By Kirsty OUP-UK
Growing up, one of the highlights of Christmas Day was to tune into Top of the Pops so that I could hear what had made it to the coveted Christmas Number 1 slot. While over the last two or so years the number 1 single has been a result of The X Factor – basically our American Idol, complete with Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne – in previous years the bookies have taken a huge amount of money in bets on who would make it to the top spot. And nothing says Christmas like a novelty record or two somewhere in the running. Join Colin Larkin, editor of Oxford’s 10 volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music (which has also just launched online) as he gives his expert opinion on Christmas Records of our time.
The celebration of Christmas in popular song must really be credited to the wise old men of Tin Pan Alley USA; more specifically, the pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll market that existed in the mid-40s to the early 50s. Growing up in this era I was fascinated by the annual treat of a song that would be added to an already strong catalogue of really great Christmas songs. ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby and others, had already become established since 1942 as ‘the’ Christmas song. It was followed in 1944 by the magnificent ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ and made famous by both Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Two years later Mel Tormé wrote an all-time gem, ‘The Christmas Song’, and it was taken to the top of the charts by Nat King Cole in 1946. All three are timeless quality classics and have been recorded by countless artists over the years proving that a good song, is a good song, is a good song. Clearly there was a market for a ‘great’ Christmas single, but what the world would also learn, was that there was also a market for terrible, wretched, awful, trite, saccharine-soaked, sentimentalist-nonsense, let me out of here rubbish.
Dickens may have captured the literary market with the indispensable Christmas Books, but in my mind, America always had the greatest homeland advantage when it came to Christmas songs anyway: snow (guaranteed in many parts of the USA and Canada). It is so much more evocative to know that chestnuts really do roast on an open fire. In East London/Essex I seem to remember snow on Christmas Day 1963, and that’s it!
Where do I begin? Once music publishers had heard the cash tills ringing there was no stopping them and since the 50s things have been steadily declining into a bottomless pit of lower mediocrity that now asks the perennial question; what will be the Christmas number 1? The only certainly is that it will be a real turkey, but, back to the flippant fifties and such memorable pap as ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’, the agonizing ‘Christmas Alphabet’ by both Dickie Valentine and the very girlie McGuire Sisters (you knew every time you heard it that A-Z had to be completed). Nobody was spared in the 60s either as the opportunistic Dora Bryan released ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle’ in 1963. Much better was Elvis’ 1964 cover of Ernest Tubb’s country number 1 ‘Blue Christmas’ and then there was Charles Brown’s recording of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ which was reprised by the Eagles in 1978.
Sadly the quality would not eat into the rot, although some corny songs have a way of being around so long they become almost tolerable. I refer to ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ (in fact Ella Fitzgerald’s scat version of the latter is fantastic). Similarly acceptable was Johnny Mathis’ double A-side cracker ‘Winter Wonderland’/’Sleigh Ride’ in 1958 (although the same could not be said about his laboured ‘When A Child is Born’ in 1976). By the end of the 60s most major artists had not only made a Christmas single but they had been forced, beaten, bribed or tricked into making a Christmas album. Only here can I reveal the true travesty of the instrumental torture of listening to Jimmy Smith’s Christmas Cookin’ or Booker T And the MG’s In The Christmas Spirit. Even the great Fats Domino made a stinker; Christmas Is A Special Day.
However, the 60s did produce two classic Christmas albums; The Beach Boys Christmas Album is a joy and contains both ‘Little Saint Nick’ and ‘Merry Christmas Baby’. Equally brilliant is Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You with fabulous versions of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ by the Crystals and ‘Frosty The Snowman’ by the Ronettes. Both albums are played over and over every Christmas, and they should be in every home.
The 70s and 80s did manage a few more chestnuts that have since become regular favourites, and while America led the way for many years, Britain fought back with Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’, Wham’s memorable ‘Last Christmas’, Queen’s ‘Thank God It’s Christmas’, Kirsty McColl and the Pogues’ hilarious ‘Fairy Tale Of New York’ and the Pretenders chiming little treasure ‘2000 Miles’. Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and the USA equivalent ‘We Are The World’ by USA For Africa were both worthy, although, more for the cause that the quality of song. Personally I draw the line at Shakin’ Stevens’ mawkish ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ and Chris de Burgh’s turgid ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ and I will throw the radio out of the window if any Cliff Richard Christmas song should get through the barricades of my home. His Christmas list is considerable and would reaffirm why Cliff never made it big in the USA. ‘Little Town’, ‘Mistletoe And Wine’, ‘Saviour’s Day’, ‘We Should Be Together’, ‘Santa’s List’ and the absolute nadir by a mile, the gag-inducing ‘The Millennium Prayer.’ Yuccch.
Even though our wise American friends gave Cliff a wide-berth (even at Christmas) they do suffer from a plethora of ‘holiday albums’ as they are now called. I have dreadful compilation albums of Metal Christmas, Blues Christmas, Folk Christmas, Jazzy Christmas, Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas and even a Cajun Christmas. Sadly predicable is that there are masses of ‘holiday albums’ lined up in racks in record shops, even sadder is that it is well over 40 years since the Beach Boys and Phil Spector albums were released, and yet nobody has come near them for quality or sheer feel-good factor. Or is it simply that we have milked this Christmas cow dry and nothing will ever match the likes of the soothing comfort of Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald at Christmas.
And what is my greatest all-time Christmas song, ever, ever, ever? ‘Father Christmas’ by the Kinks, a 1977 single that never even made the charts, anywhere. Bah humbug!