The Waitresses ‘Christmas Wrapping’ (1981)
The authentic sound of spiky new-wave femininity, à la Toyah, Bow Wow Wow and the Belle Stars. The lyric, about being too busy to have a good time, is bracingly realistic (if a little sappy at the dénouement), while the music crams in every winning production trope of the early 80s, from surf guitar to latin brass. This might have been a bigger hit if it hadn’t been linked to Christmas, which brings the unwelcome taint of ‘novelty record’ to even the strongest track.
Band Aid ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ (1984)
At the time, you couldn’t really say anything bad about this song. In retrospect, though, its noble intentions couldn’t really disguise its shoddiness. Things started poorly with the lame pun of the band name, and got worse with the weak lyrical conceit. What mattered to Cambodians, surely, was who was going to get any food that month, rather than who knew about what Western religious festival.
The music, meanwhile, comes across like a shambolic all-star singalong conducted over a late-period Ultravox B-side – which is, essentially, what it is.
Apart from the endless fadeout, the most tiresome moment is, of course, Bono’s controversial/irritating* (*delete as applicable) ‘Thank God it’s them instead of you’ (1:30), yelled out with his trademark vocal bravado. Across the UK, a million Pet Shop Boys fans shuddered in distaste.
Mariah Carey ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ (1994)
For anyone who thought the 80s were all surface and no depth, the 90s were a long, hard lesson in just how bad things could get. Pop gave up the mantle of innovation to dance, while dad rock bands like Cast and OCS racked up the big sales. And we had to deal with Mariah Carey, the soul singer with no soul.
A perfectly realised mimetic work, this track faithfully embodies all the worst aspects of the festival it celebrates: cretinous forced jollity, stultifying traditionalism and lowest-common-denominator populism. It’s awful. And it’s easily my most hated Christmas song.
Low ‘Just Like Christmas’ (1999)
And exhale, with this lovely, low-key antidote to Mariah mania. The song is built over an endless four-chord minor-major-minor-major loop that keeps starting hopefully up before lapsing back into doubt, carried by an unobtrustive alt-country arrangement augmented by sleigh bells (of course). The lyric matches the music with its own doubts, questioning exactly what makes it ‘just like Christmas’. Turns out it’s not travelling (homeward?) or snowy weather, but getting lost and feeling young.
With an almost Buddhist detachment, the song passes no judgement on whether these experiences are good or bad (or even if it really is Christmas). It’s just a reflection of some moments, nothing more or less – and a timely reminder that Christmas is about presence rather than presents.
Slade ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ (1973)
Whenever this wince-inducing song comes round again, I’m always struck by how corny and prosaic the verses are. If that were all, I’m sure this track would be as dusty and forgotten as Slade’s other five (!) number ones. There’s that blood-curdling ‘It’s Christmaaas!’, but again, one line doesn’t make a song.
What I think keeps this track on the radar is the harmonic sidestep to ♭VI on ‘only just begun’, which gives the line about ‘looking to the future’ real depth and significance. (It’s the same trick that Paul pulls in ‘P.S. I Love You’, where the stress falls, brilliantly, on ‘you’.)
By the time you reach my age, you’re also remembering all the years you’ve been hearing this track, and thinking that ‘it’ (whatever it is) is probably at least half over, rather than ‘only just begun’. So very tired…
Frazier Chorus ‘Christmas Every Year’ (1998)
Frazier Chorus’ Tim Freeman was one of our least appreciated pop songwriters. Operating at a wry, irritable locus triangulated by Philip Larkin, Neil Tennant and Momus, he documented everything from doing the washing up, vacuuming and stopping at a Little Chef to suicide, haunting and abortion – all over a fastidiously clean pop backing dusted with woodwind and jazz guitar. The overall effect was like waking from a bad dream in front of daytime TV.
No-one who’d heard Freeman describe the phrase ‘we love you’ as ‘an unproductive thing to say’ would be surprised at these mordant seasonal sentiments:
Now even Father Christmas can’t believe that he exists
And I give in
If anyone thought Christmas was a game that you could win
Then I give in to this fear
Of Christmas every year
Never officially released, this track appears on the ‘official bootleg’ Monkey Spunk, a round-up of demos and snippets curated by Tim’s brother (and sometime guitarist) Jamie. I’m pretty sure the CD is unobtainable now, but a kind soul has uploaded ‘Christmas Every Year’ to YouTube:
Paul McCartney ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ (1979)
If you needed to commission a surefire Christmas hit, you could do a lot worse than call Paul. Alarm bells ring at the thought of self-indulgent 70s Macca being let loose on Christmas, but in the event he delivers a pretty cogent, restrained and listenable track. With its squelchy synths, it’s fairly forward-looking in terms of sound – a bit like a twinkly version of Wham!’s ‘Everything She Wants’ (the darker AA side of ‘Last Christmas’).
In terms of melody, Paul thriftily recycles the sprightly little skip up a major chord that opens ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Penny Lane’, then rather lazily repeats it four times to form the verse. But when you’re number one, why try harder?
Now, let’s just pretend that business with the frogs never happened.
Münchener Freiheit ‘Keeping The Dream Alive’ (1988)
Well, I’ve just outed myself as a Paul fan, so you can hardly be surprised to see this here. Freiheit out-Paul Paul with their magnificent tribute, blending the metronomic strings of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with some band-round-the-mike close harmonies and a general ‘oompah’ feel evoking McCartney’s 1968 vibe.
However, what really makes the song so Paulesque is its timelessness. Like ‘Yesterday’, it doesn’t really sound like it belongs in the 60s, or the 80s, or anywhere. It just is, and feels like it always has been.
Chris De Burgh ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ (1975)
Space was big in the 70s. Kubrick kicked things off with 1999, then George Lucas engaged the hyperdrive with Star Wars. On the non-fiction side, Carl Sagan cruised the cosmos in, er, Cosmos, explaining everything as he went. Suddenly, even those with no imagination could picture themselves in the future.
Apparently inspired by Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, ‘A Spaceman’ floats the idea that the star of Bethlehem was a spacecraft piloted by a friendly watching alien. Encountering this track as a not-yet-atheist child, I found this thesis edgily subversive. These days I try and ignore the lyric completely, and the infuriating na-na-na-na refrain, and focus on the Dr Who Moogs. Still, someone liked it enough to make this video…
Greg Lake ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ (1975)
This is by far my favourite seasonal song, and the only one I could countenance listening to at other times of year. (Interestingly, Lake didn’t actually intend it as a Christmas song, and lyricist Peter Sinfield says it is really about innocence lost.)
Everything is perfect, from the first-flakes-of-snow 12-string intro to the orchestral climax (lifted from Prokofiev) and Lake’s understated, very 70s vocal. In keeping with the furrowed-brow prog mood, the message is of ‘hope’ and ‘bravery’ rather than frivolity, and the final line is one to mull over as you sit, half-drunk, surrounded by wrapping paper: ‘At Christmas you get you deserve’.
Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas.
Tags: A Spaceman Came Travelling, All I Want For Christmas Is You, Band Aid, Chris De Burgh, Christmas Every Year, Christmas songs, Christmas Wrapping, Do They Know It's Christmas?, Frazier Chorus, Greg Lake, I Believe In Father Christmas, Just Like Christmas, Keeping The Dream Alive, Low, Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas Everybody, Münchener Freiheit, Paul McCartney, Slade, The Waitresses, Wonderful Christmastime