“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
If you were so minded, you might surmise that John Lennon was spoiling for a fight.
John, with Yoko by his side, didn’t just record a Christmas song. He called it “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” which is certainly more ambitious than just trying to get the sprouts peeled in time.
He goes on to complain that “the world is so wrong”, petitions for “a good one [year] without any fear” and sings “Let’s stop all the fight.” Clearly, a man who never played board games with his family over the holidays. Moreover, it’s a bit rich from the author of How Can You Sleep?
The subject of that latter song had less lofty aims with his 1979 seasonal tune, this week covered by chat show host Jimmy Fallon and friends. He is going for “simply… a wonderful Christmas time.” As Paul sings: “We’re here tonight/And that’s enough.”
That’s enough. Lennon wanted world peace in three minutes, Macca didn’t even want any more guests at his shindig.
The two songs give some measure of understanding of each man. Lennon, you may say is a dreamer (but he’s not the only one). A deep thinker. A man who wants to smash the system between rich and poor, black and white, yellow and red. “War is over, if you want it.”
McCartney just wanted a hit.
Even though their Christmas songs are eight years apart, both Wonderful Christmas Time and Happy Christmas (War Is Over) prove that if you want some insight into an artist, the work they released in December can throw some fairy lights into their soul.
Michael Buble’s Christmas album suggests he wants to be Dean, Bing and Frank rolled into one Canadian body – something we knew already. Phil Spector, with umpteen standards and groups on his seasonal album, proves himself a master at orchestrating madness. (This quality held for Christmas, but not for life). Chrissie Hynde moans about her man being busy 2,000 miles away. It makes sense when you realise ex-boyfriends include Ray Davies, Jim Kerr and Iggy Pop, who were probably never off tour. Greg Lake can’t get through his song without an orchestra. Gritty urban chronicler Tom Waits’ song with mention of the season is called Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis. Shane McGowan of The Pogues has taken some drink.
Christmas doesn’t change the best artists, it airs their essential characteristics. A song like “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” illustrates James Brown’s unwillingness to follow. It takes a certain conceit to bark instructions at Father Christmas while referring to yourself in the third person, but this is the Godfather of Soul.
Chris Rea is another interesting case. In Driving Home for Christmas we see a man, not part of the metropolitan elite who just wants to get home to his kids in Middlesbrough, but he’s stuck in traffic.
“Top to toe in tailbacks/Oh, I got red lights on the run.” Towards the end of the song, Rea takes a look at the driver next to him and concludes “He’s just the same.”
This obsession with traffic features in Rea’s other work, particularly The Road to Hell and Soft Top, Hard Shoulder. His ordinary blokeness, or lack of star quality, was pronounced to the degree his record company initially wanted his first album to go under a name he made up for a laugh, Benjamin Santini.
The Carpenters’ career was categorised by a willingness to take material from a diverse set of sources, and mould it to Richard’s arrangements alongside Karen’s honeyed vocals.
So it proves on their Christmas album which includes Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Jingle Bells, O Holy Night, Ave Maria and The Sound of Music’s My Favourite Things. It never sounds like anyone other than the pair of them.
The tinsel, tat and dressing up associated with late December would always inspire glam rockers to produce their best work.
Wizzard’s Roy Wood instinctively understood the commercial imperatives involved in taking on Slade in the 1973 charts, even though Slade triumphed. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day is bookended by a children’s choir and a cash register.
Christmas is perfect for pop stars with a keen sense of whose birthday it is, such as Cliff Richard, a fixture in the December charts, and Elvis Presley, who opens his second seasonal album with O Come All Ye Faithful and The First Noel.
Students of modern pop history, as both Saint Etienne and the Pet Shop Boys were, can be relied upon to step up their game at this time of year. Saint Etienne deliver annual concerts and released a box set A Glimpse of Stocking of all their Yuletide offerings last year, while Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe would regularly send their fan club a song as a gift, the best one of which is probably It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas.
The really successful Christmas records can help define an artist.
The less successful ones are normally associated with an artist with nothing left to prove putting out an album (Rod Stewart, Annie Lennox and Kylie Minogue) or one in the first flush of stardom under record company instructions (Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson as part of The Jackson 5, Justin Timberlake with *N Sync, Beyonce with Destiny’s Child, Justin Bieber, Christina Aguilera).
Record company interference is not always a bad thing.
Stay Another Day was a song about Tony Mortimer’s late brother until a bright spark at the A&R department in 1994 added chiming bells at the end and made East 17 wear furry white parkas for the video.
Result: the band’s only number one, biggest-ever selling single, an Ivor Novello award and a generous cheque every year for Tony Mortimer.