Vote and Rate Jamie Clubb's articles and reviews

Friday 18 December 2009

My Very Varied Christmas Anthems

By the time I was 25 I had many problems with Christmas. I wasn’t religious and I wasn’t a materialist either – and it seemed that the anthems to this annual ritual of superstition meets greed were either some thoroughly nauseating carols I had hated since my school days and a truly terrible song by Wizard. I recall doing my Christmas shopping in Oxford hemmed by bustling and angry people competing to get to the stores. Everywhere I went I was haunted by the childish words of “I wish it could be Christmas every day...” I couldn’t think of anything worse! Years later the apparent satire of this dreadful track would be explained to me, but I still loathed it along with Slade, Paul McCartney and all the other naff Christmas tracks that were vomited out of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Many years later and I arrived at a truce with Christmas (and my family). Many of the songs have got worse - if that was possible – plus there is now an annoyingly ironic embracing of Christmas tinsel-decorated tackiness as if it were all so wonderfully kitch and the greed had increased, although thankfully now we have the internet to cut out the Christmas shopping nonsense. Something had to be done and, as Man Eats Biscuit once famously sung, "It's Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas". What I ended up doing was to take the parts of Christmas or Winter Solstice or Newton’s Birthday that I did begrudgingly enjoy and excluded the rest as much as possible. It's quite hard to do this, as every year shops seem to try to extend Christmas build-up to an early slot. I recall seeing Christmas promotions up in August in Amsterdam. My fruitless wish is for a return to the 12 Days of Christmas concept, which now only exists as a confusing song to successive generations. Germanic traditions openly embrace Christmas, but they seem to do it with a traditional class. The whole idea is ritualised and primal, anyway. It probably stemsfrom people in the western hemisphere needing to create a festival at the darkest time of year to cheer everyone up and hopefully bring back the sun god, so if you are going to celebrate why not have fun with the traditions. Having a Krampus Day sounds pretty cool, as does putting up the Pagan Christmas tree on 24th December. I can't convince my lot to do that, but the Christmas decorations do not surface until 1st December. November is not part of Christmas, it has its own tradition albeit one that was cut from Halloween in Jacobean times. Anyway, among the relatively small list of small doses of personal merriment I indulge,  I actually was able to find 10 songs that I found had an enjoyable connection to Christmas.

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) – Written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, famously sung by Nat King Cole

I have come to the conclusion that most Christmas songs recorded before the 1960s were the best. My taste in music rarely dips into jazz and swing, but age does funny things to you. This was the stuff my grandfather and now my uncle enjoys. Whenever I hear of it the whole song just seems to say class. Call me a snob, but I just like the idyllic refinement and the escapism of a 1940s that never was when it comes to unwinding on a Christmas Eve. Nat King Cole has a remarkable Midas-like voice that seems to relish giving comfort with everys single one of these lyrics. The song has an instant classic feel and yet it makes wry observations about the whole Christmas cliche. Couple that with the wonderful instrumental and those faint few notes of Jingle Bells at the end are just perfect. The story goes that Tormé began writing the words on a hot summer’s day from a series of thoughts he had about winter in order to cool off.

Winter Wonderland – Richard B Smith (lyrics) and Felix Bernard (composer)

For me, this is the quintessential secular Christmas song. It aptly described as a "winter song" in most music guides that has become a "Christmas standard". This hopefully keeps it within December, but it is totally lacking in anything connected to Christmas besides the desired weather conditions. In a reverse of the Winter Solstice idea, Smith offers up a "give me your best shot, Winter" challenge and marches in with a sense of ridiculous optimism. Written in 1934 it contains lyrics that clearly mark it out as belonging to another time, but has been covered by over 200 artists. The end reults are usually unmemorable at best. Bing Crosby's version is the most famous and generally the one that stands the test of time with Doris Day as a runner-up. but looking at the list of singers that have given it a go I want to check out Billy Idol, Annie Lennox and Bob Dylan's versions. Like White Christmas and The Christmas Song it is wonderfully nostalgic and provides a type of temporary escapism.

White Christmas – Irving Berlin, performed by Bing Crosby

This song really says it all. Being part of a popular musical at the time certainly helped matters and its strong reminiscing apparently appealed to the soldiers of the Second World War who missed home (it was released in 1942). It is this melancholic feel to the track that I think acts as a great contrast to Winter Wonderland and The Christmas Song. Christmas is known as one of the biggest anti-climaxes of the year and this can be true for children who imagine waking up on Christmas Day in a type of white utopia. The question being asked could very well be, did this type of Christmas really ever exist?

O Come All Ye Faithful (traditional, attributed to John Francis Wade)

Apparently this might well have been a 13th century Jacobite ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie before its transformation into a Christmas Carol. Christmas carols are mainly terrible. Hearing Charlie Brown's cast sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" gets a pass, but there is some serious grovelling drivel that has been passed down through the ages. We were forced to learn them all off by heart at secondary school with various threats. As the years go by and my daughter goes through primary school, I am beginning to warm to a scant few of them in small measures. I can’t say I actually really like "O Come All Ye Faithful" for any other reason other than it reminds me of the joy most primary school kids have at their Carol service in trying to shout as loud as they can “O Come Let Us Adore Him!”

One More Sleep ‘til Christmas – Kermit the Frog

They may have had terrible poverty, there may have been huge class divide lines and over the top conservatism on the surface, but one thing the Victorians knew how do well is celebrate Christmas. Out of that tradition I have always enjoyed a good Sherlock Holmes (I have read every short story and the four novels in Conon Doyle’s Cannon) and a good Charles Dickens. Whichever Dickens story or adaptation you enjoy, they all seem to say Christmas to me. However, Dickens' best known ode to Christmas is, of course, “A Christmas Carol”. Due to the influence of mid-19th cenutry intelegensia a myth was perpetrated that Dickens "invented" or, at least, resurrected Christmas and redefined the concept of the Christmas Spirit. This is a very typical Victorian conceit, where everything is seen within a middle and upper class bubble. Nevertheless, the myth persists and "A Christmas Carol" has become almost as well known as the Nativity in the western world. I think only adaptations of “Oliver” can compete with the number there have been done of this particular story. The oldest version on film appears to have been produced in 1901! Walt Disney Pictures have produced at least three versions, of which The Muppet Christmas Carol is the second (and the first time they distributed a Muppet movie).

The whole soundtrack is a joy to listen to, but this particular song seems to be at the heart of the film and it is a nice coming home tune. According to “Family Guy” when Jim Henson died we were left with “wrong sounding Muppets”. Nevertheless, Kermit’s voice is provided by Steve Whitmire who I think is pretty much dead on. He sings perfectly keeping consistent with that very peculiar tone we associate with the Kermit character. It’s a real fun innocent little piece that is expanded upon again in the film’s finale with the whole cast. I remembered my love for The Muppets through this film when it happened to be on in my mother's living room on Christmas Day morning amidst all the usual chaos. I was a jaded teen then and it took a lot to get through my cynicism. A decade later and during a particular cold Christmas I was sat in the reception of a car dealership wanting to be just about anywhere else when I heard "One More Sleep 'til Christmas" coming over their radio. Rather than contributing to the Hell of Christmas shopping that Wizzard had underlined several years before this song temporally lifted me above the money and mechanical worries that was racing through my mind at the time.


Hey Santa Claus - Kevin Bloody Wilson

From the child-like if anarchic joy of the Muppets to the crude and politically incorrect words of Australia’s most controversial comedian. I have always thought of Kevin Bloody Wilson as the other side of the world’s equivalent to our Bernard Manning or even Roy Chubby Brown, neither of whom I have ever had much time. His humour is often racist and sexist, but not too far right to discount drug references. He pretty much upsets everyone. However, I cannot help but like this song. It appeals to the punk in me. It is overtly and shamelessly crude, yet accurately portrays the spoilt indignation of a child that didn’t receive his bike.

As programmes like “South Park” demonstrate, children are far from the clean-mouthed and innocent thinking little cherubs we like to imagine. Christmas can really bring the worst out in everyone and children are no different. Whipped up into a delirium of excitement over a series of days that help create expectations no one but the real Santa Claus can truly fulfil. So, when that disappointment does arrive it is high time that the big fat jolly old Mr Perfect gets the brunt of it for a change.

The Night Santa Went Crazy – “Weird Al” Yankovic

There is a lot of stress and strain around Christmas time and a tremendous amount focus on the big guy. Weird Al lends his great sense of wit and satire to a description of the fall of Christmas’s most favourite saint. A completely wasted Santa finally loses it at the toy factory, resulting in a massacre. The song melody parodies “I Believe in Santa Claus” and the lyrics are brilliant.

This is Halloween – Marilyn Manson cover from “Nightmare Revisited”

Okay, it looks like I am running low on Christmas songs. However, for those of you who are familiar with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, the Tim Burton penned and Henry Sellick directed wonderful feature length dark children’s fairy tale musical, you will recognise the song. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was released for Halloween, as the story starts then, but it is probably more enjoyed now at Christmas. The film is a wonderful link between these two former-Pagan celebrations, although the darkness of Halloween always has the upper hand. “Nightmare Revisited” was a complete cover album with songs from the film being sung by a variety of alternative rock and metal artists. It was a great idea and Marilyn Manson, no stranger to giving a dark edge to children themes, is perfectly selected for this particular song. Like The Muppets Christmas Carol, I could easily put up this entire soundtrack or its cover album as my choice of favourite Christmas songs, but that’s not playing fair I guess.

Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine

Okay, not a Christmas track at all, but if you were reading this in December 2009 and lived in the UK you might have an idea of where I am coming from. Christmas charts have never really been great. Hell, on balance, the charts have never been great if we are looking for music that really made a long term difference or are generally considered to be genuine classics. It is then little surprising that Christmas, the most commercially motivated time of the year, will contain some of the worst and soulless tracks going. As time has gone on it has become less necessary to even mention Christmas! For four straight years the UK saw the top spot being claimed by a winner of a TV talent show called “The X Factor”. It had become a type of inevitability. Then in 2009 the internet social site Facebook revealed a couple who decided they would try to be proactive in voicing their disgust with this predictable and regular occurrence. Tracy and Jon Morter started a group on Facebook with the announcement "Fed up of Simon Cowell's latest karaoke act being Christmas No 1? Me too... So who's up for a mass-purchase of the track Killing In The Name as a protest to the X Factor monotony?"

As a track alone it is one of my all time favourites. It came out when I was 16 years old and so hit me at just the right time. Even to this day I consider it one of the training tunes. You can hit a heavy bag and lift weights with increased vigor with this song in your soul. I am aware now, as I was then, of the contradictions and paradoxes associated with Rage Against the Machine and their politics. I am also aware now of the undeniable irony in the final defiant lines of the track “F*** you I won’t do what you tell me!” when the Morters and the peer pressure of Facebook are apparently doing just that when they tell you buy a copy of the track in protest to the X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s single. However, all of this completely misses the main point of the protest. Quite simply the general public are sick of the inevitability of having to put up with another carefully organized number one. This brilliant single, 17 years old at the time of the protest, has always been controversial and it reminds the general public of the sense of rebellion that should drive young music and has done since rock ‘n roll combated the manufactured singers of the 1950s. So, this song may not say anything directly about Christmas, but its reappearance speaks volumes about British public opinion on the Christmas charts.

The Fairytale of New York – The Pogues with Kirsty McCall

I am certainly not alone in considering this to be perhaps the greatest popular Christmas song ever written. It still stands out as one of the most unusual and yet appropriate tracks for the Christmas season. The fact that its year of release saw it lose out on the number one Christmas slot to the distinctly non-Christmassy and yet shamelessly poppy Pet Shop Boys cover of Elvis's "You Were Always on my Mind" is bitter-sweet poetry. Telling a story of promises and dashed dreams between a couple, it brings some gravity back to the holiday season. All over the country there will be drunken people stuffing up holding cells on Christmas Eve after a night of over-indulgence. Each will have their own story. This one tells the tale of one drunkard recounting a failed relationship between him and another Irish immigrant in New York, the fabled bitter sweet destination of hope and glory for that particular nationality. The whole song has attracted dissections and discussions for its interesting lyrics, references to culture and history, even prompting a whole Christmas documentary on its conception and subsequent success.  From Shane MacGowen’s barely intelligible drunken lines to the late great Kirsty MacColl’s beautifully fiery vocals the piece is the perfect antidote to all the insincerity, hypocrisy and superficiality that dominate most middle class Christmases in the west.

Postscript 2015: 

Since I first wrote this in 2009, I have realised how my choice of songs are actually pretty conventional. A couple of dirty ditties in there to shake things up, some pre-tat Christmas standards, The Muppets and a childish establishment swipe at the establishment is pretty much the best I can offer, which goes to show how much I have actually looked into Christmas tracks. My memories of being a teenager at Christmas were usually listening to unseasonal albums I had wanted all year. There are good artists on my list, but only a few would come near my list of all-time favourite musicians. I haven't put any tracks from the Christmas works of Annie Lennox, Kate Bush, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Ramones (their Christmas track is apparently an alternative classic) and, of course, Poly Styrene's "Black Christmas". However,  none of them registered on my restricted and electrically taped festive aerial until now. Looking over what has been offered by artists I usually like I think The Killers should be given a special mention for the way they hit the right note at this time of year.

If you enjoyed this article please vote for it on Dooyoo

Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog

Enhanced by Zemanta