It is that time of year again. Everytime we walk into a supermarket, a pub, or even on the street, we are bombarded with Christmas music. Yes, it can be quite monotonous hearing the same ‘Happy Xmas Everybody’ or ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ played continuously. With the popularity of the season, you would think every year a festive, cheesy banger would take the top spot on the charts – that is thankfully not the case, as evidenced by this collection of Non Festive Christmas Number Ones.
When it comes to Christmas Number Ones, somehow music finds a way to transcend the period. For every Christmas top spot filled by a ‘Mistletoe And Wine’ there is a ‘Reet Petite’. The latter a song by the late Jackie Wilson, released posthumously in 1986 after the BBC Two documentary series Arena used it to highlight the use of clay animation in a video.
Nevertheless, due to that video, the song became the Christmas #1 in 1986, knocking off The Housemartins’ a cappella and perhaps more festive sounding ‘Caravan Of Love’.
Some varied music has claimed that top spot over the years, including Rage Against The Machine taking the coveted spot with ‘Killing In The Name’ in 2009. That anomaly happened due to DJ Jon Morter who campaigned to have RATM reach number one in protest over the automatic status achieved by X Factor winners. So looking at the UK charts at Christmas over the years, without including any X Factor, Pop Idol winners, or any manufactured boy or girl bands, here is a selection of tracks that never really set out with the idea of being a Christmas number one – but managed it spectacularly.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – Queen
This is the place to start.
After three albums, and moderate chart success, Queen hit the big time with album number four A Night At The Opera.
The lead single from the album ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ changed the fortunes of the band, and in many ways how musicians could approach music – both creatively and fearlessly. With graceful promotion. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hit the top of the charts at Christmas in 1975 for nine weeks, and then again in 1991 for another five following the death of Freddie Mercury.
‘Hello, Goodbye’ – The Beatles
The first of two included here, but in total The Beatles had four Christmas Number Ones, none of which had that seasonal sparkle – another record they hold.
With ‘Hello, Goodbye’, The Beatles had the last bite at the seasonal dominance in 1967. It stayed at the top of the charts for several weeks, and what’s more, The Beatles held the top two spots on the charts for three consecutive weeks, with the Magical Mystery Tour EP just behind ‘Hello, Goodbye’.
‘Another Brick In The Wall, Part Two’ – Pink Floyd
Few predicted this.
Pink Floyd, the album champions of the seventies due to releases such as Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, never really focused on the single format. Granted when the late madcap Syd Barrett was at the helm, they scored a #6 hit in 1967 with the wistful ‘See Emily Play’.
But in ’79, they went one better scoring their only #1 single in the UK, US and here in Ireland. Taken from the conceptual The Wall, in hindsight (The Final Cut aside) it turned out to be the final hurrah from a band that dominated the album charts.
‘Mull Of Kintyre’ – Wings
Although Paul McCartney released a Christmas single in 1979, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’, that one failed to reach the top of the charts, sitting at #6.
However, with the classic ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ two years before that, Macca had already managed his Christmas #1. Contrary to belief there is nothing festive about ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ – it is a tribute song to the Scottish peninsula of the same name where Macca owns High Park Farm since 1966.
‘I Hear You Knocking’ – Dave Edmunds
The Welsh dynamo Dave Edmunds, did a rollicking version of the Dave Bartholomew and Smiley Lewis 1955 classic ‘I Hear You Knocking’.
It gave Edmunds his biggest hit, remaining at the top of the UK and Irish charts for six weeks in 1970. The simplistic rock and roll was a leading light for the shift into Glam Rock of the seventies.
‘Always On My Mind’ – Pet Shop Boys
Now, into the electronic section.
This Pet Shop Boys cover of the Willie Nelson classic kept The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’ off the top of the charts at Christmas 1987. Understandably, The Pogues did hit #1 in Ireland, but similar to ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham, it became a classic kept off the pedestal.
As for the Pet Shop Boys, ‘Always On My Mind’ was followed by another #1 with ‘Heart’, the final top placing the duo managed in their career.
‘Don’t You Want Me’ – The Human League
This track echoed the chart dominance that New Wave would have in the eighties.
Holding Cliff Richard’s live version of ‘Daddy’s Home’ off the 1981 Christmas top spot, The Human League’s most recognized track almost didn’t happen. Already, the band had released three singles from their third album Dare, and lead vocalist and songwriter Philip Oakey rejected Virgin’s idea of releasing ‘Don’t You Want Me’, calling it “poor quality filler”.
‘Mad World’ – Gary Jules & Michael Andrews
This is perhaps one of the most peculiar Christmas #1’s of recent years.
Originally recorded and released by Tears For Fears in 1982, Michael Andrews and Gary Jules re-recorded the track for the 2001 Cult film Donnie Darko.
Prompted by the ever growing popularity of the Richard Kelly outing following its DVD release, Andrews and Jules released the track as a single, which hit the top of the charts in Christmas 2003.
‘We Can Work It Out’ – The Beatles
The second of The Beatles entries.
It is upbeat and wholly portrays the collaborative genius that was Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Released as a double ‘A’ side single (remember them?) alongside ‘Day Tripper’, it deserves inclusion for another reason.
Not a well known fact, but ‘We Can Work It Out’ was the first ever marketed double ‘A’ side single, granted the song proved to earn more airplay than ‘Day Tripper’ upon release in 1965.
‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’ – Queen
Heartbreaking and poignant, but for other reasons than anything seasonal.
The second time Queens ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ reached the top of the charts in 1991, it was packaged as a tribute to Freddie Mercury with ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’.
With a final love letter to his fans, Mercury said goodbye in the video which was shot the previous May. It was the last time Mercury appeared in front of a camera, and a fitting way to celebrate his contribution to music was to put this song out beside Queen’s biggest hit.