Smells Like Military Wives

3625-official_number1_award_420x250

Say hello to my little friend on the left. Or rather say hello to the new little friend of the Official Charts Company. From this week onwards, the feat of making it to Number One on the charts will be marked with far more than just a place forever in the record books. Each artist topping the charts will be presented with a trophy like the one pictured here, a clever and in its own way quite inspired move by the OCC to further promote the idea that being at the top of their core product is actually something which should matter a great deal.

The timing of this new award is no coincidence – the first recipient of the trophy will be the act who lands the Christmas Number One of 2011.

I was trying to think back to when I first became aware of the whole concept of topping the charts at Christmas and why we all like to pretend that it matters. I’m fairly certain it was 1986 as I’d researched the history of the Jackie Wilson re-issue ‘Reet Petite’ and its close proximity to the top of the penultimate chart before Christmas and became very excited by the prospect that if it did make Number One for Christmas it would break all kinds of records. Deciding that honour would only be served by doing so, it ranks as my first of very few successful singles chart predictions.

Whatever your own first memory of it all may be, let us not kid ourselves that the Christmas Number One has always represented the pinnacle of pop. For every ‘Earth Song’ that topped the festive charts, there has been a ‘Mr Blobby’; for every ‘Don’t You Want Me’ there is a ‘Save Your Love’; for every ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ there is a ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ – right back to the dawn of chart history. The problem is now that the whole idea of the “Xmas No.1” has now been elevated to a thing in and of itself, almost totally divorced from the normal reality of the singles chart. The festive chart-topper isn’t ever just the big pop record of the moment which happens to have sold the most before the holiday, it is now a record released with the specific aim of grabbing what is perceived to be the biggest chart crown of all.

Yes, this is mostly down to the TV talent shows. The whole wheeze of aiming a winning song at the seasonal market was dreamed up by the producers of the “Pop Stars – The Rivals” show in 2002 who realised that the best way to resolve the battle of the sexes that they were dreaming up for the show (two groups would be formed by a public vote, one male and one female) would be to release both simultaneously in the week before Christmas and see who came out on top. History records that the final chart of 2002 saw Girls Aloud at No.1 and One True Voice at Number 2, as the series worked its magic but sadly brushed the rest of the chart contenders out of the way as if they didn’t matter at all.

That said, the Number 3 single of the week nine years ago was by the Cheeky Girls (failed auditionees on the show) with the titanic pairing of Blue and Elton John at Number 4, so maybe in a sense we were all done a huge favour.

Whilst the next two reality show winners missed out on top honours for Christmas due to being released just after the holiday, since 2005 it has been a more or less safe presumption that the X Factor winner would put to bed any chance of anything resembling a chart race. When Shayne Ward sold over three quarters of million copies of ‘That’s My Goal’ in Christmas week 2005 you knew this was a juggernaut which was going to be hard to slow down or even stop.

After a few years of this I was bemoaning this wherever I could, making the point that the main reason this “game” of the festive Number One had been invented was to drive the irregular music purchasers into record shops and let them discover the wonders therein. By creating singles which were aimed to be Christmas Number One and nothing else, there was the danger we were programming a set of consumers to buy one CD single a year and to ignore everything else. Hardly a healthy state of affairs for a record industry which at the time was nervously waiting for the digital consumer revolution to catch fire.

Others did share that frustration but elected to take matters into their own hands two years ago, resulting in the now infamous chart ambush which meant that even selling half a million copies of ‘The Climb’ was not enough as the British sense of humour was tickled by the concept of buying a track which was the polar opposite. ‘Killing In The Name’ by Rage Against The Machine duly became the 2009 Christmas Number One, forcing Joe to wait a week for his moment of glory.

To this day there are regular readers who cannot understand why I condemned this in the way that I did, although the point was I thought reasonably clear. It seemed to me to fail to serve the cause of music in any way at all by replacing a single curated to be the Christmas chart-topper with one engineered to prevent it from doing so. People didn’t buy the rock song because of the way it sounded (not in the first week anyway), they were doing so to try to score a social or political point, and I abhor that.

I’ve alluded many times to the fact that ‘Killing In The Name’ only made it to the top thanks to some wholesale cheating by those involved. Much of its sales were mass bulk buys, with some online supporters cheerfully claiming to have shelled out for ten, twenty or even thirty copies over the course of the week. To me that is taking a level of obsession with the idea to frightening new levels. Was it really so important that you had to spend the equivalent of a meal at a restaurant to make it happen? As I noted at the time, the rules designed to maintain the integrity of the singles chart countdown were focused on preventing labels and pluggers furtively trying to drive up registered sales of their product – it was never assumed that the general public would try to hype the numbers up themselves. Since then the regulations are slightly more robust, limiting the number of “gift” copies than an individual can buy of a digital track and still have them count for the charts. Even at the time though, the sales patterns for ‘Killing…’ were triggering alarms which might have normally resulted in the single being disqualified for breach of hyping regulations. I have a suspicion that on this occasion the red flags were manually taken down – the publicity generated from the single remaining on the chart almost certainly worth far more than the publicity which would have resulted from such a high profile single being mysteriously absent come the weekend.

One further piece of outrageous cheating which took place was the exploitation of a loophole which inadvertently allowed people living outside the UK to “buy” singles eligible for a UK chart, all thanks to one online retailer which was offering a free download for new customers but which made no attempt to verify the addresses they were claiming to reside at. I’m firmly of the opinion it was from this source (only discovered by the campaigners at the end of the week) which gave ‘Killing In The Name’ the surge it needed to overcome the X Factor single (which had moved into the lead by the end of Friday). Once again, this technical breach of the rules was almost certainly allowed to slide, but I do know that the store in question found themselves removed from the chart survey until they could show that they were no longer submitting sales for the British charts which had originated overseas.

The 2009 Christmas Number One is now a part of chart history, but don’t for a minute think there was anything legitimate about many of its sales. Without the cheating, Rage Against The Machine would have been nowhere near the top.

Fast forward then to 2011 and the issues all referred to above have now come to a head. In theory this should be a far more equitable race than normal, with the X Factor coronation single by Little Mix having been in the shops for a week already and in the process selling in a rather slower manner than we are used to. 200,000 copies in a week is damn impressive, make no mistake – but compared to X Factor winners of old it is a rather miserable total. Frustratingly though, the main alternative contenders for the Year 10 metalwork project trophy are singles released or promoted with the specific aim of being top for Christmas. The rest of the singles market can go hang.

Leading the way, and at the time of writing looking almost a dead certainty to top the charts is ‘Wherever You Are’ by the Military Wives Choir. Should that be the case, I won’t be all that offended as the track is undoubtedly a very popular and very moving piece of recorded music. But as a charity record, sung by a vocal choir and released at the last possible moment before the holidays, is is at the same time that worst of all worlds – a record that exists to be Christmas Number One rather than an artistic statement of itself.

Just behind are the singles which various interested parties have enthusiastically purchased to try to stage a chart ambush. To my amusement they are all for the moment being bested by Lou Monte’s ‘Dominic The Donkey’ novelty recording from the 1960s, this thanks to the patronage of Chris Moyles on Radio One who without thinking about it has managed in 24 hours to torpedo some chart ambushes that have been weeks in the planning. I’m loving every last moment of it.

Also in the mix (or at least he was briefly) is wannabe pop star Alex Day who has made the leap from YouTube to the iTunes Top 10 thanks to mass purchases of many of the 730-odd different “remixes” of his single ‘Forever Yours’. This is all thanks to an army of teenage girls who worship him online and whilst the single won’t be Number One, I’m welcoming its presence in the charts if only for the fact that anything which persuades the YouTube-watching generation to actually buy copies of the music they see then it can only be a good thing. Ever wondered why Justin Bieber hasn’t had a string of Number One hits yet? It is because the pre-teens who weep lustful tears and acne pus over his posters don’t actually buy his music.

Finally, bringing up the rear in a manner which is quite hilarious are the “worthy” campaigners, the alternative rock crowd who haven’t quite worked out that the 2009 campaign success was a lightning in a bottle moment which will never be repeated. Undaunted by the disaster of their ‘Cage Against The Machine’ chart foray in 2010, the wheeze this year has been to storm the charts with Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from 20 years ago. Browse the obligatory Facebook page and you will see the old tactics still in use, the encouragement to mass buy (and panting testimonials from those who have cheerfully done so), a “loophole” which they have found with which people overseas will be able to help (clue: it won’t work) and at the time of writing some hugely entertaining foot stamping as they realise they are not in contention. Tonight apparently they have decided amongst themselves that Chris Moyle’s promoting of ‘Dominic The Donkey’ is an advertising promotion which should not be allowed and their are complaining to the BBC in the hope that the record will be disqualified. This you may note a few hours after some expressed frustration that they hadn’t been “promoted” by Radio One as should be their right. Joined up thinking much?

So when the inaugural Number One trophy is presented this weekend, I’ll watch it happen with a mixture of enjoyment and regret. I’ll enjoy seeing the genuine grass roots popularity of the Military Wives single propel it to the top of the charts and raise thousands for charity in the process and I’ll chuckle wryly at the people who have spent a fortune on multiple useless downloaded copies of random singles that never stood a chance of making Number One. At the same time I’ll long for a return to the days when the Christmas Number One was something a pop record became because music fans wanted it to be so – not because it had been foisted upon us with that specific aim in mind.

8 Comments

  1. I’ve never been particularly big on the Christmas number 1, usually because by the time I really got into music there was nothing ‘Christmas’ about it. It was either bland covers (Westlife/Robbie), the Spice Girls with three completely generic singles (although ‘2 Become 1’ wasn’t bad), or, erm, Bob the Builder.

    The one year I really paid attention was the epic Darkness v Andrews/Jules battle of 2003. I was in The Darkness camp – finally here was a band actually attempting to add to the Slade/Wizzard/Wham/Mariah/etcetcetc canon with a proper, well-thought out attempt at a Christmas anthem. I absolutely adored it and still think it’s an underrated classic, yet by stalling at number 2 it just missed out.

    Then X Factor came along and after a few years of it annoying me, by 2007 I just took it for granted and gave up caring. I didn’t buy Joe or Rage in ’09, instead I went down to HMV and bought Rage’s entire album for £4, getting me a copy of ‘Killing In The Name’ (which I hadn’t heard before and quite liked) along with a dozen other tracks, which seemed much better value for money. Last year I downloaded ‘Surfin’ Bird’ (once), simply because I liked it, Matt Cardle or no Matt Cardle.

    This year? Nothing, I haven’t heard Military Wives and have no intention to. I’m still waiting for a song actually about Christmas again. Come on, it’s been 21 years since the last festive-related number 1!

  2. James,

    In one of the paragraphs you speak about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ when you mean ‘Killing In The Name’, unless I missed the point… :)

    Mike

    This one:

    I’ve alluded many times to the fact that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ only made it to the top thanks to some wholesale cheating by those involved. Much of its sales were mass bulk buys, with some online supporters cheerfully claiming to have shelled out for ten, twenty or even thirty copies over the course of the week. To me that is taking a level of obsession with the idea to frightening new levels. Was it really so important that you had to spend the equivalent of a meal at a restaurant to make it happen? As I noted at the time, the rules designed to maintain the integrity of the singles chart countdown were focused on preventing labels and pluggers furtively trying to drive up registered sales of their product – it was never assumed that the general public would try to hype the numbers up themselves. Since then the regulations are slightly more robust, limiting the number of “gift” copies than an individual can buy of a digital track and still have them count for the charts. Even at the time though, the sales patterns for ‘Spirit’ were triggering alarms which might have normally resulted in the single being disqualified for breach of hyping regulations. I have a suspicion that on this occasion the red flags were manually taken down – the publicity generated from the single remaining on the chart almost certainly worth far more than the publicity which would have resulted from such a high profile single being mysteriously absent come the weekend.

  3. James, I’m suprised that people aren’t getting Xmas #1s off the back of a performance on Strictly Come Dancing. You’d think that because Strictly gets around 11 million viewers a night, troucing X-Factor this year, the Xmas #1 would have a SCD connection instead.

    My theory to why Millitary Wives are outselling the competition is simply due to a performance on the semi finals of Strictly.

    What’s ironic is thet the MWC are reality stars in their own right since they appeared on the BBC2 series The Choir.

  4. As somebody who listens to your podcast, I find your rants about T.C.Cs as you like to call them very amusing. Those rants are funnier than most comedians these days. The only person that rants like you is Mark Kermode when he rants about movies he doesn’t like.

  5. @Billy Hicks: What about Band Aid 20 in 2004? I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s been 7 years since last festive hit.

    But I agree with you about 2003, with its Jules & Andrews/Darkness race. That was the last time there was a Xmas #1 race genuinely for the songs themselves and their appeal, not because of charity or TV shows.

    • Actually the Mad World cover featured a lot in many U.S dramas at the time as background music, most notably The O.C, CSI and ER among others.

      Even to this day, I’m actually suprised that Into the West wasn’t in contention that year since that ended up being an Academy Award winning song from the big Christmas blockbuster Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which was in cinemas when the christmas chart happened.

  6. Pingback: Top Of The New Year Pops | James Masterton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *