Dreaming of a trite Christmas

The season of goodwill is upon us. Unfortunately it brings with it the sounds of Cliff Richard, Slade and the Tweenies. Steve Jelbert grits his teeth and takes a closer look at the sorry state of Christmas music
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The Independent Culture

It's generally accepted that Christmas is a stressful time for everybody. Families with camcorders film their own Mike Leigh dramas, inappropriate presents are exchanged along with insincere smiles, and character flaws such as boozing, binging and rampant materialism are for once indulged (although covetousness is still frowned upon, especially between siblings). Thus we reward ourselves for surviving the preparations, the shopping and wrapping and shuffling in crowds.

But why do we make it so hard? At each summer's end, club hits make the charts, familiar from the fleshpots of Mediterranean resorts and instantly bringing back memories of good times. At Christmas, though, we mutually experience a soundtrack of pap, intolerable at any other time. This is a serious issue. The risk of retail staff "going postal" is such that gun shops (and postal sorting offices) can't take the risk of providing a soundtrack of seasonal hits.

There are obvious reasons why. People who never usually buy music now make an exception, simply reaching for the most prominently displayed product, this year likely to be Robbie Williams's Sinatra "tribute" or 57-year-old Gordon Haskell's retirement plan, "How Beautiful You Are". If anything, it's the decent singles at Christmas that are the novelty items. Last year, the excellent Eminem was pipped by another caricature in hardwearing work clothes, Bob the Builder. Whether any aged relatives confused the two when choosing a gift is unrecorded.

It wasn't always this way. Decades ago, during pop's first flush, the Christmas chart topper was a proper single, usually by the Beatles, who saved their actual Christmas songs for fan club records. Novelty hits such as the Scaffold's "Lily The Pink", Benny Hill's "Ernie" and Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" (which ended the Vietnam War, apparently) became the standard as older folks started to sneak into record shops, mumbling things like "It's for my niece," and "I think this is the one my grandson wants."

Christmas cash-ins peaked in the Seventies, when, as everybody made them, people who were good made good ones. Slade, Mud (with "Lonely This Christmas", their timeless tribute to Elvis and misery) and Roy Wood's Wizzard actually created durable cash-ins. In Wood's case the strain of pastiching the pastiche of Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift pushed him over the edge. Despite reintroducing bells as an essential signifier, he's hardly had a hit since, although last year's artistically immense "I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day" has hopefully dispelled his demons for good.

Broadly speaking, seasonal hits fall into four categories. Some are Pagan nods to the ancient mid-winter rituals which predate Christianity, later claimed by the church which didn't actually know when JC was born (shepherds with lambs? In December?), but attached itself to the party anyway. The definitive pagan moment has to be Noddy Holder's glorious yell at the start of Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody". This song so resonated with the primordial spirit of the British that it was still on the charts in February, disproving the cliché that such records have only a three-week sales window. (That's three more than most singles, of course.)

Then there are the fundamentalist efforts, songs that attempt to associate the holiday with God, religion etc. Actually, apart from Sir Cliff Richard and the subdued American trio Low (Mormons who provided the soundtrack to Gap's Christmas campaign last year), there aren't many of those. You would think Richard could just go to church and enjoy a decent choir, rather than inflicting "Mistletoe and Wine" and 1999's extremely gory "Millennium Prayer" on us. No one knows who buys such records, as the only other admitted Christian in this country is Tony Blair, and he surely can't have that many mates. As a test of forgiveness though, such records do reinforce a Christian message.

Christmas music doesn't have to reference the actual holiday period. It can be bland enough to be of use all year round. This is the Ecumenical form, best illustrated by the likes of Westlife, pop's Rohypnol, who leave most listeners wondering whether something has actually happened without their knowledge. East 17's "Stay Another Day" is the greatest example, because kids can smooch to it at school discos, it features Christmas bells and they obviously don't mean a word of it.

The dominant category of Christmas records is Satanic. Mr Blobby, Bob the Builder and The Tweenies, this year's novelty act, are intensely irritating. They keep animators and actors in work, and are no more manipulative than other acts. Yet they present a unique opportunity for pain. Which is worse? Listening to Blobby again or listening to a five-year-old requesting Blobby again. Almost all novelty records fall into this category.

It's understandable that record companies should seek the lucrative top slot, but why do artists consider it prestigious? Even quite recently the Spice Girls repeatedly timed releases to claim the crown, so they could stand in history alongside the Flying Pickets, Renee and Renato and Little Jimmy Osmond. Stranger still, on the title track of their bizarre new album, 8 Days of Christmas (Eight? I know that Americans never take holidays but...) Destiny's Child trill the words "On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, the keys to a CLK Mercedes". Uh? Do we really need to know which model? Even Jeremy Clarkson, the man who singlehandedly made Ferraris uncool (he owns one), might consider this tasteless.

For those of us not likely to receive sports cars next Tuesday, the message of Christmas hits is clear. Life is disappointing. The B-side of Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas" was not titled "Bah! Humbug" for nothing.

But the season and its sounds soon pass. In Canada, Elton John's Diana tribute "Candle In The Wind" topped the charts for 45 weeks, and remained in the Top 10 for two and a half years. Knowing that, could anyone still wish it could be Christmas every day?