Wednesday, December 21, 2005
'Well, so could anyone...'
I was sorry not to see a documentary the other night about the making of 'Fairytale Of New York', by The Pogues and the much-missed Kirsty MacColl - despite an alarming and surely-unnecessary intervention by Katie Melua in a new version. I hope the rereleased single enters highly in next Sunday's chart - in the week commemorating five years since Kirsty died, and raising money for the Justice for Kirsty campaign highlighting the lunatic leniency her killer received.
Yet â€˜Fairytaleâ€™ is very far from my favourite festive song. Yes, itâ€™s a good singalong tune and the spiky lyrics are a tasty contrast to the sugary sentimentalism of so many other Christmas songs. Yet perhaps the impact has just been dulled by over-exposure - both of the song itself, and people gushing about its status as the finest of all. For me, anyway. Clearly not viewers of VH1, who last week voted it Britain's most popular Christmas anthem. I prefer Kirstyâ€™s other work, though - notably There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvisâ and England 2, Colombia 0 (˜He lied about his status, he lied about his life - he forgot he had three children, he forgot he had a wife - now it's England two, Colombia nil, and I know just how those Colombians feel")
Ah, it seems at least a few fellow heretics agree about this most sacred of cows in the Christmas scene, at this Drowned In Sound discussion - but how quickly one idiot goes to an utterly ill-judged and pathetic extreme. Hmm...
I would actually like to hear more, each Christmas, of one-hit-wonder Jona Lewie's ˜Stop The Cavalry" - that first annual refrain of ˜Dub-a-dub-a-dum-dum, dub-a-dub-a-dum" always sounds so strangely reassuring...
Apparently the song was not originally meant to be marketed as an all-out festive release at all - originally scheduled to come out in November, with an arrangement not quite so Salvation Army'd-up until a canny record producer pricked up his ears at the cursory Christmas mention in the middle-eight and suggested making a little more out of it.
Can't really imagine it any other way, now...
I think "Stop The Cavalry" was the opening track on a Christmas CD I compiled for our family festive lunch a few years ago. I hope I can find it when I return home in a couple of days' time, though I suppose I could and should really put together a fresh one.
Featuring all the traditional fillers, obviously - yer Wizzard, yer Slade, yer Lennon, yer Phil Spector Christmas album tracks ("Winter Wonderland" above "Frosty The Snowman", I think) and yes, yer Kirsty&Shane...
Hmm, what else, though...? Well, Elvis's version of "Blue Christmas" is a lovely little lament, and Glen Campbell's "Little Toy Trains", while rather more over-wrought, is another heart-tugger.
The wonderful Loretta Lynn came up with "Country Christmas", not quite up to her finest songwriting standards, but fun enough and, well, different at least.
This would all sound a little too cosy for Christmas, though - worth tossing in a few dhoosras to stop Champagne-sniftering mum, dad, and Grandma dozing off into into their plum puddings...
Slightly crunchier and quirkier would be two to prompt approving nods from my indie-kid brothers: "I Want An Alien For Christmas" by Fountains Of Wayne, which remains marginally the right side from wackiness), and "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmasâ" by Eels. I mean, how could anyone reasonably resist a song featuring the joyous exclamation, "Baby Jesus - born to rock"...?
In fact, I may well just recommend it to our local vicar for this year's Midnight Mass service.
Then there's any track from Conor 'Bright Eyes' Oberst's Christmas album, probably favouring his feedback-swaddled, rather industrial assault on 'Little Drummer Boy', which has each 'Pa-ra-pa-pum-pum' almost drowned out by what sound like furious bursts of artillery fire.
Calming the mood back down a little could be the glacial yet pretty 'Just Like Christmas' by Low, who can tend to be much harder work to listen to away from their December outings.
'The Christmas Song' by The Raveonettes is also chilly but charming, while 'Christmas Time's A Coming' by Emmylou Harris, and 'The Angels Cried' by Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss, are perfectly palatable country finger-plucking twitters.
Veering a little off the wall again are the frankly un-singalong-able 'December Will Be Magic Again' by dear old swooning Kate Bush, and 'Children Go Where I Send Thee' by Natalie Merchant, whose voice I love but who startles me with this song by seeming just so, well, funky.
And yes, that is a word I use only sparingly and reluctantly, but this souped-up hymnal really is - by my standards, anyway. And often-prissy Nat's, too...
Other delectable December-namechecking tracks would include Thea Gilmore's 'December In New York', and Merle Haggard's heartaching 'If We Make It Through December'. As with the full Christmas albums recorded by Johnny Cash, I find I prefer Merle's regular recordings to his seasonal stuff - he and the Man In Black can't help but sound a little too stern on such carols as Hark The Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night, as worshipworthy as both singers are generally...
Rufus Wainwright's 'Spotlight On Christmas' is as melodic and delicate as his desperately-disappointing and dirge-like Want Two album wasn't this year, while 'Christmas With Jesus' by Josh Rouse is not so superb as his 2005 album Nashville but is a grower nevertheless.
Slightly more sour would be Tom Lehrer's anti-commercialism send-up, "A Christmas Carol", as chilly and bracing as a freshly-flung snowballs, and administering such admonitory lyrics as "On Christmas Day you canâ€™t be sore, your fellow man you must adore - there's time to rob him all the more, the other three-hundred-and-sixty-a-four" and "Hark the Herald Tribune sings, advertising wondrous things - God rest ye merry merchants, may you make the Yuletide pay"...
Hmm, the words "bah" and "humbug" spring somehow to mind, yet the wise-cracking maths professor - a satirist-ician, anyone? - does indeed have a jolly way with a tune, and an impressive line in glittery glissandos from one end of the piano to the other.
Coldplay's Chris Martin is not quite so expressive with his fingertips as he accompanies himself solo on a Radio One session version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" - in fact, so sombre is the arrangement he himself seems to have having anything but, yet I find it affecting nonetheless.
More surreally self-accompanying is the Peter Doherty-prototype Peter Perrett, of The Only Ones, bashing out wayward chords on an acoustic guitar while slurring "Silent Night" - the entire vocal sounding constantly on the verge of falling apart into several hundred shattered fragments. As appeared the vocalist himself, I imagine. But it is lovely stuff to behold.
Honourable mentions should also go, I suppose, to "2,000 Miles" by The Pretenders; "Gabriel's Message" by Sting (I know, I know...); the salvage job done by one of my favourite bands, The Manic Street Preachers, on one of my least favourite festive tunes, 'Last Christmas'; and ˜It's Christmas All Over Again" by Tom Petty, which seems typically twee but is redeemed by the fade-out as Tom goofily ponders aloud his wishlist for Father Christmas: "Hmm, let's see - I want a new Rickenbacker guitar... A Chuck Berry songbook..."
Iâ€™m not quite so keen on Chuck Berry's own "Merry Xmas Everybody", which is serviceable enough but a little humdrum.
More tangential, cold-snap-related gems include "Snow" by Harry Nilsson, The Bangles' shimmery, urgent take on Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade Of Winter", and the Wonderwall-baiting "Writing To Reach You" by Travis.
Amusing enough to merit one listen per year - just the one, mind - are the droning, contractual-obligation-like "Christmas Time Is Here Again" from one of The Beatles' mid-1960s fan club Christmas discs; "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses; "Once In Royal David's City" by, believe it or not, Chas and Dave ("Mary woz vat muvvah mild..."); and Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", only by an oh-so-very-earnest Glenn Hoddle and Tottenham's 1981-82 FA Cup Final squad.
Providing I have knocked back enough sherry, Champagne, mulled wine and eggnog - and yet not quite too much Stollen and Pannetonne - I can just about stomach, say, 'My Only Wish' by Britney Spears, and two separate songs called 'Christmas Day', by Dido and by the slightly-below-par Squeeze.
Prize turkeys I simply won't allow in the house, let alone the stereo, include those abominations by The Darkness, Mariah Carey and Jon Bon Jovi (although his very young and callow vocal solo on the 1980 Star Wars tie-in, 'R2D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas' provides more enjoyment than the rest of his grown-up career could conjure in total), as well as - sad to say - the hideous "Wonderful Christmastime" by Sir Macca, a true McCartney nadir which simply reeks of desperation for a seasonal standard of his own, yet sounds just so cheap, tinny and tacky.
And I'm someone perfectly happy to defend him over the Frog Song...
Speaking of frogs, the Christmas album I would like to locate again is my much-beloved-during-childhood Muppet Show Christmas album, featuring guest star John Denver.
Apparently my parents finally confiscated the record from the much younger me after one too many - or, in fact, several dozen too many - repeat plays deep into summertime.
But surely enough years have now passed for me to be trusted with it again...
We shall see. Roll on Sunday...