Of all the songs that were destined to become a Christmas number one Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine was not one of them. Released seventeen years earlier and charged with politically-motived lyrics that boasted a record number of expletives, the track was a relic of the early nineties alternative rock scene and served as a precursor to the popular nu-metal cycle of the millennium. By the time that it rose to the top of the charts the artists in question had disbanded almost a decade earlier and with several years having passed since a rock act last took the British Christmas number one slot manufactured pop stars had become the guaranteed chart-toppers of the festive season.
Ever since the Top 40 began in the early fifties the Christmas song has been a staple of the charts, with the first seasonal number one appearing in 1955 with Dick Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet. And with the charts dominated the following decade by Beatlemania, it would not be until the mid-seventies that the number one slot would be taken by festive hits. With such glam rock classics as Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody and Mud’s Lonely This Christmas landing the coveted position this would become the desired achievement for many artists. Over the years a host of iconic Christmas hits have graced the top of the charts from stars as diverse as Cliff Richard to the charity project Live Aid.
Following a reworking of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? in 2004, the number one slot for the next four years would be dominated by contestants from Simon Cowell’s phenomenally successful reality show The X Factor. Among the wannabe stars that would enjoy their first taste of success at Christmas were Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke, the latter performing a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s track Hallelujah, but all this would come to an end in 2009 when an online petition would allow a rock song released almost two decades earlier to conquer the top slot. The artist in question as Rage Against the Machine and this attempt by the public to take control of the charts would have serious ramifications for the future of the music industry.
Prior to this the charts had been dictated by both the record labels and radio stations, with the labels selecting an artist’s latest single and broadcasters agreeing to promote them. But in September 2004 the industry made changes to the charts that would include the sales of downloads. As a result of this even a song not officially released as a single would become eligible for chart listing but it would not be until five years later that this would first be exploited by the public. The masterminds behind this campaign to overthrow Cowell’s reign would be an aspiring DJ and his wife who, after a failed attempt to keep Burke from the top by requesting that music fans instead download eighties pop star Rick Astley, had returned the following year with an even more ambition proposition: to make Killing in the Name the Christmas number one.
As The X Factor once again intended to dominate the Christmas radio with their latest young hopeful Joe McElderry, Jon and Tracy Morter, the couple who had tried to overthrow Burke the previous year, returned to Facebook with a brand new campaign. Eighteen-year-old McElderry was the winning contestant on the sixth series of the show and the song chosen to launch his career was a rendition of The Climb, a track released earlier in the year by actress-turned-singer Miley Cyrus for the big screen adaptation of Hannah Montana. And while the single had failed to crack the Top 10 in Britain, McElderry had won over Cowell and his fellow judges with a performance of the recent hit.
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me
With Queen having scored the last Christmas number one song for a rock act with the re-release of their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody eighteen years earlier, the festive season had become awash with pop hits from the Spice Girls to Bob the Builder and so a campaign to land Rage Against the Machine the number one spot seemed almost unthinkable. But even as Cowell’s latest sensation was being groomed for fame and fortune, elsewhere two young people prepared to launch a campaign of their own, one that they hoped would push a rebellious metal song, infamous for its declaration of ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,’ into the face of the mainstream and provide the country with its most controversial Christmas hit to date.
‘I like to keep my eye on the charts and when the rules changed in around 2005 to include downloads I was interested in how that would work,’ explained Jon Morter to author Joel McIver for the 2014 biography Know Your Enemy: The Story of Rage Against the Machine. ‘I looked into it and it stated that any download is fair game, which I realised was a major game-changer, because instead of record companies telling us, ‘Here’s your new Metallica song’ or, ‘Here’s a new Nirvana song for you,’ we can decide which song we want to be in the charts. We can say, ‘Actually, I prefer a different Nirvana song, so up yours! I don’t care if you’re releasing this one, I want that one.’ In other words, any song could be a single.’
Searching for the perfect song that would best serve as an antithesis to the generic pop that was produced by such shows as The X Factor, Morter eventually settled on Rage Against the Machine, a band who had first emerged in 1992 following the release of their critically-acclaimed eponymous debut album. Produced at a time when racial tension was at an all-time high in their native United States following the violence of the Los Angeles riots, which had been instigated by the brutal beating of African American Rodney King at the hands of the police, Killing in the Name focused less on the internal emotional struggles that bands such as Nirvana explored and instead challenged the political climate of the day, courting both accolades and controversy in equal measures.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a song that would express so much frustration and anger at the world would be released by the end of noughties. This had, after all, been the decade that had begun with 9/11, had seen a steady rise in high school shootings across North America and had seen its president, George W. Bush, labelled by many as a war criminal. ‘The kids in the UK have responded to this incredible internet campaign and I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and the United States as well,’ Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha told BBC Radio 5 Live during the week leading up the Christmas number one announcement. ‘And I think people would just love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they are experiencing in their daily lives.’
The campaign launched by Jon and Tracy Morter had requested that from 13 December 2009 fans purchased legal downloads of Killing in the Name in order to keep Burke’s single from the top of the charts and with over forty-five thousand members of the Facebook group offering their support the media began to bring attention to the race, with a hashtag even taking flight on Twitter declaring #ratm4xmas. ‘I didn’t really have any expectations when I started the campaign,’ Jon told the Official Charts. ‘Obviously I hoped it would work but you never really know when you first kick off these things. I think the tipping point for me was the Facebook group numbers going up by literally hundreds of people every few seconds, it was crazy.’
Morter, then a thirty-five-year-old hi-fi employer from South Woodham Ferrers in Chelmsford, had previously created pages on Facebook with fellow employees as a way to compete with each other for fun in what they had dubbed a Facebook Race, but it would be after discovering the potential of hashtags on social networks that he would first realised the potential for a viral campaign. ‘I checked out my Twitter on the phone and it struck me that I was finding out all of the current affairs and news before even getting into work,’ he recalled in 2013. ‘It was all very immediate and I thought to myself how Twitter would have looked in a past time, so I tweeted some very ‘old’ news for the sake of it and made an #80sTweets tag…by that Friday afternoon #80sTweets was trending No.1 in the world and had even surpassed #ff and #followfriday.’
The sudden interest in the Rage Against the Machine campaign took both Jon and Tracy by surprise and before long the press had begun to report on his attempts to thwart McElderry’s chance at landing the Christmas number one, with NME, the Guardian and even Rolling Stone in America documenting its success. And while Cowell would initially express contempt for what he considered ‘stupid,’ the band had praised what some had dubbed the Rage Factor as an ‘incredible organic grassroots campaign.’ Even as the announcement for the Christmas number one drew near Killing in the Name was only nine thousand copies ahead of McElderry but following a sudden surge of support this difference would increase to two-hundred thousand and by the end of the week between the two songs a total nine-hundred-and-fifty thousand copies had been sold.
We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that song got to number one?’
‘It was one of those little silly ideas that make you laugh in your own house,’ Tracy Morter confessed to the BBC following their victory. ‘We really love music and remember when we were young the charts were really exciting. We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that song got to number one?’ It took something really strong and forceful to get people behind it.’ To show their appreciation for all the support both Jon and Tracy Morter and their fans had shown during the campaign, Rage Against the Machine pledged that if they succeed in landing the Christmas number one slot then they would perform a free concert in England at Finsbury Park for forty-thousand fans which, true to their word, would take place on 6 June 2010 and would be released on home video five years later.
‘Rage Against the Machine is honoured to have been drafted by this historic grassroots campaign to make our song Killing in the Name the number one song on the UK Christmas Week pop chart,’ guitarist Tom Morello declared following the announcement that they had secured the top spot. ‘This is a huge victory by and for fans of real music and we extend our heartfelt thanks to every fan and freedom fighter who helped make our anthem of defiance and rebellion the Anarchy Christmas Miracle of 2009.’ Morello had also revealed that all proceeds from the sale of Killing in the Name would be donated to the homeless charity Shelter and during their concert at Finsbury Park the band presented the charity with a cheque for £162,000.
‘I am gutted for Joe because a number one single meant a lot to him but I have to congratulate Jon and Tracy, who started the Facebook campaign,’ announced Cowell on McElderry’s defeat at the hands of Rage Against the Machine. ‘I called Jon on Saturday to congratulate the two of them that, win or lose, they turned this into a very exciting race for the Christmas number one. I am proud of Joe; he worked really hard this week, but he has a great year ahead of him.’ Yet for Jon and Tracy Morter the success of the campaign demonstrated how now more than ever music fans truly have a voice. ‘I think it just shows that in this day and age if you want to say something, then you can,’ Jon told the Guardian. ‘With the help of the internet and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. If enough people are with you, you can beat the status quo.’