How Bad Music Became a British Christmas Tradition

Ever since 1973, the nation has agonized over which novelty pop song or one-hit wonder will sell the most records over the holidays.

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, one of the biggest stars in my native Britain was a Pepto Bismol-pink leviathan with yellow spots, a jaunty bow tie, and manic green eyes that shook from side to side like Cookie Monster on a HFCS binge. The creature, who resembled nothing so much as a psychedelic bowling pin with legs, was called Mr. Blobby, and the only word he could articulate (which he did with some frequency) was “Blobby,” repeated in a distorted grumble at a frenetic pace that must have required several weeks of speech therapy.

Despite being moronic, infantile, chaotic, and ugly right to up the point of being offensive, Mr. Blobby will forever live in the annals of pop music alongside such luminaries as Michael Jackson, the Spice Girls, Cliff Richard, and Queen. This is thanks to the peculiar British tradition that is the Christmas number one. Each year in the U.K. an inordinate amount of attention is paid to the matter of which single record will sell the most copies in the week leading up to Christmas, an arbitrary honor that is nevertheless picked over, campaigned for, predicted at length, and even bet upon. In 1993, Mr. Blobby’s “Mr. Blobby” topped the charts, a phenomenon that baffled The New York Times, which described the character as “Barney without his medication.” The record was execrably bad, but it crystallized two peculiarly British phenomena: the Christmas number one, and the fact that we are at heart an extraordinarily eccentric nation in which six hundred thousand Britons once voluntarily paid money for a novelty pop song performed by a nonverbal salmon-colored blimp.

As an artificial construct, the Christmas number one might be a perfectly innocuous and even charming tradition if it weren't for the sheer volume of musical abominations it's inflicted upon the nation for the past five decades. Popular music charts have been around since the '50s, but in 1969 the BBC started conducting a larger analysis of record sales in which the results were read out weekly on Johnnie Walker's radio show. Four years later, the glam-rock band Slade birthed the concept of the Christmas number one when they wrote and released the single "Merry Xmas Everybody," a ghastly anthem of enforced jollity that has nevertheless become as ubiquitous at British Christmases as paper hats and mince pies. "Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun," Noddy Holder screeches, possibly simultaneously birthing the concept of FOMO. "Look to the future now, it's only just begun." He wasn't wrong. Millennia ago, according to legend, a child had been born, but now, thanks to Slade, the people of Britain would mark Jesus's birth each year by watching Top of the Pops reruns of the inexplicably hirsute Holder grinning into a microphone while pretending to do the Twist. Just like that, Christmas and terrible music had become inextricably linked.

There’s no one quality or characteristic shared by Christmas number ones beyond the obvious fact that all have sold more records than any other single over the week leading up to Christmas. The songs range from the sublime (the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” in 1981) to the ridiculous (Bob the Builder’s “Can We Fix It” in 2000). Some, like Cliff Richard’s gut-twistingly schmaltzy 1988 “Mistletoe and Wine,” mention Christmas at great length; others neglect to even acknowledge it (see Bob the Builder, above). A handful, like Band Aid’s 1984 “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” have a larger charitable purpose, but most, like “Merry Xmas Everybody,” exist only to annually replenish the coffers of the ones who created them. More recently, the trend has been hijacked by reality television shows, with stars from The X Factor and Popstars: The Rivals taking the top spot in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2013.

Almost as fascinating as the list of Christmas number ones is the collection of songs that came in second. In 1987, the Pogues’ “Fairytale in New York” submitted to the might of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind,” and in 1994, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” couldn’t quite beat “Stay Another Day” by East 17, a band named after an East London postcode who not even their mother’s heard from since. (It’s hard not to imagine Mariah possibly being saddened by this defeat at the time, unaware that the royalties she’d soon reap from the catchiest Christmas song in history could clothe the world’s entire population in latex Santa suits.) In 1997, the Teletubbies peaked at #2 with “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!,” a song even babies couldn’t appreciate, and in 2005, Nizlopi had the one-hit-wonder “JCB Song,” a poignant ballad about a child whose father let him ride to work with him on a JCB digger.

In 2003, the quest to bag the unicorn that is the Christmas number one was even immortalized in film with the release of Love Actually, the London-based romantic comedy that sees washed-up rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) attempt to revive his flagging career with a Christmas-themed cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around.” Mack’s disdain for the record that (spoiler) ultimately renews his status as a national treasure is as close to a summation of people’s motivations for buying Christmas records they know are awful as will ever be uttered. “Wouldn’t it be great if number one this Christmas wasn’t some smug teenager, but an old ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback at any price?” he tells a radio interviewer. “If you believe in Father Christmas, children, like your Uncle Billy does, buy my festering turd of a record. And particularly enjoy the incredible crassness of the moment when we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line.”

This year, the contenders for Christmas number one include Band Aid 30—in which yet another iteration of Bob Geldof’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is attempting to raise money and awareness for the plight of Ebola in Africa—as well as Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast,” after a social media campaign was launched to help the 32-year-old ode to Satan defeat yet another reality TV show-winner. One Direction are sort-of-but-not-really in the running with “Night Changes,” a non-Christmas song that’s been holidazzled with an accompanying video in which Harry falls over ice skating and Liam goes to a funfair, eats too many toffee apples, and throws up into a hat. For a short but blissful period of time, it looked like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” might defeat the juggernaut that is Simon Cowell and his stable of mass-produced pop stars. But according to bookmaker William Hill last week, the overwhelming favorite this year was an untitled song by the then-unconfirmed winning X Factor act, whose odds were 4/5 in favor even before “ordinary bloke” Ben Haenow won the TV contest. If that isn’t an indictment of the state of British music at Christmastime, nothing is.