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A recap of Christmas 2009’s tumultuous song-war.
Published: 13/02/2020   Author: Stephen Emmett
Photo: Joe McElderry, via RTE - Zack De La Rocha, via Kevin Winter
I am Stephen Emmett, self-proclaimed charts nerd from Ireland. I have a fascination of the history of the UK Singles Chart, both past and present, and I want to channel it in my writings, which are inspired by the chart columnist James Masterton (go read his columns on!) who has been writing his Chart Watch UK columns since 1992.

In this pilot piece, I discuss the last great chart battle for some time – the battle for Christmas Number One in 2009 between X Factor winner Joe McElderry with his winners single, “The Climb”, and Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 rap-rock anthem “Killing in the Name”.

Introduction: What’s A Christmas Number One, Anyway?

First of all, we have to tell those reading outside of the UK & Ireland what the Christmas Number One race is all about. If you’ve seen the film Love, Actually, you’ll be familiar with the subplot involving the race to be the Christmas #1 single in the UK – basically, it is the chart on which Christmas Day falls during the chart publication week. The race in earnest for the top properly started in 1973 when Slade beat Wizzard to #1 that year, and since then the Christmas chart every single year has hoped to be as brilliant as each successive year since. Among the list of Christmas Number Ones in Britain include “Mad World” by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules in 2003, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen in 1975/1991 and “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit in 2016 – and the list goes on... But we’re now rewinding to the end of 2009.

In case you don’t know the story, for the past four years running at the time, it was extremely common for whoever won the X Factor that particular year (starting from 2005 onwards, when Shayne Ward topped the chart) to top that year’s Christmas chart. 18-year-old Geordie teenager Joe McElderry was looking set to top the singles chart for Christmas 2009, but social media hellraiser Jon Morter had other ideas brewing – his aim: via the newfangled social network called Facebook, he wanted to get Rage Against the Machine to Christmas Number One and end the consecutive reign of X Factor topping the chart every Christmas.

At first, people didn’t know about the campaign until Simon Cowell publicly lambasted it: “If there’s a campaign and I think the campaign is aimed directly at me, it’s stupid”. Thereafter, the numbers went through the roof and radio, TV, newspapers etc all got on board to talk about the campaign – making it the biggest chart battle since Blur vs Oasis back in August 1995.

Come Sunday 20th December 2009, the big Christmas chart was revealed. What I hope to do here is recap the developments of the chart week and hopefully, in the end, tell some retrospective on what happened after the battle and why it deserves its place in history.

With that being said, if you’re just wanting to know how the chart looked at that particular week for the first time or maybe listening to the Radio 1 chart show for the first time in ages, you can read the full chart listing, via The Official Charts Company’s website.

You can also listen to the full uncensored Radio 1 chart show, embedded here for posterity if you want to listen and read along:

On the Radio 1 chart show that week, Scott Mills sits in for the then-current chart show host Reggie Yates, welcoming us into the chart. Here, then, is all 95 seconds of Scott’s opening monologue as we start the story of the chart:

The Battle Begins
Photo: Joe McElderry, via the Standard - RATM, via Penner

Looking at some of the developments in the week leading up to the announcement, I can speculate that this was going to be the biggest chart battle of all time since Blur vs. Oasis in August 1995 (like stated before). According to NME, here are the top five odds for that prestigious festive top slot, as announced on Wednesday 16th December:

RATM 8/11
Joe McElderry Evens
Lady Gaga 25/1
Susan Boyle 33/1
Peter Kay/Children In Need 33/1

This is where we have no turning back. The radio and television, even the printing presses, all heard of the great battle and they were forced to make it a big headline story. Shown below is one of the BBC News broadcasts talking about the campaign.

Meanwhile, ITN’s report (in brief) gives it a cooler edge, also detailing the other contenders and managing to talk to passers-by on British streets about their predictions.

There were even more developments over the ending days of the week before the big reveal to be shown here. Sourced from NME, Ladbrokes had stated on the 17th December: “Joe McElderry has rediscovered the X Factor in the battle for Christmas number one, according to Ladbrokes. The Reality TV champ is now 1/5, from evens, after becoming the first winning act in the show’s history to surrender favouritism earlier this week. Rage Against The Machine are 3/1, from 8/11.” Their spokesperson, Nick Weinberg had cleverly stated: “Joe has recovered from his black Wednesday. Earlier this week there was a very real chance that he could miss out. But that’s diminishing with every day that passes”.

The bets for the festive top slot from 17th December, in case you were wondering:

Joe McElderry 1/5
Rage Against The Machine 3/1
Lady Gaga 25/1
Peter Kay/Children In Need 33/1
Susan Boyle 33/1

Coming up, the big result of the battle and what happened afterwards. Let’s bring it on.

The Result

Alright... here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for: X Factor vs. Rage Against the Machine for Christmas Number One 2009. This is where we all find out. First off, here’s Scott’s iconic link into the reveal of the big result, with a mighty chronicle of what happened in the week. Listen and prepare to be amazed:

That was just an epic link, wasn’t it? At exactly 6:45pm on Sunday 20th December 2009, Scott announced that Joe and Rage had earned their place in chart history once and for all. One more link to share with you, and this time, it’s the news that everyone was waiting to hear: the largest first week digital sales figures in the UK, and the first ever download only Christmas Number One - so it was history in the making. The final result on the big day itself had fantastic sales figures, replicated below:

Joe McElderry: 450,838

Rage Against the Machine: 502,672

Scott spoke to Zach de la Rocha from the band who had that week’s Number One single himself on the phone direct from Los Angeles to introduce the Number One record to the nation:

For once, this wasn’t about the label or the politics. This was about people like you and me standing up to the corporate bigwigs of the music industry and taking control of the chart for once. The message of the song was really clear this time around: ”I won’t do what you tell me”. We - the people - didn’t do what Simon told us, and we deserved to have made chart history. It’s a chart battle for the ages – it will never be repeated again.

What happened after the battle? Well, RATM made good on their promise and played a free gig at London’s Finsbury Park on June 6th, 2010 and managed to donate the profits of the single to the homeless charity Shelter. They also are planning a massive comeback at Coachella this year, as well as Reading & Leeds in the following months. Joe meanwhile, disappeared into obscurity - wonder what he's doing these days?

For now, though, let us reflect on what was the biggest chart battle of a generation – the digital download generation’s own Blur vs. Oasis. It was truly the last great chart battle to have actually made an impact on radio, TV, newspapers etc. and got people talking in a way we never talked about the chart in a long time. We conclude with this interview, which has been recorded at the end of the second tape in the two-tape set from the following day:



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