Thursday, 14 August 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Hits 4








(#328: 29 March 1986, 4 weeks)

Track listing:  The Sun Always Shines On TV (A-ha) /You Little Thief (Feargal Sharkey)/I'm Your Man (Wham!) /Manic Monday (Bangles) /Borderline (Madonna) /Digging Your Scene (The Blow Monkeys) /Imagination (Belouis Some)/Chain Reaction (Diana Ross) /How Will I Know (Whitney Houston) /If You Were Here Tonight (Remix) (Alexander O'Neal) /System Addict (Five Star) /Don’t Waste My Time (Paul Hardcastle) /(Nothing Serious) Just Buggin’(Whistle) /Alice, I Want You Just For Me! (Full Force) /Eloise (The Damned) /Suspicious Minds (Fine Young Cannibals) /Rise (PIL)/Hit That Perfect Beat (Bronski Beat) /It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) (Eurythmics) /West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys) /Kyrie (Edit) (Mr. Mister) /The Captain Of Her Heart (Double) /Radio Africa (Latin Quarter) /Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) (Mike + The Mechanics) /No One Is To Blame (Howard Jones) /Come Hell Or Waters High (Dee C. Lee) /Hounds Of Love (Kate Bush)/Calling America (Electric Light Orchestra)

I have gotten into the habit of calling 1986 "The Year That Saved Music" - with my usual love of hyperbole, if not irony.  And yet I tend to think that this is true, beyond those modifiers.  1985, as previously mentioned, paused in the middle to have a definitive run-through - a transatlantic one, at that - as to who mattered in music, and who didn't.  With things seemingly so cut and dried, so made perfectly apparent in every way, there is a pull between the old and the new that's inevitable and Hits 4 is the first post-Live Aid compilation to make it clear.  It may seem like an exaggeration to say that you had to take sides in 1986, but I don't think it's a big one, as anyone who was working at the NME* at the time can attest.

That said, there's only three artists here that were also at Live Aid, so we may as well start with them and meander into eventual greatness.

The Live Aid Generation

"Borderline" by Madonna is from her first album (a much better one than Like A Virgin) - so Hits 4 goes back to the fizzy days of 1983, and here is the real Madonna, singing in her own voice, in a song that may not always make sense but resonates anyway.  The oddness of the line "love me 'til I just can't see" is attacked by Maggie Estep in her poem "Bad Day At The Beauty Salon**":

Madonna's song Borderline is pumping through the club's speaker system for the 5th time tonight: "BORDERLINE BORDERLINE BORDERLINE/LOVE ME TIL I JUST CAN'T SEE." And suddenly, I start to wonder: What does that mean anyway?

"LOVE ME TIL I JUST CAN'T SEE"

What?

Screw me so much my eyes pop out, I go blind, end up walking down 2nd Avenue crazy, horny, naked and blind? What? There's a glitch in the tape and it starts to skip.

"Borderl...ooop.....Borderl....ooop...Borderlin.....ooop"

Nevertheless, it's a fine song, but I would advise against trying to dance in a strip club in too-high shoes (as the narrator here does) to it, as it would drive you crazy, as well.

You'll notice that Madonna is one side one tape one, whereas Howard Jones is on the mostly dull last side, with, yep, Phil Collins there drumming and singing and co-producing with Hugh Padgham, a combination that ensures "taste" and "refinement" and total dullness.  Jones sings about various pre-Morissette situations of frustration and concludes that there is no one to blame, make do and mend, if you try to alter things you will no doubt make them worse.  Whatever happened to "Things Can Only Get Better"?  Jones is waving the white flag here to a world that is full of young thrusting Thatcherkids on one side and Red Wedge fans on the other, and clearly he wants no part of any of it.  Well, that's fine, but as a result we won't be hearing from him again.  Adios, Howard.

"It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)" is supposed to be a warm hug of a song, but it always makes me a bit uneasy - she doesn't even care where he's been?  Really?  I mean, here she is multitasking away like crazy (a ledge, a flowering tree, a clock, a danger sign, even a stormy sea - it's like she's a Transformer or something) and so utterly happy he's there that he seemingly doesn't have to do...anything.  Except "be yourself tonight" - whatever that means.  And there are horns and Dave Stewart's delicate guitar picking and so on, but the warmth here jars somehow, as if this is the real Dave 'n' Annie and all that early stuff - so sharp, surprising, at times raw - has been cooked and condensed down to this pub bangers and mash with onion gravy that fills you up but gives you no pang, nothing unexpected.

The Tropic of "Meh"

While we're here at the No Excitement buffet, here's some more songs that are "meh" (not a term used, as I recall, in 1986, at least not in Oakville).  "Kyrie" by Mr. Mister is well-meaning - after all, it's a prayer, with "Kýrie, eléison, down the road that I must travel/Kýrie, eléison, through the darkness of the night" as part of the chorus.  I didn't know that that was Greek at the time, maybe even Ancient Greek, but I've got to respect them for at least using the total Reaganrock template to put something beyond the usual love song out there.  Also, what to make of the line "Somewhere between the soul and soft machine/Is where I find myself again"?  Could these guys, who got their name from a song by Weather Report, know about Robert Wyatt?  Hard to tell, as unfortunately this is so darn manly/uplifting normal, and of course went to #1 in the US.

"Imagination" by Belouis Some puts a damper on what, as you can see, is a fine first side here.  He's trying so hard to sound sexy!  He's failing so badly!  His girl is all about "American Dreams" (cut to me looking at UK music papers/magazines at this time and seeing nothing but stereotypical "American" stuff in ads, a trend that baffles me, an actual American) and wants him to use his imagination, which is a big request, considering how this song is so irritating.  And yep, this is another example of how the Chic organization - Tony Thompson, Bernard Edwards - passed 1985, by helping one Neville Keighley make a record which is trying way too hard.

"Chain Reaction" must have looked fine on paper - Diana Ross!  The Bee Gees!  But The Bee Gees were no Chic here either, and in hearing this I end up feeling like I'm playing a fairground game of Whack-A-Metaphor.  I mean, there's the chain reaction from nuclear explosions (hence "You let me hold you for the first explosion"), "Shine a light for the whole world over" "You get a medal when you're lost in action" - the Brothers Gibb make love sound like war, but what to make of lines like "We get a picture of our love in motion" or "You make me tremble when your hand moves lower/You taste a little then you swallow slower"?  I don't know, but then the key changes make it tougher and tougher for Ross to sing at the end, so The Bee Gees, frustrated by not being able to take center stage on their own record, take over, as they can sing in a higher range than Ross.  It is an awkward song no matter how you look at it, and yet it got to #1 in the UK, number nothing in the US, despite Ross' best efforts.

Concerned People Being All Concerned About Things

"Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)" is a R2 staple so you know that it's sung by Paul Carrack (what would R2 do without him?), written by B.A. Robertson and Mike Rutherford of Genesis, and is so White Male Anglo-Saxon Protestant that it's scary.  Except it's not; it's too spaced out and gloopy and, well, square, jack.  The narrator is warning his family - after all, he's ahead of time of them, he's in space! - to get their guns and ammo ready for the coming anarchic period of Earth warfare. Just hide out in the cellar like good Survivalists, and raise the kids to rebel, all the while saluting whatever flag's being flown.  Atta boy, dad!  How about using your from-the-future powers to stop all this chaos to begin with?  Maybe they can't hear him, and will use their common sense instead.  As a protest song it's no "Won't Get Fooled Again" and it certainly isn't "World Machine."

Latin Quarter are just as meh here as Mike + The Mechanics, though they are at least talking about the here and now, and not some dystopian time-travelling future.  "Radio Africa" - which only seems to broadcast sad news. What puzzles me here is not the Stingesque concern for, uh, Robert Mugabe, but the fact is this was a Top 20 hit but hasn't lasted as a protest song.  I think it's because the whole thing screams Camden Social Services (where Paul O'Grady worked in the 80s, fact fans) - earnest, but dull. It lopes along in a way to suggest they actually listen to music from Africa, but it in the end is a bit too mopey to really make you care about the purse-strings being white and how it's not just Ethiopia/South Africa that's in trouble, kids.  Leaflets outside Sainsbury's probably made more of a dent than this single did, all told.

Poor Five Star!  They seem to be only slightly afraid they're turning into what they beheld - "System Addict" is probably about being stuck on Tetris 24/7, or some such thing.  Or maybe they're just really into Filofax.  Whatever it is, they are certainly positive about it, like Gary Numan on Prozac or a cheerier Roy Orbison doing "Penny Arcade."  This sure ain't "You Are In My System" by The System, amongst many, many other things it's trumped by.  God willing and the creek don't rise, Five Star will get the, uh, most positive writing possible here at TPL.  One hopes.

The Obligatory Mention of ELO Part

Jeff Lynne really couldn't wait to get to America, could he?  This defines "phoned in" in all ways, and yes, finally he gets to leave.  Next stop:  The Travelling Wilburys. I don't even think Roy Wood could have saved this from being as, uh, naff as it inevitably was going to be.

Also, Hits 4 people, where's "Kiss" by Prince or "Living In America" by James Brown?  Compilations that end with a damp squib aren't going to work, you know.

Encore

I bought the Hounds of Love 12" at the time and really liked it, as it broke down into pure drums and Bush sounding more frightened and obsessed than on the original. The b-side has "Burning Bridge" and "My Lagan Love" and I must have spent hours listening to either side, as it completes itself and the terror on one side is balanced by the joy and love on the other.  One of my teachers at Sheridan College had seen me walking along with it, no doubt going home, and asked me before or after class what it was.  She seemed pleased to hear it was Kate Bush, though she didn't look at all the type to know who she was.  Maybe she did by then?   

To Cover Or Not To Cover

Dee C. Lee, from Balham, was on Our Favourite Shop; here she is with a non-Top 40 single (well, at least it made the chart).  It's a cover of a song by Judie Tzuke, and that means it's once again polite and elegant and Lee does her best, but this is a little too polite, the sort of thing Jazz Fm would play on a Saturday morning.  Given the extremity of the song, you'd think it would have a little more oomph, but no.  Soul as Alan Partridge would understand it.


There is no point in doing a laid back proto-lounge version of "Eloise" and The Damned here make as much noise as they can, though it's still not as tortured as the original.  Goth pop is what The Damned did when punk ran out, and they made a good go at it, too. There is no getting away from the 60s, is there?  I am still not sure how it is that Eloise exists and yet doesn't, but this is Goth, where death is but a small barrier to obsession.


So(ul)cialism, At Long Last

Is there any song here lighter and yet heavier than "Digging Your Scene"?  It's enigmatic - I still don't really know what it's about, though I always figured it was about the gay club scene and the gay arts scene in general; this confirms it.  Dr. Robert scats and sighs, sings in a way that he learned from Marc Bolan, and the whole thing is delectable and against the grain, somehow old-fashioned and way ahead of (almost) anything here.  It's style and substance, which is always harder to pull off than it seems.  A reminder that for some, death was real, and not just in a song...

"Suspicious Minds" is a paranoid song, or rather a song where an innocent man is driven crazy by his Other's paranoia, and the Fine Young Cannibals (featuring, as it would say nowadays, Jimmy Somerville) play it direct and harried, as if the singer was being backed into that trap and fighting like hell to get out.  It grips and doesn't let go, and Somerville's backing vocals just make it that more insistent and strong, until it speeds up entirely and finishes and explodes. Yet another account, I'd say, of how Thatcherism was making people's relationships a lot more painful and making love much tougher to keep going through stresses and strains.  Roland Gift sounds even more in pain than Elvis, which is saying something.

I figure Wham! are here as so(ul)cialists as they are going Motown right (unlike Diana and her boys) and in the trampoline-bouncy beat are able to get George saying any old thing and make you think he's taking soul to some new level, where he can say "Baby your friends don't need to know" and all that doing it right stuff is yeah what you think it is, but then maybe not.  "I'll make you rich, I'll make you poor!" he says at the end, and he says "Do it on my own" as if he's Bono.  Before Leonard Cohen could explain how he's your man, here's George sounding as if he just invented something yesterday.  George is ready for you, but are you really ready for him?

Paul Hardcastle and Carol Kenyon make as if they've heard George's endless, boundless Olympian promises before and just aren't interested; she sounds a bit snooty, but who knows what lines she has been hooked on before, by what bait.  Jazzier than "19" and tougher than you'd expect, though I still prefer Carol Kenyon singing about market capitalism on Heaven 17's "Temptation."  Or maybe she's singing to the Tory Party here in general, that she's not voting for them in '87?  Am I hoping for too much here?

A Star Is Born

It is difficult for me to regard this song as just another song by a performer.  That is because it - the painful indecision, the longing, the hoping, the admitting that she is shy, her appeal to you the listener, because you "know about these things" - it is all I can do to stop running off to wherever they are working on a time machine (Switzerland, I guess) and go back and explain to Houston that yes you have to trust your feelings, you can't just get a daisy and pull the petals off, you have to watch what he does as much as what he says to know if he's in love.  Love is far more that possessions, far more than words, though those help; it is chemical, in the best way.  Her sunshine voice and openness and yes, youth make me shake my head as to how she could get love so wrong, including that love George Benson sang about, amour propre.  Love yourself first, Whitney, and that will make it easier.  If only.

It is interesting to note, btw, that Whitney bursts on to the US scene just as Diana Ross stops having hits, and that if it wasn't for Dire Straits her first album would've been #1 here, too.

A Certain Longing

Speaking of Switzerland, Double's "The Captain Of Her Heart" is more of a notion of a song than a song; like a more mellow Yello, a modest and sweet song that meanders and settles, the quiet satisfaction of this man's return is far more believable than that of the Eurythmics; it is the closest thing to a proto-lounge moment here, utterly European and sophisticated in a way I could only, in Oakville, long to be.  (We will reach the height of that European brilliance in a while.)

Tell Them Christopher Sent You

The Bangles were from Los Angeles and picked up the baton from The Go-Go's as the big all-girl group that could sing and play and started out as a punk band, The Bangs.  This song, by Christopher (a.k.a. Prince) is a joy, the best song about being late to work ever, and the activities of Sunday become the Valentino dreams of Monday morning, a lingering delicate Paisley melody letting you know that maybe the boss too has had a good time the previous night and all is well.  Time, it goes by so fast...

Hip Hop Wars, Anyone?

The NME was about to get embroiled in an imbroglio (a contretemps, some might say, a brouhaha) that has become known as the "hip hop wars."  In retrospect it was a sorry state of affairs - every time they put a hip hop artist on the cover, sales (which were already sliding) would dip further.  And yet who could resist Whistle's "Nothing Serious (Just Buggin')"?  Six full years of hip hop (called rap at the start, not really sure when it began to be called hip hop) and there is a knowing sense in this song that hip hop is indeed here to stay, that quoting the Green Acres theme and what would become "Stop This Crazy Thing" by Coldcut a few years later is what music is really all about in 1986 - they're here to have fun but are no one's fools, and there is a freshness and insouciance here that is fun, sure, but they also mean business.

Um, is this mic on?  "Alice, I Want You Just For Me!" (not enough songs with exclamation marks in them these days, methinks) is from Full Force's first album; it features Howie Tee as the DJ and the Brooklyn hip hop group as slightly clunky ("Let me be your carpenter I want to lay your tile" is Block That Metaphor time) but otherwise solid and charming (the narrator wants to take Alice to the "picture show" after school - which decade is this anyway?) and almost every utterance of devotion is met with a horn skronk, like Victor Borge's audible punctuation.  Full Force will go on soon enough to work with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, The Real Roxanne, etc.  But for now they are disarming and "In The Place To Be" as they say.  "Baby, you're the greatest" they say at the end, to hip hop fans everywhere.  Including the NME.

Perfect Beats

I am pretty sure the first or second copy of Melody Maker I bought had John Lydon on the cover, being contrary as ever, no doubt.  This song stands for so much - Ginger Baker pounds out the beat big enough for future hip hop gods to sample (has it been sampled though)?  Lydon doubts himself as as much as Houston does, but with a steely purpose - as if indeterminacy was a power itself.  Bill Laswell (bass, production) is huge as well, and oh look, there's Steve Vai on guitar! And L. Shankar on violin, all working to the drum's beat, along with Tony Williams and Ryuichi Sakamoto.  "They put a hotwire to my head!" "Your time has come, your second skin" - just in hearing this vertiginous song I knew something was going to happen, that music wasn't going to be quite the same again.  That it is an anti-apartheid song should've been obvious to me at the time, but wasn't (and I'd just marched against it in Toronto)!  Anger is an energy?  May the road rise with me?  Remember I didn't hear any punk the first time around, so this was new to me, daring, encouraging.  Important.  Tutu addressed us that day at Queen's Park and praised us, but this is praise too, a blessing.  To hear something like this on the radio afterwards was a vindication.

To show how quickly 1985 moved, when it began Jimmy Somerville was part of Bronski Beat but by 1986 he'd left and John "Jon Jon" Foster had replaced him as lead singer.  "Hit That Perfect Beat" is hi-energy, "to close for comfort" but immersed in music, the music providing a refuge - the boys are "hiding from the danger that's been sent from hell."  How many people felt this way in 1986?  That music was the one thing that they could feel and enjoy and draw from with no chance of danger?  The music somehow suggests this is a good idea but not an ideal one, but what else is there to do?  (This reminds me, only slightly, of "Dr. Beat" by Miami Sound Machine, and the meaning's much the same, too.)

He Said, She Said

"A Good Heart" was written by Maria McKee about her relationship with Benmont Tench; and "You Little Thief" is Tench's reply.  She asks him to be gentle, but in this Tench says she crushed him, left him with "nothing" and Sharkey sings it as if he is stunned too, abandoned, yet somehow still in love - note is quiet "you little girl" as if this was the case (and it's true; McKee was nineteen).  It's a Dave Stewart produced stomper but don't let that put you off; Sharkey gives the song his all and his "you watched me faaaaaaaallllllllllllllllll" is better than anything from Be Yourself Tonight.  Such emotion from a man who claims that he has "no feelings at all."

"If You Were Here Tonight (Remix)" by Alexander O'Neal is the kind of song that looks and sounds old-fashioned and it is; how I wish there were more songs like it.  It's not really like anything else here.  Sorry if I sound a little stunned, but it's just so real and lovely and beautiful.  And it doesn't rhyme, which makes it more real, somehow.  As if you're overhearing someone, their real love, their real life.  O'Neal's voice is direct and open, actual soul - not fussy, not showing off.  And then he whispers!  If a guy had put this on a mixtape for me in '86, then I would've known it was for real.  A modern classic.

And now we begin to ascend...hip hop is the future...but New Pop is back back back....

Norway To The Rescue

I doubt if anyone expected three guys from Norway to help save New Pop at its darkest hour, but that's how it was - this Alan Tarney-produced cathedral of sound stormed up to #1, as if anything could possibly stop it.  And it can't - the song carries you up with it, ennobles you, takes you out of the darkness into something Other.  "The Sun Always Shines On T.V." is a big enough song to encompass love, media "reality," the imagined and the real.  There is something feverish about the song (and indeed two of the band had high fevers when it was recorded). "Please don't ask me to defend/The shameful lowlands of the way I'm drifting gloomily through time/I reached inside myself today/Thinking there's got to be some way to keep my troubles distant" - this worried man glides through a miracle of a song, as it rises and rises to merely ask for love, to be touched and made real.  There is so much bustle and energy here, urgency and need, but the music is a balm, a promise, that New Pop is not dead, just on a camp bed raring back to life, hurtling into the stratosphere...

From Lake Geneva To The Finland Station

I first heard "West End Girls" in its first incarnation at the end of 1984 on CFNY (which should tell you how cool a station it was at the time).  And I was hypnotized; I had never heard anything like it, had no idea who they were - beyond English, obviously - and had no idea how something like this could have a basis on...poetry?  I wasn't - oh, the irony - a very poetry-taken person at the time, didn't know much about it, have a feel for it, etc.  But I knew a good rhyme when I heard one ("unstable" and "table") and wondered about the calm - the apparent calm - of this man as he sang about someone who is dangerous and crazy - a threat to himself and others.  I didn't really know what "west end" or "east end" meant; just that they were opposites, just as girls and boys are opposites.  (1986, the year that brought sides together, or pulled them apart - the binary year.)

And then there was capitalism - "Do you get it/Have you got it/If so how often/Which do you choose, the hard or soft option?"  The boldness of Tennant's calm was something else; the just-out-of-peripheral vision music was another.  This song nudges and suggests; it is with you, not talking down to your level but with you somehow.  There's the backing singer, the saxophone, but they are deep and distant, dreamlike - and the song continues, "just you wait 'til I get you home" - recited, not sung - "Got no future, got no past, here today, built to last" - with only a few words Tennant looks askance at everything and then concludes this is how it is everywhere - "from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station."

At the time I didn't know what that meant, just that there might be something cold or chilly about this world he was describing.  The song carefully and nonchalantly leads you to the history of revolution, a place where maybe there's not so many shadows or whispering voices, a place where freedom of expression and meaning are encouraged.  This is practically New Pop explaining itself, and yet so hummable and even sing-a-longable that it got to #1 in the US.  There are few 80s singles greater than this. It's my pleasure to welcome the Pet Shop Boys to Then Play Long.

1986, the year that saved music?  An exaggeration, perhaps.  But it definitely saved New Pop, and sustained me through this uncertain year, of which more later.

Next up:  Flowers for you, Mr. Ferry!    


*I first came across the NME in the summer of '86 at the main library in Oakville and attempted to read it but found it dense and difficult; I bought a copy of Melody Maker around the same time in Toronto and found it much easier, though I kept trying with the NME as I sensed there was an energy it had that came clearly from some kind of friction, which much later I found out was the case.   
   
**From the great album No More Mr. Nice Girl (1994).

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now - The Christmas Album





(#327: 21 December 1985, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Band Aid)/I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Roy Wood with Wizzard)/Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade)/Last Christmas (Wham!)/Step Into Christmas (Elton John)/In Dulce Jubilo (Mike Oldfield)/Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas/Wonderful Christmastime (Paul McCartney)/Blue Christmas (Shakin’ Stevens)/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band)/I Believe In Father Christmas (Greg Lake)/A Spaceman Came Travelling (Chris de Burgh)/Stop The Cavalry (Jona Lewie)/Little Saint Nick (The Beach Boys)/Thank God It’s Christmas (Queen)/Lonely This Christmas (Mud)/When A Child Is Born (Soleado) (Johnny Mathis)/White Christmas (Bing Crosby)



First of all, I should apologise to any neighbours who last night might have been wondering who these strange people were in there, playing Christmas songs in the middle of August. But that didn’t stop a cast of hundreds, or possibly dozens, or maybe tens of thousands, singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in Wembley Stadium on a rather hot 13 July 1985, nor Slade from recording “Merry Xmas Everybody” in New York in the middle of a heatwave, so perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it too much.

Still, here we have the first – but not the last - Christmas-specific number one album at a time when such compilations (the cover pointedly advertises “18 ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS HITS”) hardly existed, and an opportunity for me to ponder on exactly what Christmas means to the British, since this record is not exactly a merry party-down affair. In fact, listening to most of it, you would imagine that the British are somewhat guilty about, and even afraid of, Christmas, so many of these songs being about loss or war or doubt. It is as if Britain is obliged to apologise for Christmas. But it is fitting that the last number one album of 1985 should begin with the song which did more than anything or anybody else to permit 1985 to happen.

Band Aid

Objectively, it would not take long to analyse "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Essentially it is a cheap, shitty little tune which sounds like the theme from Z-Cars played on a Stylophone. And that isn't me talking; those were the words of Bob Geldof when first he heard Midge Ure's backing track. Over it (and Ure’s own Fairlight-manipulated voice at the beginning, which in conjunction with the Yamaha DX7 bells, bring back memories of “Forever And Ever”) come the voices of prominent British pop stars of the day, some solo, others in harmony and at the end everyone together, singing for charity in the manner of those old Decca All-Star Hit Parade 10-inch albums of the '50s where sundry leading crooners took turns in singing each other's hits.

If only it were that simple. But, as you have doubtless long since gathered, it is absolutely impossible to consider these records in some idyllic notion of etiolated aesthetic isolation. There were, of course, precedents. But the Band Aid single, and consequent phenomenon, could be considered, as Danny Kelly in the 1985 NME mistakenly considered Sgt Pepper, “an Exocet to the heart of pop”, and pop records in particular, which as a side-effect of attempting to save actual lives struck several near-fatal blows to popular music.

As "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the last word to what one might term the second chapter of a sustained history of British pop, namely the experimental idealism of 1967-75, the third part can likewise be closed down with "Do They Know It's Christmas?" The irony of its being co-written and co-initiated by the leading light of the last gasp of glampop (Slik) need not be underlined. We can applaud to a certain degree the "bloody doing something about it" activity arising out of the determined apathy of punk and the subsequent aesthetic liberation of post-punk and New Pop.

However, Band Aid was determined to attack and resolve a painfully central question about music and its role, if any, in changing the world, however slightly. All those Lennon sales pitches about peace and having no possessions were all very well, and anarchy is never less than tempting - but what price any of this against the undeniably greater factor of saving the lives of millions of people?

The solution Geldof found was an uncomfortable one. As general post-Band Aid trends will confirm, it very quickly turned out to be an option of better music or a better world. And even the efficacy of Band Aid and Live Aid in terms of the latter can be questioned, since most of the billions raised by the enterprise seem to have gone straight into the pockets and coffers of the ruling Ethiopian elite, all the better to crush and control their hapless subjects. As Geldof himself realised by the time of 2005’s Live 8, it was the system which needed changing from the ground upwards rather than sending in astronomical sums of undefined money - i.e. relief from the ruinous interest rates demanded by the West in terms of Third World debt repayments, an end to the industrial/military interdependence which actually favours tinpot tyrannies in famined nations over workable democracies, and so on.

Does that therefore mean that Geldof simply shouldn't have bothered? This is a hugely uncomfortable question. By decrying "Do They Know It's Christmas?" one is in danger of favouring mass deaths so that we fortunate Western consumers can continue to avail ourselves of higher-quality art (as Bono’s line less than quietly spells out). Yes, it should have been done in preference to not having been done. But still there are those side products which in another way have proved massively destructive.

Possibly only someone in Geldof's position could have turned Band Aid into action in 1984. In the same week that "Do They Know It's Christmas?" went to number one, "Dave," the then-current single by the Boomtown Rats, was sitting at number 100. The Rats, four years after their last top ten hit, were fading fast, and so Geldof's evenings were quieter; quiet enough for him to be sitting in front of the TV to watch Michael Buerk's BBC1 Nine O'Clock News report from Ethiopia. The author of "Looking After Number One" then speedily set about disabusing that song's central notion; inspired by Lennon's "Instant Karma," Geldof and Ure wrote the song, recruited as many musicians as they could assemble in West London of a late autumn Sunday morning, recorded and mixed the single, and released it in the space of some 2-3 weeks.

It was all done on the turn of a determinedly amateur dime, and sounds it. Of the featured singers, Paul Young and Boy George appear to carry the bulk of the song while George Michael, Simon le Bon, Tony Hadley and Sting do their respective vocal party pieces and Bono is left with that deliberately ambiguous, if clumsy, line. The lyric is awkwardly phrased ("clanging chimes of doom"?) but obviously heartfelt, at least in Geldof's heart if not necessarily in those of anyone else present.

What counted though, besides the direct (hopeful) life-saving effects, was what this all meant to the concept of the pop record as an art form and/or simple three-minute tickler in itself. In addition, of course, it slaughtered and buried New Pop. No more room for shiny yellow philosophical abstracts; this was cold rationalism run carefully riot. No more room, either, for the divided loyalties essential to any pop movement which can count itself as truly alive - in the Christmas 1983 edition of the BBC's children's television programme Saturday Superstore Duran Duran, Culture Club and the Police - in their entirety - all appeared as guests, but the Police refused to be filmed in the company of the others or even talk to the others, and Duran Duran and Culture Club appeared uncomfortable sitting together. Twelve months later and we have Simon and Sting and George all shaking hands, mucking in together and being mates - what was the point, then, if it had only ever been about business? It torpedoed the concept of rivalry which would take a decade to resurface with the (engineered) Blur/Oasis "war."

Moreover, by assessing the personnel on "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and subsequently those invited to Live Aid, we were conveyed a horribly clear diktat about who mattered and didn't matter in pop - suddenly there was a pecking order. Nearly all of the original motivators of New Pop were conspicuous by their absence; Heaven 17 and Bananarama were there, Phil Oakey was invited but angrily declined when the rest of the Human League weren't. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were gigging in New York and couldn't attend the recording but Holly Johnson (together with Bowie, McCartney and Big Country) did a specially recorded message for the B-side ("I can't get the laugh right Bob") which Trevor Horn astutely and mischievously made the centre of his 12-inch remix. But as for ABC, Adam Ant, Marc Almond and the Associates - and these are just the "A"s - commercially they were all more or less washed up by the end of 1984, lucky even to squeeze into the Top 40 for a week. The Durans, the Spandaus, the Wham!s, those eager to please - all dutifully turned up; Jon Moss helped out on drums alongside Phil Collins but Boy George flounced in too late for the photo shoot. Those who still awkwardly stood outside, and/or apart from, the 1984 mainstream - the Smiths, the Bunnymen, New Order, Scritti, Madness - were not asked; others unable to attend but who subsequently turned up at Live Aid included the Thompson Twins, Sade and Alison Moyet.

Perhaps the most peculiar inclusion of all was Paul Weller, the sole representative of "punk" (if we don't count Geldof) present. Since he'd spent the best part of three years loudly slagging off nearly all of the artists in the studio, hardly anyone would talk to him except Phil Collins, Marilyn and his old mates Bananarama - although he was awestruck by the unexpected and unannounced appearance of Kool and the Gang, in town to promote their "Fresh" single and just dropped into the studio, he spent most of that Sunday trying to convince fellow musicians to participate in a fundraising single for the striking miners (only Heaven 17 agreed, and helped produce the Council Collective single "Soul Deep" which sold considerably less that season than Band Aid). He must have wondered why he'd even bothered (he can be heard, deep in the mix, on the line "where nothing overflows").

In its five weeks at the top - it debuted the same week as Wham's only UK million-selling single, the double-sided "Last Christmas"/"Everything She Wants," entered at number two (and still Britain’s best-selling number two single), where it was compelled to stay for the entirety of Band Aid's run at number one (the first occasion in UK singles chart history, apart from the first chart of all in November 1952, where the top two were both new entries, but since George Michael was prominently featured on "Do They Know It's Christmas?" he could hardly complain) - it passed the three million sales mark, shattering the record set by "Mull Of Kintyre," and would remain the UK's all-time best-selling single until 1997. The effects, as we have tried to demonstrate, were immediate - all of a sudden, pop in itself was no longer enough, yet Geldof was only setting in active motion what the Beatles had started back in the sixties. But now there seemed little, if any, room for fun, mischief or sex; the Frankie trilogy, with both "The Power Of Love" and Welcome To The Pleasuredome still in the top five, already seemed like a vaguely decadent and indulgent remnant of another era. Now the scene would be set for Soul and Sincerity and Good Works and Efficient Passion; the old values had speedily reasserted themselves, and charity records would soon routinely ascend to number one, not because they were good records, but because...well, do we want a better world, and can that better world still accommodate better music? The subsequent evidence might suggest that the two are incompatible. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a poor pop record which ended up being maybe the most important pop record, such that it seems "indecent" even to give it a mark. But the mark it has left on pop may take centuries to wash away. As for the 13 July Live Aid concert, which I attended, the general feeling was that of a gigantic sports day; all very nice, all very make-do-and-mend “uplifting,” and I didn’t remember a thing about it in the tube station half an hour later.

Roy Would

This is not quite the only place I get to talk about Roy Wood on TPL, but since Lena has admirably dealt with the Wizzard Christmas song elsewhere, I might as well have a go here. Wood was the British Todd Rundgren…an almost unhealthily profligate sonic architect who at his early-mid ‘70s peak straddled pop and avant with love and disdain, but who subsequently has become undervalued. Time for some re-evaluations.

Were Wizzard the anti-ELO or simply a Bizarro version of ELO? The strangely yearning psychosis of the unmatched debut single by ELO “10538 Overture,” in which both Wood and Jeff Lynne were involved, indicates a future reluctance to be embraced. Indeed, though credited to ELO, only four musicians participated on this recording; Jeff Lynne on vocals and guitar, the stalwart Bev Bevan on drums, Rick Price on bass, and Wood on everything else (including all string and horn parts). He says that he started mucking about with a cheap Chinese ‘cello he had bought, playing Hendrix riffs on it and thinking that this was damn good heavy metal. At the song’s climax, the increasingly wayward strings threaten to overwhelm the riff (later purloined by Weller for “The Changing Man”) altogether. The first ELO album delved into even murkier waters with various improv players amongst the string section, sounding rather like King Crimson’s Lizard in dub conference with Penderecki.

It didn’t last, of course; Lynne and Wood argued, Lynne decided to give his tunes some tunes, while Wood walked off to set up Wizzard and initially had the greater success with his primary-coloured assault on good old rock and roll, Spectorising its elements to such a magnitude that you could gladly bathe in them. Wood played a lot of the instruments on the Wizzard hits himself, and despite the epic surface of their hits, there was always that home-made, peculiarly British element lurking underneath the whole enterprise – the perfect meeting point, in other words, between Spector and Meek – coupled with a very theatrical pre-postmodern grandiosity which foresees both Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the KLF.

Listen to things like “Ball Park Incident” and “Angel Fingers.” Their sound is intensified to such an extent that you wonder whether these aren’t photocopies of, or blueprints for, “classic” rock and roll songs rather than songs per se. Above all, luxuriate in the five glorious minutes of “See My Baby Jive” which predates and outdoes “Born To Run.” The ornamentation here is so top-heavy that the whole cake threatens to collapse on the flimsiest of bases. No battalion of saxophones is too undermanned; no backing vocalists too propulsive. It is a celebration, an attempt at resuscitation of a dead spirit, a Doppler simulation of “rock and roll history” hurtling past you almost too quickly for you to absorb it. It is amongst the greatest of number one singles.

This was only half the story of Wizzard, however, as anyone who has listened to their albums will testify; elsewhere on tracks like the ELO-baiting “Bend Over Beethoven” we could almost be listening to the Zappa of Grand Wazoo; there is even proto-Ambient to be found in pieces like “Dream of Unwin” and “Nixture.” It didn’t last, of course; their last top 10 single in “Are You Ready To Rock,” essentially heralded a return to basics R&R with odd tangents here and there (another song from the same period, “Rattlesnake Roll,” suddenly devolves into bebop).

(And of course there may even be another half; note the crucial influence of Wood’s Wizzard arrangements and productions on the record which confirmed pop’s renewed supremacy over rock, “Waterloo” by Abba).

But the real genius of Wood is to be found in his solo work of the same period, usefully assembled on a twelve-year-old 2CD compilation entitled Exotic Mixture – although one CD would have more than sufficed, since CD1 in itself may well represent, if not the British SMiLE, then the British A Wizard/A True Star. Certainly songs like “Wake Up” achieve what Beck can no longer quite manage to reach, with its paddling in the water rhythm and the graceful yet surreal backwards sonorities at its close; similarly the astute queasiness of “Nancy Sing Me A Song.” “Dear Elaine” – a post-psychedelic folk ballad - is like Syd Barrett attempting to emulate the Incredible String Band; the lo-fi sung “brass” backing vocals echo into each other disturbingly and in the middle section threaten to drown out the song altogether – it eerily predicts what Robert Wyatt would do on “Sea Song” just a year later. Incredibly, this was a top 20 hit.

The songs then ricochet gleefully between styles – the immaculate Wilson pastiche of “Forever,” the Barry Adamson-outdoing “Premium Bond Theme,” the completely mentalist “Going Down The Road” (subtitled, appropriately, “A Scottish Reggae Song,” and yet another unlikely top 20 hit, with its queasy saxophones, pipe bands and police sirens). “Music To Commit Suicide By” is an MoR waltz which could pass as a sitcom theme tune, were it not for the rasping saxophones and ‘cellos which arrive to cast some darkness in the middle. “Mustard” is a recreation of ‘40s danceband radio.

At this stage, with the hits more or less over, Wood burrowed further into adventure. The 1976 single “Indiana Rainbow”/”The Thing Is This” was credited to Roy Wood’s Wizzard, but represented a quantum step away from Eddy and the Falcons. “Indiana Rainbow” in particular is a racing breeze of Tropicalia; with its knowing female backing vocals, danceband saxophones and determined percussion, it sounds remarkably like a foretaste of what August Darnell would later get up to with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. “The Thing Is This,” meanwhile, is an indescribable melange of Gershwin, Zappa, Varése, King Crimson and Autechre – Wood’s own “George Fell Into His French Horn.”

Which leaves us with Wood’s “Surf’s Up” – “The Rain Came Down On Everything,” the greatest and most moving song Wood ever wrote. Vocals and piano refracted through an icy, fuzzy screen (as though he’s already drowned), MBV meets George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” meets Dennis Wilson’s “Thoughts Of You,” it sounds as though Wood is bringing down the curtain on his whole life.

Where could he go from there? The second CD illustrates with great sadness where he actually did go – initially to forming the Wizzo Band, with its 13-piece horn section (though certainly no Arkestra – more like Wood’s Utopia). This specialised in intermittently interesting jazz-rock, though occasional flashes of Wood’s genius still shone through occasionally; hear the 1977 single “Dancing At The Rainbow’s End,” divine, seductive and knowing AOR which Gregg Alexander would kill to have written, and its B-side “Waiting At The Door,” with its vacillations between AOR and metal culminating in a bizarre C&W fadeout. His subsequent work, sadly, I find of little interest. But note, amongst all the melancholic, self-pitying and quietly furious British performers here, how “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” sparkles with humour, invention and a positive, future-embracing approach that was so vital in 1973 Britain.

What could possibly have kept it off number one?

It’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaas (a.k.a. BS Johnson, You Stupid Bastard, Look What You Missed)!

John and Yoko had released “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” the previous year, but otherwise it’s surprising, if only from a financial point of view, that major British acts didn’t make a habit of recording special Christmas singles; perhaps the Beatles and the Stones thought themselves too “cool” for such base exercises, and indeed the likes of Floyd and Zeppelin considered themselves far too “cool” to release any singles (although Pink Floyd would quite violently make up for that right at the end of the seventies; it is perhaps unsurprising that on this compilation children’s choirs are represented by “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” rather than “Another Brick In The Wall [Part II]”).

But the glam boom had restored showbiz to British pop, so it’s equally unsurprising that in 1973 seasonal offerings came from Wizzard, Elton – and Slade. “Merry Xmas Everybody” remains Slade’s most famous and biggest-selling song; a perennial cash cow which has returned to the chart almost annually ever since. Yet it was recorded halfway up a skyscraper in New York, in mid-August at the height of a heatwave. They ventured out into the studio stairwell to add their trademark clapping, stomping and yelling, leaving passing Americans thoroughly bemused (as Slade, and glam, did generally – the British charts of 1973, though sharing many records with the Billboard listings, overall must have looked as impenetrably parochial to American observers as the charts of, say, Latvia). John Lennon, then busy in the studio next door working on Mind Games, was tickled to hear what sounded like his hollering doppelganger. The melody and arrangement dated as far back as 1967 (the original song was entitled “Buy Me A Rocking Chair”); an aborted attempt by Holder and Lea to write a psychedelic song, though that aura is still very evident in the major-minor descending chords (“Hi Ho Silver Lining” after a fashion) and the swooning middle eight, with its subtle backward guitars.

But the song was absolutely right for the times; Holder stated that he explicitly wanted to cheer up British audiences at a time of grave crisis, and his vocal is benignly cheeky throughout (“Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?”), excited with expectations (“Are you hoping that the snow will start to fall?”), winking to previous generations (“Does your granny always tell ya/That the old songs are the best/Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rollin’ with the rest?” – aren’t you rather old not to be writing your memoirs?) and good-humouredly lecherous (“What does your daddy do when he sees your mama kissing Santa Claus – a-haha!”). It’s a tinselly knees-up with which anyone could identify; and yes, I loved Christmas, couldn’t wait to be spellbound by those gleaming gifts under the lit tree when I woke up at five on Christmas morning, and no, I didn’t like it when I learned the truth not long afterwards.

But “Look to the future now/It’s only just begun,” the chorus chants – reinforced by Holder’s climactic Lennonesque yell of “It’s CHRIIIIIII-SSSSS-TMASSSSSS!!” – but in fact “Merry Xmas Everybody” and its co-conspirators represented the apex of glam’s commercial and aesthetic appeal, as well as appealing to a Britain sorely in need of cheer, reassurance and basic happiness.

Last Christmas

Eleven years later and any cheer had evaporated; the bitterness and rancour from Make It Big persist through both record and video; George sees her again, but no, he remembers the pain from before, and has no desire to relive or recreate it. Cold Christmas rationalism; keep your countenance, say pleasant little things, bleed in private if you must.

Step Into Christmas

Much played and loved now, but back in 1973 Elton’s seasonal offering was a slow starter, peaking only at #24, perhaps overlooked in the dazzle of Slade and Wizzard’s songs. Although it does play like something of a “Thank You For This Gold Watch” record, it’s an agreeable Beach Boy-ish sleigh ride. “Step into Christmas – the admission’s free!” So who ends up paying?

In Dulce Jubilo

Probably the oldest song on Then Play Long – known in former times as “Good Christian Men Rejoice” – “In Dulce Jubilo” is reckoned to have been written in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (a.k.a. Henry Suso), something of a German antecedent of Blake, with his unending search for the “Eternal Wisdom” and the visions of dancing angels conjoining with his soul which inspired the song. Oldfield sounds happy playing everything on it; his own angel, his own vision.

Track Seven

“A donation from the proceeds of sale of this record will be made to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

McCartney IIa

Strange how McCartney sounds so much happier when he’s on his own. Recorded at home and performed entirely by the artist, mainly on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesiser, during sessions for McCartney II, “Wonderful Christmastime” sounds exactly like the uncomplicated, simple demo it was perhaps always meant to be. The video was shot in the garden of his local pub. But did the children really need to practise “Ding-dong, ding-dong” “all year long,” or was this a subtle rejoinder to George Harrison’s terrible “Ding Dong”?

Shaky!

Although Shakin’ Stevens did end up with 1985’s Christmas number one – the markedly happier “Merry Christmas Everyone,” released too late for inclusion here – he nearly did it in 1982 as well; his reasonable, if no more, crack at Presley’s morose “Blue Christmas” was the lead track on The Shakin’ Stevens E.P., prevented from reaching the top only by Renée and Renato. Then again, the extremely disturbing “Peace On Earth-Little Drummer Boy” Bowie/Crosby duet from 1977 – neither of them really knowing that the other was there – finished in third place.

War

Did you know that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” despite what the books and archives say, was a number one single? In those pre-Gallup, pre-computer days of chart compilation, the Christmas singles chart stood for a fortnight. In view of the reduced opening hours of chart return shops, the absence of new releases and the workload involved in coordinating a team of nationwide couriers to collect cumbersome diaries from record shops and return them to the British Market Research Bureau headquarters for assessment, it was not felt worth publishing a new chart for the first week of the New Year. A chart for that week was subsequently compiled but only for internal/industry purposes.

This almost never had an effect on the composition of the singles chart, since such lists showed virtually no change from the Christmas list, and invariably no change at number one - with one exception. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" was indeed the biggest-selling single of the week ending 3 January 1981, but by the time of the next official chart the following week had been overtaken into second place by "Imagine."

It was originally recorded just before the Christmas of 1971; too late for release that year, so it was held back until the following Christmas, when it peaked at #4. It deserves special mention here not only because it is one of the most underrated of all Christmas hits of our era, but also because it is one of the finest and least heralded productions of…well, we’ll come to that, and him, in a moment.

The single was perhaps the last formal chapter in Lennon's ongoing proto-blog concept of the single as the front cover of today's newspaper, addressing topical concerns and quickly recorded and circulated. It is also simultaneously the happiest and the saddest record in this series; directly from the jokey introductory whispers where John and Yoko wish themselves a merry Christmas to the blunt accusatory opening line of "So this is Christmas/And what have you done?" The mood is processional and celebratory, especially when the Harlem Community Choir enter at the start of the second verse with their "War Is Over" chant - like much else in the Lennon singles canon of the time, a clear influence from Yoko's Fluxus school of ambiguous homilies. The message is deceptively straightforward - "The world is so wrong," "For black and for white/For yellow and red ones/Let's stop all the fight" - and its setting majestic; the producer bridging the slow-burning epic/eulogy ballad style which he had explored with Checkmates Ltd and others in the late sixties, with its finest realisation in his mid-seventies work with Dion. The Wall of Sound is as imposing as ever, yet the track still manages to sound live and spontaneous (which it more or less is; there was apparently little need for overdubbing).

Eventually everyone joins in with the "War Is Over If You Want It/War Is Over NOW!" motif, sleigh bells and hammering drums working to a climax; and then, as the song "ends," the strings continue to play their lines as John & Yoko and the kids heartily roar seasonal wishes at each other. It is nearly unbearable in its poignancy, mainly because in Lennon's delivery there is a rueful undercurrent wherein you sense that he knows "we" won't want an end to the war, but also because of the strangely logical symmetry which the Lennon/Spector partnership turned out to form - one destined to be shot by someone he'd just met, the other in prison probably for the rest of his life, convicted of shooting someone he'd just met. Actions being far harder than words, and so forth, and let it be.

War Is Over – But Do You Want It?

For years I thought Greg Lake was singing, “And I saw Eamonn through his disguise,” i.e. Eamonn Andrews with his big, red This Is Your Life book. I still prefer it to the “And I saw him and through his disguise” that it actually is, but this is a song expressly against the commercialisation of Christmas, a huge, defiant “NO” to jollity and ignorance of the wider world; the video was shot partly in the Sinai desert and partly on the West Bank.

Lake reminds me of that other dissatisfied progressive rock bassist Roger Waters in both subject matter and delivery, and as the song remorselessly builds up to its triumphant – or apocalyptic – Prokofievian climax, it seems ready to send Christmas and the rest of pop music crashing down around its embers. It was a scary listen on late 1975 pop radio, but a necessary fightback (and one which its lyricist, Pete Sinfield, would continue in 1981’s “The Land Of Make Believe,” wherein Reagan, Thatcher and nuclear annihilation are sung about cheerfully in colourful, nightmare costumes).

What could possibly keep it off number one?

Spaceman, Where Do You Come From, Where Are You Going To?

The second coming of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” in Then Play Long, and contemporaneous with the Greg Lake song, and the younger, broke de Burgh was reading Chariot Of The Gods and wondering who These Beings really had been. The song traces out an interesting timeline of how a certain strand of anxious British – or, should we say, Anglo-Irish – singer-songwriter music evolved; initially on “Spaceman,” de Burgh’s delivery and sceptical but sincere spirituality are but the narrowest of breaths from Bill Fay. But then the song turns into a Moody Blues album track, and by the time of the fadeout, when de Burgh can no longer contain himself, his yelling sounds like, of all people, Noddy Holder. This is the first of two songs on this record optimistically calling for a new Christ to make him or herself known, the second being “When A Child Is Born,” on which latter I have nothing new to add.

Nuclear Shuffle

It could only really be 1980, couldn’t it? “Mary Bradley waits at home/In the nuclear fallout zone.” 1980, for those who didn’t live through it, really did feel as if it were going to be the last of all years, and this shivering synth/brass band romp through history, war and anxiety still disturbs, mainly with its warmth of uncertain provenance. Annex the “Thatcher’s Britain” hashtag or weary two-word paragraph as you deem fitting.

Thank God For America!

Americans don’t have anything like the same hang-ups that the British do over Christmas, are far less likely to get distressed or saddened by it. No matter what else was going through Brian Wilson’s head half a century ago, he could – with the help of Mike Love, never let it be forgotten - make even a miniaturist Christmas song sound ingenious and holy. See subsequent recordings such as “Santa’s Got An Airplane,” “Winter Symphony” or Dennis Wilson’s bone-chilling “Morning Christmas” for proof of how far they were prepared to fuck with the formula.

Christmas Standards

People can tell whether you mean it or not when you put out a Christmas record. If you’re too “cool” even to trifle with the notion of doing so – as most musicians appear to be these days – then it’s little wonder that there have been so few, if any, Christmas songs since Mariah Carey nearly twenty years ago that have become standards, revived and replayed on radio stations and in boutiques and supermarkets every twelve months.

“Thank God It’s Christmas” would seem to be the most reluctant of Christmas records. Written by Brian May and Roger Taylor, it is not particularly memorable or striking, and perhaps Queen were lumbered with the problem that, in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they already had their “Christmas” song (although “Bo Rhap” has nothing to do with Christmas, “New Year, New Year” notwithstanding). Perhaps the public were exhausted after the release of four straight singles from The Works, but at the end of 1984 the song crept up, amid much competition, to #21, subsequently appeard on the odds-and-sods Greatest Hits III compilation (rather than Greatest Hits II), and indeed disappeared altogether from later pressings of Now – The Christmas Album, as though recalled to the factory by its makers.

Mud, Mud, Inglorious Mud

The story tells itself, does it not? 1973 ended, or climaxed, with Slade’s boisterous and cheery denial of apocalypse, and 1974 – that most David Peace of pop years - sloped to a close with a limping sigh of resignation and dulled senses of loss. The model for Mud’s second number one was, vocally and musically, Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” and the record – or more precisely, the performance – raises key questions about the worth or otherwise of camp.

On television, Mud promoted “Lonely This Christmas” as a comedy routine; Les Gray doing Presley, lost in the mirrored corridors of Gracelands; in the spoken section Gray produced a ventriloquist’s dummy. Snow fell in the studio, before the camera cut to reveal a Mud roadie atop stepladder sprinkling talcum powder upon Gray’s generous head.

All this while Gray is delivering, in an Elvis croon (including a mock-Tupelo accent for the closing salutation “Merry Christmas darlin’, wherever you are”) “Try to imagine a house that’s not a home,” “My tears could melt the snow” and “It’ll be cold, so cold, without you to hold.” I press this point because there are moments in the song where Gray suddenly bursts into what sounds like genuine pain: “That’s where I’ll be, since you left me” in the first verse, and “I just break down as I look around” in the second.

Now, Mud’s success was in considerable part due to their “wackiness” onstage, and all testimonies suggest that Les Gray was the nicest, kindest and most lovable chap anyone could ever hope to meet, and a total professional as a performer. Yet I wonder whether there are places and circumstances when comedy is being used as a smokescreen for actual pain and hurt. There’s Gray’s grey voice, intoning: “Do you remember last year, when you and I were here? We never thought there'd be an end.” And there are the props and bits of business, as though the ashes of glam were reluctant or afraid to betray tears.

The End Is The Beginning

This is not quite the oldest performance – to (1985) date – to appear on Then Play Long; it was originally recorded on 29 May 1942, but the more familiar version was the re-recording undertaken on 18 March 1947; hence Perry Como’s 1945 “Prisoner Of Love,” technically speaking, predates it. However, it does raise the most key of questions; in these eighteen songs, only a very, very few actually address what Christmas is for, the reason for it being there at all. “White Christmas” skilfully avoids that subject too, preferring a semi-abstract picture of comforting times, Christmas as a pleasant afterthought to Thanksgiving, performed by perhaps the first singer to owe their fame to how they worked the microphone, and the recording studio.

And yet, look at that date again – 29 May 1942. When released in July of that year, as part of a six-track E.P. of songs from the movie Holiday Inn, the song unsurprisingly took some time to register, but by October it had moved to number one in the “Your Hit Parade” chart and was still there in January (with eleven weeks on top in Billboard and even three weeks at number one in the “Harlem Hit Parade,” the forerunner to today’s R&B charts). Listen to those words – “just like the ones I used to know,” “where the treetops glisten” – and absorb the nearly unutterable sadness felt by the people who took the record to number one a year after Pearl Harbor.

Yes, like the works of Vera Lynn here, “White Christmas” – which had originally been intended for Crosby’s Holiday Inn co-star Margaret Reynolds to perform (or at least mime to the voice of Martha Mears) – is, above all else, a war song, a reminder of what things were like before the war did things to “us,” the promise of a homecoming, of the existence of a tomorrow. It returned to number one in the States in 1945, and again in 1946, and even today is never far away, having long outlived its composer and singer. As with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Candle In The Wind ’97,” it tells us that celebration and warmth cannot be experienced without knowing of pain and cold.