The annual release of pop/rock songs on a Christmas theme is still widely mythologised despite long-term reductions in sales. Yet it was a tradition which became established gradually and accidentally. At the start of the 1970s we already had Phil Spector’s distinctive Christmas Album which seemed to follow the playful style of a novelty record like Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”. Alongside was the more earnest tone of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.
In 1973 came three of the most well-known and re-released Christmas singles, but these were simply the new releases of established groups. “Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade was the latest in a series of hits which continued for several more years. In contrast, Wizzard’s “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day” turned out to be practically the end of their career. Elton John was just getting into his career stride and “Step into Christmas” got a much lower chart placing than the previous two possibly just because he had released other records recently or that this one reached the shops too close to Christmas Day.
However this was the start of a routine. Popular music acts both famous and aspiring would release a single around Christmas following some tried and trusted lyrical (and sometimes musical) templates. Some you liked to hear again each December, some you definitely didn’t. In this time of goodwill perhaps I might muse at greater length on three Christmas singles over the next 40 years which made particular impressions on me.
“I Believe in Father Christmas”, released by the recently deceased Greg Lake in 1975, is definitely in the sombre vein of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. Childhood sentimentality is rejected in the lyrics, which were written by Pete Sinfield: “they told me a fairy story” but “I woke up” and “saw (Father Christmas) through his disguise”. World peace is a principal desire of the narrator but not yet available; “hopeful” optimism is appropriate but requires individual effort: “the Christmas we get we deserve”.
The song’s slow tempo tune was livened by chiming percussion and an acknowledged steal from a classical melody by Prokofiev. Happily it was a big hit and was played regularly on Radio 1 during subsequent Yuletides. Ironically, since Lake released the record as a diversion from his normal band work, it may be the record he is now most known for.
I remember in the mid-1980s saying to someone of my age, “There was a time when we thought that “I Believe in Father Christmas” was as grown-up and intelligent as a Christmas pop song could be” and the other chap agreed. Mind you, at the same time, I heard (or read) cool new young BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw saying that he made trips to the emerging musical countries of Africa and Latin America around Christmas “so that I don’t have to hear Greg Lake on the radio” !
It was only a couple of years later when I heard on the radio a Christmas-themed record by a band I quite liked but who didn’t usually appear on Top of the Pops. A few days later, I heard the song again and by now I loved it. Although I rarely bought singles, I decided I must purchase this one, because the band was not yet popular, so the record would certainly not be a hit and would not be played frequently on the radio.
I was quite wrong. The record, “Fairy Tale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, was a big hit that Christmas of 1987 and became a Christmas radio staple.
Today I find enough things to dislike in the record that I have to think back a bit carefully to remember exactly what I first enjoyed in it. One attraction was certainly the references to New York, a place I loved both in its idealised and real forms and which I had already been lucky enough to visit twice. (The original single’s sleeve had a wonderful old photograph – below – of the city sky-line). A musical strength was the potent mix of the voices of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl as they presented the romantic images of “you promised me Broadway was waiting for me” and “the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”. But I always winced at the stereotypical image of Celtic male drunkenness at the start of the narrative and the shared insults voiced later by MacGowan and MacColl. I have not warmed further to these elements as time has passed. So “Fairy Tale of New York” is definitely one of those cultural artefacts where its qualities change depending on the angle or time of approach.
Fast forward again, this time to 2011, possibly the last Christmas when in the car I would automatically switch on a popular music station rather than Radio 3 or 4. By accident I caught a snippet of a song which seemed to revive some of the musical or lyrical atmosphere of “I Believe in Father Christmas” or “Fairy Tale in New York”. Fortunately we now had the internet, so I could quickly find out the names of the artistes and could listen to the song for free to my heart’s content.
It was “When the Thames Froze” by (Tom) Smith and (Andy) Burrows, two members of 21st century bands which I had heard of but never from.
“When the Thames Froze” follows the solitary reflection of “I Believe in Father Christmas” rather than a narrative like “Fairytale in New York”. The lyrics seek a balance between the contemporary and the timeless. While the title image hints at centuries past, one striking line is clearly contemporary and political: “God damn this government, will they ever tell me where the money went?” And will they ever take some action about civic discontent and homelessness? The scene described elsewhere is less fixed: the hazards of “snow” and “cold” may not be physical. Whatever, the narrator seems reasonably confident that “my friends” and “you” will support him through difficulty. As in “I Believe in Father Christmas”, the ending builds tempo with cautious optimism although here all that is needed is hope and communication rather than effort : “tell everyone…let’s hope the next (year) beats the last”. Like many 21st century pop-rock songs, “When the Thames Froze” seems aware of its shaky structure, which is perhaps why familiar instrumentation touches are re-employed to build the Christmas cheer: brass band, ensemble singing.
It is widely agreed that our celebration of Christmas has gradually become less religious and more secular. Is this change reflected in this arbitrary selection of three Christmas songs over 30 years? Yes, I think so. “I Believe in Father Christmas” does refer to “the virgin birth” and a faith in “the Israelite” although the narrator appears to be scoffing at this as “a fairy story”. Even fewer biblical references in the later two songs. The two characters in “Fairytale of New York” do not appear to be religious even though the church bells ringing on Christmas Day is an image of hope and happiness, delivered in a major key. And, 20 years later on, when the Thames freezes, perhaps not physically, the only reference to God is in the form of a curse: “God damn”.