Rage Against Simon Cowell? A British Pop Charts Upset

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Michael Tullberg / Getty

Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello performs.

For the uninitiated, the battle in Britain to have the coveted No. 1 single at Christmas usually goes down like this: it's either won by a song extolling the merits of the time of year ("Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid); a novelty track ("Mr. Blobby" by, er, Mr. Blobby, "Can We Fix It?" by Bob the Builder); or, for the past four years, a song by the newly minted winner of The X Factor, Britain's wildly popular version of American Idol. Indeed, the chances of any act upsetting X Factor creator and judge Simon Cowell's latest protégé has been so unlikely that bookmakers wouldn't even offer odds on it. Until now.

Thanks to a ferocious Facebook campaign launched by Jon Morter, a 35-year-old part-time deejay and logistics expert from Essex, and his wife Tracy, the Californian punk group Rage Against the Machine's 1992 hit "Killing In The Name" was propelled to the top spot on download sales of roughly 500,000, beating out X Factor winner Joe McElderry's cover of Miley Cyrus's "The Climb" by 50,000 copies. It was the first time a group has topped the British charts based on download sales alone.

The Morters had become jaded by the inevitable annual rise of Cowell's newest pop star to the top of the charts and were determined to stop it, using the power of social networking and a spot of humor. (They chose to push sales of the Rage Against the Machine track because its famous refrain of "F___ you, I won't do what you tell me" is the polar opposite of any lyric sung by an X Factor winner.) And Morter was quietly confident because he's tried this before: last year, he attempted to usurp X Factor winner Alexandra Burke by driving Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" back up the charts. It didn't even break the Top 10.

This year, the Morters received some serious help: in addition to the half a million or so fans of their "Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1" page on Facebook, British comedian Peter Serafinowicz urged his 268,000-plus Twitter followers to join in. Even Sir Paul McCartney signaled his approval in an interview with Sky News, saying "it would be kind of funny if Rage Against the Machine got it [Number 1] because it would prove a point," although this didn't stop the former Beatle from appearing with McElderry on The X Factor finale earlier this month.

Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha told the BBC that the band was "very, very ecstatic about being number one," giving thanks to the "incredible organic grassroots campaign" behind the movement. Guitarist Tom Morello was slightly more forthright by saying [it has] "tapped into the silent majority of the people in the U.K. who are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another."

The U.S. group actually split up in 2000 and then got back together in 2007. The surprise No. 1 has now given them — and others — an unexpected boost. De la Rocha confirmed the band would perform a free concert in Britain next year to celebrate their chart win and is giving all the proceeds from the sales of the single to a homeless charity called Shelter. The Morters' Facebook page also includes a link to the charity's website, which has helped it raise $112,000 so far. What's more, Cowell has even acknowledged the power of the Facebook campaign, days after he complained about it, telling reporters, "I think the campaign's aimed directly at me; it's stupid." He's since phoned Morter to congratulate him and offer him and his wife jobs at his record label. (They haven't gotten back to him yet.)

If Cowell were in need of some Christmas cheer, he can take solace in the fact that he was always in a win-win situation. Rage Against The Machine's track was released by Sony BMG, and Sony owns Cowell's Syco label to which McElderry is signed — so the British No. 1 song is staying in the same corporate family. As for The X Factor winner, he's been magnanimous in defeat. "It's been exciting to be part of a much-hyped battle and they [Rage Against the Machine] definitely deserve congratulations," McElderry said. Perhaps a slightly closer look at his own song's lyrics would have provided a taste of what was to come. For as "The Climb" tells us, "Always gonna be an uphill battle / Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose."