21
Dec 01

EAST 17 – “Stay Another Day”

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The Christmas song has always been an odd part of pop – music and songs designed to represent, to evoke a specific season, a time, a place. Even if – especially if – that season is itself a social fiction. Pop after all shares modern Christmas’ uneasy compromise between hyper-commerce and private ritual and pleasure. The Christmas song, you might say, is the last outpost of exotica – music as travel, as a passport to a lost or alien world. Except here, maybe, the lost world is our own better nature.

In practise this what this actually means is jingle bells turned up to 11, a choir maybe, and that fey, quavery keyboard sound minted by Greg Lake on “I Believe In Father Christmas”. That horrible single set the tone of ‘serious’ Christmas records for another twenty years – a solemn voice, the distant ring of bells, and a soup of sound from the keyboards, coddling the listeners, making them feel as if they were in a snowstorm ball. The biggest-selling Christmas single ever, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, was a Gothic inverse of the Lake template – the comforting sound-duvet turned into a synthetic miasma, the bells tolling and doom-drums beating. At age eleven, I hated it and drew breasts and specs on the cover’s starving orphans.

Ten years later, I found myself alone at Christmas – unexpectedly and painfully. A romantic reversal – but the records I’d thought might help, my fatalist guitar-pop faithfuls, had run out of sympathy. I got drunk and listened to anything distracting. The record at the top of the charts was by East 17, a boy band with a tough-kid image who’d not previously managed to hit number one, beaten back by cleaner-cut rivals. The Lakeian Christmas song was knackered utterly by now, and still East 17 had reached the top with one. But one that was not a Christmas song – it was a lost-love ballad with snowstorm swirl and bells. Even though it sounded a decade out of date, it affected me enormously. The song surrounded itself with the familiar trappings of Christmas and then ignored them, able to think only of its own broken heart.

The break turned out to be just a fracture, and Christmas itself was fine. I put the song on jukeboxes sometimes now and I always think of that time. Last week, coming back home at night, I listened to it on headphones and was struck by how uncomfortable the singer sounds as he tries to be tender, how out-of-place the others are as they take the place of a Christmas choir. That clumsiness is the sound of a man forced onto his best behaviour, and forced at the same time to think and say how he really feels. It’s what keeps the song just about relevant at Christmas, while hearing Greg Lake and Band Aid feels as slimy and dutiful as a great-aunt’s kiss.

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