In Defence of Wonderful Christmastime

(Before we start, a note: I just googled to check a fact about this, and on the first page of the Google results for “Wonderful Christmastime” is a piece on Salon with the same title as this, published two hours ago. I’ve not read the Salon piece, and I said a week ago

I also want to get some thoughts down over the next day or two about the Richmond Park by-election and in defence of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”,

I just say this in case anyone thought this was inspired by the Salon piece. Any similarities are coincidental.)

It’s December, and so it’s the time of year for a thousand contrarian pieces about how Christmas is evil, and a thousand more meta-contrarian pieces about how, no, Christmas is really great after all.

My own view on the matter is summed up by the fact that my two favourite Christmas songs are (genuinely) “Fairytale of New York” and “It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas”, and I am thus both the cliched hipster cynic and someone who appreciates that this is a bad thing to be. Ah, do you see? Et cetera.

But one thing on which everyone seems agreed [EDIT: except apparently for one person at Salon who gets their copy in a couple of hours before me] is that Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is a terrible record.

What no-one ever does is explain *why* it’s a terrible record. So instead, I’m going to explain why it’s not.

First, one has to look at it in context. The big complaint about it, of course, is simply that it’s inescapable this time of year. That’s true, but it’s not something that would have been known in 1979, when McCartney released it.

British Christmas music is very different from Christmas music in the US. Both countries’ Christmas experiences are based around Boomer nostalgia for Christmases of their past, but in the US that nostalgia is for the very early childhoods of the early Boomer cohort — secular Christmas music as played in US shops, “holiday” radio stations, and so on (at least in the Midwest) is rooted in the pre-rock era, and is mostly music by crooners or by modern performers copying that music. “Wonderful Christmastime” is, in fact, one of only three songs written post-1963 I’ve ever heard on US radio over Christmas (the other two are “Hey Santa!” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You”). Otherwise, US Christmas music ends with “Little St. Nick” and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.

Meanwhile in the UK, Christmas music starts in 1973, with Slade and Wizzard (still the two peaks of Christmas pop, never to be beaten), and continues through Mud, Boney M, Band Aid, Wham!, and Shakin’ Stevens, more or less ending in 1985 apart from a couple of outliers (Cliff Richard’s “Mistletoe and Wine” and East 17’s non-Christmas-but-somehow-always-played-then “Stay”). It’s the music of the younger Boomer contingent, and of their teens and early twenties.

But when McCartney wrote and recorded the song, of course, there was no way of knowing that it would become a Christmas perennial; in the UK half of them hadn’t even been released yet, while in the US it would have seemed that those had stopped being made more than a decade earlier. There was no reason at the time to expect it to be anything other than a one-off hit, no more or less lasting than, say, “Goodnight Tonight” or “Old Siam, Sir”, or any of the other singles Wings released around then.

(Interesting fact, for some varieties of interesting — “Wonderful Christmastime” was the first solo single McCartney ever released. True fact. All his previous “solo” work was credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney” or to Wings).

I can certainly understand that someone could develop an aversion to a certain record just from hearing it too many times — there are records that were in heavy rotation on the radio when I worked factory jobs and had to hear them three or four times a day in depressing circumstances which I never, ever, want to hear again. But that’s not a particular reflection on the record.

So, let’s just look at it as a record.

First, the lyrics. Yes, as many will point out, they’re simplistic, and if you’re primarily interested in lyrics there’s little to love here. I’d argue, though, that this is a deliberate choice by McCartney. If one listens to any of his late-70s records, the lyrics are, when taken alone, frankly asinine.

But I think that the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby”, “Paperback Writer”, and “She’s Leaving Home” probably knew that writing, for example, a song whose entire lyrics are “Don’t get too tired for love/Don’t let it end/Don’t say goodnight to love/It may never be the same again/Don’t say it/Don’t say it/Say anything but don’t say goodnight tonight” repeated for four minutes twenty, didn’t convey the same subtlety, pathos, and wit.

The thing to remember is that McCartney was, more than anything, a rock and roller, and for someone of his generation, rock and roll meant exciting new sounds, not complex lyrics. While McCartney got his place in the Beatles by being better at remembering lyrics than Lennon (who cared so little about lyrics himself that he would just improvise new lyrics to the songs he was singing), he never actually managed to learn the lyrics to, say, “Long Tall Sally”. He didn’t have to. He knew what it sounded like. And all the music McCartney grew up on and loved — songs like “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, “Peggy Sue”, “Hound Dog”, “Tutti Frutti” — had almost no lyrical content whatsoever. It was all about the *sound*.

And the same is true for McCartney’s late-70s and very-early-80s output. He only seems to start trying to write songs *about* things again on a regular basis after Lennon’s death (almost as if he felt like now that his more political ex-partner was dead, he had to take up the reins). But the vast bulk of his late-70s output is purely about finding new sounds, and to judge it on its lyrical content is a little like judging The Wasteland as an interpretive dance piece — so far from the clear aims of the work as to be not even wrong.

So, let’s look at the *sound*. And we see that what he’s doing here is very similar to what he’s doing on “Temporary Secretary”, recorded around the same time, which rather than getting derided from all sides is currently regarded as an innovative classic, with Rolling Stone including it recently in a “12 Weirdest Paul McCartney Songs” listicle.

Both songs are experiments in electronic sound, but “Temporary Secretary” is… well… more conventional and less experimental. Yes, the sequencer bleeps are good, but they’re nothing Giorgio Moroder hadn’t done before, and with the crunchy guitar and loud drums, it’s just a fairly standard pop record for 1980 — clearly the same kind of thing as, say, “Take Me I’m Yours” by Squeeze a couple of years earlier.

“Wonderful Christmastime”, on the other hand, could almost be the work of the Radiophonic Workshop. The only instruments on the track are a kick-drum, sleighbells, and layers upon layers of analogue synths (Wikipedia claims there’s guitar on there as well — after listening many times with headphones, I don’t think so, though I could be wrong. One of the instruments in the last instrumental break — the one playing the twiddly melody — may be an acoustic guitar, but if so it’s been distorted to the point that it sounds like an analogue synth that’s been set up to sound a bit guitary. Apart from a single note in the verse after that break, that sound doesn’t appear anywhere else on the track though).

And they’re not being used in normal ways, either. There’s very little chordal support here — it’s lots of intertwining, largely monophonic, lines coming and going. It’s a very, *very* sparse-sounding instrumental track, but there are a lot of small shifts. Try listening in headphones to just one channel, and listen to just those very high, violin-like, sustained notes, and the way they shift.

What the backing track is, largely, is an extremely creative musician pushing what can be done just with synths to the very limits while remaining within an absolutely standard pop song structure (and this is another very McCartney thing; he tends to go wildly experimental on *one thing*, while holding everything else steady, almost like a control. This may explain his massive success).

But McCartney also knew that synths sounded, to listeners at the time, “inorganic” and futuristic. To make it palatable to the casual listener, you have to have something very human. And so we have what sounds like a very casual vocal — it’s husky, and very slightly off key at times. It sounds, actually, rather a lot like McCartney’s brother Mike.

And listening casually, you might think there’s some occasional sloppy double-tracked harmony, along of course with the multi-tracked “ding dong”s and so on. It might sound like a slightly inept vocal, even.

But listen closer. Everywhere where it sounds like he’s singing solo, he’s at least double-tracked, and often triple- or quadruple-tracked. All that roughness in the vocal is *precisely calculated* roughness — a very, very, professional vocalist managing to sound, deliberately, like someone with a decent voice having a sing-song at a party.

And that’s the paradox of this track — the friendly, human-sounding stuff is the work of precise, ruthless, calculation, while the inhuman, cold, machine-like stuff is made by someone giddy with the possibilities of his new toys and playing with them. That’s McCartney all over, really, and whether you like or dislike the record, I’d argue that “Wonderful Christmastime” is, if nothing else, the quintessential Paul McCartney record; the one I’d play people who wanted to learn *everything* about the full range of Paul McCartney’s music in three minutes and forty-five seconds.

Yes, one can certainly get tired of hearing it, and I can more than understand why so many people don’t like the record. But even if you never want to hear it again, it remains the most experimental, innovative, and interesting big Christmas hit ever.

Just don’t ask me to defend the B-side.

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19 Responses to In Defence of Wonderful Christmastime

  1. cruth01 says:

    Oddly, I never remember hearing this until this year (I’m 48, and grew up a Beatles fan even!) but I’ve heard it 4 or 5 times this season.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      How odd — I know a lot of people who say that one is inescapable. But then I don’t think I’d heard Silver Bells until I was in my twenties…

  2. misssbgmail says:

    “I can certainly understand that someone could develop an aversion to a certain record just from hearing it too many times — there are records that were in heavy rotation on the radio when I worked factory jobs and had to hear them three or four times a day in depressing circumstances which I never, ever, want to hear again.”

    I worked in retail, and then pubs, for nearly 20 years. The entirety of December was non-stop Christmas music every single year.

    ALL Christmas music is traumatizing to me, but especially the execrable Jonah Lewie.

  3. Kit says:

    I thoroughly enjoy both “Wonderful Christmastime” (only lightly played in Australia, and not for a long time IME) and De La Soul’s “Simply,” which samples it.

    (My solo McCartney awareness basically = All The Best!, Spike and “My Brave Face,” Liverpool Sound Collage, The Fireman (first two albums only), Twin Freaks and McCartney II, in that chronological order. I often find myself in the position of repping him hard in pub arguments, despite barely owning or listening to any of his catalogue.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      …I actually can’t imagine what someone’s opinion of McCartney as a solo artist must be, based on just those records. Although they do, as a set, make a very strong argument for him…

      • Kit says:

        I mean, I’m aware OF a zillion Stunning Returns To Form and albums of mature love songs and “back to rock ‘n’ roll” efforts. But I think it’s safer not to listen to them.

  4. I’ve heard both “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” on U.S. radio over Christmas in a “Christmas music” context. I’ve also heard “I Believe in Father Christmas,” but I don’t remember whether that was during Christmastime or not. But apart from those, I can’t recall any other exceptions.

    So what did U.K. radio stations play over the Christmas season in the U.K. before 1973? Traditional carols? Regular non-seasonal pop?

  5. dm says:

    Also he appears to be dressed as Tom Baker at various points in the clip

  6. Doug says:

    I have been listening to virtually the same compilations of Christmas songs on the telly, radio, and on tapes and CDs at work and in shops since the early 1970s and I actively loathe most of the fuckers. How people enjoy listening to the same stuff year after year I’ll never understand.

    I still enjoy the Phil Spector Christmas album, partly I guess because it doesn’t get played that much publically.

    The only Christmas song I really like still isn’t specifically about Christmas or ‘having a great time’ at Christmas – it’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ by David Essex.

  7. Boursin says:

    This post is full of very good points, but one correction. The pre-Wings “Another Day” was credited to plain “Paul McCartney” as far back as 1971: http://tinyurl.com/ha2xo4e

  8. Jake says:

    As an American, I can tell you the Christmas machine is such that plenty of pop songs written post-1963 have been folded into the mall shopping/car radio soundscape, if not quite the Christmas canon, from The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” to a recent Kelly Clarkson song that is obviously aping the bounce of “All I Want for Christmas is You.” They even still play an execrable N*Sync track from 15 years ago.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Hmm… maybe it’s something that varies by region. I’ve spent every Christmas for the last eleven years in the USA and never heard those, but it’s always been in the Midwest…

      • Jake says:

        I live in Iowa, which is like the dead center of the Midwest, haha. But yeah, it could just depend on which local radio station you’re tuning into.

  9. TAD says:

    I hear Wham!’s “Last Christmas” a lot…..both the original version and the (inferior) recent cover by Taylor Swift. That’s a recent song that’s become a holiday staple. And of course John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas.” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” is becoming a staple too (as you said). Just heard it today on the radio actually, and I was thinking that it’s the backing vocals and Spector-ish production that makes the track. Mariah is a great singer, but her vocal isn’t really the hook of the song at all.

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