Entertainment Music

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Inappropriate Christmas songs: The true horrors of the festive season

Songs we used to regard as harmless festive numbers are being ditched as unsuitable - but, as Damian Corless reflects, they are tame compared with the true horrors of the 1970s seasonal novelty hit

Monster hit: Benny Hill's 'Ernie' beat T-Rex to be Christmas Number One in 1971
Monster hit: Benny Hill's 'Ernie' beat T-Rex to be Christmas Number One in 1971
Monster hit: Benny Hill's 'Ernie' beat T-Rex to be Christmas Number One in 1971

Another timeless classic got a swipe of the PC axe this week as North American broadcasters cleared their Christmas schedules of 'Baby, it's Cold Outside'. In Ireland, Christmas FM confirmed the song would get the silent treatment for a second year because it no longer "resonates".

But even as the naysayers claimed victory, others notched it up as the latest own-goal by a moral, retro-fit movement whose compass has gone haywire. The ban has sparked millions of online searches seeking the song as its makers intended it, in the cheery 1949 musical Neptune's Daughter. There, it plays out as a gender-balanced, witty, banter double-hander between two adjoining couples where both a male and a female seducer try to charm the winter woollies off their paramours in the hope of stalling a brrrrr-exit.

Both the song and the deft screen performances provide a comically nuanced skit on the rituals of seduction. Many defences of the song put up this week hang on the argument that it's "of its time", but that is to sheepishly deny and diminish it for the timeless depiction of the mating dance that it is.

Those who would, if they only could, dispatch an Arnold Schwarzenegger to clean up Christmas past, would find their high moral ground far firmer in the 1970s.

That decade was not just the golden age of the bespoke Christmas pop single, but of the deeply dodgy 'novelty' hit. Even doing double shifts in his Terminator and Eraser roles, Arnie would be boggled for choice.

First to be put out of our misery would be Benny Hill's 1971 Christmas chart topper, 'Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)'. The titular milkman finds himself in a deadly rivalry with breadman Ted for the affections of randy housewife Sue. No longer satisfied with bathing in Ernie's milk, she has her head turned by Ted's pledges of "hot rolls every morning and crumpet every night" and the "size of his hot meat pies". Ernie and Ted provided the template for the roguish Pat Mustard in Father Ted. The toilet humour continued on the B-side, 'Ting a Ling a Loo'.

The normal rules of the charts don't apply at Christmas and 'Ernie' kept 'Jeepster' from its rightful place as Marc Bolan's third straight No 1 with T-Rex, but spangly glam rock and sparkly Christmas decorations were made for each other, and 1973 would produce Slade's rollicking 'Merry Xmas Everybody' and Wizzard's equally enduring 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday'.

A year before those two great Christmas singles vied for the top spot, two of the worst fought it out. In the event, Little Jimmy Osmond's 'Long Haired Lover From Liverpool' kept Chuck Berry's 'My Ding-a-Ling' at bay. In an attempt to have the song banned, decency leaguer Mary Whitehouse wrote to the BBC's director general claiming she had come across "a class of small boys" giving it "the indecent interpretation that is so obvious". To no avail.

The man who invented rock 'n' roll, and whose 'Johnny B Goode' flies on the Voyager space probe as a voucher for human achievement, scored his biggest hit ever with an ode to smut.

When Christmas 1974 arrived, the clan gatherings in households across these islands added a new family singalong favourite to 'Ernie', 'My Ding-a-Ling' and 'Lily the Pink', the 1968 Christmas chart topper celebrating the properties of an unspecified "medicinal compound".

'Bigger ones are better'

The new addition was 'Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me', a Top 10 hit for The Goodies. 'Father Christmas' started life as a B-side, but when it started picking up big airplay and sales in the run-up to Christmas, the record company simply flipped labels to gleefully cash in.

When The Goodies' knockabout TV show first hit Irish TV screens a year earlier, one concerned columnist wrote: "This is goon stuff, put over with great ingenuity and originality. But it is a mistake, I think, to plunge RTÉ viewers into this kind of television comedy without adequate preparation."

The Irish public had no problem 'getting' The Goodies' big Christmas hit. There wasn't so much as a tricky double-entendre to grapple with, just singles all the way. Penned by Bill Oddie, best-known today for his stint as the BBC's resident Springwatch sage, it chronicles the nocturnal prowlings of a bad Santa who "can't stand little girls" as "bigger ones are better". Enough said. It's readily accessible for inspection online, but not for young ears.

As this yuletide approaches, not for the first time, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' has been dragged into the PC wars. The current clickbait debate turns on whether Rudolph is just a happy-clappy ditty about being nice to others, or a clarion call to respect LGBT and/or ethnic minority rights.

A Terminator sent back to sort out today's crazy mixed-up world might blow a logic circuit, whereas fixing the Rudolph issue of 1975 would be easy as pie. As featured in Judge Dread's 'Christmas in Dreadland', poor Rudolph gets involved in some very unsavoury non-reindeer adult games. Despite a radio ban, the song hit the Top 20 and contributed to the former Stones bodyguard trading as Judge Dread becoming Britain's biggest reggae seller of the 1970s after Bob Marley.

While some Christmas hits of yore were so sleazy it's sad, one of the most joyously uplifting of them all wound up as the one with the saddest ending. The surprise Christmas hit of 1963 was 'Dominique', which topped the charts around the globe. It made a such a star of Jeannine Deckers, aka The Singing Nun, that Hollywood quickly turned her life story into a hit movie starring Debbie Reynolds.

Even as Deckers' fairy story was rolling out across cinemas worldwide, the walls were closing in on the young nun, beginning when "the Mother Superior would censor my songs and take out verses I wrote when I was sad". The second attempt to capture her life story could not have been more different to the first. The off-Broadway play was entitled 'The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun'.

Sad but true.

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