Christmas songs can be cheesy; they can be memorable.
And in the UK for the last few years, they’ve been dominated by winners of TV talent shows including the ubiquitous X-Factor.
That is, until 2009. That season saw a mass mobilisation of Internet music fans who, rather than see the Christmas Number One slot go to what they saw as another interchangeable pop puppet, grouped together to purchase, instead, a thumpingly independent-minded song by Rage Against the Machine entitled Killing In The Name. The campaign raised $110,000 for charity and did indeed keep a song by X-Factor winner Joe McElderry off the top spot.
Buoyed by this, when Christmas 2010 came around, a group of music fans in the UK got together to once more try and reclaim the charts. This time, however, the track would be a cover version of the controversial piece by John Cage, 4’33”, the most famous ‘silent’ piece in classical music.
Managing the Facebook campaign were Dave and Julie Hilliard and John Rogers of Brainlove Records. According to Julie, the campaign was started as a joke in the summer by husband Dave, who had seen a host of copycat campaigns on Facebook and felt that they were missing the point of the Rage campaign in 2010.
“It was just a jokey reaction and he just thought of the most outrageous thing to suggest for Number One. John Cage’s 4”33 is his most infamous piece which is all about ambient sound. We sent it to a few friends who we thought might have found it funny and it seemed to capture people’s imaginations,” said Mrs Hilliard.
Indeed, by early December the Facebook group numbered close to 100,000 members and had attracted interest not just from media worldwide but also music legends including folk protest singer and social commentator, Billy Bragg, and influential DJ, Eddy Temple-Morris.
“Eddy had access to a lot of people who we didn’t; people who could deal with the Cage estate, legal matters about copyright and the re-release,” said Julie.
One problem was that as the original piece was in three movements, it wasn’t chart-eligible, so a re-recording was scheduled and charities chosen who would benefit from sales, including Nordoff-Robbins music therapy, British Tinnitus Association, Sound & Music, Youth Music and CALM.
The record was produced by Paul Epworth, a Brit award-winning UK producer and musician who has worked with Primal Scream, The Futureheads and Plan B. The track was performed by a host of UK indie music stars including The Kooks and Orbital. Billy Bragg literally phoned his performance in on the day. It was released on Wall of Sound Records.
Dave Hilliard thanked the musicians for their presence during the recording and for contributing to a special arrangement.
In the event, the X-Factor single, When We Collide, by Matt Cardle, sold a suspiciously ironic 433,000 units to take the top spot. Meanwhile, with 16,000, Cage Against the Machine went into the charts at Number 21.
“John Cage felt there was no such thing as silence; the hum of the refrigerator in the corner of the room, your stomach gurgling, your breath, the blood pumping in your system: all of these miniscule sounds are the music and that’s what this piece is about – experiencing all the sounds that are around in that moment.
“When we re-recorded it, the occasional cough, someone swallowing, moving… we did two takes of it and in the second one a Blackberry went off. That’s a performance of 4’33”. For some people it was about beating Simon Cowell and X-Factor, but it’s about honouring John Cage and raising money for really underfunded charities – we were the only charity single this year. At Christmas time people reflect about their lives, about underprivileged people and this is a great way to share and to be part of that.”
Hilliard said that the chart placing was a great achievement.
“It’s a great achievement. For something that started as a joke, and doesn’t feature a single deliberate note being played by the musicians, I think Number 21 is incredible. It’s good to see that even though fashions in music change, John Cages 4’33’’ is still as radical and challenging to people as when it was first performed in 1952.
“Lots of people have been talking about trying to do it again next year, and they can do what they want to, but for me there would be no point in trying to do it again. I think there are interesting possibilities about developing this project, but it might not be me that takes it on. I will be only too pleased to get back to normal life!”