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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.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Rage Against the X Factor Machine

Rage Against the MachineRage Against the Machine via

A few days ago I wrote a purely self-indulgent article listing my 10 favourite songs. Nothing too progressive in the art I have to say, other than perhaps my idiosyncratic tastes in music, but it was an enjoyable exercise that paid me money. A received a comment on the said article from an interested reader, “No prizes for guessing who want for the Christmas number one then?” It puzzled me. All the songs I had listed had been out of the UK charts, if they had ever entered them, for many years. Not long before I wrote the article I received an invitation from a Facebook group, “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas Number One”. It seemed like a fairly innocuous and bizarre bit of wishful thinking, as the majority of these groups/causes are, but seeing as I have loved the work of Rage Against the Machine since I first heard them back in 1992 I joined and didn’t think much about it. The most interest I gave it was the thought that perhaps there was a new Rage Against the Machine single out I hadn’t heard yet. Then I just happened to glance at a headline in a tabloid paper – that will remain nameless – in my mum’s house. The story was about an apparent battle between Rage Against the Machine and the winner of X-Factor to get to number one. The very slow cogs in the populist side of my head started to turn.

The track, of course, is not a new single, but the first great hit of the band, “Killing in the Name of”. It is not exactly your typical Christmas hit, especially if we consider one of the lines in the song refers to the extremist Christian cult, the Ku Klux Klan. Rage Against the Machine have always stood out as one of the most staunch and popular protest rock groups in the last decade. The always seemed somewhat out of place in the early 1990s with their Che Guevara t-shirts, Anarchist Cookbooks and so on, all which were popular during the 1970s, but fast-forward to today and I guess it is all back in. Not since the days of the second generation punk band, Crass, of the early ‘80s can I recall a band being so overtly revolutionary and willing to tackle political issues. They really like to stick it to the man! However, of course, their popularity has meant that they have inevitably compromised and contradicted some of their socialist beliefs. I am not an especial fan of their politics anyway, seeing myself as a militant individualist, but I love their energy in the same way as I love the energy of the early punk rock movement.

I also love the concept of “the people” finally saying they have had enough of X Factor and replied with such a perfect track to express this opinion. It’s not that the show is especially awful, but for years now it seems to have finished the job the likes of Stock Aiken and Waterman started in the 1980s. For five unbroken years the UK has had an X Factor number one for Christmas. Before then it was little better. There haven’t been many good Christmas songs written since the 1950s. A gleaming exception being The Pogues’ “The Fairy Tale of New York”, but even that was denied the Christmas top spot by a cynical and synthetic cover of an Elvis song by The Pet Shop Boys. I recall back in 1998 listening to the charts and thinking that there really wasn’t anything special that had touched the top 10. I thought matters couldn’t get worse. I should have known better. As Bill Cosby used to say, “Never challenge worse!” A few years on and matters had certainly got worse as the battle for the number one Christmas spot was being fought over by several TV talent show and ex-TV talent show contestants. The airwaves and the shops were reverberating with the schmaltzy covers of familiar songs and mundane tick all the commercial boxes original numbers. It was like Rick Astley had set down the commandments for song writing and producing.

One thing that really got my goat, however, was the inevitability being pushed in the tabloid article about the battle between Rage Against the Machine and this other bloke. Bookies were giving odds against Rage Against the Machine’s supporters beating X Factor, as they felt that the Facebook campaign would be no match for the corporate advertising and marketing machine behind X Factor. This is quite sad, but it is reflective of our times. Personally I like the article written in the Guardian’s Music Blog. It gives a sense of balance, referencing a link describing RATM’s obvious political contradictions and describes why, from a democratic point of view, it would be very sweet to see the band get the top spot. Sadly it also speaks with a sense of pessimistic determinism that it would be unlikely for this happen. Another article from another disreputable tabloid cries out for another punk revolution. Now that would be sweet!

The Guardian article:

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