Wednesday 21 February 2018

Let the Bells ring out! How Christmas songs can lead us on a musical journey

They may be chirpy, cheesy and played to death, but Christmas songs can be a gateway to discovering some of the music's greatest artists

David Bowie with Bing Crosby, performing Little Drummer Boy
David Bowie with Bing Crosby, performing Little Drummer Boy
Last Christmas from Wham! The best-selling song not to top the UK singles charts
Angel Olsen
David Bowie
Kate Bush
Pink Floyd
Lisa Hannigan
John Meagher

John Meagher

I have a lucid memory of Christmas 1984, or rather the weeks leading up to it. I was nine years old and the joys of music were becoming firmly immeshed. And that December, 32 years ago, there were different tunes than Abba playing on the turntable in the living room. Last Christmas and Do They Know It's Christmas? must have been played hundreds of times and that was because I kept badgering my mother to let me put them on. There was something magical about taking those 7-inch singles out of their sleeves, gingerly placing them on the centre spindle, carefully placing the needle down and waiting for the vinyl 'static' to give way to music.

Christmas songs sold in massive quantities back then. Do They Know It's Christmas? was the best-selling single of the decade, and its considerable royalties were donated in full to Band Aid's Ethiopian relief fund. It kept Wham!'s festive tune off the top spot - Last Christmas remains the best-selling song not to top the UK singles charts.

For a dozen years up to that point, there was serious money to be made in delivering Zeitgeist-bating Christmas songs and the likes of Slade (Merry Xmas Everyone) and Wizzard (I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day) delivered cheesy, yet enormously popular, festive fare that will probably be part of the soundtrack of Christmas for as long as any of us are alive, and are surely keeping their respective songwriters perennially wealthy.

While few would select Christmas ditties as examples of song-craft as the supreme art-form, they can hit us at a young, impressionable age and lead us on a journey into great music. After Do They Know It's Christmas? the nine-year-old me was suddenly very aware of who Bob Geldof and Bono were and, in a curious way, that charity single was the gateway to exploring the work of both and several of those other perm-headed popstars who sung on the single.

Last Christmas from Wham! The best-selling song not to top the UK singles charts
Last Christmas from Wham! The best-selling song not to top the UK singles charts

It's likely that some of today's devotees of the late David Bowie first encountered him as children in 1977: not for his pair of outstanding albums that year, Low and "Heroes", but for his kooky version of the evergreen American festive song, Little Drummer Boy. In an endearingly odd collaboration, he duetted with the godfather of Christmas standards himself, Bing Crosby. Sure, it wasn't his finest moment - nor Bing's for that matter - but it was suitably left-of-centre to provoke further exploration.

For 2fm presenter Rick O'Shea, the Christmas song-as-gateway theory was supplied by the Phil Spector Christmas album, released in 1963, and supplier of some of the most enduring versions of Christmas standards we know and love today. "It's a brilliant album, from start to finish," he says. "I return to it every year."

It's the only Christmas album to make Rolling Stone's list of the best 500 albums of all time and has regularly been cited by Beach Boys oracle Brian Wilson as his favourite album ever. Spector's ingenious Wall of Sound production technique changed the course of pop in the 1960s and it helped give us the defining idea about what a great Christmas song should sound like.

One song Rick can't abide, though, is Chris Rea's Driving Home For Christmas. "It makes me lose the will to live," he says of a sentimental ditty that was released in 1988 and initially performed very badly in the chart, limping to a pathetic 58th. But thanks to being re-released several times and appearing in a glut of TV ads, it now gets enormous radio-play every year.

Rea was far from a one hit wonder - he's responsible for a sizeable, largely middle-of-the-road back catalogue - but none of his compositions enjoy the sort of royalties of Driving Home For Christmas. Every time I hear it at this time of year - and, let's be honest, it's hard to escape it - I think of the protagonist of Nick Hornby's About A Boy (who was played by Hugh Grant in the movie). He lived a life of luxury and didn't have to lift a finger simply because his father had written a huge Christmas song back in the day. A shame my own father's songwriting ability is as terrible as my own.

Paul McCartney's formidable money making abilities had little to do with turning his hand to the Christmas song, but the man often seen as the most sentimental of the Beatles wanted in on the action in the super-busy 1984 with We All Stand Together, which like so many of the songs that are played this time of year, aren't about Christmas at all but have come to symbolise how feel-good it's meant to be. Corny it may be, but I defy any parent to play it to their young children and not feel some happy buzz when they enjoy it so much.

Broadcaster Gareth O'Connor is one of the volunteers of Christmas FM, "Ireland's holiday music station", and argues that the mid-'80s was the end of the golden age for great Christmas singles. "The music industry has changed so much since then," he says. "There's no longer the same concentration of mass market outlets and the distribution methods have changed, too. There's much more fragmentation in how we listen."

He argues that songs like Last Christmas and Merry Xmas Everyone continue to endure because they tap into emotions and nostalgia that seem to swirl around this time of year. "Often, they remind us of our childhood," he says, "and, for many, Christmas still has such strong associations with childhood."

One of O'Connor's favourite Christmas songs is Fairytale of New York, the stunning union of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. "It's unlike the vast majority of Christmas songs, in that it doesn't evoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia. It's pretty bleak."

For me, the reason Fairytale continues to appeal so strongly is because it captures an undeniable truth about Christmas: it can be a desperately lonely time for a lot of people. Dashed dreams, broken relationships and the death of loved ones can all loom large at a time when there's so much forced jollity about. Shane MacGowan's words really cut to the quick of what it is to feel Yuletide despair. It's a true classic.

Where are the contemporary Christmas classics, though? Has any song really captured the festive zeitgeist since Mariah Carey belted out All I Want For Christmas in 1994? I don't think so.

That was the last time a bone fide Christmas song sold by the truckload and ear-wormed its way into the minds of those first exposed to it. It was, however, pipped to the top of the UK charts by the sort-of festive hit Stay Another Day, the high point of East 17's mercifully short career.

Since then, the Christmas number one has now longer been about a race to write the most popular song to celebrate the season, but a half-hearted attempt to be sitting atop the chart on the day that traditionally yielded the best-selling song of the year.

The Spice Girls had three consecutive UK number ones in the mid-1990s, but the closest they got to acknowledging Christmas was to make a video which featured Christmas lights and where Posh, Scary et al wore heavy winter coats over their dresses.

And, for the past 15 years, the Yuletide chart-topper has usually come from whatever unfortunate 'wins' X-Factor. The 2014 Christmas number one was Ben Haenow's forgettable cover of OneRepublic's Something I Need. So dismal has his impact been on the pop landscape since then that the Londoner might want to consider calling himself Ben Wherenow.

Rick O'Shea says that while the X-Factor helped put the nail into the coffin of the Christmas single, its demise had been in the offing. The late '80s and early '90s relied on Cliff Richard to come up with the goods and at least one of those festive chart-toppers, Saviour's Day, at least appealed to those who seem anxious to point out that Christmas is a Christian festival and not just a reason to gorge on chocolate and wine.

O'Shea thinks there just isn't enough of an appetite from major artists or record companies to get into the festival spirit and you'd have to agree when considering that Coldplay - a band who can comfortably sell out a date at Croke Park next summer - only managed number 13 in the UK chart with Christmas Lights in 2010.

As efforts go, it wasn't bad at all, but the sentiment seems to be, 'Why bother embracing a new tune when the DJ is about to play Driving Home For Christmas again?'

There seems to be more excitement about what TV adverts big retailers like John Lewis can produce at Christmas time and, these lavish mini-films have provided music that's been the closest to what we might traditionally think of a Christmas song, Lily Allen's cover of Keane's Somewhere Only We Know in the John Lewis ad of 2013 being a case in point.

It's a shame, though, to see a once proud tradition stagnating. Where's Geldof and George Michael when you need them?

10 festive songs to expand your mind

1. Bessie Smith, At the Christmas Ball - recorded in the 1920s and a celebration of the hedonism of Christmas, then, and now.

2. The Ronettes, Sleigh Ride - the peerless girl-group, in stunning form and with Phil Spector guiding them all the way in studio. A three-minute masterpiece.

3. Debbie & the Darnels, Santa, Teach Me to Dance - the sound of the early '60s distilled, and one of the most underrated festive tunes ever.

4. The Drifters, I Remember Christmas - unashamedly nostalgic and a lovely evocation of the season from the formidable harmonisers.

5. ABBA, Happy New Year - It appears on the Swedes' greatest album Super Trouper and is suitably melancholy: "Here we are/ Me and you/ Feeling lost and feeling blue".

6. Weird Al Yankovic, The Night Santa Went Crazy - a typically zany, rib-tickling effort from the popular satirist.

7. Pugwash and Friends, Tinsel and Marzipan - who says the Irish can't write a great Christmas tune? This charity effort from Dublin outfit Pugwash and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon is ace.

8. Sufjan Stevens, Christmas in the Room - the great contemporary American troubadour has penned 100 Yuletide songs and this is a stunning reminder that all the great Christmas songs aren't in the past.

9. Kanye West, Christmas in Harlem - he's had his troubles this year, but the hip-hop superstar knows how to pen a festive tune with a difference.

10. LCD Soundsystem, Christmas Will Break Your Heart - an electro-pop gem from one of the most essential American outfits at work today.

10 albums to lose yourself in this Christmas

1 Kate Bush, Before the Dawn - the live recording of her stunning comeback shows in London in 2014 will make you think you were there.

Kate Bush

2 Christine and the Queens, Chaleur Humaine - marvellous, sophisticated pop tunes from the French newcomer.

3 Beyoncé, Lemonade - what do you mean you haven't heard one of the defining albums of 2016? Listen and know you don't mess with Mrs Carter.

4 The Gloaming, The Gloaming 2 - the trad supergroup delivered another stunner this year. Elemental.

5 David Bowie, The Gouster - billed as Bowie's lost '70s album, this strange and compelling record is, in fact, a different version of his Young Americans.

David Bowie

6 Lisa Hannigan, At Swim - another exemplary album from one of our best songwriters, and featuring a Seamus Heaney poem put to music.

Lisa Hannigan

7 Jóhann Jóhannsson, Copenhagen Dreams - the Icelandic composer is behind the soundtracks of Arrival and Sicario but this gorgeous effort from a few years ago is a constant in my house.

8 Angel Olsen, My Woman - folk, rock, indie, synth-pop, you-name-it, the Missouri singer masters them all.

Angel Olsen

9 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree - a heartbreaking, but beautiful album from the singular Aussie, written in the wake of his son's death.

10 Pink Floyd, The Early Years - a lavish boxset documenting the sound of the band in the seven years before The Dark Side of the Moon.

Pink Floyd

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