The Week In Radio: Why this New York story will always be number one


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The Independent Culture

Don't you love this time of year? The heady waft of mince pies, the sweet smiles of small children, the gentle sound of... Noddy Holder screaming "IT'S CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAS" at the top of his lungs. When Noddy starts yelling on "Merry Xmas Everybody", even dogs smother their ears.

These are desperate times for the Christmas pop song. No one has made a good one in years. It can't be a coincidence that the last decent effort – Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" – was composed at roughly at the same time that Justin Bieber came into the world. It takes the arrival of a special baby to bring about widespread seasonal cheer – just ask Jesus. Prior to Mariah, there was of course The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl's "Fairytale of New York" and Wham!'s "Last Christmas". But before that it was the Seventies, which aside from the Motown stuff, is best forgotten lest all our Christmas trees wither and die.

So what can be done? A while ago the Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills had a light-bulb moment – to make the perfect Christmas single that would wipe the floor with the efforts of X Factor winners and actually make us want to pull a cracker or two. "I want to make a Christmas song as good as the absolute classics," declared Mills, drunk on optimism. "I want Radio 1 to be still playing this song in 20 years' time."

Fast-forward two months and, on Scott Mills' Perfect Christmas Song, the DJ finally revealed the fruits of his labours. Regular listeners of his show will know that Mills is the last person on Earth who should be trying to raise the musical bar. Asking him to create a credible rival to The Pogues is like asking Heston Blumenthal's pot-washer to knock up a three-bird roast.

Fortunately, Mills sought out the advice of experts, among them musical comics including Tim Minchin and Frisky & Mannish. Unexpected insight came from another Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens, who delved into his extensive Christmas music collection, unearthing such oddball delights as "Tenchi Muyo vs. The Singing Dogs" and a compilation called We Wish You a Metal Christmas and a Headbanging New Year.

Noddy Holder revealed that he receives around 60 demos a year for potential Christmas hits in the hope that he will record them and turn them into hits. Alas, Holder's sage advice to Mills not to drown his song in sleigh bells and choirs didn't stop said song emerging smothered in, yes, sleigh bells and choirs, and containing the unforgivable word "frankinsensational". What emerged from the whole exercise was not how hard it is to make a classic Christmas record, but how easy it is to cobble to together a distinctly average one.

"Why the same year after year?" asked the Rev Richard Coles on Radio 4's An Alternative Christmas, also despairing at the state of seasonal music, though his exasperation lay in the ceaseless renditions of "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" that come around "as reliably as the winter vomiting bug".

Coles went on a very different journey to Mills, to discover the subversive Christmas tracks that nobody dared play. He met Bob Dorough, an American bebop and jazz pianist, composer and singer who collaborated with Miles Davis in the Sixties. The pair came up with "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)", a song that was tacked on to the end of a Columbia Records Christmas compilation at the behest of Davis.

Listening to it is like being hit with the hangover before the party. Or, as Coles described it, "like finding a Brussels sprout in a mouthful of Christmas pud." In other words, it's a triumph.