Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Come in, Number One

Something’s missing. In the thick of the holiday season, things are suspiciously quiet. See, it’s about this time of year in England that you start hearing the music publicity machine cranking and grinding into action. The battle in the singles music chart is beginning for the Holiday Number One.

For my Canadian chums: the chart is a serious business in the UK. The pre-release radio air-time given to a song makes or breaks its position. A stalwart like R.E.M will enter the chart around number eight and steadily climb to the top spot over a number of weeks; bubblegum-and-ponytail teenyboppers will flash straight in at Number One and then drop out of the public consciousness for good.

In December, though, anything goes. The British will buy just about anything for music at this time of year as long as it’s got a bit of tinsel and some bells, and preferably a TV celebrity whose singing ability is somewhat suspect.

The holiday chart offerings divide very neatly: Covers, Cash-Ins, Cliff, and Curios.

A handful of groups opt to Cover a bona fide Hit. You’ll see a boy band striving to croon themselves a rat pack image or Beyoncé vamping up “Santa Baby”. Covers always work best with an “odd couple”, as people buy it to see how perfectly good solo singers fare in weird tandem. In 2001, Nicole Kidman and Robbie Williams hit chart paydirt with Frank ‘n’ Nancy’s Something Stupid.

The Cash-Ins are released by interchangeable boy bands. These original numbers are about being “far away from you, baby, this Christmas”, to ensure a maximum teenage girl consumer base. In the videos, the bands wear huge furry parkas and have homoerotic snowball fights during the middle-eight. There are always bells (chiming, not jingle) and a soulful, rousing chorus that repeats to fade. The Cash-Ins make No.1 due to sheer pocket-money power.

In a category of his own, is the practically-unknown-to-Canada Sir Cliff Richard. Aged four hundred and seven, Cliff has been releasing records since the 1950s. His 1988 Mistletoe and Wine had the standard chiming bells and snowballs, but clinched the top spot by including Sir Cliff banging a massive gong at the key change in the rousing chorus, and a choirboy carol singer at the end. More recently, though, Cliff went off the rails a bit with his Millennium Prayer, which was the Lord’s Prayer crowbarred into the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t clever. And it didn’t win him any friends.

A children’s TV character constitutes Curio gold; Bob the Builder topped the holiday chart in 2000. Generally, some DJ can be relied upon to back a Curio so adamantly that his or her listeners buy it just to be part of the “let’s see if we can do it” mentality (the same ethos, in fact, that got that obscure Winnipeg radio presenter into the 100 Greatest Canadians list, so it clearly also works here in Canada).

The worst Curio holiday No. 1 ever in history was Mr Blobby in 1993, performed – I won’t say “sung” – by…er…Mr Blobby. This eight-foot pink and yellow monstrosity could be found on any children’s TV show that called itself “madcap” or “zany”, and effectively just ran around yelling “blobby blobby blobby” and knocking things over. His Christmas hit was more of the same. I can’t tell you what a moment of shame it was for the entire nation when its success was announced.

The Brits are nothing if not unpredictable, though. A couple of years ago, the No.1 was the sorrowful and disturbing Mad World, from the film Donnie Darco. It just knocked the favourite The Darkness off the top spot – and yes, people do bet on this.

This year’s offerings are more in keeping with the usual fare. Cliff Richard is back, and with potential double points for the odd couple effect by singing with Brian May. Kids’ telly brings us Pingu the Penguin’s politically incorrect Eskimo Disco; boy band Westlife are donning their parkas; and, horrendously, even Borat is in with a chance.

So here in Canada, I’m really missing this fundamental part of the holiday season. I’m hoping that after reading this, you guys will get started on something, so that by the end of next year the Canadian Top Five might look something like this:

No. 5 – Celine Dion featuring those scary babies from her calendar – When A Child Is Born
No. 4 – The Corner Gas cast featuring Vicki Gabereau – Have A Holiday Gas
No. 3 – Celine Dion – Quand Un Enfant Soit Né
No. 2 – Kalan Porter – I’m Lying Here All Alone in Bed Waiting For You, Yes You (Insert Name Here) And Only You This Christmas
No.1 – Theresa Sokyrka and Eugene Levy – I Believe. Or Are You Lonesome Tonight. Or I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Or…hell, I’d pay to hear these two sing just about anything, wouldn’t you?

Ladies and gentlemen: place your bets, please.

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