The blog goes multi media!
When I was a child, the release of a Christmas single meant Santa was definitely on his way. Consequently quality was not an issue – if a record was about Christmas it was fine by me.
Nowadays, however, my critical faculties have developed, and filling a song with jingle bell sounds, references to Santa and general all-round merriment just doesn’t cut it. To be worthy of my attention, a Christmas song needs a decent melody, witty and/or meaningful lyrics and to be well sung. With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a few of my favourites.
Just to be clear, a Christmas song has to have more than passing relevance to the season of goodwill and rampant commercialism. Being number one at Christmas is never, of itself, going to be enough – sorry X-Factor winners. There’s a lovely Dolly Parton song called “Hard Candy Christmas” which likens the aftermath of a painful relationship break-up to a miserable Christmas. I’d love to include it here but other than the line “Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas” there is no relevance whatsoever. And however many bells East 17 may have thrown at “Stay Another Day”, it’s not making it onto my list.
Sadly, I also have to rule out “River” by Joni Mitchell. For all its minor key “Jingle Bells” intro and references to “cutting down trees”, “putting up reindeer” and “songs of joy and peace” it’s never going to be a Christmas song and I’m only mentioning it now to pre-empt my brother’s enquiry.
So in no particular order, here are the songs that will always make it onto my Christmas playlist :-
1) “December Will Be Magic Again” by Kate Bush. Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”, Saint Nicholas up the chimney, kisses under misteltoe. It’s about Christmas. It’s by Kate Bush. Do I really need to say anything else? For those who are not yet convinced I’ll just add the fact that it was originally released as a single in the middle of November, far too early for record-buyers to fall for its festive charm, thus demonstrating Kate’s lack of interest in the financial aspects of the music business and somehow acting as a metaphor for the commercialism of Christmas.
2) “That’ll Be Christmas” by Thea Gilmore. Beautifully sung with sharply observed commentary on the modern British Christmas and an underlying hint of sadness. Bonus points awarded for the lines “Hot wine and a Christmas tree/The Sound of Music and the family/Faith, hope and gluttony/That’ll be Christmas”.
3) “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. Bonkers rap song about two people who spend the entire year failing to get it together then finally bond over an emergency purchase of cranberries to go with their tragically tiny turkeys at an all-night grocery store which I assume is in Manhattan. What’s not to like? Fun fact – the Spice Girls covered this. Less fun fact – it was rubbish.
4) “Christmas Without You” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Kenny and Dolly are spending Christmas apart so they’re blue, even though the Christmas is white. A bit like “Lonely This Christmas” by Mud but with a good tune and decent lyrics. It’s not entirely clear why they are apart. Painful relationship break-up which Dolly can then sing about on “Hard Candy Christmas”? Work commitments? One of them died of winter flu? The last one isn’t very likely – I don’t think Kenny or Dolly would duet with a dead person. Come to think of it, how are they managing to sing a duet while they’re apart? Maybe they’re Facetiming.
5) “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Apparently there are people who don’t like this song. These people probably like the records on my Grinch list. But seriously, what is wrong with them? How can anyone not relate to “I could’ve been someone/Well so could anyone”? Is that not up there with the finest couplets of Shakespeare? Obviously the people who don’t like it are in a minority – first released in 1987, the song has been in the UK Top 20 every year since 2005 and is a contender for this year’s Christmas number 1.
Things could have been very different. The song was originally meant to be recorded as a duet between Shane MacGowan and Cait O’Riordan, The Pogues’ lead singer and bassist respectively. Somewhere between writing and recording however, O’Riordan left the band to marry Elvis Costello, leaving them without a female vocalist for the record. Kirsty MacColl was eventually drafted in as a substitute and musical magic happened.
There have been objections over the years to the use of the supposedly offensive words “slut” and “faggot” in the lyrics. Apparently “arse” is fine. As a gay man, I would be offended if someone addressed me as “faggot” and I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call any woman “slut”. However, the song is telling a story and the characters in that story have decades of hurt, anger and broken dreams between them. They can call each other what they like.
6)”Gaudete” by Steeleye Span. “Rejoice, rejoice/Christ is born/Of the Virgin Mary/Rejoice”. What could say Christmas more clearly than that? Except it’s in Latin which made it simultaneously exotic and magical to the ten year-old I was when I first heard it.
7)”Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon. Here’s a little confession which will alienate half my readership. I was never a fan of John Lennon. Didn’t like the image, didn’t like the voice, didn’t like the music. His murder, 36 years ago today, was a tragedy for his family and friends but didn’t impact upon me personally. “Imagine” is one of the worst songs I have ever heard and, even now, is playing on repeat in my personal vision of hell (which I refuse to imagine there isn’t). If it makes you feel any better, I was never a fan of the Beatles anyway, or of any of them individually, so I’m not singling him out.
But there’s just something about this song. I’ve read through the lyrics just now, trying unsuccessfully to find some trace of sarcasm or cynicism. It’s a genuinely sweet song with a message I can relate to – a hope that we can all be happy this Christmas and just try to get along. Every time I hear it I find myself caught up in the hope that maybe things can be different – better – for all of us.
But I still refuse to imagine there’s no countries.
8) “The Saint Stephen’s Day Murders” by Thea Gilmore and Mark Radcliffe. Show me someone who’s never wanted to kill at least one relative on Boxing Day and I’ll show you a liar.
So having got the goodies out of the way, what are the Christmas songs I really hate? Actually, there’s only one – most Christmas songs are just dull or over-exposed because the really bad ones rarely get played. But there is one exception :-
“I Believe In Father Christmas” by Greg Lake. If you don’t pay too much attention to it, this seems like a lovely song. Jingling bells, Prokofiev’s Sleigh Ride, angel choirs – it’s got the lot. But have you listened to the words? Miserable drizzle instead of the promised snow at Christmas, waking up just in time to figure out that Santa is actually your dad/your mum’s new boyfriend/some random from the pub, a fairy story about the Israelite (that’s Baby Jesus to the rest of us). Basically his parents lied to him about everything and it’s not fair. Then we get the last line, “The Christmas we get we deserve” with its implication that we’ll all spend the day crying into our Babycham. Maybe it’s not what was intended but this always sounds to me like the most mean-spirited Christmas song ever. If you want to hear it you’ll have to track it down yourselves because I’m not putting it on my blog.
STOP PRESS : RIP Greg Lake