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Christmas #1s, and biting the dust at 52

Yesterday, Paul Gambaccini’s “Pick of the Pops” show on BBC Radio 2 featured the charts from this week in 1971 and 1988. Can you recall the Christmas #1s from those years? The answers appear below. It’s the kind of information that people of my generation (those of us who followed the charts closely) might retain for the whole of our lives. Even if we can’t remember the chart-toppers from other times of the year, we recall the Christmas #1s. Remembering which songs hit the top in the last 10 festive seasons is more of a challenge, but I can recall those from 1969 to the mid-1990s without having to think too hard.

On Saturday, as the chart run-down for 1971 began, just before 2pm, the four of us were still eating our lunch, listening to the radio. I asked my wife if she knew what was coming next, which record would follow the two that we had just heard (“Coz I Luv You” by Slade at #3 and “Jeepster” by T Rex at #2). What was #1 at Christmas 1971? It wasn’t “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool” (1972) or “Merry Christmas Everybody” (1973) or “Lonely This Christmas” (1974). I gave her another clue: it contains a boy’s name, the only example of a Christmas #1 that does. (“Mr Blobby” from 1993 doesn’t count.) Girls’ names have been featured more often (“Mary’s Boy Child”, twice, “Lily the Pink” in 1968) but 1971 was the only time for a boy’s name in a Christmas #1. The countdown continued. Both children wanted more of a clue. I whispered to each of them, in turn, “You could hear the hoof-beats pound / As they raced across the ground”. They have heard it often enough to know the answer: “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)” by Benny Hill.

As the tune was playing, I asked another question. According to the lyrics, how old was Ernie when he died? The final verse tells us. “Ernie was only 52 / He didn’t want to die / And now he’s gone to make deliveries / In that milk round in the sky”. The first song from the 1988 chart, played after the 2 o’clock news, was “Handle with Care” by The Travelling Wilburys, the five-piece supergroup comprising Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Unfortunately, by mid-December 1988 they were already a four-piece band. Roy Orbison died at the start of that month. I didn’t need the news reports at the time to tell me that, like the fictional Ernie, he was only 52 when he died. He was born on 23 April 1936, the day before my mother. By mid-December 1988 she had outlived the Big O by several days. By then I had learnt that the phrase “bit the dust” was a euphemism for dying. On first hearing it, in the lyrics to “Ernie” in 1971, I took it literally, thinking it just meant that the Fastest Milkman in the West had fallen and taken a mouth full of dirt: “The concrete-hardened crust / Of a stale pork pie / Caught him in the eye / And Ernie bit the dust.”

Returning to 2018, I explained the phrase to the children. They are familiar with it more from the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust” than Benny Hill’s Christmas #1 but they hadn’t equated “bit the dust” with dying, or “kicking the bucket”. That’s another expression I initially took literally. When I heard some comedian on a 1970s TV show tell us that someone had kicked the bucket I didn’t see why that would be a problem. You might stub your toe but it wouldn’t hurt that much.

Our interest in the second hour of “Pick of the Pops” was less than our interest in the first hour. There were no further asides about death or language after hearing The Travelling Wilburys. We heard a few songs from that 1988 chart, but we were getting ready to leave the house. My wife and daughter were going Christmas shopping. I planned to take my son for a walk around Kew Gardens, but the weather was brutal: freezing rain for the whole of the afternoon. Any plans to take public transport were shelved. We took the car and were driving towards a local shopping centre when the 1988 chart run-down began. No surprises there for me: “Mistletoe and Wine” by Cliff Richard was at #1. If you want to be transported back, musically, to 30 years ago or 47 years ago, you can hear the latest edition of “Pick of the Pops” here for the next 28 days. I won’t need to revisit either chart for a while, especially not 1988.




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