For more than sixty years, musicians and celebs have strived to produce chart-topping number one Christmas songs during the week of Christmas Day. But this doesn’t only apply to Billboard Hot 100. The Gallup Charts in the UK also noticed the momentum among the general public and ran with it. The tradition of Christmas songs really took off in the early 1970s when the likes of Slade and Wizzard competed for that prestigious honor. However, it was during the 1980s that the concept really hit its peak.
High Street Bookmakers would offer odds on a particular song or artist to reach the summit for that week. It wasn’t just singers caught up in the fervor. At the start of the 1970s, comedian Benny Hill managed to claim the Christmas #1 spot. Then during the 1990s, it was the polarising television character of Mr. Blobby who also scored a Yuletide number one.
For much of the 1980s though, the battle for the festive number one slot revolved around songs that were either festively titled or themed or those that conjured up images and thoughts of what Christmas was supposed to be about. There were exceptions to this as the decade wore on, but most artists that weighed in with their effort did tend to focus more on Christmassy themes. Of course only one single can actually make it to the number one spot, so the efforts of Rick Astley’s Christmas carol style release in 1987 or Madonna’s cartoon promo video for Dear Jessie ultimately failed.
Number One Christmas Songs in the UK
Here is a complete list of the number one Christmas songs for the entire decade, and some of the stories behind them.
1980: St. Winifred’s School Choir – There’s No-one Quite like Grandma
In 1980, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, celebrated her 80th birthday. As a tribute, award-winning producer Gordon Lorenz wrote a song that would eventually go onto to sell over a million copies. Most of these were during Christmas 1980 when the recording spent a couple of weeks at the top of the charts during its 11-week run. Terri Foley, a teacher at St Winifred’s Primary School in Stockport, Manchester trained and conducted the choir for quite some time. Dawn Ralph supplied the lead vocals.
1981: The Human League – Don’t You Want Me?
At the start of the 1980s, one of the more popular sounds was the up and coming synthesizer based music of artists like OMD and Gary Numan. The Human League were also pioneers of the trend but 1981 was something of a turbulent year for the band. Original members, Phil Oakey and Martyn Ware often had creative differences and clashed regularly. The group’s manager continually tried to play peacemaker but Ware eventually quit and formed his new group, Heaven 17. This left Oakey with a massive problem on his hands. He had just two weeks to find new members of the band before a tour was due to begin.
After visiting several local clubs, Oakey entered Crazy Daisy’s and spotted two friends on the dancefloor. Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catheral were just teenagers out for a night of fun. Neither would figure that that simple choice would lead to both having a Christmas Number One single merely months later. The song spent 5 weeks at the top of the charts and became their biggest selling single.
1982: Renée and Renato – Save Your Love
This male/female duo auditioned for ITV talent show New Faces back in 1975. It was this performance that caught the eye of songwriter Johnny Edward. At the time he had already written the song and was on the lookout for someone to perform it. When Italian born Renato Pagliari, living in the West Midlands at the time, was invited by Edwards to perform the song, he was quickly joined by English singer Hilary Lester. The duo was given the name Renée and Renato and their only hit became the Christmas Number One.
Their follow-up singles both flopped. Curiously, by the time that the song became a chart-topper, Lester had already left the duo and became a member of another group. Renato, being from the West Midlands, was a fan of the Aston Villa soccer team. During one match that the team performed below par, Ron Atkinson invited him to sing Nessun Dorma at the interval. He continued his singing career, usually on cruise ships for much of the rest of his life.
1983: The Flying Pickets – Only You
This cover version of Yazoo’s hit from a couple of years prior did marginally better than the original. Yazoo (Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke) were another of the new wave sound that was synth heavy. The Flying Pickets, on the other hand, were a group of half a dozen actors that opted for a cappella sound in a modern pop world. The brainchild of Brian Hibbard, the group formed in 1982 and quickly became best known for their unusual appearance. Some of the six outfitted themselves in large hats and gaudy suits. Fellow member Red Stripe (real name David Gittins) often daubed himself in black eyeliner, while Hibbard was rarely seen without his trademark sideburns. Their first single spent a month in the number one slot, keeping Slade in the runner-up position a decade on from their seminal hit Merry Xmas Everyone.
1984: Band Aid – Do They Know it’s Christmas?
In November 1984, BBC news reporter Michael Burke reported on a devastating famine sweeping across the African continent. Former Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof was at home when he saw the report. He was so moved by what he saw that he began to phone around other musicians of the time. Before too long, a veritable supergroup of British singers and band members all descended on a London recording studio to record what many consider to be the first charity single. Phil Collins, Simon Le Bon, Bono, and Bananarama were just some of the multitude of stars that gave up their time and joined both Geldof and fellow collaborator Midge Ure to assist in the blockbusting single.
Culture Club was in the middle of a tour in the U.S. when Boy George booked a ticket on Concorde in order to participate in the recording. Paul Young was drafted in to take the place of David Bowie who was unable to appear on the recording. George Michael also appeared on the single, and become one of a select few that have had Christmas Number One and Two songs in the same year. It was recorded and released within a span of just four days and reports of the time suggest that it was the first single in UK chart history to reach the number one spot on its initial day of release. The second single to achieve this feat was Bowie & Mick Jagger’s cover version of Dancing in the Street in 1985. The following year saw additional efforts for the famine appeal with USA for Africa and two Live Aid concerts.
1985: Shakin’ Stevens – Merry Christmas Everyone
Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley had a string of hits throughout the 1980s, including no less than four number one hits. This Christmas special was the last of his number ones, but the title has been re-released a substantial number of times ever since its original recording was made. The song was actually recorded in 1984 and was due to be released the previous year. Owing to the phenomenal success of Band Aid the year before, Shaky’s record label opted to postpone the release for a year.
1986: Jackie Wilson – Reet Petite
The 1980s saw an explosion of music videos and artists were always on the lookout for new and interesting concepts for their music. Some artists went for big-budget mini-films, while others opted for more traditional styles with their own spin on things. In early 1986, Peter Gabriel tried something that not many had attempted before. The promo video for Sledgehammer was an animated short in much the same style as Wallace and Gromit would be several years after. When the video premiered, it seemed that everyone wanted to produce something in the same style. Thirty years after its original release, Reet Petite was released in the UK and Australia with a brand new video featuring stop animation. The first release in 1957 only reached number 6 in the UK chart, but this time it hit the top spot at Christmas and earned Jackie Wilson a posthumous number one.
1987: Pet Shop Boys – Always on My Mind
Quite a few artists have covered this classic over the years. Willie Nelson hit the top spot on the Billboard Country charts back in 1982. But it was the English synth-duo Pet Shop Boys who took it to number one at Christmas 1987. The song was originally meant as a tribute for the tenth
anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley for an ITV special. It proved so popular that the musicians decided they would record it and release it as a single. All of this happened while the Pet Shop Boys were at their peak in the UK. This cover version remained on the top of the charts for four weeks. As a result, The Pogues & Kirsty McCall’s classic Fairytale of New York – which is often cited as the finest Christmas song ever recorded – went to second place.
1988: Cliff Richard – Mistletoe and Wine
Not for the first time, the evergreen Cliff Richard managed to confound skeptics by securing another Christmas number one song to his name. The song itself was originally written in 1976 and featured on a television special in 1987 starring Roger Daltry. When it was first written, it was considered to be an ironic form of a Christmas Carol and ended up becoming a pub song that featured in the televised recording. Former model Twiggy performed it with gusto. Cliff liked what he saw and arranged a brand new version with heavy emphasis on religion. The original writers concurred and within a year, it became his 99th hit in the UK and 12th number one. Just two years on, Cliff would repeat the feat with Saviour’s Day and managed to reach number one in the UK charts in five different decades.
1989: Band Aid II: Do They Know it’s Christmas?
Cliff Richard did, in fact, manage three Christmas number one singles in consecutive years. His was just one part of a new version of the modern classic that dominated the Christmas charts five years prior. Once again the driving force behind this latest incarnation was Bob Geldof. This time, he contacted the record producer Pete Waterman and invited him to help produce a new version. Waterman jumped at the chance, even to the point of canceling his wedding scheduled for the same day. Some artists appeared on both versions. But the bulk of the rerecordings were artists that were hugely popular at the time. Among them was Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. The entire process took ten days from concept to release and spent three weeks at number one.
Some of the Best Never Made it to the Top
Many music lovers contend that the best Christmas themed music never actually reaches the glorious peak of Christmas Number One. Whatever song reaches the coveted number one spot – whether it’s Christmas week or not – can justify its position due to the buying public. Having said that, the more fondly remembered Christmas songs that have been released down the years never reached the top of the charts at all. Personal tastes do, of course, differ from person to person, but when asked, the majority would more than likely cite a Christmas song not detailed above as their personal favorite.
From all of us at InThe1980s.com, have a very Merry Christmas.