Users that are younger and more American than me might not really get this, but for somebody who didn’t get an internet connection until they were 16 and immediately set about using forums populated almost entirely by people over 3,000 miles away from them, the culture shock was surreal. I remember going into college and discussing all the crazy things we’d found out about the world at large from using forums the night before; learning that Americans think Blur are a one-hit wonder, for instance, was little short of mindblowing. The one discovery that stuck with me more than any other, though, was that no other country in the world cared about their Christmas #1.
It never occurred to me how silly this is until I had to explain it to a bewildered Canadian, but silly or not it’s true – the Christmas number 1 single is an absolutely huge deal in the UK. Getting it is a badge of honour for the bands that did, to the point where it even gets occasionally mentioned among the other major achievements of The Beatles (in ’63, ’64, ’65, and ’67) and Pink Floyd (1979 with “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2”), and has become the most commonly accepted barometer of the popularity of the Spice Girls. For some, their solitary Christmas #1 is enough to keep them famous among the general public for years to come – you’d be surprised how many parents in the UK started reminiscing about Conway Twitty’s success in 1958 when he became a forced meme on Family Guy. This is a crucial part of the whole Christmas experience for us, sitting around the radio or TV as a family to find out who’d won the epic battles between The Pogues and Pet Shop Boys (1987), Wham! and Band Aid (1984), and Gordon Haskell and Robbie Williams (2001). All those battles were won by the second artist named, for the record, which is obviously shameful – Haskell’s victory would have been wonderful just to see an ex-King Crimson member go one better than Greg Lake’s #2 in 1975, and “Fairytale of New York” is the greatest song in the history of the world ever. But I digress.
The whole problem with the Christmas charts started in 2002, when the traditional battle for the top spot was conquered by Simon Cowell and the two bands produced by Popstars: The Rivals, the first of his stream of talent shows. Girls Aloud won, of course, and once The X-Factor got off the ground, Cowell didn’t relinquish his grasp on the Christmas #1. The past five years have been a procession of mediocrity – Shayne Ward’s “That’s My Goal”, Leona Lewis’ “A Moment Like This”, Leon Jackson’s “When You Believe”, Alexandra Burke’s mauling of “Hallelujah”, Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the…..wait, what?
For petulant teenagers, people who care about the Christmas #1 single, and those of us who just love seeing Geordies lose, last year was absolutely glorious. Joe McEldery’s version of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” was stopped in its seemingly inevitable tracks by a Facebook group that became, in an odd sort of way, a movement. Enough people went out and bought “Killing in the Name” to see it beat McEldery by 50,000 copies – a significant margin, since it sold around 500,000 in total. The naysayers who said it would never win – myself included – were astonished. Cowell and McEldery themselves were stunned by the ‘mean-spirited’ campaign behind this ‘awful song’ (their words). But Radio 1, the station that was first to announce the victory, thought the whole thing was brilliant. And really, once everybody got over the swearing, that was the correct reaction. Sending something so confrontational to the top ahead of Cowell was both hilarious and thrilling – to use another Rage title, the whole point was to take the power back. The Christmas chart was an event again.
This year, the Christmas number one will clearly be this year’s X-Factor winner, Matt Cardle, with his version of Biffy Clyro’s domestic abuse anthem “Many of Horror” (renamed “When We Collide” for the kiddies and grannies, but retaining the original lyrics about being smacked around by an abusive girlfriend). The primary reason for this is a simple one – it’s a great song, easily the best yet released as a debut by an X-Factor winner, and frankly a masterpiece compared to the warmed-over pile of faeces that is “The Climb”. The other reason it’s a given is that, as opposed to the one campaign for Rage last year, there’s at least three major anti-Cowell drives this year, for The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”, the Biffy original of “Many of Horror”, and John Cage’s 4′ 33″.
It’s the latter of those that’s the most inspired. For those of you who aren’t aware of the piece, it’s a 1952 composition consisting of no notes, forcing the audience to listen to the ambient sounds of the concert hall and the rest of the audience. It’s one of the most vital and most debated pieces of art music of the 20th century, for all sorts of reasons; mostly because it’s the most simple and eloquent way any composer has questioned what the very nature of the art form even is, asking the unanswerable question ‘what is music?’. The campaign to get it to #1 in the charts has nothing to do with that, though. It exists because it would be genuinely hilarious to force Radio 1 to play four and a half minutes of silence, because of the childish thrill of replacing the biggest musical event of the year with something that most people wouldn’t consider music, and because the taglines – ‘Cage Against the Machine’ and ‘Silent Night’ – write themselves.
Unfortunately, as I’m listening to the charts being announced (the first time I’ve done so in years), I’ve just learned that it crashlanded at #21, below “Like a G6”, “Who’s That Chick”, and the annual top 20 appearance of “Fairytale of New York”. Reggie Yates, the DJ announcing the chart, treated the composition as a complete joke. Embarrassing? Not really. To me, the entire spectacle has been a rip-roaring success regardless of the eventual chart placing.
The thing is, Cowell has, unwittingly, dismantled a major cultural event. Sure, previous Christmas #1s have included novelty acts like Mr. Blobby, Benny Hill, Bob the Builder, and Cliff Richard (three bloody times!), but there was still a sense of ceremony about it, with superstars like Take That, T. Rex, and Westlife in the running. For the past five years, that’s disappeared. Leona Lewis, Girls Aloud, and Shayne Ward, in particular, won by an outrageous margin – and that stopped anybody else even trying. When Alexandra Burke’s “Hallelujah” sat at #1, the song at #2 was Jeff Buckley’s version. No living, breathing artist bothered releasing a new song that week; not any that would have rocked the boat at the top of the charts, at least. The Rage Against the Machine campaign might have been a little juvenile at heart, but the success of it put the fun back into the Christmas charts, and John Cage has been an unwitting beneficiary of that. As we all have, as it happens.
This, right now, could be how the Christmas charts pan out for the next ten or fifteen years. Now that legal downloads count as official sales, anything could conceivably be a hit at any time, and as long as people care about Christmas, anything could happen in these charts. Who knows, could we see a top 10 hit for Sparks with “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”, or Half Man Half Biscuit with “It’s Cliched to Be Cynical at Christmas”? How about a return to the charts for Conway Twitty, supported by the Family Guy fans that are going to get “Surfin’ Bird” to the top 10 (at least) this year? Maybe South Park fans will mobilize once again for “Chocolate Salty Balls”, a Christmas #2 in 1998? How about the music from the Dubstep Santa video? If people just want something weird and heavy to upset the X-Factor fans, could we see a chart placing for Aphex Twin’s already-famous “Come To Daddy”? Cannibal Corpse? Mayhem? You may laugh, but Kerrang! launched a little-publicized campaign to get Slipknot’s Corey Taylor into the charts this week that saw him reach #37. It’s certainly not impossible, and all these acts have more fans then Cage did before this month.
And not only is that fun, it’s also uniquely all-inclusive. Any subculture can now have a piece of a massive mainstream pie and not only will everybody else partake in it, they’ll do so willingly. Do you think that all the people that bought 4′ 33″ this week were massive fans of the avant-garde? Of course they weren’t – they were just having some fun. Similarly, there isn’t a sane human being in the world that thinks “Surfin’ Bird” is a good song, yet I’ve just heard it announced that enough people bought it to send it to #3. The whole UK Christmas chart phenomenon has been a bit of camp fun ever since the heady days of Wizzard, Gary Glitter, and Slade all going at it in 1973, and bringing that back is a great thing. Bringing it back in a way that allows all music lovers of any kind, and all society’s little pranksters, to be a part of it too? That’s what John Cage has stood for this year. It’s what Rage Against The Machine stood for last year. And it’s something I hope continues for years and years to come. Our culture’s richer for it.