herald

Monday 23 April 2018

Never mind the mistletoe, here's the money machine

Singers Kirsty MacColl (1959 - 2000) and Shane MacGowan. Picture: Getty
Singers Kirsty MacColl (1959 - 2000) and Shane MacGowan. Picture: Getty

ON song: Kirsty McColl and Shane MacGowan, Bing Crosby (above) and (inset right) SladeI blame Izzy Baline. If it wasn't for the young Jewish lad who landed on Ellis Island in 1893, his home in snowy Siberia having been burned to the ground by Russian peasants harassing their Jewish neighbours, radio at this time of year might be dominated by Good King Wenceslas and Silent Night.

It was Baline, his name changed to Irving Berlin, who created a modern phenomenon when he wrote White Christmas.

In 1942, when it became the first Christmas-themed song to appear in the American Hit Parade, it sparked a new tradition. The race to create a Christmas hit.

This year on this side of the pond it will be no different, with pundits already speculating on a big X Factor single. New versions of Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and the old carol I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In are also on Santa's radar, alongside a Susan Boyle duet with Elvis Presley on O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Before he died in 1977, Elvis couldn't have known that historians would subsequently claim this folksy rewrite of Adeste Fidelis began life as a secret rallying-call for Jacobites to join a rebellion in 1745 Scotland.

The spirit of Christmas, when combined with the demands of a rapacious music industry, has long had a distorting effect on popular music. Even Berlin's White Christmas is not quite what it seems.

Originally the song had a satirical edge as it captured the life of the idle rich lounging by the pool in Los Angeles. When Bing Crosby worked his crooning magic on it in the film Holiday Inn, the opening verse was sidelined. Here it is.

"The sun is shining. The grass is green.

The orange and palm trees sway.

There's never been such a day.

In Beverly Hills, LA

But it's December the 24th,

And I'm longing to be up north..."

There'll be more versions of the song released again this year as there have been every year since it first became a wartime favourite. Touching heartstrings everywhere, White Christmas made a sound songwriters love: the sound of money.

The year after its release, Bing had a follow-up, I'll Be Home For Christmas.

My old friend Malcolm McLaren would tell the Sex Pistols a hit single would buy them a house. The royalties from White Christmas could buy a small city. Maybe even Limerick.

The glam rock era was a golden age for the Christmas single. David Bowie teamed up with Bing Crosby for Little Drummer Boy. Mud, Wizzard, Alvin Stardust and the Glitter band all released stomping festive favourites.

Slade achieved pop immortality with Merry Xmas Everybody, recorded in New York during a heatwave. "It was so hot," recalls Noddy Holder. "People were laughing at us. But I knew it would be a huge hit."

The lesson was heeded by Bob Heatlie, who a decade later came up with Merry Christmas Everyone for Shakin' Stevens. "I know it's not a musical masterpiece," he's said. "But that one got me the big house."

Bob Geldof tapped in to demand for an original Christmas song when he co-opted Midge Ure to write music for a lyric he'd scribbled in a taxi. Do They Know It's Christmas? raised millions for Africa's famine victims. This year, as ever, we'll hear new versions of old favourites. And we'll hear new seasonal tunes. Songs already written and ready to be launched on listeners long desensitised by an annual sonic avalanche of sleigh bells, music boxes and tootling trumpets. Childlike, we wait in hope for another glimpse of genius, another song that might chime anew with the timeless spirit of the yuletide season, just as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, a comic book character that singing cowboy Gene Autry had a hit with, did in 1949.

Or The Pogues' sublime hymn to the stresses of the holidays, Fairytale Of New York, did in 1987.

Producer Phil Spector took Christmas to another level when he constructed A Christmas Gift For You, a lavish album by his label artists, The Ronettes and The Crystals included. The album, released the same day as JFK was assassinated, featured a spoken message from Spector. Set against cloying orchestra and choir, the mogul attempted sincerity intoning, "Thank you for letting us spend Christmas with you".

Insiders claim Spector recorded satirical versions of his 1963 Christmas message including, "It's Christmas. Why don't you go f*** yourselves."

Sentenced in 2009 to 19 years for second degree murder, Spector will probably spend Christmas in jail until he's 88, with plenty of time to listen to seasonal songs. Now that's what they call some kind of Christmas story.

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