So how big a triumph was it?

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

           In one of the all time great shockers in music chart history, “Killing In The Name,” a 1993 recording by the highly political US band Rage Against The Machine, has sold enough copies via download only (an estimated 500,000) to vault it to the top of this week’s UK singles charts. What’s most significant was its cut into the near stranglehold that the X Factor talent show had had on the Christmas week over the past four years. Since 2005, the Christmas number one’s have been: “That’s My Goal” by Shayne Ward, “A Moment Like This” by Leona Lewis, “When You Believe” by Leon Jackson, and “Hallelujah” by Alexandra Burke, all X Factor winners. Burke’s single sold enough in its one week to become the top selling single of all of 2008. A remake of Miley Cyrus’s blazé “The Climb,” by this year’s winner, Joe McElderry, seemed primed and ready to follow the tradition and put even more cash in Simon Cowell’s seemingly unfillable pocket.

               Enter the Essex couple Jon and Terry Morter, serious music fans who launched a Facebook site early in December to protest that dominance. The song they chose was an appropriate choice, one whose prime message, as repeated many times, was “Fuck You, I won’t do what you tell me!” The song reached a lofty peak of #25 when first released in UK, but the Morters rightfully guessed that many UK music enthusiasts were sick of innocuous pre-programmed tripe waltzing its way to the top totally on the strength of the TV show, and felt it was time to do something about it.

               Not only did “Killing” outsell “Climb” by a good 50,000, it caused Simon Cowell to eat a little humble pie himself, and he personally called the Morters to congratulate them on their efforts. Rage’s lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, told BBC Radio 1, “It says more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly, and less about the song and the band.” That’s true. The campaign may not have been as successful had it been fronting a song that was already well known and liked. It was also pretty evident from about week 7 of X Factor that Joe, the humble Geordie teen who had by far the best singing voice but the charisma of a table lamp, was clearly going to win. This may have motivated the Morters as well.

                   Still, it’s baffling to me, after nearly nine years working in UK, how much premium is placed on the Christmas week number one. It certainly has never been a big deal in the US, where most likely the song that was number one at the beginning of December would probably still be number one by Christmas. The charts there don’t have as fast a turnover as UK charts do, for one thing. But over here, all the betting stables take odds, and with the last few years being so predictable, fewer bettors took any interest. This year was certainly different in that respect. Even before the X Factor, Christmas #1’s offered a strange mix of good, bad, and ridiculous. Most blatant of the latter was Christmas, 1980, and while the whole world was mourning the death of John Lennon, his “Starting Over” was #2 behind “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma” by St. Winifred’s School Choir. For those that don’t know it, it’s as bad as the title sounds.

                     I guess what impresses me most about the Morters’ campaign is the proof that the people CAN actually have a voice.  When I was a kid living in the San Bernardino Valley, about 60 miles east of LA, the local Top 40 station, K-MEN (which featured UK radio legend John Peel worked when I first lived there), polled listeners for their favorite songs, and would play them back as the top 300 over a holiday weekend. As my friends  and I were listening to the countdown, and seeing there were no big surprises, we started to conjure up a scheme for the next year to stuff the ballot boxes with votes for Frank Zappa’s “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body,” just to see if a) they would count those votes, and b) if they did, would they actually play the song?       

                   We never made good on our idea, but I know of one person who did. By the 70’s, I was living in San Francisco, and the oldies station, KNEW, conducted a similar poll, padding the list to 500. I knew a record collector, Walt, who was totally out of touch with the rest of the world; 26 years old, lived with his grandmother, had a paper route, obsessed with Elvis and The Everly Brothers, Rain Man personified. He had mentioned to me that he was volunteering to help count the ballots at KNEW, and the evidence was truly there when the countdown played back. Obscure (but admittedly good) songs from Elvis’s Sun Records days were showing up in the top 20, higher than every Beatles’ song except “Yesterday.” The poor DJ was lost having to try and justify these astonishingly high postings for songs that may have never been played on the station before. As he got to number 12, he announced, “And now a record that never made the charts,” and then came the Everlys’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much,” the B-side of “Bye Bye Love.” As the song came to a close, the closest he came to an editorial comment was his admission, “It’s a good song, I guess, but number 12 of all time?” In a small modicum of sanity, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” was #1. 

                    The idea that some insignificant social outcast nerd decided the taste of the entire Bay Area in such an anonymous fashion always impressed me. Walt was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he wielded that one ounce of power, and was able to dictate to millions of listeners what their favorite songs were, even though they were only his. This was some 20 years before the internet and/or Facebook were around to influence public opinion. What Walt did was more of a prank than anything else, certainly there was no political intent. But it certainly paved the way for accomplishments like that of the Morters, and it’s great to see the Voice of The People rise up and say no to Joe. And Simon.  

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