−−− BY STUART GLOSSOP −−−
Christmas records has seen a resurgence this year with the season celebrated by stars as diverse as Gwen Stefani to Nick Knowles! However, almost nailed on to be this year’s Christmas Number One is a song that is over thirty years old. Last year on Christmas Day we heard the sad news that the talented George Michael had died aged 53. So it would be a fine tribute if the song reaches the number one spot this Christmas.
Wham! had already had two number ones in the UK Singles Chart in 1984 and news that they were planning a Christmas single meant that a battle for the coveted Christmas number one spot in the UK seemed set to be between Wham! and the year’s other big act, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who had achieved a third number one in early December with “The Power of Love”. However, the Band Aid project helmed by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, produced the number one single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Wham!’s offering peaked at number two for much of the period, although George’s involvement in Band Aid meant that Wham! still had an input. Wham! subsequently donated all of their “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” royalties to the Ethiopian famine.
In subsequent years, the song managed to reach the middle echelons of the UK Singles Chart on a regular basis with its last chart entry in 2016. “Last Christmas” has sold over 2 million copies as of January 2017 and is the biggest-selling single in UK chart history not to reach number one. However, that may be about to change. This year, essentially as a memorial for George Michael the single is being predicted as the Christmas Number One for 2017.
In the spring of 1984, Neil Tennant – then in his pre–Pet Shop Boys guise as a music journalist – popped down to Miami to see what the boys in Wham! were up to. During a chat with the pair, Ridgeley let slip that their Christmas single had already been written (Michael had written it in February, according to other interviews), and that it “sends a tingle up [his] spine.” A few months later, the song – the pillowy, longing “Last Christmas” – came out, and the duo had high hopes for it. “As an artist, you want to reach as many people as possible. My aim,” Michael told Smash Hits a few months later, “is for our Christmas single – it’s called ‘Last Christmas’ – to sell a million and a half.”
Even after years of heavy play, the song still sounds fresh. Because of the way it bridges holiday-season sentimentality with all-year heartbreak, it’s become a popular holiday cover for artists of all stripes – emo standard-bearers Jimmy Eat World, ringtone mascot Crazy Frog, agitated Brit-poppers Manic Street Preachers, pre-global domination Taylor Swift. Some have taken liberties with the original structure in order to satisfy their own artistic impulses.
In the 1984 Smash Hits interview where Michael set his sales-goal sights, he also outlined his criteria for pop immortality: “A great pop song has something about it that will appeal to millions of people. There are different ways of doing that. You can do it in a crass way like [the pineapple-happy single by the British pop band Black Lace] ‘Agadoo’. Or in an uplifting way like the way we do it in.” While the wistful “Last Christmas” might take a circuitous route to being “uplifting,” there’s no doubt it meets Michael’s stringent criteria for pop greatness.