1970s | 1980s
The success of some of the Christmas records of the previous decade meant that each year a number of acts brought out singles or albums aimed squarely at the festive charts. Some of these were simply novelty records that tended to sell in large quantities every December but a large number were genuine Christmas singles.
1980 – 1983
In 1980, the music world was reeling from the news of John Lennon's murder on 8 December. His most recent single '(Just like) Starting Over' had reached the Top 10 and was on its way down before the tragic news catapulted it back to Number 1 (his first-ever solo chart topper) on December 14. The following week his 1972 hit 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' re-entered the charts at Number 4. By 4 January it was sitting at Number 2 behind 'Imagine'.
The Number 3 song that Christmas was 'Stop the Cavalry' by Jona Lewie (born John Lewis) which wasn't even considered to be a Christmas record by the artist himself when it was made. However, the record buying public had no doubt it was because it featured a brass band and referenced Christmas in the lyrics. Lewie himself bowed to the inevitable and made a video partly set in the trenches of the First World War at Christmas. It has become a perennial favourite earning Lewie more than half his yearly royalty cheque. At Number 17 were comedy group The Barron Knights with 'Never Mind the Presents', a set of seasonally-themed parodies based on chart hits. At Number 32 in the Christmas chart, moving down three places from its peak position, was the gorgeous 'December will be Magic again' by Kate Bush. Despite Christmas lyrics, a beautiful tune and Bush's incredible voice this never caught the imagination of the record buying public then or since. Finally, at Number 41 was an Elvis Presley track, 'Santa Claus is Back in Town' which reflected the lack of quality control in Elvis releases at the time. Despite all of these Christmas songs around, the Christmas Number 1 of 1980 was 'There's No-One Quite Like Grandma' by St Winifred's School Choir. This was almost certainly the result of every Grandmother in the country receiving it for Christmas whether they liked it or not!
1981 saw The Human League bag the Christmas Number 1 with the classic track 'Don't You Want Me?' No Christmas records got into the higher reaches of the chart although 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' re-entered at Number 28, 'Merry Xmas Everybody' at Number 32 and Wizzard got to Number 41 with 'I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday'. Interestingly the Wizzard track was considered a new release despite first appearing in the chart in 1973. Why? Well, Roy Wood decided there was money to be made by re-releasing it, but he found that his music company had wiped the original master tapes! He just decided to go back into the studio with his band and a new children's choir to record a note-for-note version of the original. It is the 1981 version that is now played every Christmas. It is worth considering that with no streaming or downloading in those far off pre-internet days, these re-entries were probably the result of a new generation of record buyers discovering these songs and buying them as 7" singles.
In 1982 the British record buying public in their questionable wisdom decided to give the Christmas Number 1 to a song that sounded like a bad Cornetto advert and whose video featured a gravity-defying rose! Yes, Renee and Renato were top of the pile with 'Save your Love'. Shakin' Stevens, after a very good year that saw his third Number 1, two further Top 10 hits and one that stalled at Number 11, released the Shakin' Stevens EP. The track that got the airplay was his remake of 'Blue Christmas' originally by Elvis Presley. Thanks to Renee and Renato it peaked at Number 2, but Shaky would be back!
Bing Crosby had died in 1977, but five years later his duet with David Bowie, 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy', recorded a few months before, was rediscovered and reached Number 3 in the charts. The combination of two fantastic voices singing different songs produced quite possibly the most unexpected Christmas hit of the 1980s. It is classy, beautiful and a fitting seasonal testament to two marvellous talents.
'Singalong-a-Santa' by Santa Claus and the Christmas Trees was at Number 19 and 'Xmas Party' by The Snowmen, a follow-up to the previous year's 'Hokey Cokey' that reached Number 18 in the 1981 Christmas chart, sat at Number 44. Below these novelty records were two tracks with almost identical titles. 'Christmas Wrapping' by The Waitresses was a story of a couple who keep missing each other and need the magic of the season to intervene. It is fun, well written, well sung and very sassy. It regularly features in Christmas countdowns and is extremely popular with each succeeding generation so it might surprise you to learn that it only reached Number 45 in 1982! The Dizzy Heights song 'Christmas Rapping' is often considered to be the first hip hop track to hit the British charts and it is really interesting to listen to. However in 1982 it was ahead of its time and ground to a halt at Number 49.
Christmas 1983 was the year that The Flying Pickets battled with Slade for the Christmas Number 1. The Pickets' acapella version of Yazoo's 'Only You' flew off the shelves as they spent five weeks at the top while Slade's 'My Oh My' just failed to become their second festive chart topper. However, it did ignite further interest in 'Merry Xmas Everybody', which got to Number 20. The highest-charting Christmas single of that year was the gorgeous '2000 miles' by The Pretenders, which reached Number 15. Chrissie Hynde's gorgeous voice and heart-rending lyrics combine with a superb tune to create a true Christmas classic. It is mystifying then that it hasn't become a staple of Christmas playlists. Perhaps its melancholy nature counts against it. The song was written as a tribute to James Scott-Honeyman, original guitarist of The Pretenders who had died the previous year. Once you know this, the lyrics become even more poignant. However, it is a track that certainly deserves some long overdue appreciation.
At Number 26 Dennis Waterman and George Cole in the guise of their Minder characters Terry McCann and Arthur Daley hit the charts with 'What are we Gonna get for 'Er Indoors'. The famously-mean Arthur was trying to avoid spending money on his wife and Terry was making hugely disparaging comments about his ideas. It was good knockabout fun and peaked at Number 21 the following week. 'Cold as Christmas' by Elton John limped to Number 33, hampered by the fact that the song itself was not in the least bit Christmassy. 'Christmas Countdown' by Frank Kelly, later to become famous as Father Hackett in Father Ted, contributed a manic version of '12 Days of Christmas' to the festive charts. Singing in the guise of Gobnait O'Lunasa he riffed hilariously on the practical difficulties that occurred when his true love sent him all the gifts from the original song. He becomes increasingly angry with her and ends up wanting nothing to do with her. In the Christmas charts it was at Number 34, but it peaked at Number 26 the following week. Two other novelty records, 'Christmas Spectre' by The Jingle Belles and 'Singalong-a-Santa Again' by Santa Claus and the Christmas Trees, found themselves at 37 and 39 respectively. Finally, at Number 22, on its way to Number 1 was 'Pipes of Peace' by Paul McCartney. Although not a Christmas song in terms of its lyrics, it had a marvellous video set in the trenches of the First World War at the time of the 1914 Christmas Truce.
1984 – 1986
1984 was without doubt the high water mark of Christmas records as a certain charity single completely redrew the festive landscape. Just inside the Top 50 at Number 48, 'Merry Xmas Everybody' made another appearance. Queen's 'Thank God it's Christmas' was on its way down the chart from 21 to 32. It was a decent enough track but it didn't capture the power of Freddie Mercury's voice or their ear for a good tune in the way that their album The Works earlier that year had. In fact it might have largely disappeared from public consciousness if it hadn't appeared on many compilations starting with the original Now That's What I Call Christmas. However, it is now part of the musical landscape, no more so than in Slovenia where it has been in the charts every year from 2014 and in 2018 achieved its highest ever chart placing of 11!
Alvin Stardust took advantage of a late career renaissance to reach Number 29 with 'So Near to Christmas' and Wizzard re-entered the charts with 'I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday' at 23. At Number 8, one place down from the previous week's peak was 'Another Rock n Roll Christmas' by Gary Glitter. Since his arrest and conviction on child sex offences this song, which had all the hallmarks of a Christmas staple, has been dropped from radio and TV playlists at Christmas. At Number 2 was the highest selling Non-Chart-Topper of all time, the sublime 'Last Christmas' by Wham!. Quite possibly the best Christmas ballad ever, it was every bit a George Michael production and his musical vision led to one of the best-loved festive tracks. Despite selling over two million copies at the time, not everyone was a fan of Wham!: the inside of the gatefold cover for 'Last Christmas' shows the aftermath of Andrew Ridgeley being run over by an NME reindeer!
At Number 1 was Band Aid with 'Do They Know it's Christmas' in aid of famine relief for Ethiopia. Selling over three million copies in the UK, and 50 million worldwide, it annihilated the rest of the chart with the exception of Wham!. Bob Geldof was the driving force behind the record, writing it along with Ultravox's Midge Ure and persuading the cream of British musical talent to appear on it. The solos were performed by Paul Young (singing the opening lines in place of the unavailable David Bowie), Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, Sting and Bono. It was a once-in-a-lifetime line-up of talent, as later versions were to prove. Some of the lines don't really hold up very well as they tend towards the patronising, but the heart of the track is undoubtedly in the right place. Familiarity has reduced its impact but it truly was a ground breaking piece of music in every way. Paul McCartney, who played bass guitar on the track, completed an amazing treble by appearing on the best-selling single of the 1960s ('She Loves You' by The Beatles), the 1970s ('Mull of Kintyre') and the 1980s with Band Aid. As a final Paul McCartney-related aside his Number 3 hit, 'We All Stand Together', racked up sales of 870,000, making it the biggest-selling Number 3 ever. As with 'Pipes of Peace' the previous year, Frankie Goes to Hollywood made a Christmas video, this time featuring the Nativity, to permanently link 'The Power of Love' to Christmas even though the lyrics did not mention the festive season at all.
The following year, the two monster hits of 1984 re-entered the charts: Band Aid at Number 3 and Wham! at Number 6. Slade, as usual, made an appearance, this time at Number 48. Two cover versions from either end of the talent spectrum made the charts: Bruce Springsteen's version of 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town' was at Number 11 while Keith Harris and Orville's 'White Christmas' no doubt had Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby spinning in their graves at Number 43! In 1985, the big Christmas Number 1 was 'Merry Christmas Everyone' by Shakin' Stevens. It had everything: a big production, a great tune, a full-pelt vocal performance, the most Christmassy-themed video ever, filmed in Sweden, and the ultimate 80s Christmas jumper! Nothing could have taken the Number 1 spot from this classic festive tune. Well, that's not strictly true - it was originally meant to be released in 1984, but when Shaky and his management saw the competition, they quietly shelved it and enjoyed a free run to the top spot the following year! A final single with Christmas connections sat at Number 26: 'Russians' by Sting had a marvellous version of the carol 'Gabriel's Message' on the B-side.
1986 was a bleak year for the Christmas single. Wham! re-entered at Number 47 while an old song by Chris De Burgh, 'A Spaceman came Travelling', was dusted off after his success with 'Lady in Red' in the summer of that year and crawled to Number 45. The highest-charting Christmas single was the satirical 'Santa Claus is on the Dole' by Spitting Image. 1950s soul legend Jackie Wilson reached Number 1 with 'Reet Petite' mainly thanks to a Claymation video created by Giblets animation studios.
1987 – 1989
1987 saw the release of what many consider to be the finest Christmas song ever. 'Fairytale of New York' by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl captured the public imagination from the start and shot up the charts. The story of a warring couple, it was funny, sad, rude and irrepressible. Whilst some of the lyrics cause a few concerns nowadays, that should not take away from the sheer beauty of the music and the passion of the singing. Shane MacGowan and MacColl were never better than on this song. It is one of the few Christmas songs that admits to the darker side of the festive season, but the verse when the boy tells the girl that he didn't take her dreams, he put them with his to help them grow, is quite simply beautiful. One position lower, we go from the sublime to the uproarious with the Comic Relief single 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' by Mel (Smith) and Kim (Wilde). Their name was a take-off of sisters Mel and Kim Appleby who had a number of hits that year including the Number 1 'Respectable'. It is a great version, arguably better than Brenda Lee's 1960 original, with Smith hamming it up and Wilde giving as good as she gets! Both of these Christmas favourites were beaten by the Pet Shop Boys with their version of 'Always on my Mind', originally by Elvis Presley and generally seen as one of the best cover versions of all time.
1988 was the year of Cliff Richard, whose festive smash 'Mistletoe and Wine' blew away all the competition, or rather would have done if there had been any. It is a song that people either love or hate, but it is undeniably catchy and sung with real conviction. Bros' unnecessary version of 'Silent Night' that tried to capture the teen audience was unsuccessful as the previous week's Number 2 fell to Number 8. Finally, Alexander O'Neal found himself at Number 35 with his version of 'The Christmas Song'.
In 1989, Band Aid II was at Number 1 with the remake of 'Do They Know it's Christmas'. The Pete Waterman production seemed to rob the song of the power that the original possessed and the soloists seemed less committed than the original line-up. It was something of a damp squib of a song to finish off a stellar festive decade.
The 1980s were definitely the decade when the Christmas song went mainstream and it produced arguably half a dozen classics of the genre that have stood the test of time. The music may be good, bad or indifferent but the memories of Christmas past that they conjure up are part of the history of every person who has ever listened to them.