance of a curveball or upset, and it was refreshing in years gone by to have the occasional long-odds winner.

Who could have guessed a six-minute rock opera called Bohemian Rhapsody would overhaul the likes of Laurel & Hardy and Abba in 1975? Mind you, its return to the top 16 years later (making it the only recording to be Christmas Number One twice) was fairly predictable after Freddie Mercury’s passing.

Death doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place at the top, however; you may assume John Lennon ruled the roost in 1980, but although he had three singles in the Top Ten it was a chart led by St Winifred’s School Choir’s There’s No One Quite Like Grandma! It’s the same fog of memory that convinces us certain tracks hit the top when they actually fell just short.

Wham!’s Last Christmas found its path blocked by that pesky Band Aid offering, The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York (a regular winner of best ever Christmas song polls) was thwarted by Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind, and Mariah Carey’s anthemic All I Want For Christmas Is You (cut from the same Spector-evoking cloth as Roy Wood’s earlier single) couldn’t get past East 17’s Stay Another Day.

The last track mentioned above makes no reference to the time of year in its lyrics, but it was clearly helped by the accompanying snow-filled video, which was, frankly, just plain cheating. Let’s draw up some rules for 2017 to bring back the yuletide vibes, to ensure the seasonal top dog is less X Factor and more Xmas Factor.

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