The golden chalice of the Christmas number one: a quintessentially British phenomenon engrained into the marrow of our culture – where tactless novelty acts and charity super-groups congregate for a weird and wonderful midnight mass of festive mediocrity.
Many moons have waxed and waned since Nicky Valentine crooned of an Alphabet Christmas – the song that’s widely recognised as the first Christmas themed number one – just four years after the charts were established by NME in 1952. But it was only when Slade wished everyone a merry Christmas to reach number one in 1973 that the concept of the ‘head-to-head battle’ for the Christmas number one spot attained any gravitas at all. Slade famously pipped glam-rockers Wizzard’s single I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day to the top spot, forever immortalising this peculiar tradition in the crumpled cavities of Noddy Holder’s smug expression.
Then, forged from the fires of Mount Doom, came the behemoth of the X Factor. In 2005, unknown X Factor contestant Shayne Ward claimed the converted Christmas number one spot with his debut single, That’s My Goal, which became the third fastest selling single of all time. Alarm bells started ringing. The low-cultured, shallow romanticism of the whole escapade inevitably gripped the nation, firmly digging its rusty hooks into the Christmas charts while popularising the ‘flavour of the week’ throwaway mentality. After four successive years of repetition, it seemed that no-one could rise up against the domineering totalitarian regime of Simon Cowell’s corporate steam-train. Thankfully, a beacon of hope emerged, and one noble rebel aspired to form a fellowship to cast the X Factor back into the fiery chasm from whence it came.
“I just snapped; I just thought, ‘is there no-one out there who can challenge this, are there no other record companies, are there no other bands that just think, c’mon, this is a bit shit, let’s have a go ourselves?’,” exclaims social media guru JON MORTER, as he describes a mixture of anguish and distain that had driven him to the end of his tether. Galvanised by the sterile nature of the charts, Jon sought to derail the current occupants by using a modern form of guerrilla warfare across the cyberscape of social networks. Jon used his knowledge of social media to manipulate the rules of Facebook, finding groups with an already established fan-base and assigning himself as the admin for each group in order to use them as a conduit. This gave him the authority and scope to reach people sympathetic to his cause, which allowed him to create a viral epidemic that could sweep across the social network and consciously persuade users to actively participate in his campaigns. Pretty clever, hey? After failing to make any real impact in 2008 with his first attempt to usurp his arch nemesis (the X Factor) by garnering support for Rick Astley’s single Never Gonna Give You Up (otherwise known as the ‘Ultimate Rickroll’ campaign), Jon graciously admitted defeat in battle, but the war, however, was far from over.
“With the song Killing In The Name, I just thought it would work, it’s the antithesis of anything the X Factor would put out – and even kids could get behind it, because it’s got lots of swear words at the end.” Surely this punter’s taking the piss? More pie-in-the-sky pseudo pranks, right? Wrong. Before you could say Mr Blobby, Jon was back in 2009 with a new social media campaign under the name of ‘Rage Against the Machine for Christmas number one’.
The message was indubitable: “fuck you; I won’t do what you tell me” – and the aim was true, rupturing a nerve with the usually self-assured Simon Cowell, who subsequently waded in to deem the campaign “stupid” and “cynical”. It takes a lot to get music’s most dastardly mogul rattled, but once he’d acknowledged the campaign’s existence, Jon was rubbing his hands together in triumph. “For us, his reaction was a godsend; we were thinking ‘great, he’s absolutely rattled, we’ve got him here’. As soon as he acknowledged it, there were droves of people who suddenly registered it and jumped on the bandwagon.”
Jon’s grassroots crusade against the monopolisation of the charts soon expanded beyond the stratosphere, and before long the surrealism of the situation hit home hard. The campaign had escalated from one man and his wife (Tracy), a computer and an internet connection, to a dedicated legion of fans in a Facebook group that was reportedly 1.6 million members strong. “It instantly became a big snowball. If I’d started with one member, i.e. me, that would have been tricky. I didn’t break any rules at all, I just bent them; what I always say is ‘bend the rules until just before they snap’ – and that’s with everything I do. If you can get away with it, do it”, he states defiantly.
The damage was done, and the initiative was successful in thwarting the X Factor’s Joe McElderry in attaining the Christmas top-spot, thus liberating the charts from Simon Cowell’s reign of tyranny. More than half a million people downloaded Rage Against the Machine’s famous anti-establishment and expletive laden track Killing In The Name in what will be remembered as a seminal viral protest in defiance of the increasing influence of manufactured pop music.
This victory elevated Jon’s status from ambitious activist to virtuoso social media kingpin and, as a result, his services were required for an attempt to repeat history. In 2012, a who’s who of musicians and celebrities launched a campaign titled The Justice Collective to support various charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster. A cover of the Hollies’ ballad, He Aint Heavy, He’s My Brother was released to commemorate the victims – and you don’t have to be Simon Cowell to figure out who was asked to mastermind their social media campaign. As a football fan with a vested interest in the campaign, Jon was more than happy to impart his astute set of skills. “The Hillsborough disaster is something that’s stuck with me for many years. MP Steve Rotherham got in contact and I assumed the role of the social media side of things,” recalls Jon with pride. He continues: “What was great about the Justice guys is that they just let me do it. They said ‘you go and do whatever you need to do’; I said ‘ok, leave it to me, I’ll get this to number one’.” True to his word, The Justice Collective took the top spot, beating the painstakingly emotive James Arthur to further release the X Factor’s vice-like grip whilst also raising a bundle of cash for charity.
The question is, what’s his secret and how did he gatecrash the music industry so easily? Jon concedes that there isn’t a ‘magic formula’ to a successful social media campaign, and uses Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale The Emperor’s New Clothes as an analogy to convey that the impact of social media is not as transparent as it seems. As a life-long music fan who could never play an instrument, Jon reveals his tongue-in-cheek motto to unlocking the treasure trove of social media, “You’ve got to fake it to make it – look at me now, I’ve now got two number one singles on my CV.” He chuckles, revelling in his accolades, for he who laughs last, laughs longest – and whilst the emperor’s clothes may be virtual, the successes of Jon Morter’s social media endeavours are in plain sight.