As we are now at the start of Advent I thought I’d supply a set of Christmas music that’s a little out of the ordinary. This is partly in memory of my friend Pete Fenelon, who died a month or so ago and did this last year – some of the tracks here were on his compilation.
I’m not a very Christmassey person, generally, but nor do I ever want to be a killjoy, and so there’s a tension in these songs between the traditional “Isn’t Christmas great?” and the non-traditional “Bah, humbug” – sometimes even in the individual song. I’ve tried where possible to choose songs that people won’t be familiar with – the whole point of this list is that much as I love Wizzard and Slade and the Ronettes and Bing Crosby, I expect to wish to massacre everyone in sight if I hear them from about a week from now. However, some of the songs will undoubtedly be familiar to some of you, if only because there’s a difference between what was a hit in the US and what in the UK.
Our Prayer by Dave Gregory, the former XTC guitarist, is a cover of (part of) a wordless a capella track by the Beach Boys, from Remoulds, an album he made of note-for-note cover versions of 60s pop songs. I’ve included it even though it’s not strictly a Christmas song because it’s got the right kind of feel for this, and also because it leads beautifully into…
It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas by Half Man Half Biscuit. While, as I said before, I’m not the most festive of people, I find this song a valuable reminder not to inflict my curmudgeonly misanthropy on everyone else, and at least try to get into ‘the festive spirit’. I also have it on good authority (from my friend Tilt, who interviewed him for his radio show) that this is in fact Father Christmas’ favourite Christmas record of all time.
Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl is a Christmas perennial over here, but I’ve been told it’s barely heard in the US, hence its inclusion here. This is a shame, as nothing is quite as cheery as the cognitive dissonance of walking round Tesco or Woolworths (RIP) and hearing “You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on that drip in that bed/You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas me arse I pray God it’s our last” over the tannoy. There is a certain breed of tedious poseur who refers to this as ‘the only good Christmas song ever’ – while this is absolute nonsense, the song itself is quite beautiful, and far more romantic and life-affirming than the lyric I quoted suggests. Just a beautiful, gorgeous song.
Sugar Wassail is by Waterson:Carthy. The Waterson/Carthy clan have for nearly 50 years been at the forefront of traditional English folk music – pushing the music forward and incorporating new influences while stlll ensuring that the music they play is an honest representation of the traditions that inspire them, and also while being genuinely enjoyable music. This is from their album Holy Heathens and the Green Man, a collection of mostly winter/Christmas themed traditional music which can be downloaded from eMusic.
Joy To The World by Brian Wilson is a recording from his ‘second comeback’ ten years ago that was made available as a free download from his website, and more recently was included as a bonus track on his 2005 album What I Really Want For Christmas. You can tell that he hadn’t sung much for a few years – he’s neither got the purity of his youthful voice nor the assured but limited range of today – but this still sends shivers down my spine.
Remember Bethlehem by Jake Thackray is one of the first songs Thackray ever wrote – he actually wrote it as a carol for the school where he was teaching, and the finished studio version included a school choir. One of the things I love about Thackray’s music is his Yorkshire bluntness – even his religious music (and Thackray was a deeply religious man) has the same real world love of humanity with all its smells and warts as Chaucer or the York mystery plays. This is a demo version, from disc four of the wonderful Jake In A Box box set, which I reviewed here (still one of my favourite pieces of my own writing) if you want to know more about Jake…
I Want A Girl For Christmas by The Knickerbockers is just a fun bit of pop music from the band who did Lies, possibly the best Beatles soundalike record ever. Here, the lead singer is clearly still trying to be John Lennon, but the rest of the band can’t decide if they’re the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons. There’s a couple of wonderful little a capella breaks here. It’s not a great lost classic or anything, but it’s a nice song (it’s available on eMusic).
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits is one of the most depressing songs to feature Christmas as a subject, and very far from festive. On the other hand, it’s a great song, and also I include it because I’ll be spending at least part of the Christmas period in Minneapolis, en route to the tiny Minnesota town where my in-laws live… This is from Blue Valentines, one of the best of Waits’ early beatnik period, just before he went into his Beefheart-by-way-of-Kurt-Weill mode.
What Child Is This by Mahalia Jackson is just a stunning performance. I’m sure you’ve all heard it, but it’s wonderful anyway…
The Happiest Time Of The Year by Candypants is a Christmas single produced by Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, which has been available for download most years from Candypants’ MySpace page. Candypants are one of my very favourite bands of the moment, and I can’t wait for the new material Lisa is apparently working on.
Morning Christmas by Dennis Wilson is a typical piece of late Dennis Wilson, all bass harmonica, gruff vocals and ARP string synthesiser. Recorded for an aborted Beach Boys Christmas album in the late 70s, it was eventually released on the Beach Boys’ Ultimate Christmas CD in 1999. It’s very much of a piece with his brother’s Joy To The World, actually.
A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer is on because everyone needs a bit of Tom Lehrer. I was going to include I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica, but this is far better. It’s from the box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer
Christmas Day by Squeeze is an interesting attempt at something that doesn’t quite come off, but is still worth a listen.
Tinsel and String by Neil Innes is a lovely, tongue-in-cheek take on the normal sort of Christmas music by one of the finest songwriters alive today. For those who don’t know, Innes was the principal songwriter with the Bonzo Dog Band, co-wrote several songs with the Monty Python team and appeared with them on stage and in their films, and was the songwriter for The Rutles, in which he played Ron Nasty. When he’s on form, he’s as good a songwriter as anyone, and if he’d stuck to ‘serious’ music and not indulged his tremendous comic talent he’d probably be regarded as another Paul McCartney or Ray Davies. This was downloaded from his website, which has tons of MP3s and RealAudio files of his work.
Christmas In Suburbia by Martin Newell is from the album The Greatest Living Englishman (which is available from eMusic), which was produced by Andy Partridge of XTC, who also played many of the instruments. As a result the album bears at least as much resemblance to Skylarking or the Dukes Of Stratosphear album (the instrumental figure here seems distantly related to the melody of Vanishing Girl) as it does to Newell’s work with the Cleaners From Venus – but that is, of course, no bad thing. I just wish Newell didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Christmas…
Jesus Christ by Big Star is one of those songs you should already own. But just in case, here it is… from the classic Sister Lovers.
Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter (from the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album) is the only version of this song – don’t give me your Bing Crosbys or Dean Martins or Tom Joneses, this is the *only* version worth owning. Until recently, I never understood why this was a ‘Christmas’ song, but Brad Hicks put forward a good case in a two-part blog post that this was a ‘date rape Christmas carol’. Which it is, at least in some versions, but Betty Carter sounds far from unwilling here…
Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming by Pete Seeger (from the album Traditional Christmas Carols, another one available from eMusic) is a lovely banjo-and-vocal version of the hymn.
In The Bleak Midwinter by Bert Jansch is included mostly because it follows very well from the previous track. I’m a big fan of Jansch, but the production on here is too wet, and the song doesn’t sound bleak enough. But it’s a nice version, and a good closer to the collection proper.
However, as you can fit a *little* more onto a CD, I’ve included two more tracks…
Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS This Year by Tiny Tim may be the most offensive track ever recorded – “He won’t be singing out ‘ho ho ho ho’/But he’ll be crying out ‘no, no, no, no!'” . When Tim realised how badly everyone had taken the song, he tried to claim it was about the slimming bar Ayds, but the lyrics (and the fact that the B-side of the single was called She Left Me WIth The Herpes) tell a different story.
And there’s a final little message from Andy Partridge, wishing everyone a psychedelic Christmas…