“Christmas. The season of Noddy and Roy and the time of my re-entry into showbiz. The Britpop hordes have clearly missed me, as have the press and the media, who, tiring of the current mindlessly cheerful pantomime, have taken the new Auteurs single, Unsolved Child Murder, to their hearts. Ah, you guys. I know the damn thing’s got a French horn on it, and it’s the festive season an’ all, but gentlemen, your love for me and my modest art is smothering me. Room to breathe, I beg of you.” Luke Haines in his memoir Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall, speaking about his 1995 Christmas single, Unsolved Child Murder, which was beaten to the festive top spot by Michael Jackson’s Earth Song and 46 others.
Since the UK chart’s inception in 1952, the music industry has undergone myriad threats to its very fabric, from home taping to illegal downloads and streaming. Although the industry has attempted to adapt, allowing downloads (2005) and streaming (this year) to be eligible for the charts, overall sales figures for singles have dropped significantly in recent years. Although the figures are mitigated to some extent when digital formats are included, revenue from physical formats dropped from £64.5m in 2003 to just £2.3m a decade later. Yet sales over the festive period have remained consistently strong, with seven of the last 10 Christmas no. 1s having the strongest single week sales of the year.
The numbers don’t lie; in the UK the Christmas no. 1 matters. The first single to sell more than a million copies in the UK was Harry Belafonte’s version of Mary’s Boy Child in 1957 (Boney M’s cover would repeat the trick in 1978).
The first single to sell two million copies was Paul McCartney’s insipid 1977 Christmas no. 1, Mull of Kintyre. Somewhat ludicrously, this remains McCartney’s best-selling single of all time. Equally ludicrously, the aforementioned Earth Song is Michael Jackson’s biggest-selling single in the UK. So the Christmas no. 1 is important enough that the British public can collectively lose all semblance of rationality or taste. Of all the singles to have sold a million copies or more in the UK, 19 of them were Christmas no. 1, which represents some 15%.