Merry Xmas Everybody!

2017-12XmasSongsBy KJ Elsdon

In his popular 1998 novel, About A Boy, author Nick Hornby explains his main protagonist, Will Freeman’s idle and dissolute lifestyle as the result of being able to live the high life on the back of royalties from his father’s enduringly successful Christmas single, written years before.

Is it possible that a seasonal song can keep a whole family in beer and skittles for the rest of their lives? When this scenario was questioned by a reader of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, musician Greg Lake felt moved to respond: “In 1975 I wrote and recorded a song called I Believe in Father Christmas, which some Guardian readers may remember and may even own. It was a big hit and still gets played on the radio every year around December, and it appears on more or less every Christmas compilation going. So I can tell you from experience that it’s lovely to get the old royalty cheque around September every year, but on its own the Christmas song money isn’t quite enough to buy my own island in the Caribbean.”

Even if it doesn’t guarantee fathomless riches, there is no doubt that any musician who fancies an annual income – however modest – wouldn’t turn down the chance to come up with a Christmas classic. So what is it exactly that turns yuletide musical themes into enduring festive favourites?

One of the older classics, Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, was written way back in 1942 and originally formed part of the movie musical Holiday Inn. After first topping the Your Hit Parade chart in October of that year, it has retained a place in our collective hearts and has been recorded by artists as diverse as The Drifters, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, Bob Marley, Boney M, Garth Brooks, Crash Test Dummies, The Moody Blues, Twisted Sister, Girls Aloud and Bryn Terfel.

Perhaps it is cynical to suggest that the success of ‘White Christmas’ alerted songwriters to the comparatively easy – and regular – money to be made from writing a tune that could be relied upon to feature on festive playlists, but this nonetheless has proved to be the case. December has a long tradition of throwing up more than its fair share of musical madness, from the battle to secure the coveted Christmas Number One slot to estimating the probable sales of the year’s X Factor single. Of course, there is no golden rule that dictates that the Christmas Number One must contain any reference whatsoever to the festive season; inadvertent party poopers, Rage Against the Machine managed the feat in 2009 with the track ‘Killing in the Name’ after an online group of Simon Cowell refuseniks started a campaign to keep Joe McElderry, that year’s X Factor winner, from the top spot with his cover of Miley Cyrus’s ‘The Climb’.  

Still, that is hardly in the spirit of Christmas, nor is it typical of the time of year when novelty (Benny Hill’s deathless classic ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’ from 1971, for instance) and charity singles (such as Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir’s ‘A Bridge Over You’ in 2015) tend to dominate and capture the coveted top spot. However, it is interesting to note that the queens of Christmas Number Ones, The Spice Girls, failed to offer the briefest namecheck of the festive season in their three successful tracks, ‘2 Become 1’, ‘Too Much’ and ‘Goodbye’, although the latter did feature a video in which snow and ice were heavily depicted.

Songwriters hoping to squeeze out a musical Christmas cracker need to take a deep breath and realise that writing a perennial corker is absolutely no guarantee of a place at the top of the charts. Consider, for instance, the fate of The Pogues’ (featuring Kirsty McColl) ‘Fairytale of New York’. This bittersweet tale of two New York itinerants was named after J.P. Donleavy’s 1973 novel and was the result of a bet made with Elvis Costello, the band’s producer at the time. Costello wagered that the band couldn’t come up with a viable Christmas single which, of course, immediately propelled them into action. Banjo player, Jem Finer came up with a melody and a basic concept, but the song was refined by vocalist, Shane McGowan. Finer later described the process: “I had written two songs complete with tunes, one had a good tune and crap lyrics, the other had the idea for ‘Fairytale’ but the tune was poxy. I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was.”

There it was indeed. ‘Fairytale of New York’ might have topped VH1’s Greatest Christmas Song Chart three times but, in terms of actual measurable success, the song was kept off the top of the official UK chart on its release in 1987 by the Pet Shop Boys’ upbeat remake of ‘Always on My Mind’. Yet its unique combination of sentimentality and cynicism was guaranteed to appeal to the sensibilities of British and Irish listeners and it retains its popularity, being one of the most liberally played songs over the Christmas period. Perhaps due to its acknowledgement that this is not always an idyllically happy time and that arguments and hardships can banjax our best plans, there is little doubt that ‘Fairytale of New York’ will be considered a classic for some time to come.

However, some of the most hardwearing Christmas songs completely omit the ambivalence of The Pogues’ offering and prefer to opt for a wholeheartedly old-fashioned up-tempo feeling. Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody!’ topped the charts way back in 1973 and is still a playlist staple throughout December. With its namechecking of a traditional family Christmas (“Are you waiting for the family to arrive? Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside? Does your granny always tell you that the old songs are the best, then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rollin’ with the rest…”), this is a very different beast to the deconstructionalist approach of Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ or Cliff Richard’s overtly religious ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ and ‘Saviour’s Day’.

Often considered its twin is Wizzard’s childlike ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’; also released for the first time in 1973 it equals Slade’s song with visions of a traditional Christmas and ends with children’s voices singing the main theme until it fades into silence. Parents throughout the decades have doubtless shuddered at the thought of every day being Christmas, but possibly a slug of glühwein too many persuaded Roy Wood – the musical wizard behind Wizzard – to have another bite of the seasonal cherry in 2000 when he teamed up with Mike Batt. The mission was to weld ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ with Batt’s 1974 Number Two hit ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ and the result managed to reach Number 22 in the UK charts. 

Probably the Christmas favourite that has enjoyed the most longevity – and has undergone the most changes over the years – is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Written way back in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for the victims of an appalling Ethiopian famine and featuring a glittering roster of musical stars (including Bono, Boy George, Sting, Phil Collins and Paul Weller) performing under the umbrella of Band Aid, it effortlessly made the Christmas Number One slot in that year and was remade in 1989, when Band Aid II reworked it and, yet again, grabbed the festive Number One slot. Cheekily, Geldof and Ure decided to give it yet another outing in 2004 to mark the 20th anniversary of its first release and, again, it seized the top spot with contemporary artists such as Neil Hannon, Dizzee Rascal, Natasha Bedingfield, Beverley Knight, Chris Martin, Joss Stone, Katie Melua, Snow Patrol and Turin Brakes adding their star power.

Ultimately, there is a Christmas song for all seasons: children have loved indulgently silly novelty records like The Scaffold’s ‘Lily the Pink’, ‘Mr. Blobby’ by Mr. Blobby and Bob the Builder’s ‘Can We Fix It?’ for decades, while mainstream bands have cleverly adapted standard tracks to offer a Christmas feel – East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ is an excellent example of this – but few artists have been so willing to offer an alternative view of the season as Greg Lake. His 1975 release, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ failed to make the Number One slot but claims that this was because it lacked the immediate festive appeal of Slade’s and Wizzard’s 1973 hits must be invalidated by the fact that it was beaten into the runner-up position by Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a brilliant composition, but not one exactly bursting with seasonal references. As Lake later said, “I got beaten by one of the greatest records ever made. I would’ve been p****d off if I’d been beaten by Cliff Richard.”

What makes ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ possibly the most compelling Christmas song of all time – eclipsing even the drunken fighting and name-calling of ‘Fairytale of New York’ – is the combination of the recurring theme of the recognisable ‘Troika’ theme from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite coupled with lyrics by Lake and Pete Sinfield that contrast the wonder of a child’s feelings about Christmas with the growing cynicism of adulthood. “I remember one Christmas morning, a winter’s light and a distant choir and the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell and eyes full of tinsel and fire” is set against, “They sold me a dream of Christmas, they sold me a Silent Night, they told me a fairy story ‘til I believed in the Israelite and I believed in Father Christmas and I looked to the skies with excited eyes, ‘til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn and I saw him and through his disguise”.

Far from Roy Wood’s wish that every day could be Christmas Day, Lake and Sinfield’s message is rather more complex: “I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave New Year, all anguish, pain and sadness leave your heart and let your road be clear. They said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on Earth. Hallelujah Noel, be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.”      

With 2017 marking a time in which the world seems in more turmoil than usual, this is a message that will doubtless resonate even more powerfully.

Christmas Number Ones

1952: Al Martino – ‘Here in My Heart’

1953: Frankie Laine – ‘Answer Me’

1954: Winifred Atwell – ‘Let’s Have Another Party’

1955: Dickie Valentine – ‘Christmas Alphabet’

1956: Johnnie Ray – ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’

1957: Harry Belafonte – ‘Mary’s Boy Child’

1958: Conway Twitty – ‘It’s Only Make Believe’

1959: Emile Ford and The Checkmates – ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’

1960: Cliff Richard and The Shadows – ‘I Love You’

1961: Danny Williams – ‘Moon River’

1962: Elvis Presley – ‘Return to Sender’

1963: The Beatles – ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’

1964: The Beatles – ‘I Feel Fine’

1965: The Beatles – ‘Daytripper’/’We Can Work it Out’

1966: Tom Jones – ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’

1967: The Beatles – ‘Hello, Goodbye’

1968: The Scaffold – ‘Lily the Pink’

1969: Rolf Harris – ‘Two Little Boys’

1970: Dave Edmunds – ‘I Hear You Knocking’

1971: Benny Hill – ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’

1972: Jimmy Osmond – ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’

1973: Slade – ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’

1974: Mud – ‘Lonely This Christmas’

1975: Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

1976: Johnny Mathis – ‘When a Child is Born’

1977: Wings – ‘Mull of Kintyre’/’Girls’ School’

1978: Boney M – ‘Mary’s Boy Child (Oh My Lord)’

1979: Pink Floyd – ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)’

1980: St. Winifred’s School Choir – ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’

1981: The Human League – ‘Don’t You Want Me’

1982: Renée and Renato – ‘Save Your Love’

1983: The Flying Pickets – ‘Only You’

1984: Band Aid – ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

1985: Shakin’ Stevens – ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’

1986: Jackie Wilson – ‘Reet Petite’

1987: Pet Shop Boys – ‘Always on My Mind’

1988: Cliff Richard – ‘Mistletoe and Wine’

1989: Band Aid II – ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

1990: Cliff Richard – ‘Saviour’s Day’

1991: Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’/’These Are the Days of Our Lives’

1992: Whitney Houston – ‘I Will Always Love You’

1993: Mr. Blobby – ‘Mr. Blobby’

1994: East 17 – ‘Stay Another Day’

1995: Michael Jackson – ‘Earth Song’

1996: Spice Girls – ‘2 Become 1’

1997: Spice Girls – ‘Too Much’

1998: Spice Girls – ‘Goodbye’

1999: Westlife – ‘I Have a Dream’/’Seasons in the Sun’

2000: Bob the Builder – ‘Can We Fix It?’

2001: Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman – ‘Somethin’ Stupid’

2002: Girls Aloud – ‘Sounds of the Underground’

2003: Michael Andrews and Gary Jules – ‘Mad World’

2004: Band Aid 20 – ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

2005: Shayne Ward – ‘That’s My Goal’

2006: Leona Lewis – ‘A Moment Like This’

2007: Leon Jackson – ‘When You Believe’

2008: Alexandra Burke – ‘Hallelujah’

2009: Rage Against the Machine – ‘Killing in the Name’

2010: Matt Cardle – ‘When We Collide’

2011: Military Wives with Gareth Malone – ‘Wherever You Are’

2012: The Justice Collective – ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’

2013: Sam Bailey – ‘Skyscraper’

2014: Ben Haenow – ‘Something I Need’

2015: Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir – ‘A Bridge Over You’

2016: Clean Bandit featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie – ‘Rockabye’

2017: ?

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