Tuesday, 12 August 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now - The Christmas Album





(#327: 21 December 1985, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Band Aid)/I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Roy Wood with Wizzard)/Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade)/Last Christmas (Wham!)/Step Into Christmas (Elton John)/In Dulce Jubilo (Mike Oldfield)/Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas/Wonderful Christmastime (Paul McCartney)/Blue Christmas (Shakin’ Stevens)/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band)/I Believe In Father Christmas (Greg Lake)/A Spaceman Came Travelling (Chris de Burgh)/Stop The Cavalry (Jona Lewie)/Little Saint Nick (The Beach Boys)/Thank God It’s Christmas (Queen)/Lonely This Christmas (Mud)/When A Child Is Born (Soleado) (Johnny Mathis)/White Christmas (Bing Crosby)



First of all, I should apologise to any neighbours who last night might have been wondering who these strange people were in there, playing Christmas songs in the middle of August. But that didn’t stop a cast of hundreds, or possibly dozens, or maybe tens of thousands, singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in Wembley Stadium on a rather hot 13 July 1985, nor Slade from recording “Merry Xmas Everybody” in New York in the middle of a heatwave, so perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it too much.

Still, here we have the first – but not the last - Christmas-specific number one album at a time when such compilations (the cover pointedly advertises “18 ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS HITS”) hardly existed, and an opportunity for me to ponder on exactly what Christmas means to the British, since this record is not exactly a merry party-down affair. In fact, listening to most of it, you would imagine that the British are somewhat guilty about, and even afraid of, Christmas, so many of these songs being about loss or war or doubt. It is as if Britain is obliged to apologise for Christmas. But it is fitting that the last number one album of 1985 should begin with the song which did more than anything or anybody else to permit 1985 to happen.

Band Aid

Objectively, it would not take long to analyse "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Essentially it is a cheap, shitty little tune which sounds like the theme from Z-Cars played on a Stylophone. And that isn't me talking; those were the words of Bob Geldof when first he heard Midge Ure's backing track. Over it (and Ure’s own Fairlight-manipulated voice at the beginning, which in conjunction with the Yamaha DX7 bells, bring back memories of “Forever And Ever”) come the voices of prominent British pop stars of the day, some solo, others in harmony and at the end everyone together, singing for charity in the manner of those old Decca All-Star Hit Parade 10-inch albums of the '50s where sundry leading crooners took turns in singing each other's hits.

If only it were that simple. But, as you have doubtless long since gathered, it is absolutely impossible to consider these records in some idyllic notion of etiolated aesthetic isolation. There were, of course, precedents. But the Band Aid single, and consequent phenomenon, could be considered, as Danny Kelly in the 1985 NME mistakenly considered Sgt Pepper, “an Exocet to the heart of pop”, and pop records in particular, which as a side-effect of attempting to save actual lives struck several near-fatal blows to popular music.

As "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the last word to what one might term the second chapter of a sustained history of British pop, namely the experimental idealism of 1967-75, the third part can likewise be closed down with "Do They Know It's Christmas?" The irony of its being co-written and co-initiated by the leading light of the last gasp of glampop (Slik) need not be underlined. We can applaud to a certain degree the "bloody doing something about it" activity arising out of the determined apathy of punk and the subsequent aesthetic liberation of post-punk and New Pop.

However, Band Aid was determined to attack and resolve a painfully central question about music and its role, if any, in changing the world, however slightly. All those Lennon sales pitches about peace and having no possessions were all very well, and anarchy is never less than tempting - but what price any of this against the undeniably greater factor of saving the lives of millions of people?

The solution Geldof found was an uncomfortable one. As general post-Band Aid trends will confirm, it very quickly turned out to be an option of better music or a better world. And even the efficacy of Band Aid and Live Aid in terms of the latter can be questioned, since most of the billions raised by the enterprise seem to have gone straight into the pockets and coffers of the ruling Ethiopian elite, all the better to crush and control their hapless subjects. As Geldof himself realised by the time of 2005’s Live 8, it was the system which needed changing from the ground upwards rather than sending in astronomical sums of undefined money - i.e. relief from the ruinous interest rates demanded by the West in terms of Third World debt repayments, an end to the industrial/military interdependence which actually favours tinpot tyrannies in famined nations over workable democracies, and so on.

Does that therefore mean that Geldof simply shouldn't have bothered? This is a hugely uncomfortable question. By decrying "Do They Know It's Christmas?" one is in danger of favouring mass deaths so that we fortunate Western consumers can continue to avail ourselves of higher-quality art (as Bono’s line less than quietly spells out). Yes, it should have been done in preference to not having been done. But still there are those side products which in another way have proved massively destructive.

Possibly only someone in Geldof's position could have turned Band Aid into action in 1984. In the same week that "Do They Know It's Christmas?" went to number one, "Dave," the then-current single by the Boomtown Rats, was sitting at number 100. The Rats, four years after their last top ten hit, were fading fast, and so Geldof's evenings were quieter; quiet enough for him to be sitting in front of the TV to watch Michael Buerk's BBC1 Nine O'Clock News report from Ethiopia. The author of "Looking After Number One" then speedily set about disabusing that song's central notion; inspired by Lennon's "Instant Karma," Geldof and Ure wrote the song, recruited as many musicians as they could assemble in West London of a late autumn Sunday morning, recorded and mixed the single, and released it in the space of some 2-3 weeks.

It was all done on the turn of a determinedly amateur dime, and sounds it. Of the featured singers, Paul Young and Boy George appear to carry the bulk of the song while George Michael, Simon le Bon, Tony Hadley and Sting do their respective vocal party pieces and Bono is left with that deliberately ambiguous, if clumsy, line. The lyric is awkwardly phrased ("clanging chimes of doom"?) but obviously heartfelt, at least in Geldof's heart if not necessarily in those of anyone else present.

What counted though, besides the direct (hopeful) life-saving effects, was what this all meant to the concept of the pop record as an art form and/or simple three-minute tickler in itself. In addition, of course, it slaughtered and buried New Pop. No more room for shiny yellow philosophical abstracts; this was cold rationalism run carefully riot. No more room, either, for the divided loyalties essential to any pop movement which can count itself as truly alive - in the Christmas 1983 edition of the BBC's children's television programme Saturday Superstore Duran Duran, Culture Club and the Police - in their entirety - all appeared as guests, but the Police refused to be filmed in the company of the others or even talk to the others, and Duran Duran and Culture Club appeared uncomfortable sitting together. Twelve months later and we have Simon and Sting and George all shaking hands, mucking in together and being mates - what was the point, then, if it had only ever been about business? It torpedoed the concept of rivalry which would take a decade to resurface with the (engineered) Blur/Oasis "war."

Moreover, by assessing the personnel on "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and subsequently those invited to Live Aid, we were conveyed a horribly clear diktat about who mattered and didn't matter in pop - suddenly there was a pecking order. Nearly all of the original motivators of New Pop were conspicuous by their absence; Heaven 17 and Bananarama were there, Phil Oakey was invited but angrily declined when the rest of the Human League weren't. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were gigging in New York and couldn't attend the recording but Holly Johnson (together with Bowie, McCartney and Big Country) did a specially recorded message for the B-side ("I can't get the laugh right Bob") which Trevor Horn astutely and mischievously made the centre of his 12-inch remix. But as for ABC, Adam Ant, Marc Almond and the Associates - and these are just the "A"s - commercially they were all more or less washed up by the end of 1984, lucky even to squeeze into the Top 40 for a week. The Durans, the Spandaus, the Wham!s, those eager to please - all dutifully turned up; Jon Moss helped out on drums alongside Phil Collins but Boy George flounced in too late for the photo shoot. Those who still awkwardly stood outside, and/or apart from, the 1984 mainstream - the Smiths, the Bunnymen, New Order, Scritti, Madness - were not asked; others unable to attend but who subsequently turned up at Live Aid included the Thompson Twins, Sade and Alison Moyet.

Perhaps the most peculiar inclusion of all was Paul Weller, the sole representative of "punk" (if we don't count Geldof) present. Since he'd spent the best part of three years loudly slagging off nearly all of the artists in the studio, hardly anyone would talk to him except Phil Collins, Marilyn and his old mates Bananarama - although he was awestruck by the unexpected and unannounced appearance of Kool and the Gang, in town to promote their "Fresh" single and just dropped into the studio, he spent most of that Sunday trying to convince fellow musicians to participate in a fundraising single for the striking miners (only Heaven 17 agreed, and helped produce the Council Collective single "Soul Deep" which sold considerably less that season than Band Aid). He must have wondered why he'd even bothered (he can be heard, deep in the mix, on the line "where nothing overflows").

In its five weeks at the top - it debuted the same week as Wham's only UK million-selling single, the double-sided "Last Christmas"/"Everything She Wants," entered at number two (and still Britain’s best-selling number two single), where it was compelled to stay for the entirety of Band Aid's run at number one (the first occasion in UK singles chart history, apart from the first chart of all in November 1952, where the top two were both new entries, but since George Michael was prominently featured on "Do They Know It's Christmas?" he could hardly complain) - it passed the three million sales mark, shattering the record set by "Mull Of Kintyre," and would remain the UK's all-time best-selling single until 1997. The effects, as we have tried to demonstrate, were immediate - all of a sudden, pop in itself was no longer enough, yet Geldof was only setting in active motion what the Beatles had started back in the sixties. But now there seemed little, if any, room for fun, mischief or sex; the Frankie trilogy, with both "The Power Of Love" and Welcome To The Pleasuredome still in the top five, already seemed like a vaguely decadent and indulgent remnant of another era. Now the scene would be set for Soul and Sincerity and Good Works and Efficient Passion; the old values had speedily reasserted themselves, and charity records would soon routinely ascend to number one, not because they were good records, but because...well, do we want a better world, and can that better world still accommodate better music? The subsequent evidence might suggest that the two are incompatible. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a poor pop record which ended up being maybe the most important pop record, such that it seems "indecent" even to give it a mark. But the mark it has left on pop may take centuries to wash away. As for the 13 July Live Aid concert, which I attended, the general feeling was that of a gigantic sports day; all very nice, all very make-do-and-mend “uplifting,” and I didn’t remember a thing about it in the tube station half an hour later.

Roy Would

This is not quite the only place I get to talk about Roy Wood on TPL, but since Lena has admirably dealt with the Wizzard Christmas song elsewhere, I might as well have a go here. Wood was the British Todd Rundgren…an almost unhealthily profligate sonic architect who at his early-mid ‘70s peak straddled pop and avant with love and disdain, but who subsequently has become undervalued. Time for some re-evaluations.

Were Wizzard the anti-ELO or simply a Bizarro version of ELO? The strangely yearning psychosis of the unmatched debut single by ELO “10538 Overture,” in which both Wood and Jeff Lynne were involved, indicates a future reluctance to be embraced. Indeed, though credited to ELO, only four musicians participated on this recording; Jeff Lynne on vocals and guitar, the stalwart Bev Bevan on drums, Rick Price on bass, and Wood on everything else (including all string and horn parts). He says that he started mucking about with a cheap Chinese ‘cello he had bought, playing Hendrix riffs on it and thinking that this was damn good heavy metal. At the song’s climax, the increasingly wayward strings threaten to overwhelm the riff (later purloined by Weller for “The Changing Man”) altogether. The first ELO album delved into even murkier waters with various improv players amongst the string section, sounding rather like King Crimson’s Lizard in dub conference with Penderecki.

It didn’t last, of course; Lynne and Wood argued, Lynne decided to give his tunes some tunes, while Wood walked off to set up Wizzard and initially had the greater success with his primary-coloured assault on good old rock and roll, Spectorising its elements to such a magnitude that you could gladly bathe in them. Wood played a lot of the instruments on the Wizzard hits himself, and despite the epic surface of their hits, there was always that home-made, peculiarly British element lurking underneath the whole enterprise – the perfect meeting point, in other words, between Spector and Meek – coupled with a very theatrical pre-postmodern grandiosity which foresees both Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the KLF.

Listen to things like “Ball Park Incident” and “Angel Fingers.” Their sound is intensified to such an extent that you wonder whether these aren’t photocopies of, or blueprints for, “classic” rock and roll songs rather than songs per se. Above all, luxuriate in the five glorious minutes of “See My Baby Jive” which predates and outdoes “Born To Run.” The ornamentation here is so top-heavy that the whole cake threatens to collapse on the flimsiest of bases. No battalion of saxophones is too undermanned; no backing vocalists too propulsive. It is a celebration, an attempt at resuscitation of a dead spirit, a Doppler simulation of “rock and roll history” hurtling past you almost too quickly for you to absorb it. It is amongst the greatest of number one singles.

This was only half the story of Wizzard, however, as anyone who has listened to their albums will testify; elsewhere on tracks like the ELO-baiting “Bend Over Beethoven” we could almost be listening to the Zappa of Grand Wazoo; there is even proto-Ambient to be found in pieces like “Dream of Unwin” and “Nixture.” It didn’t last, of course; their last top 10 single in “Are You Ready To Rock,” essentially heralded a return to basics R&R with odd tangents here and there (another song from the same period, “Rattlesnake Roll,” suddenly devolves into bebop).

(And of course there may even be another half; note the crucial influence of Wood’s Wizzard arrangements and productions on the record which confirmed pop’s renewed supremacy over rock, “Waterloo” by Abba).

But the real genius of Wood is to be found in his solo work of the same period, usefully assembled on a twelve-year-old 2CD compilation entitled Exotic Mixture – although one CD would have more than sufficed, since CD1 in itself may well represent, if not the British SMiLE, then the British A Wizard/A True Star. Certainly songs like “Wake Up” achieve what Beck can no longer quite manage to reach, with its paddling in the water rhythm and the graceful yet surreal backwards sonorities at its close; similarly the astute queasiness of “Nancy Sing Me A Song.” “Dear Elaine” – a post-psychedelic folk ballad - is like Syd Barrett attempting to emulate the Incredible String Band; the lo-fi sung “brass” backing vocals echo into each other disturbingly and in the middle section threaten to drown out the song altogether – it eerily predicts what Robert Wyatt would do on “Sea Song” just a year later. Incredibly, this was a top 20 hit.

The songs then ricochet gleefully between styles – the immaculate Wilson pastiche of “Forever,” the Barry Adamson-outdoing “Premium Bond Theme,” the completely mentalist “Going Down The Road” (subtitled, appropriately, “A Scottish Reggae Song,” and yet another unlikely top 20 hit, with its queasy saxophones, pipe bands and police sirens). “Music To Commit Suicide By” is an MoR waltz which could pass as a sitcom theme tune, were it not for the rasping saxophones and ‘cellos which arrive to cast some darkness in the middle. “Mustard” is a recreation of ‘40s danceband radio.

At this stage, with the hits more or less over, Wood burrowed further into adventure. The 1976 single “Indiana Rainbow”/”The Thing Is This” was credited to Roy Wood’s Wizzard, but represented a quantum step away from Eddy and the Falcons. “Indiana Rainbow” in particular is a racing breeze of Tropicalia; with its knowing female backing vocals, danceband saxophones and determined percussion, it sounds remarkably like a foretaste of what August Darnell would later get up to with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. “The Thing Is This,” meanwhile, is an indescribable melange of Gershwin, Zappa, Varése, King Crimson and Autechre – Wood’s own “George Fell Into His French Horn.”

Which leaves us with Wood’s “Surf’s Up” – “The Rain Came Down On Everything,” the greatest and most moving song Wood ever wrote. Vocals and piano refracted through an icy, fuzzy screen (as though he’s already drowned), MBV meets George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” meets Dennis Wilson’s “Thoughts Of You,” it sounds as though Wood is bringing down the curtain on his whole life.

Where could he go from there? The second CD illustrates with great sadness where he actually did go – initially to forming the Wizzo Band, with its 13-piece horn section (though certainly no Arkestra – more like Wood’s Utopia). This specialised in intermittently interesting jazz-rock, though occasional flashes of Wood’s genius still shone through occasionally; hear the 1977 single “Dancing At The Rainbow’s End,” divine, seductive and knowing AOR which Gregg Alexander would kill to have written, and its B-side “Waiting At The Door,” with its vacillations between AOR and metal culminating in a bizarre C&W fadeout. His subsequent work, sadly, I find of little interest. But note, amongst all the melancholic, self-pitying and quietly furious British performers here, how “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” sparkles with humour, invention and a positive, future-embracing approach that was so vital in 1973 Britain.

What could possibly have kept it off number one?

It’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaas (a.k.a. BS Johnson, You Stupid Bastard, Look What You Missed)!

John and Yoko had released “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” the previous year, but otherwise it’s surprising, if only from a financial point of view, that major British acts didn’t make a habit of recording special Christmas singles; perhaps the Beatles and the Stones thought themselves too “cool” for such base exercises, and indeed the likes of Floyd and Zeppelin considered themselves far too “cool” to release any singles (although Pink Floyd would quite violently make up for that right at the end of the seventies; it is perhaps unsurprising that on this compilation children’s choirs are represented by “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” rather than “Another Brick In The Wall [Part II]”).

But the glam boom had restored showbiz to British pop, so it’s equally unsurprising that in 1973 seasonal offerings came from Wizzard, Elton – and Slade. “Merry Xmas Everybody” remains Slade’s most famous and biggest-selling song; a perennial cash cow which has returned to the chart almost annually ever since. Yet it was recorded halfway up a skyscraper in New York, in mid-August at the height of a heatwave. They ventured out into the studio stairwell to add their trademark clapping, stomping and yelling, leaving passing Americans thoroughly bemused (as Slade, and glam, did generally – the British charts of 1973, though sharing many records with the Billboard listings, overall must have looked as impenetrably parochial to American observers as the charts of, say, Latvia). John Lennon, then busy in the studio next door working on Mind Games, was tickled to hear what sounded like his hollering doppelganger. The melody and arrangement dated as far back as 1967 (the original song was entitled “Buy Me A Rocking Chair”); an aborted attempt by Holder and Lea to write a psychedelic song, though that aura is still very evident in the major-minor descending chords (“Hi Ho Silver Lining” after a fashion) and the swooning middle eight, with its subtle backward guitars.

But the song was absolutely right for the times; Holder stated that he explicitly wanted to cheer up British audiences at a time of grave crisis, and his vocal is benignly cheeky throughout (“Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?”), excited with expectations (“Are you hoping that the snow will start to fall?”), winking to previous generations (“Does your granny always tell ya/That the old songs are the best/Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rollin’ with the rest?” – aren’t you rather old not to be writing your memoirs?) and good-humouredly lecherous (“What does your daddy do when he sees your mama kissing Santa Claus – a-haha!”). It’s a tinselly knees-up with which anyone could identify; and yes, I loved Christmas, couldn’t wait to be spellbound by those gleaming gifts under the lit tree when I woke up at five on Christmas morning, and no, I didn’t like it when I learned the truth not long afterwards.

But “Look to the future now/It’s only just begun,” the chorus chants – reinforced by Holder’s climactic Lennonesque yell of “It’s CHRIIIIIII-SSSSS-TMASSSSSS!!” – but in fact “Merry Xmas Everybody” and its co-conspirators represented the apex of glam’s commercial and aesthetic appeal, as well as appealing to a Britain sorely in need of cheer, reassurance and basic happiness.

Last Christmas

Eleven years later and any cheer had evaporated; the bitterness and rancour from Make It Big persist through both record and video; George sees her again, but no, he remembers the pain from before, and has no desire to relive or recreate it. Cold Christmas rationalism; keep your countenance, say pleasant little things, bleed in private if you must.

Step Into Christmas

Much played and loved now, but back in 1973 Elton’s seasonal offering was a slow starter, peaking only at #24, perhaps overlooked in the dazzle of Slade and Wizzard’s songs. Although it does play like something of a “Thank You For This Gold Watch” record, it’s an agreeable Beach Boy-ish sleigh ride. “Step into Christmas – the admission’s free!” So who ends up paying?

In Dulce Jubilo

Probably the oldest song on Then Play Long – known in former times as “Good Christian Men Rejoice” – “In Dulce Jubilo” is reckoned to have been written in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (a.k.a. Henry Suso), something of a German antecedent of Blake, with his unending search for the “Eternal Wisdom” and the visions of dancing angels conjoining with his soul which inspired the song. Oldfield sounds happy playing everything on it; his own angel, his own vision.

Track Seven

“A donation from the proceeds of sale of this record will be made to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

McCartney IIa

Strange how McCartney sounds so much happier when he’s on his own. Recorded at home and performed entirely by the artist, mainly on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesiser, during sessions for McCartney II, “Wonderful Christmastime” sounds exactly like the uncomplicated, simple demo it was perhaps always meant to be. The video was shot in the garden of his local pub. But did the children really need to practise “Ding-dong, ding-dong” “all year long,” or was this a subtle rejoinder to George Harrison’s terrible “Ding Dong”?

Shaky!

Although Shakin’ Stevens did end up with 1985’s Christmas number one – the markedly happier “Merry Christmas Everyone,” released too late for inclusion here – he nearly did it in 1982 as well; his reasonable, if no more, crack at Presley’s morose “Blue Christmas” was the lead track on The Shakin’ Stevens E.P., prevented from reaching the top only by Renée and Renato. Then again, the extremely disturbing “Peace On Earth-Little Drummer Boy” Bowie/Crosby duet from 1977 – neither of them really knowing that the other was there – finished in third place.

War

Did you know that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” despite what the books and archives say, was a number one single? In those pre-Gallup, pre-computer days of chart compilation, the Christmas singles chart stood for a fortnight. In view of the reduced opening hours of chart return shops, the absence of new releases and the workload involved in coordinating a team of nationwide couriers to collect cumbersome diaries from record shops and return them to the British Market Research Bureau headquarters for assessment, it was not felt worth publishing a new chart for the first week of the New Year. A chart for that week was subsequently compiled but only for internal/industry purposes.

This almost never had an effect on the composition of the singles chart, since such lists showed virtually no change from the Christmas list, and invariably no change at number one - with one exception. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" was indeed the biggest-selling single of the week ending 3 January 1981, but by the time of the next official chart the following week had been overtaken into second place by "Imagine."

It was originally recorded just before the Christmas of 1971; too late for release that year, so it was held back until the following Christmas, when it peaked at #4. It deserves special mention here not only because it is one of the most underrated of all Christmas hits of our era, but also because it is one of the finest and least heralded productions of…well, we’ll come to that, and him, in a moment.

The single was perhaps the last formal chapter in Lennon's ongoing proto-blog concept of the single as the front cover of today's newspaper, addressing topical concerns and quickly recorded and circulated. It is also simultaneously the happiest and the saddest record in this series; directly from the jokey introductory whispers where John and Yoko wish themselves a merry Christmas to the blunt accusatory opening line of "So this is Christmas/And what have you done?" The mood is processional and celebratory, especially when the Harlem Community Choir enter at the start of the second verse with their "War Is Over" chant - like much else in the Lennon singles canon of the time, a clear influence from Yoko's Fluxus school of ambiguous homilies. The message is deceptively straightforward - "The world is so wrong," "For black and for white/For yellow and red ones/Let's stop all the fight" - and its setting majestic; the producer bridging the slow-burning epic/eulogy ballad style which he had explored with Checkmates Ltd and others in the late sixties, with its finest realisation in his mid-seventies work with Dion. The Wall of Sound is as imposing as ever, yet the track still manages to sound live and spontaneous (which it more or less is; there was apparently little need for overdubbing).

Eventually everyone joins in with the "War Is Over If You Want It/War Is Over NOW!" motif, sleigh bells and hammering drums working to a climax; and then, as the song "ends," the strings continue to play their lines as John & Yoko and the kids heartily roar seasonal wishes at each other. It is nearly unbearable in its poignancy, mainly because in Lennon's delivery there is a rueful undercurrent wherein you sense that he knows "we" won't want an end to the war, but also because of the strangely logical symmetry which the Lennon/Spector partnership turned out to form - one destined to be shot by someone he'd just met, the other in prison probably for the rest of his life, convicted of shooting someone he'd just met. Actions being far harder than words, and so forth, and let it be.

War Is Over – But Do You Want It?

For years I thought Greg Lake was singing, “And I saw Eamonn through his disguise,” i.e. Eamonn Andrews with his big, red This Is Your Life book. I still prefer it to the “And I saw him and through his disguise” that it actually is, but this is a song expressly against the commercialisation of Christmas, a huge, defiant “NO” to jollity and ignorance of the wider world; the video was shot partly in the Sinai desert and partly on the West Bank.

Lake reminds me of that other dissatisfied progressive rock bassist Roger Waters in both subject matter and delivery, and as the song remorselessly builds up to its triumphant – or apocalyptic – Prokofievian climax, it seems ready to send Christmas and the rest of pop music crashing down around its embers. It was a scary listen on late 1975 pop radio, but a necessary fightback (and one which its lyricist, Pete Sinfield, would continue in 1981’s “The Land Of Make Believe,” wherein Reagan, Thatcher and nuclear annihilation are sung about cheerfully in colourful, nightmare costumes).

What could possibly keep it off number one?

Spaceman, Where Do You Come From, Where Are You Going To?

The second coming of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” in Then Play Long, and contemporaneous with the Greg Lake song, and the younger, broke de Burgh was reading Chariot Of The Gods and wondering who These Beings really had been. The song traces out an interesting timeline of how a certain strand of anxious British – or, should we say, Anglo-Irish – singer-songwriter music evolved; initially on “Spaceman,” de Burgh’s delivery and sceptical but sincere spirituality are but the narrowest of breaths from Bill Fay. But then the song turns into a Moody Blues album track, and by the time of the fadeout, when de Burgh can no longer contain himself, his yelling sounds like, of all people, Noddy Holder. This is the first of two songs on this record optimistically calling for a new Christ to make him or herself known, the second being “When A Child Is Born,” on which latter I have nothing new to add.

Nuclear Shuffle

It could only really be 1980, couldn’t it? “Mary Bradley waits at home/In the nuclear fallout zone.” 1980, for those who didn’t live through it, really did feel as if it were going to be the last of all years, and this shivering synth/brass band romp through history, war and anxiety still disturbs, mainly with its warmth of uncertain provenance. Annex the “Thatcher’s Britain” hashtag or weary two-word paragraph as you deem fitting.

Thank God For America!

Americans don’t have anything like the same hang-ups that the British do over Christmas, are far less likely to get distressed or saddened by it. No matter what else was going through Brian Wilson’s head half a century ago, he could – with the help of Mike Love, never let it be forgotten - make even a miniaturist Christmas song sound ingenious and holy. See subsequent recordings such as “Santa’s Got An Airplane,” “Winter Symphony” or Dennis Wilson’s bone-chilling “Morning Christmas” for proof of how far they were prepared to fuck with the formula.

Christmas Standards

People can tell whether you mean it or not when you put out a Christmas record. If you’re too “cool” even to trifle with the notion of doing so – as most musicians appear to be these days – then it’s little wonder that there have been so few, if any, Christmas songs since Mariah Carey nearly twenty years ago that have become standards, revived and replayed on radio stations and in boutiques and supermarkets every twelve months.

“Thank God It’s Christmas” would seem to be the most reluctant of Christmas records. Written by Brian May and Roger Taylor, it is not particularly memorable or striking, and perhaps Queen were lumbered with the problem that, in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they already had their “Christmas” song (although “Bo Rhap” has nothing to do with Christmas, “New Year, New Year” notwithstanding). Perhaps the public were exhausted after the release of four straight singles from The Works, but at the end of 1984 the song crept up, amid much competition, to #21, subsequently appeard on the odds-and-sods Greatest Hits III compilation (rather than Greatest Hits II), and indeed disappeared altogether from later pressings of Now – The Christmas Album, as though recalled to the factory by its makers.

Mud, Mud, Inglorious Mud

The story tells itself, does it not? 1973 ended, or climaxed, with Slade’s boisterous and cheery denial of apocalypse, and 1974 – that most David Peace of pop years - sloped to a close with a limping sigh of resignation and dulled senses of loss. The model for Mud’s second number one was, vocally and musically, Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” and the record – or more precisely, the performance – raises key questions about the worth or otherwise of camp.

On television, Mud promoted “Lonely This Christmas” as a comedy routine; Les Gray doing Presley, lost in the mirrored corridors of Gracelands; in the spoken section Gray produced a ventriloquist’s dummy. Snow fell in the studio, before the camera cut to reveal a Mud roadie atop stepladder sprinkling talcum powder upon Gray’s generous head.

All this while Gray is delivering, in an Elvis croon (including a mock-Tupelo accent for the closing salutation “Merry Christmas darlin’, wherever you are”) “Try to imagine a house that’s not a home,” “My tears could melt the snow” and “It’ll be cold, so cold, without you to hold.” I press this point because there are moments in the song where Gray suddenly bursts into what sounds like genuine pain: “That’s where I’ll be, since you left me” in the first verse, and “I just break down as I look around” in the second.

Now, Mud’s success was in considerable part due to their “wackiness” onstage, and all testimonies suggest that Les Gray was the nicest, kindest and most lovable chap anyone could ever hope to meet, and a total professional as a performer. Yet I wonder whether there are places and circumstances when comedy is being used as a smokescreen for actual pain and hurt. There’s Gray’s grey voice, intoning: “Do you remember last year, when you and I were here? We never thought there'd be an end.” And there are the props and bits of business, as though the ashes of glam were reluctant or afraid to betray tears.

The End Is The Beginning

This is not quite the oldest performance – to (1985) date – to appear on Then Play Long; it was originally recorded on 29 May 1942, but the more familiar version was the re-recording undertaken on 18 March 1947; hence Perry Como’s 1945 “Prisoner Of Love,” technically speaking, predates it. However, it does raise the most key of questions; in these eighteen songs, only a very, very few actually address what Christmas is for, the reason for it being there at all. “White Christmas” skilfully avoids that subject too, preferring a semi-abstract picture of comforting times, Christmas as a pleasant afterthought to Thanksgiving, performed by perhaps the first singer to owe their fame to how they worked the microphone, and the recording studio.

And yet, look at that date again – 29 May 1942. When released in July of that year, as part of a six-track E.P. of songs from the movie Holiday Inn, the song unsurprisingly took some time to register, but by October it had moved to number one in the “Your Hit Parade” chart and was still there in January (with eleven weeks on top in Billboard and even three weeks at number one in the “Harlem Hit Parade,” the forerunner to today’s R&B charts). Listen to those words – “just like the ones I used to know,” “where the treetops glisten” – and absorb the nearly unutterable sadness felt by the people who took the record to number one a year after Pearl Harbor.

Yes, like the works of Vera Lynn here, “White Christmas” – which had originally been intended for Crosby’s Holiday Inn co-star Margaret Reynolds to perform (or at least mime to the voice of Martha Mears) – is, above all else, a war song, a reminder of what things were like before the war did things to “us,” the promise of a homecoming, of the existence of a tomorrow. It returned to number one in the States in 1945, and again in 1946, and even today is never far away, having long outlived its composer and singer. As with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Candle In The Wind ’97,” it tells us that celebration and warmth cannot be experienced without knowing of pain and cold.

4 comments:

Mark G said...

Another marathon post, deservedly so, and it's tough to add the snippets of comment I might have, so here's a compact version (PaulWeller got on OK with Bono in the BandAid studio, and got to mime his vocal when Bono didn't make the TOTP perf // RattlesnakeRoll and AreYouReadyToRock aren't on EddieFalcons // Shaky's MerryChristmasEveryone was produced by Dave Edmunds and seemed the most perfunctory Xmas song ever)

But my main entry would be about the original Bing Crosby "White Christmas", which had one of those old-fashioned opening-verse forms which John Lennon loved to do, and which used to flummox people as to "Which song starts with This verse then?" type trivia questions. Actually, one more christmas song that has one very similar to this one would be Dana's "It's gonna be a cold cold christmas without you" which is just as good as most of these but won't be found on this collection (but presumably appears on one of the many Hallmark-type collections since)..

So, top marks for Darlene Love's version which used it as a handy middle-eight, and I guess props also to Keane who used the same but relocated Beverly Hills to London and rainyness.

Of course, Roy Wood has his pensionsong, finally, with "I wish it could be christmas everyday" which starts with a loadsamoney style cash register but banishes cynicism for the rest of the record. I wish, also, that his output was more wonderful after "Mustard" as well, but he'd had more resurgencies, chartwise, than anyone else I can think of and more 'reinventions' than David Bowie, I guess he didn't feel the need after the Move, ELO, Wizzard and the soloness. (In fact The Move had three different phases anyway, but let it pass)..

And as you say, so many bands have attempted a christmas song but the public can tell a faker too easily. Was Half man half biscuit's "It's cliched to be cynical at christmas" actually a double bluff?

Chris Retro said...

The first UK Christmas 'hits' compilation, and - perhaps because it's 'just' a single album- still (to me, at least) definitive. The doubles since always seem too much.
Curious the parallels between 1973 and 1984 in terms of 'bumper Xmas hits' - the 3 from 73 are top notch, and 4 from 84 likewise - even the forgotten Queen track sounds substantial and the Gary Glitter track manages to transcend his subsequent notoriety every December.
Contrary to what came after, as a 12 year old in 1985 I was unaware of several tracks - Mike Oldfield, Greg Lake, Chris de Burgh. The Beach Boys and Mud weren't piped into every shop from mid-October, but I'd wager that this was the album that helped that happen.
It's almost 30 years later, and what Christmas singles would be worthy of inclusion now? The Pogues and Mariah, definitely. Shaky's #1 always sounded too plastic to me (though plenty of folk love it) as do the bigger Cliff Richard efforts. Everything else is novelty or superfluous.
Maybe it's because 1985 was the last Christmas when I was a 'child' as opposed to a hormonal teenager, but I love this first Now - The Christmas Album unreservedly. Even to the point of waxing lyrical about it in August - I constructed a digital version of it about 10 years, seeking the correct mix of Last Christmas in order to get it 'just so'.

It still gets played here in December, alongside the Phil Spector album, and a Johnny Mathis effort my Mum used to play a lot (recorded, I think, in the early 60s).

Bob Stanley said...

I've always liked the Fall's take on Blue Christmas in Ludd Gang (1983):
"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."

Tom Albrighton said...

Great stuff. As you say, an album like this was a novelty, and I remember being quite excited about having it in the house, since it meant I could listen to the Greg Lake track at will, having previously been obliged to wait all year for it to be played on the radio. As a result the run-in groove for that track became scratchy from overuse – Christmas was a time of needle-dropping in more ways than one. A memory of the pre-YouTube time when the physical scarcity, or unaffordability, of music was a huge factor in its appreciation – sort of cultural supply and demand.

I’d like to throw one more thing into the pot regarding ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ – would it have been a hit if it hadn’t been for charidee? I suppose the obvious answer is that it wouldn’t have existed at all, since it really records an event rather than any musical expression. But looking at the wearing triviality of much of this LP, I do wonder. It’s always a mistake to underestimate the capacity for seasonal banality.

Conversely, what would have made a ‘good’ charity record? Fewer artists, obviously, and a better song, equally obviously. Not addressing the subject in such a crushingly literal way. But who to write the song? If Ure had turned in something closer to ‘If I Was’, it might have served the turn, but surely few pop listeners would have had him as first choice. A ‘Different Corner’-esque George Michael ballad with an ambiguous lyric (‘you’=Africa) would have been interesting, as would a belting FGTH sonic assault called ‘War on Hunger’ or something like that. After all, if people are going to buy it anyway, why go for the lowest common denominator? I suppose it’s all so clear in retrospect.

Is it crass, or even racist, to suggest that a record for Africa should have had more black voices? I’m saying it anyway. The whole thing was so overbearingly white – only Jody Watley and Kool and the Gang featured, so there are no black British artists at all, as far as I can tell. That must have galled the 2-tone acts who’d worked so hard to write hits that raised issues in the preceding years. White Christmas indeed.

At the time, as a reader of Smash Hits at least, I remember an impish derision about the whole ‘good works’ thing emerging almost immediately. Geldof became ‘Saint Bob’; Sting got both barrels the second he went solo. For a pop fan, the antidote to Band Aid’s pofacedness was to view it as a potted Now or Hits compilation, now viewed not from the lofty art-precipice of New Pop but from the gleefully reductive yellow submarine of SAW dance-pop, your newly opened one-stop-shop for fun (‘Locomotion’), mischief (‘I’d Rather Jack’) or sex (‘You Spin Me Round’). As important records dully proclaimed their own value, unimportant records became more important than ever. Actually, I hated SAW, but it’s probably better to be booted out of your teenage years early than hang on to them too long.