Music

The LadBaby nightmare is finally over: What's next for the Christmas number one single race?

After five years at the top of the festive charts, LadBaby are calling it a day. Can the fight for Christmas number one be reborn?

Ladbaby promoting their bid for Christmas number one in London

LadBaby have bowed out of the race for Christmas number one after five years. Photo: LadBaby

Last Christmas, a YouTuber and his wife, collectively known as “LadBaby”, got their fifth consecutive UK Christmas number one single; a feat unheard of in pop music. Prior to LadBaby, the record for the most Christmas number ones had been four, and was held by The Beatles. And even they didn’t manage it in consecutive years.

That fifth chart smash was a cover of the Band Aid classic Do They Know It’s Christmas?, rewritten and renamed Food Aid. The single raised money for the food bank charity The Trussell Trust, as all the LadBaby Christmas songs have. An admirable cause, of course. The Trussell Trust does incredible work.

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That said, I’d be amazed if you’d actually heard Food Aid more than once. I’d be even more surprised if you’d done so by choice. Musically, it’s irredeemably awful. The same goes for LadBaby’s four preceding festive singles, all of which were cover versions tweaked to include weak puns about sausage rolls. I have no idea why. Astonishingly, 2021’s effort, Sausage Rolls for Everyone, had Ed Sheeran and Elton John on it, confirming a suspicion that we’ve all been living in some hellscape alternative timeline for years.

Now, alas, the unbroken run must come to an end. It was revealed this week that LadBaby, aka Mark and Roxanne Hoyle, will not be releasing a Christmas single in 2023. The nightmare is over.

So what next, for this most sacred of British Christmas traditions? To understand the answer, we need to look to pop history. Though technically there has been a UK “Christmas number one” every year since 1952, when NME compiled the very first singles chart, the term didn’t mean much until the big, glam rock battle of 1973, when Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody duked it out with Wizzard’s I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday.

The Oxford English Dictionary finds no known use of the phrase “Christmas number one” before that year, and there hadn’t been a chart topper that was actually about Christmas since 1957 (Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child, if you’re curious). The public were interested in who was number one every week, but there was little special attention paid to the Christmas chart. For the credible musos and proper pop stars, the festive angle just wasn’t that important. Even in 1973, the cool kids weren’t having it. Rock band Stray, interviewed in Record Mirror that December, were absolutely scathing about their glam rivals, saying that doing a Christmas song was “the kind of thing you’d expect of Max Bygraves”.

Yet something changed in that year. This was a bleak time in Britain, marked by industrial action and coal shortages leading to an enforced three-day working week. The fizz and bang of glam rock, hitched to the tinsel and fire of Christmas was a hell of a distraction. And it didn’t hurt that both the Slade and Wizzard records were corkers — witty, catchy, rocking, very British… and performed by glitter-encrusted Brummies who were already two of the biggest bands in the country.

It caught imaginations. The Christmas number one suddenly mattered, and the record companies, music mags and radio stations were happy to play along as the “race to Christmas number one” filled column inches and dead air, and drove punters to Woolworths to support their favourites. By the early ’80s, a Christmas number one was considered such a crown jewel that Shakin’ Stevens held back his single Merry Christmas Everyone for an entire year so that Band Aid couldn’t deprive him of the top spot (which was a little presumptuous — even without the original festive fundraising single, he’d still have been up again Wham! at the peak of their powers with Last Christmas).

The Christmas number one still meant something well into the 21st century. Why else was Simon Cowell so keen to crown his Pop Idol and X-Factor winners with one? Why else would people come together to push a Rage Against the Machine track to the top just to thwart him? Why else does Love Actually have that Bill Nighy subplot?

Alas, no more. If the LadBaby phenomenon has taught us anything, it’s that the Christmas number one has lost its power. Anyone can do it. It’s not about the song. It’s not a cultural moment. It’s just about a gesture. A vanity project for internet celebrities with a charity byproduct they can use to justify it. The contenders for this year’s prize say it all — some more YouTubers. A decent Christmas rocker from Sam Ryder. But do you know who the bookie’s favourite is? The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl with Fairytale of New York. A beautiful song, true, but it will get to the top simply because we play it every year. It’s hardly the stuff of dreams.

The Christmas number one belongs to a bygone age. It’s a zombie tradition, artificially animated by newspapers and clickbait. No-one has added to the canon of great Christmas pop for years, and such is the dominance of novelty charity records and resurfaced classics, it’s unlikely anyone is going to. Why bother? The Christmas number one is dead. Killed by streaming, social media… and sausage bleedin’ rolls.

Noddy Holder on the cover of The Big Issue

Read our exclusive interview with Slade frontman, and annual announcer that “it’s Christmas”, Noddy Holder in this week’s festive Big Issue magazine.

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