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Merry Christmas, Everybody?

the joys and pitfalls of having a festive hit: the stars tell all


HAVE A HIT AT CHRISTMAS AND YOU'RE MADE FOR LIFE. BUT WOULD FOLLOWING IN THE SNOW-PRINTS OF CLIFF AND KYLIE REALLY DO YOUR MUSIC ANY GOOD? WE ASK THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, AND GET SOME SURPRISING ANSWERS.


"IT'S CHRIIIISSSSTMAAAAAS" screams a mistletoe-crazed Noddy Holder at the fade of Slade's seminal Christmas stomper, 'Merry Xmas Everybody'. As a moment of pure, unadulterated rock 'n' roll, it almost ranks alongside Little Richard yelling 'wopbopaloobopawopbamboo' and John Lennon's impassioned stomp through 'Rock 'n' Roll Music'. But as a rock Christmas classic, it will probably never be equalled - although many have come close. Another glitter-pop magnum opus, Wizzard's 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day', still stands tall as a Yuletide monster, opening as it does with the superbly cynical ring of the cash register. And the attempts by John Lennon and Wham! still stand as moments that can warm the heart... But what is it that possesses these people - many with established names and reputations - to put their credibility on the line and move into the seasonal market? It's all well and good Gary Glitter camping up 'Another Rock 'n' Roll Christmas', but could you ever take Paul McCartney seriously again after 'Wonderful Christmastime', or Queen after 'Thank God It's Christmas'?

Noddy Holder has no need to worry. Slade may have written and recorded 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as a blatant attempt to capture the number one spot, but the credibility of the record can never be called into question: it is, quite simply, the Christmas single. Curiously enough, it was recorded in New York, bang, slap in the middle of the steamy hot summer of 1973. Far away from both home and Christmas, the Slade boys had to create just the right kind of Yuletide atmosphere for the session. "The recording studio was at the top of a huge skyscraper office building", recalls Holder. "To get the big chorus singing that's on the record, we did it in the corridors - all the Yanks were getting into the lifts going to their various offices, and here were four English nutters singing 'Merry Xmas Everybody' in the middle of a boiling hot summer in New York!"

However unlikely the story behind the record, 'Merry Xmas Everybody' was certainly a success. Advance sales of nearly half-a-million helped it go to number one on the day it was released in December 1973, and it went on to sell a million in three weeks. At the time it was the fastest-selling single ever released in Britain. Yet even though it was recorded with the Christmas market firmly in mind, there was no seasonal compromise made.

"It stands up in its own right", says Noddy Holder with pride. "It was a powerful record! We didn't go out of our way to pander to Christmas, other than in the lyrical content. It hadn't got jingle bells on it and things like that. We tried to make it a rock Christmas single, and I think we pulled it off. It was a big powerful wall of sound, a big singalong thing with good guitar chords, and a good chord progression and melody... We were proud of it as a song.

"Every year it comes on the radio, every year they play it in clubs and discos, and I know loads of bands that include it in their set as an encore at Christmas time. It's been a good record to us... and it keeps the bank manager happy, of course."

Times have changed, though. To many of today's artists, the "innocence" of the pop industry in the early '70s seems light years away. More recently, the tremendous financial potential of "having a Christmas hit" has got the better of many acts, who have simply tried too hard and ended up with nothing more than a ruined career. Noddy Holder explains the difference between then and now.

"If you actually bring out a record blatantly aimed at the number one spot for Christmas, and you put every cliché in the book into the record - unless you're currently a really big artist, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get the number one record. More often than not, now, it's an off-the-wall record that makes the number one spot - like Pink Floyd, like the Flying Pickets..."

Like the Housemartins or Jona Lewie, perhaps? Jona Lewie scored a huge seasonal hit with his "off-the wall" seven-inch sensation, 'Stop The Cavalry' in 1980. But it wasn't a conscious attempt to have a Christmas hit - it wasn't even consciously about Christmas.

"It was just another song, written for its own sake", recalls Jona. "It was afterwards that one looked at it and thought: oh, there's a line there about Christmas - 'I wish I was at home for Christmas'.



"THE FINANCIAL POTENTIAL OF A CHRISTMAS HIT HAS GOT THE BETTER OF MANY ACTS, WHO HAVE SIMPLY TRIED TOO HARD AND ENDED UP WITH NOTHING MORE THAN A RUINED CAREER."


"The true motivation behind it was nothing to do with Christmas", he adds. "The melody was written first, and lyrically it was motivated more by things I'd read in history, the futility of man sending his own fellow man to his death in an order like 'charge!'"

The lyrical content of 'Stop The Cavalry' may have had a little more depth than the majority of Yuletide hits, but the record company seized the Christmas reference and promoted it accordingly. Were the resulting inroads into the mass market worth the price of having a "Christmas hit"? Is it a case of bidding credibility a sad farewell, or are the gains worthwhile if you do it with integrity?

"I don't have a guilty conscience for having a 'Christmas hit", insists Jona. "When it comes to being a musician or a songwriter, if you're honest with yourself - and you ask anyone doing those activities - you want to communicate, to get through to other people. And even the one-hit-wonder is in a better position than the no-hit wonder. A hit means that you got through, that you've communicated something. If it was a hit at Christmas time it's slightly different in a way because you're coming in on a wave of Christmas fervour. But as it happens, 'Stop The Cavalry' was a hit in various countries in every part of the year except Christmas, and in countries where they didn't even understand the language."


In contrast, bass player Norman Cook is considerably embarrassed at the thought of the Housemartins' big Christmas number one. Although not strictly a "Christmas record", their version of the Isleys' 'Caravan Of Love' held the number one spot over the holiday period in 1986, and warmed the hearts of grandmothers everywhere. Yet the acapella single had been recorded that July, without a thought being given to Christmas. The image-conscious Housies were attempting to stem the "nice pop band" reputation that had beset them following the 'Happy Hour' hit, as Norman recalls.

"We thought: let's do something different, just to shock everyone - something uncommmercial and unexpected and unpredictable! And it backfired on us 'cos it turned out completely the opposite.

"I think, really, 'Caravan Of Love' was the beginning of the end for the Housemartins", he continues. "We always fought to get back some sort of credibility after that, and never quite pulled it off! It was nice having a number one... but it was a bit of a low point in our careers, for a number of reasons. The worst thing was that people were accusing us of cashing in and having a 'cuddly' Christmas hit, when it hadn't been our intention at all. If it had, we would have dressed up as Santa Claus in the video!"

The Housemartins may not have aimed to be Christmas Week chart-toppers, but there's no denying many others have that target firmly in their sights the moment the tape starts rolling. Just why do so many bands and record labels launch into the Great Crimbo Showdown with such full-scale military precision? Jona Lewie sees the fight for the top of the Festive 40 as a national pastime similar to predicting the outcome of the Grand National or the gender of the latest royal birth, with the media building up the sense of occasion day by day.

Norman Cook sees things more straightforwardly. "The motivation is Money!" he insists. "Everyone talks about the prestige, but an interesting thing we found out is that the sales in the three weeks up to Christmas are just phenomenal - they're almost equal to the whole of the rest of the year put together. I think 'Caravan Of Love' was selling something like 10,000 a day, which is a Hell of a lot of records."



"SOME NOVELTY HITS DIRECTLY RELATE TO CHRISTMAS, OTHERS ARE TOTALLY UNCONNECTED, BUT THEY HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON: AT ANY OTHER TIME OF YEAR, THEY'D SINK WITHOUT TRACE."


But it's not only musicians that see the attraction of the "big bucks". Ask Keith Emerson, who has just released an album of his own arrangements of classic Christmas "themes". He defends the integrity of the artist, and sees record company bosses and non-musical interlopers as the true desecrators of the Christmas spirit: "I don't feel that the artists themselves are very much involved, I think that people not connected with music try and get these things out. It has become a very crass situation to be in... it's been very exploited, which is one reason that it excites me to come in and do an 'artistic' work in the middle of all this."

The notion of "people not connected with music" brings us nicely onto what we shall call, for want of a better description, the Clive Dunn School of Christmas Records. Whether it's a soap opera star or a bunch of session musicians, a comedian or a choir, the Christmas silly season is the best time for a novelty hit to strike. The list is long and far from dignified: St Winifred's School Choir, Fiddler's Dram ('Day Trip To Bangor', anyone?), the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, Chris Hill ('Bionic Santa' and 'Renta Santa' saw sampling before hip-hop!), Laurel & Hardy, the Wombles, the Goodies, Benny Hill, and the Grandad of them all - Clive Dunn! Some of these hits related directly to Christmas, others were totally unconnected, but they all had one thing in common: at anv other time of the year, they would almost certainly have sunk without trace. Yet come December 25, and somehow, every top ten will "boast" at least one ludicrous novelty hit.

Jona Lewie isn't quite sure what to make of this curious art form. "I suppose they're, shall we say, more consciously exploitative", he says, "although it's a difficult comment to make because you're not really ever sure whether they are or not. There is an area of activity where people are self-consciously trying to do something that might strike at Christmas time. I wouldn't go out and buy 'Grandad' because it hasn't got any kind of gritty soul. But it must have some sort of soul because it communicated to a lot of people, and it must have some kind of sentiment or feeling."

Noddy Holder takes a broader view: "It's appealing to the masses - to the people who go out and buy records at Christmas time, and don't buy records the whole of the rest of the year."

Norman Cook, who has himself had a successful working relationship with the St Winifred's School Choir (with tongue firmly in cheek, the Housemartins used the Choir on an album track), again sees pound-notes as the driving force behind Christmas marketing strategies.

"Everybody goes a bit daft at Christmas", he muses. "People see a hole in the market and start wheeling out St Winifred's School Choir... I quite like it, because it's unashamed capitalism, it's not pretending to be artistic or anything. I can respect anyone who is prepared to put on a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas and wheel out some hoary old chestnut... It's not something I'd like to do, and as you can tell, I'm not too happy with being associated with the idea of a cynical Christmas hit. But if you do it, at least you're being honest with people."

Aside from his involvement with Greg Lake's seasonal classic, 'I Believe In Father Christmas' ("I provided the hook a la Prokofiev"), Keith Emerson is really at the other end of the scale from the novelty appeal of commercial Christmas records. And not surprisingly, he hasn't aimed his new album at mass-market acceptance. "I've never been in that 'hits' market", he says. Instead, his album is directed at the thinking musician's Christmas stocking. An attempt to prove, if you like, that making a Christmas record needn't be a compromise, either commercially or artistically.

"It's a dangerous step for me to put myself in this market", he admits, "but I'm trying to bring some sensibility back into it. It's not overtly a 'Christmas album'. I think it's important to state there are Christmas themes used, but they have been adapted and arranged by myself, and the overall effect that we end up with is 'seasonal', rather than 'Christmassy.'"

Well, I guess that's one way of dividing up the Christmas cake. There are hundreds of other ways, too, and if you want one of the slices to have your name on it, there remains just one consideration to bear in mind: you've got a shade under a year to get your Christmas act together. Have a good one!



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Beatable Bargains

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Mixdown Lowdown


Phaze 1 - Copyright: Phaze 1 Publishing

 

Phaze 1 - Jan 1989

Feature by Chris Hunt

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> Beatable Bargains

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