Posts from 19th October 1999

19
Oct 99

49. SAINT ETIENNE – “I Was Born On Christmas Day”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The clocks go back and the nights start to pull in around you. It’s dark when you get to work and dark when you leave, so you start to feel that wintry melancholia nipping at your edges, and you start looking out for friends and lights and fires. Winter gets a raw deal in pop, because pop (in its more saleable forms) is a music that tends to hibernate, a fabulous gaudy thing whose style is cramped by thick coats and wooly hats. But I like Winter, for me it’s often been the friendliest season, despite its hinted sadnesses: a good time of year for sitting, drinking, talking and planning. When I feel Winter on the air for the first time every year, I’m hit by a swell of nostalgia – because from school onwards it’s the time when big things start and when your life gets taken on odd turns, but also because you can feel, far off, the approach of Christmas. And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a sucker for long countdowns.

Christmas is the only time when pop rises from its Winter bed. And, in general, it promptly disgraces itself. The gurning, hoofing dreadfulness of Christmas songs could be wearyingly elaborated on: Slade forged the unmatchable template and every rocker since has tried, understandably, for a similar pension-fund-on-45 classic. Most have ended up mawkish (Lennon, McCartney, Cliff Richard) or unfunny (Greg Lake, Fountains Of Wayne(!)) and the recent trend has been for the current pop rulers to simply save up their most stickily sentimental tunes till December and play the public like a one-armed bandit. The best Christmas songs, Slade aside, tend to be the ones which draw aside the tinsel and poke around the season’s emotional territory. So you have Shane and Kirsty’s rich, sloppy melodrama; you have Cindy Dall measuring her man by the size of his gift; you have Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” , which recasts the season of goodwill as a blasted loveless hell. And you have Saint Etienne.

“I Was Born On Christmas Day” was a minor single, even by St Et’s minor standards. In the savage Christmas market it was swallowed whole, a jumped-up fan club record which had the temerity to sneak into the proper shops, and which paid a brutal commercial price. But I love it, because even if it’s one of Saint Etienne’s less showy numbers it manages to say everything to me about what Christmas is actually like. The song is all breathless gossip and meeting old friends, idle pub chatter and a warming sense of comfort and possibility. “Did you know they pulled the town hall down?/I don’t think you’d recognise this town” – it’s a song about the things that change and the feelings that don’t. The tune is dismissable but charming and honest: Tim Burgess sings on it, and I doubt he often pauses to think that he never gave his voice to anything else so true. Xmas 93 recognises Christmas for what it should be: a time of stocktaking and hope, and I hope I never get cynical enough to think otherwise.