Published by Daily Mail
Exactly 30 years ago, in December 1982, Cliff Richard’s ‘Little Town’ was ringing out of all the radio stations like a peal of church bells calling the faithful to worship, and the Peter Pan of pop was strutting his glittery stuff all over Top of the Pops. There were bright stars twinkling above and tinsel strewn over some horrendous jumper knitted by Aunt Doris. ‘Little Town’ was the sixth track on the album ‘Now you see me… now you don’t’ (and yes, I still have it on vinyl).
Astonishingly, ‘Little Town’ never made it to No.1: rather like The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, it probably should have, and feels like it might have. But thereafter Cliff became synonymous with log fires, mince pies, mulled wine and the warm glow of Christmassy feelings. The Devil no longer had all the good music: Cliff brought us devotional pop straight from the adoring shepherds and Wise Men, and the race to the Christmas No.1 had truly become the highlight of the pop calendar.
Like Royal Mail stamps, the spiritual No.1s seemed to coexist quite happily with the more secular numbers: Cliff’s ‘Saviour’s Day’ was followed by Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ by Band Aid’s ‘Do The Know It’s Christmas?’. In the popular festive consciousness of Christmasses long-time-ago are joyous memories of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Boney M and Johnny Mathis’s ‘When A Child Is Born’, fused seamlessly with the jolly festivities of Mr Blobby, Renée and Renato, and the St Winifred’s School Choir.
It’s a hazy chronology lost in the chilly mists of time, but there was Christian spirituality one year, crass Crimbo novelty the next: in the bleak midwinter of goodwill to all men, we warmly embraced everything from Bethlehem to Bob the Builder.
Then something went terribly wrong.
A stream of decidedly un-Christmassy power ballads by complete unknowns descended on the nation like a plague of frogs. Mulled wine and mince pies gave way to Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson, Alexandra Burke and Matt Cardle. These were packaged in plastic and churned out on a conveyer belt for mass consumption, all courtesy of the unholy trinity of Sony, Syco and Simon – the Father, Son and Profane Grinch of the postmodern pop machine.
Sir Cliff gave an interview a while ago about how the X-Factor has ‘killed’ everyone else’s chances for a Christmas No.1. A seemingly never-ending run at the top would probably have remained unbeaten had it not been for the audacious interjection of ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage against the Machine – a triumphant social media campaign initiated by the outraged (not only of Tunbridge Wells), in protest at what the X-Factorisation of pop music was doing to the great British Christmas No.1.
Perhaps the show’s terminal decline was confirmed last year when Gareth Malone’s Military Wives beat some fabricated pap-girl-band called Little Mix, who will probably soon go the way of Steve Brookstein (…who?). And in the face of this year’s Hillsborough charity single, the X-Factor has pulled out of the 2012 Christmas No.1 race altogether, doubtless anticipating further humiliation.
Talented as one or two of these X-Factor victors may be, the majority are ephemeral gadflies – here today, ditched by Cowell tomorrow. Indeed, it seems the losers tend to fare a whole lot better than the winners, for whom there’s no longevity because there’s cultured fan base, no honed musicality and no appreciation of the tenacity and durability required in this Business. It’s not only about talent: as the axiom goes, it’s who you know. And if you only know Simon Cowell, you’re pretty well stuffed when he discovers the next shiny new thing.
My MailOnline colleague Craig Brown wrote here a few weeks ago about the rumours and conjecture surrounding the 2012 Christmas No.1. But at this stage it looks as though the ad hoc ‘Justice Collective’ (aka Robbie Williams, Mel C, Paloma Faith, Gerry Marsden, Paul McCartney and Kenny Dalglish, etc., etc) will take the crown with their cover of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. But it’s a ramshackle gathering of pop artists, comedians and footballers that really ought to be carted off to join Ant & Dec in the jungle and force-fed witchetty grubs and kangaroo’s anus. Here they are, easily worth half-a-billion quid (McCartney and Williams alone have that between them), giving generously and freely of their time (as though they can’t afford it) to raise funds to reimburse the legal fees incurred by the Hillsborough families. It’s petty cash to these multi-millionaires: they could easily just dip into their own pockets and spare us the droning dirge: ‘He in’t heavyyyyyy; hee’s maah bruvverrrrr…’.
They really ought to have considered that this 1969 Hollies classic (with Elton John at the piano) has been covered exhaustively, and none has ever touched the original for sensitivity and pathos. We’ve had tortuous versions by Neil Diamond, Cher, The Osmonds, Glen Campbell and Barry Manilow. It’s even survived (just) the Brotherhood of Man and Olivia Newton-John. There have been instrumental versions by The Shadows and Tommy Emmanuel, and it was chosen as the American Idol charity single back in 2005. Having been regurgitated and spewed out at least half-a-dozen times in every decade since the 60s, we really ought to be spared another mushy charity interpretation.
And there’s an irritating sense in which these charity-single appeals are just as manipulative and distorting as the X-Factor beast itself. Of course, peace on earth and the season of goodwill should be very much about feeding the poor (Band Aid), housing the homeless (Rage) and comforting those who are grieving over loved ones (Military Wives). But a 30-year-old tragedy in Liverpool is not likely to attract national sympathy, however wronged, slandered and aggrieved the victims have manifestly been. That’s not in any sense to denigrate their appalling suffering or mitigate 30 years of outrageous state conspiracy and cover-up. It’s just that there are an awful lot of people out there who would rather get an original single to Christmas No.1 than yet another tired old cover churned out by the machine.
Because it’s still ultimately the same musical omnipotence that’s behind it all, whether it’s X-Factor or charity. New artists find it notoriously difficult to break through unless they’re signed to Sony, Warner, Universal or EMI. And even EMI is now owned by Universal. The Military Wives’ charity single was brought out on the Decca label, which is also owned by Universal. And the Justice Collective single is also being distributed by Universal: it’s a closed-shop musical pyramid scheme.
Independent Local Radio (ILR) is also, in the main, owned by corporate groups. With a few notable exceptions such as specialist stations like Kerrang, they operate what they call a CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) music policy, which basically means that they only play hit records or ones that are sure to be hits. To guarantee this, they mostly only compile playlists of records by established artists on major labels: rarely will they support new artists on independent labels.
And as Cliff discovered a few years ago, if the machine decides to turn against you, there’s no playlist, no airplay and no hit. This isn’t a free market where the best can succeed; it’s a closed system run by the elite for the benefit of the collective.
And it’s even more manipulative when you consider that, contrary to media reports, not ‘all’ proceeds of the 99p download will actually make it to the longsuffering families of the Hillsborough victims. In fact, it’s nearer 50p. I’m fairly sure The Hollies will be waiving their royalties and others donating their time and energy gratis, but you need to deduct from your ‘charity donation’ the VAT, costs of CD production and any commission the digital distribution companies might choose to take. They may be more generous in this case, but iTunes usually take a very hefty slice (30%+) of the royalty pie. Charity singles tend to be a bit like development aid to Uganda – by carefully funnelling funds and concealing commissions, someone’s plush, private office always profits at the expense of the poor and needy.
A better way would be to donate £1 directly to the Hillsborough Justice Collective campaign and then download something decent for Christmas. That way the charity receives 100% more than it otherwise would from the download cost, and your conscience is then free to cast your vote for Gabrielle Aplin, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kylie or whoever else happens to be releasing a festive single.
But none of the high-profile contenders this year is remotely Christmassy – there’s no dashing through the snow, jingle bells or joy to the world: the mulled wine has become 10 pints of Foster’s; Frosty has melted away; and the log fire has been replaced by a radiator.
Personally, my 79p will be going to Joseph Whelan and his new single ‘Wish’. He’s most famous for being the hunk ejected from an early round of this year’s X-Factor after the judges and the whole nation were awed by his vocal ability. “What a voice,” bleated Tulisa; “An amazing talent, an authentic rock voice,” said Louis; “Absolutely awesome,” enthused Gary Barlow; “Wow… and then… you sing!’ drooled Mel B.
Whelan didn’t just have the X-Factor; he had Y and Z factors, too, along with a very cute kid called Kian. After his shock elimination (in favour of novelty acts like Rylan Clarke or ‘karaoke’ Chris Maloney), there was an immediate ‘bring back Joseph’ Facebook page, which gained almost a quarter of a million ‘likes’. Even Tulisa said she wanted him reinstated (presumably for his singing ability, not his torso). There’s now a ‘Whelan4Xmas’ fan page to get ‘Wish’ to the top slot. With two weeks still to go, it’s fast approaching 30,000 ‘likes’. In a normal week, that would put Whelan securely into the Top 10. With a media boost, this could easily sail to 100,000+.
Radio Times have already offered a free acoustic download of the single, and it’s as good as anything else out there (and a whole lot better than the Justice Collective ). Whelan’s rendition of Led Zeppelins ‘Whole Lotta Love‘, which he performed for his first X-Factor audition, has now reached over 3.5 MILLION hits on YouTube and continues to rise. If a fraction of that interest can be translated into downloads, he’s in with a serious chance of an impressive chart entry.
And it’s your name I’m calling when the snow is falling,
And the season leads me back to you.
I left my heart in summer and it’s late December,
And my wish this year is for you.
Come home, and make my wish come true.
Sure, there’s no mention of mulled wine or even a hint of children singing Christian rhyme, but there’s snow falling and it’s late December, and that’s got to be better than Robbie Williams carrying his not-so-heavy brother. Joseph Whelan might not make Christmas No.1 in 2012, but he’s original, passionate and talented. And he’s on course to be the first X-Factor ‘reject’ to go straight into the Christmas chart without any further assistance from Sony, Syco, Simon Cowell or the rest of the pop music machine.
Perhaps, next year, Sir Cliff might even be coaxed back out of hibernation to re-inject a bit of Christian spirituality?