The Killers: Why we're having a RED Christmas

The Killers were not familiar with Britain's traditional festive No 1, and thought Cliff Richard was in Notting Hill. Then came a call from Bono...
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The Independent Culture

It's a contest usually dominated by Sir Cliff Richard, the winner of The X-Factor and a selection of novelty records too awful to mention. But this year, the battle for Christmas number one will be different. The Killers, one of the world's most fashionable rock bands, have decided to make an unlikely bid for the slot.

The group, whose latest album Sam's Town recently spent three weeks at the top of the UK charts, have recorded a seasonal novelty single, "A Great Big Sled", to raise money for the RED campaign.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, guitarist Dave Keuning yesterday disclosed that the group would sacrifice at least a portion of their hard-earned artistic credibility in order to compete with rival "plastic" pop acts.

The single, which is released on iTunes on 11 December, is expected to be the biggest Christmas charity record since Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas", which topped the charts in 1984 and 2004.

All proceeds will benefit the fight against Aids in Africa. It features contributions from Santa Claus, several elves, a snowman, and - that staple of novelty Christmas records - the sound of sleigh bells.

Singer Brandon Flowers wrote the lyrics during a soundcheck on The Killers' current tour of the UK, which made headlines earlier this year when tickets for all 10 dates sold out within five minutes of going on sale.

"We came up with the song during a soundcheck," said Keuning. "We often use our sound-checks to write new material, as they're the perfect time to spend half an hour noodling away, and Brandon and I decided that it would be great to do a Christmas song."

"There haven't been that many Christmas songs by rock bands. I mean, you've got John Lennon's one ["Happy Xmas - War is Over"], and a handful of others. But we felt there was something else to be played, and started cooking up some ideas. We recorded it during a day off work a week ago."

The inspiration for the project came a year after The Killers performed at the Live8 concert in Hyde Park. The band has since developed a close relationship with RED's founder, Bono.

"No one needs the money more than Africa," said Keuning. "We've supported U2 in the past, and talked to them, and they've come to see our shows in Las Vegas. Bono did ask us to do something else for RED a short while back, but we didn't have time. But the best way for us to help is to do something that we are actually good at. And that's writing songs. We're no good at making commercials, or doing interviews, and I'm the first to admit that we aren't maybe as knowledgeable about the Aids issue as we should be. But we do know how to do one thing, and that's making music."

Although The Killers come from Las Vegas, they have a strong following in the UK, and are said to have been heavily influenced by the British "new wave" music of the 1980s.

Until the Great Big Sled project, Keuning says they were unfamiliar with the British tradition of releasing festive records in an effort to achieve a Christmas number one.

"My mother always used to listen to Christmas music during the holidays, and it gets played in shopping malls, but only a handful of people in the US release pop records for Christmas. It's not really familiar to us. I don't even know who Cliff Richard is. Is he someone in Notting Hill?"

The new song was played in public for the first time on Tuesday. Its chorus runs: "I wanna roll around like a kid in the snow / I wanna re-learn what I already know / I wanna take flight / dress in red in the night / on a great big sleigh / And I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas."

According to Keuning, the lyrics should be interpreted as a reminder not to take life too seriously. The music is a partial throwback to the group's debut album, Hot Fuss, which sold more than five million records. "It's a cross between the style of Hot Fuss and Sam's Town, but with Christmas lyrics," said Keuning.

"We also included sleigh bells. That was Ronnie's [Vannucci, The Killers' drummer] idea. He said that all Christmas records ought to have sleigh bells."

Since The Killers achieved mainstream success with Hot Fuss in 2004, they have been nominated for five Grammys, and had top-10 hits with the singles "Somebody Told Me," "Mr Brightside," "Smile Like You Mean It," and "When You Were Young." The group has also become a firm favourite of the chattering classes when David Cameron appeared on Desert Island Discs, he chose their anthem "All These Things That I Have Done" as his favourite record.

Later, at the party conference in October, the same track was played as the Tory leader strode onto the stage to deliver his keynote speech.

"I think it's great if David Cameron likes us," added Keuning. "I try to stay out of politics, but I read the paper when we're touring and keep up on what's going on by watching CNN, and yes, I do have views. RED is a campaign that is bigger than politics, though.

"Live8 got us interested in a lot of issues to do with Africa, and its something everyone agrees needs to be sorted out. More than one in 10 people have Aids. That's a pretty scary statistic."

The band was yesterday preparing for the single's launch in London, having suddenly cancelled the Dublin leg of their tour after Flowers fell ill with a sore throat. Speaking before that illness, Flowers said they had also recorded a video of "A Great Big Sleigh" featuring the band and their crew in fancy dress.

"It was a free-for-all," he said. "Our crew all volunteered to dress up like elves and snowmen. There were Christmas trees and a Santa. We've got everything covered.

"There are some great Christmas tunes that have been recorded over the years from the likes of George Michael and John Lennon... We've had such a hectic schedule over the last few months that it's nice to do something like this."

According to bookmakers William Hill, The Killers are currently fifth favourites to make the Christmas number one slot, after The X-Factor winner (2/7), Cliff Richard and Daniel O'Donnnell (8/1), All Angels (8/1), and Take That (10/1).