Sunday, 20 December 2015

Songs of Christmas Past!

So I like to listen to the Purple Stuff Podcast, who wouldn’t with a title like that? It’s the official podcast for Dinosaur Dracula and The Sexy Armpit, two of the best blogs on the web, way better than this pile of shit that’s for certain. Yeah, ok, it’s not the most...focused Podcast out there but it’s just so fun to listen to two blokes talk about rubbish, the most recent rubbish was Christmas songs and unlike their Halloween Songs not a single one crossed over with my perfect Christmas Playlist that I use every year, thus I had to write the following to talk about that playlist and all the Christmas songs that are way better than Bruce fucking Springsteen (god I hate that man), so see this as the AFB Christmas Countdown show as I check off a load of Christmas Songs and write a really indulgent post because why not? So are you sitting comfortably? Then IT’S CHRIIIIIIISTMAAAAASS!!!!:   

First, because it should open every Christmas compilation ever, is Driving Home For Christmas by English singer-songwriter Chris Rea from 1988. Seriously no other song should ever open your Christmas tape, CD, playlist or whatever fucking modern equivalent is trendy this year. Sounding exactly like it’s lit by nothing by car headlights and the flashing
lights from road works, sounding warm but like its cold outside, it feels so December it will take you into a Christmas mood even if you play it in July but the reason it should open everything is because it is literally about journeying into Christmas, or rather being stuck a traffic jam and trying to journey to Christmas so by the time you’ve finished the song you’ve arrived at Christmas and the CD can start1. And the way to start it is with a bugle and a song that wasn’t supposed to be Christmas song, what else? Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie being another song no-one outside of Britain plays but one that is constant rotation here in Limeyland and I love every one of the 500 times I hear it, because that bugle just signals the next 3 minutes or so of shopping is going to sound great. Having arrived at Christmas with Chris Rea you see, Jona Lewie blows his bugle to signal the holiday has arrived and then…depresses the shit out of you for three minutes with a protest song about war, originally it was supposed to just be a protest song but the references to Christmas and the jingle bells convinced Stiff Records to put it out at Christmas and it reached number 3! In fact it would have reached number one if that selfish prick John Lennon hadn’t gotten shot and they hadn’t re-released a couple of his singles. I like protest songs so having a Christmas protest song that isn’t protesting about Christmas (Mr TV Smith…) and being a big stick in the mud and spoiling everyone’s fun is great, but that it gets played so much is even better, four three minutes it seems like Sainsbury’s gives a shit about human suffering and I can stand around surrounded by huge brands from huge corporations and hear everyone sing the song of the eternal soldier’s plight, you can see mums singing lyrics against nuclear weapons while buying Coca Cola, s’great.

On the subject of Christmas protest songs and singer-songwriters who have no profile in America – We’re Following the Wrong Star by Billy Bragg from… 2010 (I think), which has been on my Christmas essential playlist since it got released (as a download only, it’s also on Fight Songs now though, one of his best albums) because Billy Bragg is one of my favourite things and ranks only below Ian Dury in my list of lyricists who are gods (then it’s Paul Weller and Strummer/Jones naturally). This is a little bit more negative than Jona Lewie but still isn’t poo-pooing Christmas but rather talking about how hard Christmas can be made for the average person by the higher-ups, but then it’s from Billy Bragg, what did you expect? I suppose the best way to describe it is a Do They Know It’s Christmas but for the working class of Britain. And that’s one of my big ‘things’ for Christmas music, I want songs that explore every side of the subject just like I would any other, I want songs celebrating it, I want songs focussing on the negative side of things, I want people in love at Christmas and people lonely this Christmas buuuuut…. being a depressive and just a negative shit when I’m not depressed I do tend to lean more towards the crying on Christmas Eve kind of things – I usually use Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley from 1957 rather than the rocking Santa Claus is Back in Town or even the mid-tempo heartbroken Santa
Bring My Baby Back (to Me) just because it’s so much sadder, but to prove my point about every side of the subject, I like to always precede or follow it with Lonely This Christmas by Mud from 1974 and we’re back into ‘big in Britain only’ territory. Lonely this Christmas is an authentic Christmas Number One (the most prestigious of chart positions for a Christmas Song in Britain) and another song that gets played by a lot of shops totally  missing the point but even though Glam Rock obviously hit America I have no idea how big Mud were (though surely Tiger Feet was a hit over there too?), whatever though they perform a wonderful loving parody of Christmas songs, often with a hand puppet – think Sylvia’s Mother but with a bloke from Surry doing an Elvis impression, everything’s thrown in including cheesy spoken segment (including reworked chorus lyrics) and just like Sylvia’s Mother it also works as a genuinely sad song (and like Sylvia’s Mother a lot of people still think it is, shame).

But keeping on the misery side of things and sliding into another Christmas song ‘thing’ is The Christmas Blues by Bob Dylan from 2009, the ‘thing’ here is Christmas standards that I actually like, or can stand (I have issues with many Christmas standards – Little Drummer Boy can go fuck itself, for instance) sung by artists I really like, or in the case of Twisted Sister, in a genre that I really like, that takes them from being slightly stuffy dreary bores and turns up their qualities, combining them with stuff I actually like, to make them as good as everyone has convinced themselves they are. And first up is Dylan’s version of The Christmas Blues; my mate Mike HATES Christmas in the Heart and my dad LOVES it, they’re both a little strong but Mike’s more right than dad is, that said Dylan’s scratchy miserable crackling is perfect for
this song, easily the most depressing X-Mas track, it’s so completely hopeless, no one’s meeting anyone while buying cranberries or remembering a happy time in a drunk tank it just being lonely and despondent while everyone else isn’t and I love it for that. Keeping in the theme I always use Stiff Little Fingers version of White Christmas and have taken to including Alice Cooper’s Santa Claws is Coming to Town and Bowling for Soup’s Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy since their more recent releases as my go-to version for each of those songs but the two I want to highlight are I’ll Be Home For Christmas by Twisted Sister featuring Lita Ford from 2009 and All I Want For Christmas is You is My Chemical Romance
from 2004; now given the general consensus about these two bands they should both suck and I agree with that because Twisted Sister have sucked from the very beginning, in fact if I had the money and could somehow get the information I’d mail a free Iron Maiden album to everyone who ever bought a ‘Sister release but they turn Home for Christmas into this taught, sad yet incredibly Metal longing ballad and that is exactly what I’ve always wanted it to sound like. MCR just turn Mariah Carey’s cash cow into a song about a stalker and thank you boys that’s just what it needed, rock it up, make it creepy and I’ll be there. Actually just making it creepy is enough usually, Matt from Dino Drac was completely correct in that the Eurythmics easily do the best version of Winter Wonderland and part of that is totally because the opening makes it sound like a murder victim is singing it from beyond the grave.       

Returning to original songs because I get fucking sick of hearing the same 12 standards sung by every female vocalist and Rod Stewart, good god pay someone to write you an original song like you do with the rest of your careers people, the two tracks that I MUST have on my Christmas playlist that get the closest to the jaded poo-pooing of Christmas are Father Christmas by The Kinks from 1977 and the best thing that anyone remotely related to Emerson, Lake and Palmer have ever produced; I Believed in Father Christmas by Greg Lake from 1975. In the case of Father Christmas it’s just because it’s catchy and I think a Sidewalk Santa getting beaten up is quiet funny, yet poignant – perfect for Christmas really – but I Believed in Father Christmas is another matter, I am obsessed with this song, it’s not my favourite Christmas song (I’m building up to that) but it’s very near that top spot and it’s actually not because it’s bloody miserable (though it is) it’s because of how relatable it is. I don’t think this one did very well in the US either though I’m sure Greg Lake has some sort of career over there but it’s opening lines ‘they said there’d be snow at Christmas / they said there’d be peace of earth / but instead it just kept on raining / a veil of tears for the virgin birth’ that is every Christmas Day ever in England, but the rest of the song goes on to deal with the loss of innocence related to Christmas and that’s something nearly everyone can relate to, everyone has to grow up and everyone has to deal with how growing up changes your perception of Christmas, even if you stay completely in love with the holiday like I am it’s never the same as when you’re a kid.

Christ, that was a bit bleak, let’s cheer things up a bit with a novelty record – you should have heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer by now but it surprises me how many people haven’t, it was originally a single by Elmo & Patsy in San Fran but the version I use is by the Irish Rovers from 1982, somehow the tale of Santa Claus accidentally killing an old lady drunk on eggnog and the family’s rather indifferent reaction to it is even funnier when its’ turned into an Irish drinking song. Nothing else needs ot be said about that, you should want to listen to it just from that sentence and if you don’t then you’re not the sort of person who will ever appreciate the hilarity of death via reindeer so let’s talk about Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms from 1957, it and Blue Christmas are the only standards I have in their original form and funnily
enough that’s because they’re both good in their original form, being rock ‘n’ roll tinged JBR has none of the stuffy out-of-date negative qualities of other standards, instead it fucking swings but mostly I like to keep it on the playlist because it reminds me of The Muppets. If you’ve never seen the delightful A Muppet Family Christmas TV Special then don’t’ buy the DVD because they’ve cut it to shit due to music rights, get it off the internet and see it in its original glory as The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and the Muppet Babies all come together for a utterly heart-warming little affair (and Jim Henson does the dishes) and you too can laugh every time someone mentions an Icey Patch. Anyway the special has this scene that starts with Robin being obnoxious and cute and singing this sickening version of Jingle Bells with Kermit…for about 20 seconds before the Electric Mayhem cut in with a version of Jingle Bell Rock, so now every time I play this I see dancing rats and penguins, why would you not want that image a few times every December?

This is already going on way to long so I’m gonna wrap it up my favourites, though know that I always end my playlist with a double barrel assault of Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade from 1973 and I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard from the same year, easily the two most overplayed Christmas songs in Britain but they’re just so damn good, especially Slade.      

Anyway number three in the AFB Christmas Countdown is 2000 Miles by The Pretenders from 1983 which is actually about the band’s original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott but everyone has convinced themselves is about Christmas, but that’s probably because it sounds so fucking Christmassy; if you manage to make your song sound like snow illuminated by Christmas lights then you’ve no-one to blame but yourself, I don’t have any more to say about that so number 2 is Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love from 1963 or for those who don’t know the title ‘the one from Gremlins’. This song is virtually perfect; can you think of a better person to produce a broken hearted Christmas song than Phil Spector? there is no more dramatic a Christmas song than this, give up Divas, you won’t match it and don’t fucking cover this2, you can’t match Darlene Love’s wail, you will not sound more heartbroken or into the song no matter how many notes you hit or how many soul style vocal tricks you do despite being white… sorry I’m being angry at the contestants on X-Factor again, that happens sometimes. Anyway it also opens Gremlins and is on A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, the best Christmas Film and Christmas Album respectively so really this song can do no wrong.     

And that brings up to my favourite Christmas Song, top of the AFB countdown and always on the perfect Christmas Playlist: Fairytale of New York by the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl from 1987 and I’d like to start with this by saying up yours Nostalgia Chick, you are WRONG, you are WRONG because you disagree with me and thus you should be shot with strawberry and guava flavoured candy canes. I kid, but Fairytale of New York is fucking brilliant, Shane MacGowan is a brilliant lyricist anyway and the Pogues are great and arranging songs to make you feel so full of emotion, usually it’s a mix of sadness and determination but then, y’know, London-Irish3 have had/needed a lot of both just to survive. Fairytale works, every part of it works, firstly it sounds very Christmassy, it stars of sounding like being lonely at Christmas, if you look out the window on Christmas Day and feel alone and then translate that scenario and mix
of feelings into music it would be Jem Finer’s piano on the intro and outro, then it sounds like a Christmas party. Secondly it’s not schmaltzy or saccharine yet it is quite sweet, it’s about a man remembering the love of his life and their interactions over Christmas and even though he remembers the break up as well, he clearly still misses her and cares about her very much; yes he’s a drunk tank in a New York police station on Christmas eve but…well… IT’S FUCKING SHANE MACGOWAN, OF COURSE HE IS!4 Actually to be more serious that’s the third reason it works, it’s real, it allows you to feel Christmassy without resorting to escapism and y’know arguments are as much a recognised Christmas tradition as anything else. The forth reason it works of course is because it has Kirsty MacColl on it and as we’ve established I love me some Kirsty MacColl but more than that she has the perfect sort of voice for her role, it was originally written for the Pogues’ female member Cait O’Riordan but she left to shag Elvis Costello and their producer got his wife instead but it worked out for the best, somehow I can’t buy Cait’s vioce as the sort of character the song presents us with, MacColl’s voice though? Yeah I can buy her screaming in the street and using homophobic language to curse out her boyfriend5 (if you want to hear O’Riordan at her finest YouTube yourself Haunted by the Pogues). Oh and that’s the last reason it works, it gives everyone a break from Christmas while still being really Christmassy; this is played nearly as much as Slade and Wizzard and like Stop the Cavalry it’s just so nice to hear shitty radio stations and chain stores playing a song with some bollocks to it, something that has more to say than just Merry Christmas Everyone and to see everyone enjoying a song about something other than bad metaphors for love and sex or partying in shitty clubs, and after Slade, Paul McCartney, Wizzard, Mariah Carey, Elton John (never hear Gary Glitter anymore though, weird) and Cliff bloody Richard it’s just nice to have a four minute break but without taking you out of the season (which Stop the Cavalry kinda does, I mean it’s not even a Christmas Song really).

Anyway I’ll stop now and just say Merry Christams Darlin’, wherever you are.

1 if you want to argue that Step into Christmas would work as well, I shall counter with this – Elton is clearly already IN Christmas and asking someone to join him, with Chris Read he isn’t there yet.
2 especially don’t cover this is you’re U2, oh, wait, too late, fuck you Bono.  
3 how many of the Pogues were actually Irish/London-Irish? Cait, MacGowan, Terry Woods and Phil Chevron? Is that even half?
4 fun fact: The Pogues totally did drugs in a real New York drunk tank while filming the video for this single.
5 the irony here being that Cait O’Riordan would absolutely do this, and did, many times, sometimes with Costello, sometimes not, her voice just doesn’t fit her personality, nor does her body actually, she used to be this tiny cute little thing and now she looks like a littler Chrissie Hynde. 

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