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Christmas music is hell on earth…

...apart from one song

December 23, 2018

11:00 AM

23 December 2018

11:00 AM

Young people are revolting. The word now is that Frank Loesser’s ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, an irritating Christmas flirt-fest from a bygone age, is a date-rape narrative. The same goes for The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’, a recitative by two dipsomaniacs in the drunk tank. The young people have a point when they insist that when two alcoholics argue, they shouldn’t use offensive language. But that’s an impossible expectation. I suggest an easier solution.

Erase the infamy, as that music critic Voltaire said. Ban all Christmas songs. Bury them under an avalanche of fake snow in a grotto of styrofoam igloos. And not because I’m particularly against Christmas songs or Christmas itself. While we’re at it, ban everything. Ban all ‘culture’. There’s far too much of it. Junk it all and start again.

Just like the Dadaists said, to create you have to destroy. Rome cannot be destroyed in a day, so for the moment let’s stick with banning Christmas songs. But before I click my fingers and make them all vanish, let’s remind ourselves what we’ll be losing.

Rock ’n’ roll latched on to the Christmas market before you could say ‘snake oil salesman’. Elvis’s carney manager Colonel Tom Parker got his boy into the Yule market real early. The Elvis Christmas Album (1957) contained one bona fide classic in ‘Blue Christmas’, and a lot of seasonal rubbish. Unsurprisingly, rock ’n’ roll’s original used car salesman Chuck Berry got in on the act with ‘Run Rudolph Run’, which is great, because it’s Chuck. Eddie Cochran and Gene Cochran were probably too proto-punkish to be singing about ‘logs on open fires’. Buddy Holly, with that surname, missed out on a trick or two.

By the Sixties, the floodgates had opened. England was not swinging at Christmas. No one in San Fran wore a flower in their hair. There were ten Christmas in the Sixties and there were 10 billion Christmas records made. The Bay Of Pigs,the JFK assassination, Vietnam, The Pill, LSD, Martin Luther King. None of this happened. All fake news. The world was too busy making Christmas records, and dancing around a silver tree to the Motown Christmas album.

The Beatles had more Christmas number ones than any other artist: ‘I Want To hold Your Hand’, (1963) ‘I Feel Fine’, (1964) ‘We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper’, (1965) and ‘Hello Goodbye.’ (1967) None of these songs featured a single mention of chestnuts, open-fire roasting or mistletoe. Cunningly, between 1963 and 1969, the Fabs had a secret non-career making Xmas singles for their fan club only. The Beatles Fan Club singles are all pretty good fun. You get a panto, some Goonish skits, Lennon being occasionally near the knuckle, and best of all, on 1967’s fan club seven-inch, you get the Beatles only proper seasonal song, ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’. It’s a classic, a technicolor Magical Mystery Tour-esque psychedelic wonder. It’s about 56 times better than their actual 1967 Christmas number one, ‘Hello Goodbye’. If you want a reissue of the Beatles fan club singles in a nice box set, it’ll set you back about $2,500. Happy Christmas.

December 1980 was the month that John Lennon was murdered. This rightly precipitated a month of media tributes to all things Fabbish. If you were a kid getting into the Beatles, you had the weird duality of Lennon being murdered and also the rare opportunity to see all the Beatles movies on BBC TV for the first time. For this reason I always associate ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ from Help with Christmas. I can only ever listen to ‘Rubber Soul’ in December.

Talking of seasonal bummers, almost anything by John Cale from the early- to mid-Seventies has a maudlin sense of Yule about it. It’s his voice, the voice that sounds like it has been kicked out of the coal-miners choir for being just a bit too gloomy. Or maybe it’s those big ballads — ‘I’m Not the Loving Kind’, ‘I Keep A Close Watch’, ‘Buffalo Ballet’ — that sound like they’ve been drawn out of a wheezing church harmonium by a Victorian apothecary using leeches. Or perhaps it’s that famous photograph of John Cale and Lou Reed, both looking like hell — Reed drunk on Scotch, Cale battered on Watney’s Party Seven — scowling in front of a plastic Christmas tree. My own favorite Christmas album that isn’t a Christmas album by John Cale is Paris 1919 (1973). It may not be a bona fide seasonal platter, but it does have a festive song, the Dylan Thomas-influenced ‘Child’s Christmas In Wales’. ‘Ten murdered oranges, Bled and butchered,’ sings Cale with his usual optimism and no elf’s hat.

The Fall beat John Cale in the seasonal bad vibes stakes. The Fall have cut a surprising amount of Christmas songs, almost enough to make an entire Christmas album: ‘No Xmas For John Quays’, ‘Christmas Tide’, ‘We Wish You A Protein Christmas’, ‘Xmas With Simon’, and covers of  ‘Jingle Bell Rock and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. The late and much-missed Mark E. Smith even jumped to the defense of King Elvis on the 1982 B- side ‘Lud Gang’ after Shakin’ Stevens, a Welsh Elvis impersonator, had covered ‘Blue Christmas’:

 ‘I hate the guts of Shakin’ Stevens for what he has done
The massacre of ‘Blue Christmas’
On him I’d like to land one on.’

Smith righted the perceived wrong not by punching the hapless Welsh revivalist, but by covering ‘Blue Christmas’ himself. Sadly, the King was long dead by then. We will never know what Elvis thought of an outsider-art interpretation of his work by a Salford dock clerk and his group of avant-garde bricklayers. I think he would have dug it.

The Seventies was the big decade for Christmas number one records. In the UK, the battle for Christmas Number One was feverish. Every single glam rock ugly dude in eyeliner had to have a crack at the coveted spot. Mud, Wizzard, Garry Glitter. Even Lennon went for the Christmas market with one of his best solo records: ‘So this is Christmas, and what have you done?’ he enquired, over his specs and down his nose like the beadle in Oliver Twist’s orphanage. ‘Not much really, Mr Lennon,’ chirped a chastened nation. ‘May we have some more nasal sneering?’

Before I click my fingers and make it all go away. I have one caveat. I’m keeping one record. ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ by Slade is the masterpiece of all festive rock ’n’ roll. In my abode, the whole Yule season is named after it. Christmas is not referred to as ‘Christmas.’ It is now known as ‘The Season Of Noddy And Roy.’ That’s Noddy Holder of Slade and Roy Wood of Wizzard.

Slade were at their peak when they came up with this all-time rock ’n’ roll standard. Written in early 1973 by Noddy and Jim in Nod’s parents’ council flat in Walsall in the English Midlands, it was recorded that summer in sweltering New York City. The song describes the mundane festivities of the common man in the plainest terms of blunt poetry. ‘Are ya waiting for the family to arrive? / Are ya sure you’ve got the room to spare inside?’ screams Nod over the glam-rock backing. It’s a Brummie Christmas, perfectly described in three beautiful verses: ‘Look to the future, ’cos it’s only just begun.’

Linguists may quibble that this line makes little grammatical sense, but that is to miss the point of all rock ’n’ roll as poetry, as folk art, and as high art. In 1973, Britain was in economic crisis. Blackouts and fuel shortages meant that we were heading towards wartime rationing by New Year. The future had indeed only just begun, and it wasn’t good. Noddy as wearer of mirrored top hats, tartan trousers, and Mr. Pickwick ginger mutton chops. Noddy as visionary. The William Blake of Bovver-Boot-Rock.

I shall now click my fingers. All you will remember is Noddy Holder screaming ‘It’s Christmas!’, and Mariah Carey, pirouetting in a Santa suit. Because all I want for Christmas is Slade.

Luke Haines is an English songwriter.


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