Whatever happened to the Christmas song?

There are many things with which to be pre-occupied this weekend.  Big, serious things.  But there’s always room for a little trivia too.  Displacement activity is what is required when there is a maelstrom of awfulness threatening to engulf us, some of us personally, others in watching horrific events unfold in others’ lives.

And now that Christmas preparations are in full swing – or kinda ground to a halt in our eyrie – we’ve been digging out the old Christmas CDs.  It is at this time of year that I turn the radio dial to Classic FM and overdose on all the Christmas musical delights on offer.  In January, I’m more than ready to pack it all away again for another 12 months.

But – and it might just be that I’m getting old – there’s definitely something a bit lacking in the choons put out this time of year by the young yins.  It might just be that Top of the Pops provided a focal point around which we could grow familiar with festive releases.  And some of the ones brought out in my yoof were also pretty risible.

If you go even further back in the mists of time, it seems clear that putting out a Christmas track or even, a medley or an album was a big thing.  And this is where the greatest choons lie, in my opinion.  It’s what the crooners were made for after all.

There’s Dean Martin walking in his Winter Wonderland.  And he’s also keen on letting it snow.  Bing, of course, likes to warble about a White Christmas.  And in truth, there was something akin to pass the parcel going on with these festive standards.  But Judy Garland pulls yet another show stopper out of the bag with her version of Have yourself a Merry little Christmas.

They all used to bring out Christmas albums.  But few of them could best Frank Sinatra doing a little Christmas dreaming.

And it’s not just the crooners either.  The jazz world loved a festive choon.  That’s why Louis Armstrong spent Christmas night in Harlem and spent some time wondering where Santa was. 

The chicklet nearly put me off this fabulous Ella Fitzgerald effort about Santa Claus getting stuck in her chimney but thankfully, it’s no longer on constant repeat and I can like it again.

But my favourite Christmas jazz standard has to be this duet with Ella and Louis Jordan bemoaning that it’s cold outside.  Original is still so often best.

From my yoof, two festive anthems stand out.  Jonah Lewie’s attempt to stop the cavalry and of course, Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues offering a stunning alternative fairytale in New York.

But can I think of a classic from the last few years?  No.  Though there is hope.  Primarily among the folkies and the indies and the indyfolky bands.

Here’s three more modern warblings which I love.

Okkervil River reckon we should all spend Christmas listening to Otis Redding.  Fine advice and best listened to with the tree lights twinkling and a glass of something warm and peaty to hand.

And off the For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas compilation, this number by Ellen and the Escapades strikes all the right festive notes.  By the fireside is the best place to be.

If all this schmaltz is weighing you down, try this alternative, almost anti-Christmas choon from Los Campesinos!  which pays homage to, among other things, the Boxing Day football match.

Whatever happened to the Christmas song?  Like the rest of us, it lost its sparkle a little.  Gone are the days of innocence and romance, replaced with a relentless commercialism and a pressure to do more with less.

When actually, as the best songs suggest, Christmas is an opportunity to reflect on what really matters.  And perhaps this weekend we need to focus on that message – of hope even in the darkness.

 

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Let’s Get Lyrical! #1

If you haven’t visited the website yet, you must.  So many stories waiting to be shared.  And check out the great events too.

The beauty of the Let’s Get Lyrical concept is its simplicity and inclusivity: everyone, everywhere has at least one song whose lyrics move them.  And then there are those whose lives are one long soundtrack….  Like me. 

Fortunately, I am one of many and I invited a few chums to share the lyrics that move them for the blog.  The mighty Sean McP was first off the marks and what a wonderful post he has given us.  So many gems, and a richly woven tapestry of memories and moments too.  Enjoy.

Billy Connolly claims my generation never heard the lyrics on early pop singles, we just copied the noises we heard from our tinny transistor radios, having no idea of the words. As the first lyric I remember hearing was the chorus of skiffle hit ‘Last Train to San Fernando’ (‘Eeny beeny bom bowm to San Fernando) you’ll understand how I’m still working out words in songs I’ve been listening to, and singing, for a lifetime.

Two songs project a complete film in my mind: Paul Simon’s ‘America’ (And the moon rose over an open field) and the excellent Up the Junction’, by Squeeze (And then it kicks inside her). Mostly, though, we’re talking about snatches of lines, phrases, or verses, that roll around our minds like flashbacks from important events – which, in effect, they are.

Simon’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ still moves me to tears (And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls“). James Taylor looms large, especially ‘Sweet Baby James’ (Now the first of December was covered with snow And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.)

Kirsty MacColl had a rare way with words, but the standout line for me is from ‘Caroline’ (Well my head said go, but my heart, my heart said stay) Embarrassingly, my teenage summer dancehall days in the west of Ireland have firmly fixed a line from Herman’s Hermits ‘My Sentimental Friend’ (And there all alone in the corner, is the girl I once knew, who broke me in two) For constantly engaging me, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘This Shirt’ is the winner (This shirt was lost for three whole days In a town near Buffalo ‘Till I found the locker key In a downtown Trailways bus depot)

The Beatles have to be there, of course, and from many possibilities, I’ll choose I’ll be back (You know, if you break my heart I’ll go, but I’ll be back again). Caroline by the Fortunes, theme tune to Radio Caroline North, echoes out over the sea for me (She’s on my mind forever it seems), as does that station’s favourite David McWilliams’ song – ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’ (You walked too far along the street Where only rats can run)

‘Groovin’ by the Young Rascals will forever be a Sunday afternoon studying for Geography O Grade (Life would be ecstasy, You and me endlessly, Groovin). Much loved holiday memories also give me, from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster Alexa’ (We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay) and I always loved Carly Simon’s phrase: Clouds in my coffee from You’re so vain.

There are millions of possibilities, and I could probably write a totally different list next time I try, but that’s part of the joy. Folk is something else, but I include Christy Moore’s emigrant ballad ‘Missing you’ (Oh I’m missing you, I’d give all for the price of the flight) and Runrig’s ‘Going Home’ (In the distance day was dawning Comes to me the early morning Something tells me that I’m going home.)

Finally, and right off the wall, some words from a Roger McGough poem, Buttons of your Mind, set to backing music, on the B side of Scaffold’s Thank u very much.

 “But the buttons of your mind were difficult to find – and my fingers far too clumsy.”  Says it all really!

Says it all really!

A flutter on Friday 15 October

Something old…

And the opportunity to right a wrong.  On 10th October, a tribute concert was held in London to mark 10 years since the death of Kirsty MacColl.  More importantly the concert was about celebrating Kirsty’s birthday, and her life and work, as well as to raise money for the Music Fund for Cuba, the charity Kirsty herself set up.

Everyone will know a Kirsty MacColl song, though they might not recognise it as one of hers.  A fabulous and witty songwriting talent, she was great at capturing the essence of a particular time, either in her life (with the wonderful Titanic Days, the burdz favourite album) or of wider society (think “New England” or “Free World”).   Others tended to achieve greater fame with her songs than she did, such as Tracey Ullman’s big hit “They don’t know”.   In my misguided yoof, I was a bit dismissive of Kirsty’s talents, particularly the ability to craft a perfectly poised pop song while populating it with lyrics that snarled or mourned or frolicked.  Age has mellowed my opinion and I am now a huge fan.  

Depending on the mood you are in, try either of these.  For melancholics in need of a good greet, try this one.  Or to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step, go here

…. something new

Or nearly new, as it has been in recent weeks.  But no more!  This week, I am offering you something just about brand, spanking new.  Someone else got there first but I am happy to repeat it: this might well be the album of the year.   

Be warned, this music probably shouldn’t be shared with the kids or you might find yourself fielding awkward questions.  And anyway, the Sexual Objects, would be wasted on them.

Davy Henderson is one of Scotland’s most innovative artists and another that belongs in the category of nearly but never quite made it.   So let’s attempt to rectify this calumny of justice.   Listen to the tracks on their myspace page, then go buy the album.  Today. 

Something borrowed…

One of the things I’m most proud to have been involved in recently is the establishment of a project that enables families with a disabled child to keep diaries, recording their thoughts and experiences of everyday life.   The good, the bad, the ugly.  Often disability related, but also to show they are families first, who go through the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. 

There are now eight bloggers, all of them very different, and the posts are coming thick and fast.  All of them are fascinating, some of the writing is superb.  In a society obsessed with celebrity, that promotes the rich and the famous just for being, let’s celebrate ordinary folks extraordinary writing. 

Please visit the blogs at for Scotland’s Disabled Children’s (fSDC) website, dip in but remember to return.  Reading stuff that challenges you and your attitudes is always a very good thing.  Just don’t bring your pity to the party.

…. something blue

The mighty Killie are coming to town and the burd and at least one of the chicklets are looking forward to a “home” game.  Hibs are leaderless and clueless, there couldn’t be a better time to bounce a few goals past them.  But as is often the case, players who have spent the last few weeks resembling backseat passengers might rise to the occasion, or at least the prospect of being dropped by an incoming manager.  It’s always good to visit Easter Road and it will be nice to see the new stand, completed at last.  Just as long as we leave with all the points, I’ll be a happy burd at 5 o’clock.