Season’s Greetings one and all!
A couple of months back I was considering ideas for this, the December blog. Something suitably yule-themed was the obvious line to pursue and what better way to do it than to write about Christmas songs we have known and loved. Easiest assignment ever I thought. It’s the blog that writes itself, and so it proved too as I set off at a whirlwind pace. So far so good then, that is until I reached what I would consider the half-way point. The “obvious line” it seemed to me was straying ever wider of the mark to the extent that I was well on the way to writing an Anthony Beevor sized tome, more or less starting with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (still the greatest, folks!) and getting to 1973 and Slade’s blockbusting “Merry Xmas Everybody” before the realisation dawned that Slade’s song alone is worthy of a blog or book in its own right. With its history and the multitude of great stories about its creation such as it being fashioned from an unused song of theirs from 1967 called “Buy me a rocking chair”, recording it in the stifling heat of a New York summer and using the studio hallway to record the chorus to get that echoing effect, well, all these tales and so many more are an absolute goldmine but not really what I was aiming for at this time.
So back to the drawing board then, and after several cups of tea and half a packet of Jaffa Cakes I reckoned I’ll just put some randomly chosen seasonal favourites your way. They’re certainly not well known in most cases and if there’s anything that connects them it’s the stark reality that life doesn’t always fit neatly into the consumerised Christmas ideal where the world is a peaceful and untroubled place populated with people leading joyous lives. Think “Fairytale of New York” and you’re on the right track. Most, though not all, would be categorised as country/Americana, probably not a coincidence and certainly not too surprising given how well that genre lends itself to the plaintive, oh-lonesome-me school of songwriting. So without further ado and in no particular order let’s go!
Easily the most recognisable of the pack, The Pretenders’ 1983 single “2000 miles” always seemed a less than obvious seasonal song despite the many mentions of “Christmas time” throughout. Rumoured to have been written about band member James Honeyman-Scott who died the previous year, a claim which Chrissie Hynde has strenuously denied, the lyrics drip with yearning and loss. This one gets brownie points too for the original 45 cover art, back when single and album sleeves were often as much fun as what was in the grooves (Now there’s an idea for a blog!). A gatefold affair featuring a spaceship swooping low over a desolate wintry village it’s a good ‘un.
I’ve lately become a big fan of John Prine, for his wonderful ability as a lyricist as much as anything else. He does funny and serious, sometimes in the same song and always with a fine turn of phrase. He has at least one Crimbo tune to his name, “Christmas in prison”, but it’s his cover of a Bing Crosby classic that I’m opting for. “I’ll be home for Christmas” was a hit for Bing in 1943 when World War 2 was at its height and is basically about a soldier longing to be home with his loved ones. Prine’s version dates back to 2005 and it’s the mark of a well written lyric that it translates to any era or personal situation where people are separated by miles or circumstances. That’s a cool trick if you can manage it.
Jackson Browne ventured into the Christmas song market somewhat belatedly considering how long he’s been around but “The Rebel Jesus” was worth the wait. Filled with biblical references set against a down beat, almost Irish traditional arrangement (The Chieftains did play on one of the two versions available) it questions the rampant consumerism which characterises Christmas and the hypocrisy of jealously guarding what’s ours all year long only to “give a little to the poor if the generosity should seize us” when December comes around. As always with Browne descriptive lyrics filled with small detail are the norm, “Merchant’s windows all abright with the faces of the children” and “families hurrying to their homes as the sky darkens and freezes”, just a couple of lines which stand out for me.
For the last word in gritty realism you need look no further than Tom Waits’ “Christmas card from a hooker in Minneapolis”. With only a jazzy piano for backing the lyrics take the form of a letter written by a prostitute to a man named Charlie. She tells him she’s off the booze and the dope and is married to a man who treats her well, even promising to raise her baby as his own. However all is not as it seems as witnessed by the pay off in the final verse. This is film noir set to music, I kid you not.
But hey, it’s not completely grimness in the snow. You won’t hear this one on any radio station anywhere EVER, of that you can be sure. Bruce Springsteen’s “Pilgrim in the temple of love” exists only as a bootleg recording from 1995 and it certainly gives the lie to those who dismiss his lyrics as all doom and blue collar gloom. The opening line of the song sets the scene, the main character pulls in off the highway on Christmas Eve, fixing to have a drink or two and maybe something to distract him from his hum-drum life. Then all of a sudden…… well it quickly descends into “Bad Santa” territory from this point on!
Finally one from a woman whose work I positively adore – Mary Chapin Carpenter. One of the big days in my calendar is December 21st, the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year brings with it the certainty that we’ve turned a corner and are headed back towards sunny days and bright evenings. Can there be a better feeling? Her album of Christmas songs called “Come Darkness, Come Light” features among its many delights a song which speaks of how I feel. “The longest night of the year” contains this
“So keep me safe and hold me tight,
Let the candle burn all night,
Tomorrow welcome back the light.
‘Twas the longest night of the year”.
So there you go, a short and bitter-sweet alternative Christmas playlist for your pleasure.
Have yourselves a merry little Christmas and be nice to one another, yeah?
Talk to you next month!!