strike the harps

“It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid” Crooned Paul Young in nineteen eighty four over the spine tingling opening to the first band aid single.
But nearly three decades down the line there is still an inherent fear that rises in me with the dawning of winter and the imminence of the Christmas period. A fear that for the better part of a month and a half, everywhere I go I will be subjected to the never ending tirade of over-played, over-hyped, Christmas jingles. Or worse still, that there will be yet another attempt to capture the feeling of the season and squeeze it, against its will, into three minutes of senseless and emotionless frivolity.
As my tone may reveal I’m not a huge fan of the tradition of Christmas songs, in my mind they inhabit the worst parts of the festive period. A place where the charm and warmth of open fires and Bing Crosby have been forgotten in place of brightly coloured, plastic tinsel and eggnog based cocktails tipped over coworkers at raucous office Christmas parties.

The pop music based Christmas ditties we are all forced to endure in each store and sometimes even piped into the street seem instilled with the consumerist side of Christmas. Lodged in between festively plump shoppers on streets so overcrowded they make the summer festivals seem like enforcers of the benefits of personal space. They are near impossible to ignore, built to a specification so precise that even ignoring them only helps to seal their existence in the subconscious brain until you occasionally burst forth with both joy and shame joining Noddy Holder in screaming “IT’S CHRISTMAS!”  at the top of your humiliated lungs.

The first film version of 'White Christmas'

I long for the stylized Nat King Cole Christmas, snowy slopes and tastefully decorated drawing rooms, not only for its style, grace and dignity in enjoying some much needed R & R at the end of the year, but also because those old crooned out songs pass on the idea of a comfortable Christmas at a steady pace. A yuletide where people forgive your misguided attempts to sum them up in a single gift and come to the realization that presents are inherently a moot point, a reason to meet and spend time with people you like.

The seventies seem to have been the big perpetrators of the loud and leery Christmas songs, leaving us lumbered with the glitter covered weight of Slade, Chris de Burgh and Paul McCartney lugged over our shoulders like a sack full of unnecessarily heavy toys. I’m with Al Murray:

“Christmas island, where it is Christmas everyday, someone should tell Wizzard so they can shut up.”

I don’t dislike their attempts to put us all in a better mood or to liven up the drudgery of British winter. Sadly their jovial tone setting and happy-go-lucky attitude is now so synonymous with the pain of Christmas shopping and the chore-based sides of Christmas that one cant help but feel angry at them.
My problem lies predominantly with the fakery, the overt brash, crass, and flash of these songs and the artists that sell them.
It’s a well known fact that a decent Christmas song can set a musician up for life, every year a host of ‘the greatest Christmas songs’ compilations fill the shelves and line the pockets of musicians who are now more famous for their festive jingle than anything else in their repertoire, can you name another song by Wizzard? The blatant sell-out nature of these songs seemingly undermines all that should be good about the holiday and while I dislike the seventies Christmas hits the tradition has neither ceased nor changed.

The obligatory Christmas single is very much a British tradition and as the often referred bleak mid-winter draws in you can understand the need to create some additional excitement around the charts. In America the Christmas single exists but I no way is it given the kudos and acclaim that we Brits ascribe to the accolade, and with the slow decline of the chart system and its encompassing of the download market one has to wonder how long the tradition will continue.

With the advent of reality and talent show television it’s become a prerequisite to hear from the winner of the x-factor or Britain’s got talent around Christmas time as the show draws to a close for the year. These ‘artists’ are poised and prepped to be the next big thing in pop and it is only right that they set their sights on what was once the highest prize in British music.
At first these were cheesy takes on the seasons oft overlooked imagery and sentiments but quickly the Simon Cowell popmeat factory turned its career grinding gears and lurched into the direction of songs normally unknown to the regular pop buying public.
Attentions were first turned by 2008's winner Alexandra Burke's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' and where it did achieve the dizzying height of Christmas number one it was a close second to the re-release of the haunting and sainted version originally released by Jeff Buckley in 1994.

In 2009 things took at turn for the bizarre and alterna-cool when a facebook campaign gathered massive pace in bringing Rage against the machine's vitriolic protest anthem 'Killing in the name' out of its seventeen year retirement. This came as little surprise when the talent TV alternative of that year was a cover of US tween pop-rock star Miley(achy-breaky daughter to Billy-Ray) Cyrus' 'The Climb'.
The British public, it seemed would not be palmed off with such blatant saccharin money grabbing and voted indefinitely with their wallets that the long held tradition of Christmas no.#1, however previously besmirched, would not stand to be merely a platform for the Simon Cowell money machine.

While Rage against the machine may not have been aimed so much at the cheer of the season as the injustice and prejudice inherent in modern America, they did donate the £70,000 generated by an accompanying justgiving campaign and play a free concert in London's Finsbury park the following June as a thank you.

The reality TV mainstay attempted and achieved again last year with X factor winner Matt Cardle's cover of Biffy Clyro track 'When we collide' which, while maintaining the pop-ballad sound synonymous with Syco productions did very little to stray from the sound of the original.
This year sees a host of alternative options with a special 7" vinyl release by Nirvana's record label to promote the facebook campaign for their 1991 hit 'Smells like teen spirit'. Also in the running against the X factor's Little mix' cover of Damien Rice mainstay 'Cannonball' is an eclectic group of musicians literally promoting silent night to the chart.

Cage against the machine (you can see what the hook is) comprises of over twenty artists covering John Cage's controversial '4'33"' including an even more bizarre set of remixes.
With all this in place it would seem that the tradition of the UK Christmas number one has come a long way, in both the tracks seeking to cash in on the festive season and those wishing to appropriate its true meaning.
But for all the welcome alternatives and headline grabbing battles to the death between the bastions of modern pop and the voice of the nations alternative vote sadly the indelible noise of 'Merry Christmas everyone' will be forever with us, like an elderly relative long overdue that holiday to Switzerland.  
I will leave you instead with one of my personal favourite alternative Christmas song 'Christmas in Hollis' by Run DMC.

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