Thursday 19 September 2019

Where are all the great Christmas songs?

The war of words over 'Fairytale of New York' made the Christmas song headline news. But nobody seems to have noticed that the tradition of a hit penned just for the festive season has all but disappeared

Noddy Holder and Slade perform their festive hit
Noddy Holder and Slade perform their festive hit
Classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan perform 'Fairytale of New York'
John Meagher

John Meagher

The 'debate' around whether or not to censor 'Fairytale of New York' led to a predictable war of words between avowedly liberal types with a worrying predilection for book-burning and those of us who feel you can't mess with art, no matter how unpalatable it might be for future generations.

But one aspect of the 'Fairytale' conversation that was overlooked was how it is one of the last compositions to join the canon of classic Christmas songs.

Released 31 years ago, this foul-mouthed masterpiece hails from a time where several new Yuletide numbers were guaranteed to stoke the zeitgeist. It's an era that feels like the distant past.

Think about it: there are only a handful of songs that were released after it that provide grist for the annual Christmas soundtrack - and none of them were released in recent years.

Classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan perform 'Fairytale of New York'
Classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan perform 'Fairytale of New York'

Chris Rea's 'Driving Home for Christmas' appeared a year after 'Fairytale', in 1988 (although it took several years before it truly seeped into our consciousness, having limped to a pitiful 53 in the UK singles chart on release) and Cliff Richard's saccharine 'Mistletoe & Wine' was also released in 1988 (it did markedly initially better than Rea's more enduring effort).

You have to go back to 1994 to find the last time a specially-penned Christmas song became part of the mass-market soundtrack and that was Mariah Carey's relentlessly upbeat 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'. We don't believe you for a second, Mariah.

But since then, nothing - and it's not for the want of trying. Every year, a slew of Christmas songs is released but they melt away as quickly as an April snow shower.

It's one of the strangest of chart phenomena - an entire songwriting form, effectively, that's obliterated in the court of public opinion. Or so it would appear at first glance.

The truth is singles and chart glory don't matter to the public in the way they once did and with no Top of the Pops, or an equivalent, to focus our attention, the humble Christmas song has become a casualty.

The voracious rise of X Factor - which concludes a few weeks before Christmas - has ensured that inoffensive manufactured bilge now usually occupies the top spot. And that's still the case even though X Factor has been off the boil for several years. It's hard to imagine another campaign like the one in 2009 that got Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' to the top of the chart.

There's also the unavoidable truth that singles, including festive ones, don't sell in the sort of quantities they once did and therefore aren't nearly as lucrative as before for writers with a knack for shoe-horning references to sleigh bells, snow, tinsel and any of the other accoutrements of a classic 'holiday hit'.

Once upon a time, there were extraordinary riches for those who hit Christmas tune pay dirt. Noddy Holder, chief songwriter for Slade, is thought to pocket €500,000 per annum in royalties for his evergreen 1973 hit, 'Merry Xmas Everybody'.

And Shane MacGowan trousers a hefty six figure sum for 'Fairytale' every single year. The riches that the fictional hero of Nick Hornby's About A Boy earns from his late father's big hit, 'Santa's Super Sleigh', are rooted in reality.

It's clear that radio still has an insatiable appetite for Christmas songs - and streaming services users can't get enough of them either - but that thirst is for the old and familiar. The folk who try to write a 2018 Christmas classic are unlikely to see much in the way of royalties in the years to come.

Some really big names have tried and failed. Can you hum Coldplay's 'Christmas Lights'? Could you share a line from Kanye West's 'Christmas in Harlem'? I certainly can't, but I could probably recite the words of Wizzard's 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' backwards if you put a gun to my head.

Its writer, Roy Wood, must be drowning in royalty cheques: since its release in 1973, it's been in the UK top 50 in 14 separate years, including 2018.

And yet, there are recent Christmas classics that simply haven't been discovered by the masses. If you're sick of the greatest Christmas album of all time - A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, what else? - why not give Sufjan Stevens' superb boxset, Songs for Christmas, a whirl? At just over two hours there's a huge amount of new material and reworked carols for your appreciation. All were released between 2001 and 2006 but failed to make a connection beyond Stevens' narrow fanbase.

Or how about take a punt on This is Christmas, the marvellous 2011 album released by Ash mainman Tim Wheeler and English tunesmith Emmy the Great?

And you're likely to enjoy the Christmas-themed Funny Looking Angels albums, which was made by Tom Smith, frontman of the gloom-rock merchants Editors, and Andy Burrows, the Razorlight drummer.

Stranger things have happened, but it's difficult to imagine a time when new Christmas songs take hold of our imaginations they way they used to.

We're unlikely to witness a third week of December chart battle quite as significant of that of 1984 when Wham's 'Last Christmas' vied with Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas' for top spot. The latter won, of course, and George Michael urged his fans to make it the number one - but 'Last Christmas' still has the distinction of being the biggest selling single in UK history not to top the chart.

For several years now, it would appear as though it's the big-budget Christmas TV commercials from the likes of John Lewis that have usurped festive tunes in the national consciousness in the UK and here. And, of course, each of these ads - whether from a supermarket, mobile phone retailer, you-name-it - features a carefully chosen song, usually a new cover version of an old favourite.

This year, the John Lewis one turned out to be something of a homage to Elton John - who was reportedly paid £5m for a sweet little movie about how the Christmas gift of a piano spawned a lifetime in music.

And there's a touching and delicate new song on BBC's 'suspended time' Christmas ad featuring an under pressure working mother and her son. An original composition, 'Lost in You', it's written and performed by the aforementioned Emmy the Great.

The best of the bunch, though, comes from British supermarket chain Asda, simply because it includes one of the best festive songs ever, Darlene Love's 'Christmas (Baby Come Home)' - a key track on that evergreen Phil Spector album.

It's a Christmas song that has a place on every festive playlist worth its salt - alongside 'Fairytale of New York', of course.

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