Why they wish it could be Christmas every day

They can be irritating, incessant, inescapable... and very, very lucrative. So, how does a Yuletide hit change the lives of those involved? Maxine Frith and Terry Kirby investigate
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The Independent Culture

'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day' - Wizzard

'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day' - Wizzard

Reached No 4 in 1973. Written by Roy Wood

Roy Wood wrote the song for his newly formed band Wizzard early in 1973, after leaving the Electric Light Orchestra.

He said: "Up until then, most Christmas singles that were released were more novelty records like Rolf Harris," he said. "I decided it was about time there was a real rock'n'roll Christmas record everyone would like.

"I wanted to sum up the whole excitement of Christmas and have something that would stand the test of time, but I never thought it would still be going strong 30 years later. After I got the first bit of the chorus done the song really came together."

Wood wrote the song in a week during February and the band recorded it in August. "I went into the studio a couple of hours before and turned fans on and put blue lights up, so it was freezing cold when we came in to record," he said. "We had bobble hats on and a big Christmas tree, so there was a really good atmosphere during the session. It was a bit weird coming out afterwards at 5pm into a boiling hot August afternoon with no one else in the Christmas spirit."

The single stormed into the charts and has been a perennial favourite ever since.

But Wizzard never had another hit, and Wood said he failed to profit much financially from the success of the song. "I had a bad publishing deal at the time so I haven't really made a lot of money from it, he said.

"Other people may have made money, but I haven't really, given the success it had. I do get royalties but I don't really want to say how much because of my divorce."

He went on to a solo career and is on a UK tour with his latest band, Roy Wood's Army. They have spent the past week playing the Isle of Man and are on stage at the Bath Pavilion on New Year's Eve.

Would he really like it to be Christmas every day? "Christmas is all right, I suppose," Wood said. "But I can't ever go shopping at this time of year. If I'm in a shop and the record comes on, I get mobbed by people recognising me, wanting to talk or get my autograph."

'Merry Christmas Everyone' - Shakin' Stevens

Reached No 1 in 1985. Written by Bob Heatlie

Shakin' Stevens asked Bob Heatlie to write him a song after the writer penned the hit single "Japanese Boy".

Heatlie said: "He didn't ask for a Christmas song but I'd always wanted to write one, and I was at my peak so it seemed a good time to do it. Christmas singles are the ones that will get played again and again if they are popular, so it seemed to make commercial sense.

"I always remember writing it because I did it during July, when there was a massive heatwave.

"It seemed a little ironic to be sitting in my little studio in Edinburgh in my shorts, sweating profusely, and writing about Christmas and jingle bells."

Shaky snapped up the song and it is still among the most played records each December.

"I knew from the minute I wrote it that it would be a hit," said Heatlie. "I had a real spark when I finished it - it just had that factor that makes something a success."

However, it signalled the beginning of the end of Shakin' Stevens's career, and a simultaneous decline in Heatlie's fortunes.

"I went through a bad period for a few years, with divorce and things," he said. "With Shaky, I think he just went out of fashion. I don't think it was having a Christmas number one that did for him." Heatlie, now 58, lives in Edinburgh and still earns about £8,000 a year from "Merry Christmas Everyone".

"It's not a huge amount but it's a nice little pension," he said.

"When I wrote the song I didn't have a very good publishing deal but that was sorted out later and the money is very useful." He now writes incidental music for and children's programmes and other television shows.

Shaky, real name Michael Barratt, is now 56 and was recently treated for heart trouble.

Recalling the song now, Heatlie says: "I'm quite proud of it, really. It may not be a musical masterpiece but it's very catchy and good fun and that's all people want from a Christmas single."

He has tried to get back into songwriting, penning a tune for Tina Arena. "I'm not sure when it's going to be released," he admits.

'Gaudete' - Steeleye Span

Reached No 14 in 1973. Originated in 15th-century Germany

In all its long history, "Gaudete" was probably the first and only time that an unaccompanied medieval carol, sung in Latin, was ever performed on Top of the Pops. Although it was not their own song, it will forever be associated with Steeleye Span, stalwarts for more than three decades of the English folk-rock scene, and is still a regular fixture in Christmas playlists as well as their own performances.

The song has its origins in 15th century Germany and is traditionally linked to Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent. It was brought to them by Bob Johnson, then the band guitarist, who had first heard it in his father-in-law's church in Cambridge. "From memory, I think he sang it to us at the rehearsal rooms we were using at the Irish Club in Eton Square in London. It just seemed right for us because close harmonies were very much part of our thing," said Maddy Prior, the group's singer then and now.

The song was recorded at a studio off the Fulham Road and released by Chrysalis, who had signed the group.

Prior is the dominant voice over the five men in the group. "I've got this high, hard edge to my voice, which is what the piece needed. It wasn't a huge deal for us at the time. We were in the middle of this 10 album, five-year deal, so we just rattled it off."

Although the group were taken aback by the idea of it being put out as a single in the run-up to Christmas 1973, it became an instant hit and led to them being asked to appear on Top of the Pops.

'Merry Gentle Pops' - The Barron Knights

Reached No 9 in 1965

By the time "Merry Gentle Pops" charted in December 1965, the Barron Knights had cornered the market in parodies of the hits of other artists.

Pete Langford was the singer and co-writer of the hit with Butch Baker. Langford said: "You've got to write something that makes people laugh over and over again, each time they hear it on the radio.

"And in those days, it had to be clean, not what we could get away with in the clubs. Everyone can write the dirty ones, cleaner is more difficult.''

Almost 40 years later, they are constantly touring - 80 dates a year around the world - with almost exactly the same line-up. Most of the band are now in their sixties; some are grandfathers.

"Merry Gentle Pops" was a Christmas parody of chart hits by the Ivy League, the Bachelors and the Rolling Stones in which the words were altered to fit the seasonal mood, all set against a singalong and dancealong backbeat. Perfect for those early 1960s parties.

'I Believe In Father Christmas' - Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Reached No 2 in 1975. Written by Greg Lake

Greg Lake wrote the bitter-sweet song in 1975 when he was one third of the prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

With lines such as "The Christmas we get, we deserve" and "A veil of tears for the Virgin birth", it was less kitsch than other festive offerings, but has remained a favourite with radio stations and department stores.

Lake said: "It's quite a serious sort of tune. Some people think it is an anti-Christmas song, but it's not. But it does point out the commercialism of Christmas.

"The record happened purely by accident. I had written this little guitar riff, which is what you hear at the beginning. I was trying to imagine what the song could be about, then I had the idea of adding 'Jingle Bells'. From there, the song evolved."

Dorset-born Lake formed ELP in 1970 after leaving King Crimson, the band that made him famous. The curse of the Christmas song appears to have struck again. ELP's flashy stage shows were mauled by the critics; John Peel called them a waste of talent and electricity.

ELP broke up amid acrimony in 1980, and Lake went solo. Now 57, he lives in London and has toured with Ringo Starr and Roger Daltrey, as well as staging fund-raising performances for charity.

The royalties? His spokesman said: "It is a substantial earner for him and one of his biggest songs even now."