“IT’S A WONDERFUL
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL XMAS…” :
THE BIZARRE HISTORY OF
THE CHRISTMAS RECORD
What’s the point of a Christmas single? Why bother?
It’s a shameless merchandising ploy, obviously.
But can it be anything more? A returning reminder of those
we’ve lost – like Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas”.
An obligatory shot at adding your voice to the regularly
regurgitated pantheon of pap – like The Darkness’ “Christmas Time”.
Or an increasingly desperate career-end attempt to wrench
just one more hit from a sadly over-worked formula.
Like Shakin’ Stevens or Gary Glitter. And where to now?
How do you tap into spirituality in a godless age?
Andrew Darlington tries to make sense of it all...
“ROCKIN’ AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE…”
‘They know Christmas is ‘ere when they start hearing that record’ goes Noddy Holder’s relaxed anecdote. Of course, he’s telling me about Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everbody”. But you knew that already. He leans forward, ‘the only thing that pisses me off is when I’m doing me own Christmas shopping and it’s on in every store I walk into – there it is, BLARING out, and everybody’s looking at me, pointing and going (in comic voice) ‘that’s him, he made that record!!!’ That DOES get a bit embarrassing.’ Chances are it’ll happen to him again this year. It’s impossible to avoid.
The Christmas record. Hate them or hate them, you can’t escape them. So be afraid. In an industry not exactly renowned for taste, sensitivity or artistic integrity, seasonal schlock has been responsible for some of the vilest atrocities ever inflicted upon the human ear. Christmas comes but once a year, but when it does, it brings Slade, Band Aid, Phil Spector, Elvis, John & Yoko, the Pogues & Kirsty MacColl… and now The Darkness.
So where do I begin? With the first snowflake and ruddy-breasted robin on sentimental Victorian illustrations? The shopping-mall Santa’s in their Coca-Cola TM colours? Or the cloying yet strangely affecting Yiddish cadences of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, invested with the exact measure of yearning and cosy nostalgia that makes it an all-time hyper-seller. Originally featured in the movie ‘Holiday Inn’ (1942), then spun-off into immortality by the black-and-white movie-clip where avuncular fossil Bing Crosby croons to the wistfully attentive and adoringly rapt June Reynolds, it comes from a time the world forgot, before record-charts and Top Forty radio, to become the biggest selling single of all time. You’ll hear it again this Cool Yule, you know you will.
But oddly – when you take it all the way back to the earliest published Top Twenty charts, listing records cut on shellac as the 1950’s 78rpm gives way to new-fangled seven-inch 45’s, the illusion persists that religion is something of a necessary ingredient to the Xmas hit. Illogical – but after all, this was an age where to be an ‘unbeliever’ was to be the exception, rather than the healthier more tolerant more inclusive reverse situation that prevails today. Hence you get Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy-child” – not only a 1957 chart-topper for seven weeks, but also the first record to sell a million copies in the UK alone, around the same time that saccharine Pop-harmonies are propelling the hit-song story of the “Little Donkey” that carries a pregnant Mary towards Bethlehem. While the “Little Drummer Boy”, using an episode obviously omitted from the gospels, plays his best drum for the ‘new-born king’ as the ‘ox and ass keep time’. The song gets revisited by David Bowie in an uneasy TV partnership with an aging Bing Crosby many years later – on the crooning cardigan’s ‘Merrie Olde Christmas’ TV special, in what Bowie’s biographer David Buckley celebrates as ‘one of the most surreal events in Pop’. Yes – that one-time Scary Monster bisexual coke-snorting Ziggy Stardust. And yes, that same Harry Lillis ‘Bing’ Crosby who’d carved out an early career as a jazz vocalist recording with giants Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, and Count Basie – as well as Louis Armstrong. Odder still, Bing finally found himself charting posthumously with the Thinner Whiter Duke a couple of years after the heart attack that killed him, after completing his last round of golf.
But in tune with that long-lost era, all of these hits work at their most simple-minded ‘Christmas-Story-in-pictures’ level, direct, unquestioning. Designed for an audience soothed by the repetition of their reassuring message. Of course, we now know that the Catholic Grinch had merely stolen Christmas from the healthier pagan solstice rituals. There’s not even any real evidence that the birth of a mid-eastern mystic twenty centuries ago occurs anywhere near this time. Probably it didn’t. Informed consensus says it was more likely some time around Easter. But then – hey, we already have Easter, so why confuse a good party with awkward facts?
“SANTA CLAUS IS BACK IN TOWN…”
Yuletide hits go from the cringingly dire, such as Dickie Valentine’s “Christmas Alphabet” which has the audacity to displace Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” at no.1 for a trio of weeks in December 1955, to the haunting “Scarlet Ribbons” written and interpreted by the incomparable Harry Belafonte. A singer and actor born in the Harlem ghetto, a black sex symbol a decade before Sidney Poitier, Belafonte worked his way up through clubs singing Folk songs, and through the ‘American Negro Theatre’ into acting, until his 1957 movie role opposite Joan Fontaine in ‘Island In The Sun’ led to the Ku-Klux Klan torching cinemas to ‘protect’ the young from his liberating influence. A politically radical life-time campaigner against racial injustice he was able to use his resulting high-profile celebrity to lead anti-segregation marches beside Martin Luther King. Yet in this Festive hit he’s merely a poor man, a loving father, who is tortured by his inability to buy the one gift his daughter most wants – ‘scarlet ribbons for her hair’. Until – returning home later, he finds her bed inexplicably inundated with them. The rich silky depth of his voice rises in mystified awe as he’s unable to explain their miraculous appearance. The implication – of course, is divine intervention. But we’ll let that pass.
With the new popularity of long-playing record albums, it seems that every artist with an eye to maximising their seasonal percentage had to have a Festive set on the market decked out in tinsel and holly-wreaths – Perry Como, the Beach-Boys, Johnny Mathis, the Carpenters… and Elvis, naturally. For Elvis it formed the first phase of his retaliation against the outraged moral guardians who were busy self-righteously condemning his sinful stage-antics. It was also a chance for him to draw upon those deeply ingrained Gospel roots he’d carried with him from those childhood Church Sundays at the ‘First Assembly of God’, and use them to vindicate himself in the sceptical eyes of the great American mainstream. He began by performing a moving “Peace in the Valley” on the nationwide event-TV ‘Ed Sullivan Show’. His interpretation conjuring the power of a transcendent vision of Heaven-on-Earth, one capable of transfiguring the world from weary pain and strife – something Presley, even at this early stage of his career, could find solace in. Emoting his plea for redemption with a deep sincerity sufficient to convince Mr & Mrs White America that beneath the hard-Rocking Satanic sex-animal there was a god-fearing mother-loving good ole boy. Combined with a personal intensity strong enough to touch the stony heart of even the most atheistic ear. Recorded at the Hollywood ‘Radio Recorders’ Studio between the 12th and the 19th January 1957 with the classic line-up of guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D.J. Fontana, bass-player Bill Black and the smooth supporting close-harmony vocals of the Jordanaires, it emerged as a charting EP soon after.
Never one to miss a commercial opportunity, he followed it up with an album balancing the sacred with the profane in more or less equal proportions, like a hoodlum Santa arriving in a big black Cadillac, his bulging gift-sack generously packed with the future hit single “Blue Christmas” (for both Elvis and Shakin’ Stevens), as well as his own idiosyncratic take on “White Christmas”, and the surreal innovation that must be the first-ever down-and-dirty Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas song, Leiber & Stoller’s “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”.
The only other Xmas long-player worth your serious investigation is ‘A Christmas Gift For You’, re-titled ‘Phil Spector’s Christmas Album’ for its 1972 Apple-label re-release. Laboured over for almost half a year at the Los Angeles ‘Gold Star Studios’ at a (then)-astronomical budget in excess of £15,000, with his Philles stable of artists, an all-star studio orchestra including Leon Russell on piano, Steve Douglas’ roaring baritone-sax, plus Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Sonny Bono (playing the horse’s-hooves effects on “Sleigh Ride”) and Jack Nitzsche, it resulted in what remains indisputably the quintessential Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas album. Only, on its originally scheduled release date – November 22nd 1963, President John F. Kennedy had the inconvenient misfortune to get himself assassinated in Dallas, and in Spector’s words ‘nobody was vaguely interested in buying records, let alone a jolly Christmas album’. As a result, it took almost a decade before its timeless brilliance was recognised, and rescued. A sound that’s never been bettered, exemplified by the Crystals “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, the Ronettes delicious “Frosty The Snowman”, or the infectious enthusiasm of Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Spector himself voices-over his own greetings-card message – ‘of course, the biggest thanks goes to YOU, for giving me the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music I love’. In print it sounds to be schmaltz overkill, yet somehow, against the odd, it works. For this is also the album from which one of Darlene Love’s four exquisite contributions, Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich’s “Christmas Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, is lifted by Steven Spielberg to play over the credits of his ‘Gremlins’ (1984) movie, perfectly evoking the warm Frank Capra-style nostalgia of festive small-town USA. As Spielberg well knows, it’s that kind of album.
Elsewhere, things aren’t quite so good. The first phase of Adam Faith’s diverse career – as Pop Idol, is not exactly enhanced by “Lonely Pup (in a Christmas Shop)”, a cutesy-trite proto ‘A dog is not just for Xmas’ warning to us all, with an ineptitude way beyond the damage-limitation salvage that even John Barry’s string arrangements can deliver. But this was a stupid time when, at regular twelve-month intervals the inky Pop press would break out into a rash of silly-Santa covers, with some embarrassed Beat Group or other – say Freddie & the Dreamers, or Gerry & the Pacemakers, kitted out in red suits and stick-on beards for photo-shoots beside the Xmas tree.
More sensibly, the Beatles don’t do things like seasonal hits. What they do do is mail out a series of seven flexi-disc Xmas messages exclusively to members of their fan-club (dated between December 1963 through to December 1969). Now hotly bootlegged and much sought-after the first few are simply a ‘Hi, and thanks for the year’ audio letter. In a limited edition of just 65,000 copies, the second one fades in with a kazoo and harmonica rendition of “Jingle Bells”, and Paul McCartney’s wacky gaffe ‘we hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the records as much as we’ve enjoyed melting them… no, that’s wrong – ‘making’ them’. While the sleeve informs us ‘this disc will not be in the hit parade’ and ‘additional copies will not be pressed’.
But year-on-year these annual bulletins from Beatles-central complexify into the full 1966 ‘PANTOMIME: EVERYWHERE IT’S CHRISTMAS’, with “Yesterday” re-written to include the line ‘I believe in Christmas Day’, a Bob Dylan-styled “Old Lang Syne”, a snatch of the Four Tops “It’s The Same Old Song”, and a threatened “We’ll Gather Lilacs In An Old Brown Shoe”. With the flexi’s previously done as an after-thought tacked-on at the end of album sessions this longest-yet edition is done in time specially booked at the Dick James Music Studio in New Oxford Street and comes complete with surreal audio-sketches in John Lennon’s absurdist ‘Spaniard In The Works’-style, such as “A Rare Cheese (Two Elderly Scotsmen)” and the Spike Milligan oddness of “Podgy The Bear And Jasper” (already performed as part of their Hammersmith Odeon Xmas Show, with Paul as the hero, George the heroine, John the villain, and Ringo throwing snow around as the Props-effects man). There’s even manic Goon-ish songs like “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back” (‘I wasn’t hardly gone a year / when it became the scene, / banjos, banjos, all the time / – I can’t forget that tune’). The fifth flexi-disc, ‘CHRISTMAS TIME (IS HERE AGAIN)’, ‘another little bite of the Apple’ for 1967, is even issued in a full ‘Sgt Pepper’-style collage sleeve, and opens with John Lennon announcing the ‘Interplanetary Remix Take 444’. He then reappears in the guise of ‘Audition Announcer’, ‘Sir Gerald’, ‘The Quizmaster’ on a spoof TV Quiz Show, and an incomprehensible ‘Scottish Poet’, alongside special guest interventions by ‘the feet and voice’ of Victor U Spinetti (who does a tap-dance routine with Ringo!), Malcolm Lift-Evans, and George Martin playing organ. Interspersed with mock-commercials, manic laughter, songs like “Plenty Of Jam-Jars, Baby”, and ‘augmented applause recorded on location in Dublin’. A good time is guaranteed for all. If you happen to have a full set of these in playable condition, you’re sitting on a rare treat.
“IF EVERY DAY WAS LIKE CHRISTMAS…”
The only sociologically redeeming aspects of 1970’s Christmas Pop is that Jesus no longer gets a look in. From now on it’s the party that’s important. Get dressed up. Get drunk. Fall over. Away from the serious heavy Prog-Rockers the new teen-gods were embarrassingly eager to plug into consumerism’s Yuletide gross-out. All Glam and glitter and already trussed up like oven-ready turkeys, Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everbody” – their final no.1, tops the chart for no less than five weeks in 1973, going on to clock up no less than thirty weeks on the lists. And bizarrely, it’s probably Noddy Holder’s most enduring contribution to chart history. ‘It just goes on and on and on,’ he confides. ‘It’s probably the one everybody will always think ‘THIS IS THE ONE’, even though I personally don’t think it’s the best record we ever made. Funnily enough “Merry Xmas Everybody” never actually gets re-released. It’s just never been deleted. It’s been on sale continuously. If you want to try, you can buy it at any time of the year. You just have to order it. And I don’t think there’s ANY other record that’s been on sale for that long – EVER!’
‘I wrote that lyric all in one night!’ he elaborates. ‘I’d been down the pub, got a bit pissed up, couldn’t drive ‘ome. So I stayed over at mi Mam’s ‘ouse. I’d already got the first two lines – ‘are you hanging up your stockings on the wall’, but I wanted to get the rest finished. Me Mam’d got a little bottle of whisky in the sideboard. So I sat down at 1 o’clock in the morning, got that bottle out, and by four or five I’d finished all the lyrics to the song. I’d set out to get a Working Class Christmassy-type feel to it. So I thought of all the Working Class Christmassy-type things I could think of to cram into the song. And probably two of the best lines lyrically that I ever did are in that song. Which are ‘does your Granny always tell you that the old songs are the best, then she’s up and Rock ‘n’ Rolling with the best’ – and we’ve ALL ‘ad it. Your Granny comes round at Christmas. You put a new record on and she says ‘ah, that stuff’s not as good as it was in my day’. But give ‘er a couple of sherry’s and she’s up and twisting and showing her knickers. It happens in every family. It’s those sort-of things I wanted to capture. And I think it works. Yet if you listen to the record, there are no Christmas gimmicks on it, no sleigh-bells, no jingle-bells at all. The only thing Christmassy about it are the lyrics. It’s a straightforward Pop-Rock song, that happens to be about Christmas. It’s probably the only Christmas hit that’s ever been like that. And funnily enough – in France, it got to no.1 at Easter!’
Meanwhile, Roy Wood was master-minding Wizzard’s more artfully Spectoresque “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” (no.4 in 1973, re-charting in 1981 and 1984), an impenetrably rich layer-cake coated with an inch-thick icing made up of the Suedettes, sleigh-bells, a children’s choir and ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’s in the fade. While Paul McCartney was writing one of his most clumsily inept lyrics for Wings sad festive fare, and Mud were aping Elvis doing it. Their Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman-penned Presley pastiche, “Lonely this Christmas” sat at no.1 for four weeks through December 1974. Gary Glitter did it. Shakin’ Stevens did it. Tediously. And even those seriously-heavy Prog-Rockers got in on the act with Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” charting 1975, 1982, and then again in 1983. As the Damned say – via the Marx Brothers, ‘there ain’t no Sanity Clause’.
Steeleye Span do it in Latin (“Gaudete”), while Jethro Tull remember the true (Pagan) meaning of Christmas (“Ring Out Solstice Bells”), and George Harrison skips a week and goes for New Year instead (“Ding Dong”). John and Yoko, with Phil Spector in tow, use their Plastic Ono Band green-vinyl single to fuse the trashy yuletide feel-good factor with political purpose – at the time “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was originally recorded the Vietnam war was still a nightly TV atrocity. And taking yet another course, Johnny Mathis – eighteen years after his first Xmas success with “Winter Wonderland”, gives a bizarrely interdenominational racially non-specific twist to the messiah’s supposed Second Coming with “When A Child Is Born” (no.1 for three weeks in December 1976). While Boney M wear massive white fur coats and take it all back to the 1950’s with their revitalisation of the Belafonte-penned “Mary’s Boy-Child” (no.1 for four weeks through December 1978).
It all begins to beg the question what is the point of a Christmas single anyway? Why bother? It’s a shameless merchandising ploy, obviously. But can it be anything more? A returning reminder of those we’ve lost – like Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas” (1984). An obligatory shot at adding your voice to the regularly regurgitated pantheon of pap – like Elton’s genial bounce-along “Step Into Christmas” (1973). Or an increasingly desperate career-end attempt to wrench just one more hit out of a sadly over-worked formula. Like Shakin’ Stevens and Gary Glitter.
And where can it all go now? As the Darkness ask – ‘When Will The Bells End?’ How do you tap into spirituality in a godless age? Cliff Richard is still trying – shamelessly using a seasonal anaesthetic to disguise his cartoon-simple coded Christian metaphors into the chart. And although he’s succeeded time and again, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Band Aid are more accurately attuned to the zeitgeist, striking all the correct nexuses of consumer moral guilt and charitable benevolence with an all-star cast and a ridiculously catchy hook. “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, the first and greatest of all the charity singles, sells a cool three-and-a-half million copies in the UK alone, stays at no.1 for five weeks in December 1984 while holding Wham’s “Last Christmas” in second place, then goes on to spawn sequel singles and the Live Aid event. Superficial, ego-driven? Sure. But it achieves something more than all of those smugly pious 1950’s songs which merely quote or misquote antique myth-texts. For if Christmas is to be about anything, this is about as good as it can get. Global consciousness. Wealth redistribution. A slight tinge of ‘love’ in a left-over biblical sense for an agnostic age.
Since then – if it wasn’t already so ridiculously ludicrous, it would be tempting to say that from now on it gets really silly. Mister Blobby. “Nelly the Elephant”. East 17. Bruce Springsteen. Jive Bunny. “Bob the Builder”. Even the mighty Chumbawamba. And it’s even more difficult to say where it’s going now. Product targeting is so precise a science it seems to overlook the essentially ephemeral nature of the seasonal hit altogether. Despite the perennially annual air-play reappearance of such phenomena. And as the year-end spending orgy remains the highest sales turnover period, powered with gift tokens and present-purchasing, singles can so easily get lost in the floods of mammon if they don’t get super-charged by the cross-media tie-in incentives of a ‘Pop Idol’ to amplify awareness. But instead, the endless recycling up-gears. Until, surely even Noddy Holder must get sick of hearing his own Xmas hit? ‘No. I’m PROUD of it. When I hear it on the radio, or in a Club or a Pub today, it doesn’t sound dated to me, it still sounds quite fresh. It stands the test of time, which is the test of a good Pop record. And it still sells every year, so it’s a nice little pension for us too. It’s a great record and I think it’s got a fondness in everybody’s heart.’ Well, maybe.
But the greatest of them all? I’m watching a slurred Shane MacGowan and a wonderful Kirsty MacCall doing “Fairytale of New York” on a Festival stage in Leeds’ Roundhay Park in August. Yet even in this late-summer sunshine it’s a transfixing spectacle – evoking a range of reactions from poetic wistfulness to comedy as Shane forgets his own lyrics and she has to coax and lead him, waltzing him gently into the next verse convincing – as if you need convincing, that this is the finest seasonal record ever made.
‘HOT PRESS’ December 2003 (Eire)