Blogmas#4 Christmas Songs

One of the things we often forget is that most Christmas songs are recorded in the summer so it’s a miracle that any of them manage to evoke snow, tinsel or indeed figgy pudding, whatever that is. So let’s take a look at some well known festive ditties and see how they fare nowaday. (NB This was first posted in 2015 but I repost every year with the odd amendment because Christmas is all about tradition...)

Slade- Merry Xmas Everybody
The quintessential Crimbo song started out with a different lyric before Noddy and co decided to amend the earworm of a tune to encompass the festive season. It is timeless because it describes the sort of Xmas that is of its time; the 1970s.  Now more than forty years old it seems as much part of the tradition as mince pies and Xmas lights. The lyric is masterful; conjuring up crowded rooms, homemade decorations, party hats, big dinners and embarrassing relatives while tied to a bouncy tune that would translate into other genres if someone tried. Imagine a dance version? It’d be fantastic. This is the yardstick against which all post 1973 Xmas songs must be measured and few have matched it. “It’s Christmaaaaas!!” yells Nod at the end in case we hadn’t quite got the message. And as soon as you hear this, it is.

Mud- Lonely This Christmas
There are two sides to the season. One is party time-mince pies- presents. The other is that some people have had a bad year, or are lonely or down and being surrounded by party popping celebrating goons is perhaps not their idea of a good time. This song then is for them. Unfortunately its delivery leaves something to be desired. For ages I’ve hoped someone would cover this song properly, make it really emotional and meaningful. Mud’s singer Les Gray however believed he was Elvis Presley and its altogether plausible that if you heard this on tinny headphones with no knowledge of who it was you might think it was the King. It is only the Pretender though. His singing makes the song jokey, a pastiche that does no service to the lyrics. It nonetheless makes a bold statement about the side of Xmas most people don’t even care to notice unless of course it’s them this year. Talking of which…

Band Aid- Do they Know Its Christmas
This gargantuan song dominates the seasonal playlists nowadays and there’s no doubting the good work that has resulted from its existence. There is much to like, especially the original version which has a muffled quality borne from not having weeks to refine the production, as well as trying to spot who gets which line. Try for example to pinpoint the moment when Tony Hadley starts and finishes. Recently the lyrics have been questioned. For example asking whether “they know it’s Christmas time at all” suggests cultural ignorance while the weather related line that there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas rather ignores the fact that in large parts of the continent it never snows anyway whether or not there is famine.  The most recent version of what has become a regularly regenerated song changes some of these lyrics but has come under fire for maintaining a patronising view. This seems churlish in the extreme; after all it doesn’t even snow that much in the UK yet our seasonal songs go on and on  and on about the snow. Like for example..

Shakin Stevens- Merry Xmas Everyone
“Snow is falling…all around.” You see what I mean? Shaky is another pretend Elvis and his festive offering has become a staple feature of this time of year. Remarkably it only has four musical lines that are repeated endlessly for about six hours. OK I might be exaggerating but you must have heard it and thought it had finished when it goes da dum dum dum. Pause. “Snow is falling…” No it hasn’t finished. It’s great for parties though and remains one of Shaky’s best efforts in a career that did rely a lot on repetition. Well can you really tell all his other hits apart?

Mariah Carey-  All I Want for Xmas is You
Cheers Mariah. Oh she’s not actually talking to me or indeed to you but to someone special. This is a gorgeous creation that fulfils all the criteria you’d hope for. It’s catchy without being irritating, festive without being overdone and sounds great delivered through any medium. It’s also hopelessly romantic and let’s face it if we can’t be bowled over by that around this time of year then when can we? Probably the last great Christmas single before it all became about The X Factor and sausage rolls. Of course some may find it too sugary in which case..

Jona Lewie- Stop the Cavalry
Never intended as a Christmas single at all the presence of bells and a December setting have turned this tale of soldiers far from home into a festive classic. Jona’s deadpan delivery is a perfect antidote for those who find the season altogether too jolly and prefer a melancholic approach. It proves you don’t need to sing about Santa or stockings to invoke the season but then again it does help to have some reference to Christmas in it…. doesn’t it guys?

East 17- Stay Another Day.
Mmm, as Lord Sugar would mumble disapprovingly. This became a Xmas single because of bells but is just a song about not wanting someone to leave. “Please stay another day” begs Brian who would later become renowned as the world’s worst driver when he managed to run himself over. “No” gran declares, “Not if you’re giving me a lift.” Mind you it is a great single if you ignore the bells and marked a rare E17 track without a rubbish rap in it.

Elton John- Step into Christmas
An example of when it doesn’t work. Despite his mega status, general songwriting genius and the fact it’s a festive song this was a rare flop for Seventies Elt during his first Imperial period. Somehow it never really sounds Christmassy enough (maybe he should have added more bells?)  and is somewhat forgettable. Still, seeing as the previous single was `Goodbye Yellow Brick Road` and the next was `Candle in the Wind` I’m sure neither he nor anyone else was bothered.

Queen - Thank God It's Christmas
Another mega artist who couldn't quite muster enough musical tinsel for this time of year. A minor hit only, the focus is on what a difficult year its been but now its time for eggnog or something. Somehow it's not jolly enough.

Wizzard – I wish It Could be Christmas Every Day
Cheeky scamps they were Wizzard managed to carve three hits out of basically the same tune! It is amazing how many seasonal songs utilise rock and roll signatures; Mariah, Shaky and this gem featuring the only man with more beard than Santa, Roy Wood. Of course, great though the song is, Roy hasn’t considered the practicalities of his wish. Would we really want a full Christmas dinner with all the trimmings in the middle of Summer? Tinsel always looks rubbish after Xmas as well. As for all those mince pies- what effects would result from eating them all year round?

Wham- Last Christmas
It’s difficult to separate this from its video of jumper wearing rich people at play because if you scan the lyrics it’s a really good song about disappointment. “Last Christmas I gave you my heart” declares George Wham, “but the very next day you gave it away.” Why then does he invite her on his expensive skiing holiday? Hilariously there was recently a film that took the lyric a little too literally.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono- Happy Xmas war is over
An admirable attempt to shoehorn some politics into the season by the former Beatle and noted grump. The presence of children singing, those bells and a sentiment that, bless him, probably seemed great on paper complete an unusual Crimbo anthem. Until The Pogues came along this was regularly declared th the best festive single by critics and people who don't like have fun.

Chris Rea- Driving Home for Christmas
Of all the well known Christmas singles this one eschews festive cliches to describe a father driving home in time for Christmas. Nothing incredible happens along the way despite the title suggesting one of those American comedy movies packed with mishaps on the journey. Yet is is an important journey and its probably a good thing he scrapped a planned last verse where he got there and everyone was out so he opened a can of Stella and watched Netflix even though it wasn't invented yet.

Greg Lake- I Believe in Father Christmas
The L in ELP teams up with lyricist Pete Sinfield for a somewhat reluctant celebration of the season which he felt had become too commercialised. "The Xmas you get you deserve" is the bitter payoff line though I suppose people having a good time would agree. The sentiment does seem a little harsh on some though. BTW my one fact about Greg Lake is that he used to have his own piece of carpet on stage. 

The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
If `Fairytale of New York` is everyone’s publicly declared favourite Xmas ditty, this may well be a lot of people’s guilty pleasure. `Sung` in a deadpan near rap by Patty Donahue, `Christmas Wrapping` sees the season through the eyes of a housewife who initially wants to “miss this one, this year” until she meets a man while shopping and changes her mind. First released in 1981 it eschews most of the usual sonic trimmings for a more ordinary look at the hustle and bustle of Christmas and is extremely charming to listen to at any time of year which is sort of the opposite of….

Bing Crosby - White Christmas
The old warhorse of seasonal songs, `White Christmas`, is what it is with no apologies. Like a lot of standards it grates through over familiarity yet its simple message of hope and love endures. However come Boxing Day you do not want to hear it again. Bing’s version sounds a tad old nowadays but you can guarantee someone will do a new version every year.

Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime
Trust Macca to knit two words together as one just as he creates a festive song that taps into both the modern and the traditional. Using similar observational lyrics to Slade’s `Merry Xmas Everybody`, this song is depicting a slightly less working class celebration and sprinkles all sorts of seasonal sounds through its running time. Light as a soufflé it is a confection that somehow cannot be covered by any other artist which of course ensures our Paul gets all the royalties.

The Pogues feat  Kirsty McColl  - Fairytale of New York
It is now as traditional as Xmas itself to say that this is the best Xmas single ever because it swerves around sentiment with a bittersweet realistic edge. Granted this is true but Shane’s vocals are something else proving that just because you wrote the song doesn’t mean you really must sing it. Or as we call this do the vocals. Luckily Kirsty makes it magic.

Coldplay- Christmas Lights
Rather like Elton decades earlier, the Coldplayers didn’t really think their Crimble offering through. This is basically a sort of stop-start Coldplay tune that was probably left off their most recent album that year for good reason. A song to consciously uncouple from.

Various  -We wish you a Merry Christmas
This is Various’ second most successful song after `Happy Birthday`and being considerably wordier is seen as the more sophisticated of the two.  It dates back to the sixteenth century. “We wish you a merry Christmas” it begins meaning that it can only be sung by more than one person. Nobody ever sings “I wish you a merry Christmas` do they? Actually the original lyric did say `I` as opposed to `We`. As if the sentiment needs reaffirming they repeat the phrase again. And a third time. Just when you think they’re overegging the whole thing they suddenly add on “And a happy new year”.  The bane of Christmas card manufacturers everywhere the ubiquity of the words has always scuppered attempts to get people to buy separate Happy New Year cards.
In truth the song becomes somewhat nagging after this; over a further four or five verses the initially cheery sentiment gives way to repeated demands for figgy pudding and the threat of a sit in if it is not delivered. “We won’t go until we’ve got some” they cry probably meaning the police have to be called and what supplies of figgy pudding there are have to be quickly removed to a place of safety. Because these revellers, soused with mulled wine, will tear the place apart from figgy pudding. Frankly they’re welcome to it. 

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