Dec 14

Jona And The Wassail

FT54 comments • 2,254 views

cavalry Christmas traditions are funny things – some of the most fixed turn out to have relatively recent roots, and new ones are manufactured all the time. Witness much hand-wringing this year about the import into the UK of Black Friday, a notoriously busy shopping day that makes sense after Thanksgiving in the USA (people have the day off) but far less over here. Still, it worked, and having successfully taken culturally will surely stick around.
Part of the British Christmas has been a canon of Christmas pop songs – Slade, Wizzard, Shakey, Jona Lewie, Greg Lake, Kirsty and the Pogues, Wham! Et al. The Christmas Canon has been a part of Christmas since I was a kid in the 80s, it feels as firmly set a tradition as you might find. But I suspect that’s an illusion: it’s changing, and the canon as we know it is on the way out.

On Facebook I mentioned that we’d know a generation had fallen from cultural influence when Jona Lewie got booted off the Christmas Canon. This was met with much sadness and shaking of heads from fans of “Stop The Cavalry”, but the point wasn’t that I dislike the song. I was 7 in 1980, disliking the song would be like disliking Christmas itself. It was put on the office playlist last week, though, and it struck me how odd it must seem to somebody who hadn’t been around then – this lugubrious, kinda-sorta new-wavey thing that bobs along all about “nuclear fallout zones” and cavalry. It’s like that one ugly bauble you always hang on the tree because you bought it as a kid: the time will come when you aren’t decorating the tree any more, and the bauble might be quietly pushed to the back, then forgotten entirely.

Still, the Christmas Canon has been robust for years now, and it won’t just be a generational handover that does for it. It’s a combination of factors, and people getting older and not remembering how important Jona Lewie is for the meaning of Christmas is only part of it. What else is ringing the clanging chimes of doom for the soundtrack we knew and loved:

DIGITISATION: The British Christmas Canon goes hand in hand with the CD era. The need to fill up 2 or even 3 discs of Christmas music (including all the American oldies, of which more later) has meant an extended shelf life for a vast B- and C-List of Christmas songs – Chris Rea, The Pretenders, Cliff, et al. – which had to be dusted off every year to fill up space. But now we’re moving into an era defined by playlists, not albums, which means you get to actually pick the Christmas songs you WANT to hear, not the ones EMI can afford to make up the numbers on Disc 2.

STAGNATION: As has been pointed out hundreds of times, only one song has managed to break into the Christmas canon in recent years, and that is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. It’s equally important to realise, though, that Mariah’s track is also ENORMOUSLY popular, charting on downloads every year and rivalled only by “Fairytale Of New York” (which gets the edgy vote each Christmas, but is also relatively recent). This is more evidence for the generational-handover theory: the audience wants the only recent smash hit Christmas song before it wants any of the 70s and 80s classics. But Mariah is also American, which brings us to…

GLOBALISATION: The USA had its Christmas song boom in the 40s and 50s – where lounge-y standards like “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and, of course, “White Christmas” originated. The Phil Spector Christmas Album feels like a culmination of that. The British Christmas boom was something of a reply to that, and at its zenith the popularity of the 70s and 80s hits meant all but the hardest-core of US standards were relatively neglected. But these days the American experience of Christmas is more culturally prominent – goodbye UK sitcom specials, hello repeats of Elf on Sky Movies – and just as with Black Friday (and Hallowe’en) the UK is falling into line. The golden age of American easy listening Christmas music is firmly back in style, and everyone from Bing to Brenda Lee is as likely to get an airing as Shakey or Slade. (I’ve even heard “Christmas Alphabet” get an airing once again.) And for people under 30, they have the distinct advantage of not being your parents’ pop music.

So in the pub – of course it was in the pub – I predicted we’d see a survival of the hittest effect shake out – an “A-Canon” of genuine untouchables, and a B-List rendered much more flexible by the decline of CDs. What would be in this A-Canon? I judged – based largely on hunchwork and my experiences of the office playlist – that it would include Slade, maybe Wizzard, certainly Wham!, Kirsty and the Pogues, and Mariah. Everything else – McCartney, Elton, Shakin’ Stevens, Greg Lake, and, yes, poor Jona Lewie – faced cold holidays ahead as they were gradually winnowed out in favour of more Americanised Christmas songs.

That’s just my opinion, though – where’s the evidence. Well, this is the first year that the Official Charts Company has released its figures for streaming Christmas songs. What people want to hear and are playing, not just what turns up on compilations. If there is a quiet revolution underway in the Christmas Canon, here’s where you’d see it.

And the evidence is… interesting. Mariah at the top, with Wham and the Pogues rounding out the Top 3. I was right about them, but wrong about Shakey (still clearly A-List at #4). Band Aid is too hard to call – it’ll be played more this year cos they have a version out. Below that top 5, though, we see a cluster of vintage American Christmas songs and Wizzard, with Slade (far lower than I expected), Elton, Chris Rea, Boney M and Greg Lake following behind, and then Michael Buble versions of standards filling out the rest. No Spector (maybe he’s not on Spotify?), no Cliff, and – thank the baby Jesus – no “Wonderful Christmastime”.

We’ll need to wait to next year to firm up the trends here, but it looks to me like something really is happening to Britain’s Christmas soundtrack – a resurgence of interest in older music, with a core of canon favourites solid at the top. And, as I suspected from the beginning, there might be no room at the inn for poor Jona Lewie.


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  1. 31
    James BC on 18 Dec 2014 #

    The Spice Girls version of Christmas Wrapping gets a lot of play from me. It was a B-side to one of their Christmas number 1s.

  2. 32
    Tom on 18 Dec 2014 #

    The most lasting schism within the Freaky Trigger editorial cabal is over the Christmas status of “SAD”. (I say it’s not, certain others are wrong.)

  3. 33
    katstevens on 18 Dec 2014 #

    I think 2 Become 1 is more Christmassy than Stay Another Day. Then again the Die Hard soundtrack is probably more Christmassy than Stay Another Day.

  4. 34
    Steve Mannion on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Poor rubbish Cliff. I keep remembering his performances of ‘We Should Be Together This Christmas’ on TV from the time in which he mimes dialling a phone and talking to someone in the intro. Note to me: Stop remembering this and listen to Cristina’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ instead.

  5. 35
    lonepilgrim on 18 Dec 2014 #

    @27 all those chart placings will be overturned on Christmas Eve when a swathe of rockist dads shout ‘D’oh’ and slap their foreheads before hurriedly downloading ‘Christmas Time (Don’t let the Bells end) by The Darkness

  6. 36
    swanstep on 19 Dec 2014 #

    Fuzzy’s Christmas is a worthy ’90s alt-rock/pop addition to Xmas-playlists. Corgan doing ‘If there is a god’ at an Xmas show w/ ace Mike Garson accompaniment too maybe .

  7. 37
    Alan on 19 Dec 2014 #

    Data points for you… my 7 year old son’s school “carols by candlelight” included lightly adapted…

    Robbie Williams “Angels”
    East 17 “Stay Another Day”
    Mazzer Cazzer “All I Want for Christmas is You”

  8. 38
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Dec 2014 #

    A further data point: Santa-hats bearing, pretty-decent quality, charity-fund-raising choir, witnessed performing on the concourse of Paddington Station on an evening earlier this month, singing, between proper Christmas carols, “Stay Another Day”

  9. 39
    flahr on 19 Dec 2014 #

    #38 don’t give G****h M****e any ideas

  10. 40
    James BC on 19 Dec 2014 #

    #33 The “orchestral” version of 2 Become 1 is especially Christmassy. (But I’m on the pro-Stay Another Day side too.)

  11. 41
    ciaran on 20 Dec 2014 #

    I’ve heard STC as much as any other xmas song this year. It’s muscled its way into the canon given the vague reference to xmas.It’s a good song but not really suited to January-October plays if you ask me.

    You can enjoy those that dont mention xmas in the lyrics (east 17, Frankie) any time of the year. Of the xmas centric stuff The Pogues and Slade I would play throughout the year if given a chance. In the case of Slade it’s one of the highpoints of Glam Rock and in The Pogues it fits in with most of their stuff around their 80s heyday.Plus Saint etienne + Tim Burgess that I could enjoy anytime simply because its Saint Etienne.

    Stay Another Day might be on its way out. I don’t really associate with Xmas at all and I’d look for the normal in the studio video first rather then the dire xmas video made when it became clear of its potential.And the personal background to it is not best suited to the festive time.

    We’ve got a chance to discuss Sir Cl…… coming up but Mistletoe and Wine is the one for me that gets less and less play with every passing xmas.For an artist with a strong association with the holiday season he hasnt come anywhere close to an a-list blockbuster.

  12. 42
    Tommy Mack on 20 Dec 2014 #

    What Jona Lewie did yesterday… http://on.fb.me/1zIAAbm

  13. 43
    Another Pete on 20 Dec 2014 #

    The 2012 bunny listed at #27 suggests people prefer”festive” tunes from a different John Lewis

  14. 44
    JoeWiz on 21 Dec 2014 #

    2 brief points. One of the worse examples of a recent Christmas song, one that wanted so desperately wanted to be in the canon that it sounded woefully contrived and forced was ‘Don’t let the bells end’ by The Darkness. Horrible on every level. But Coldplay’s ‘Christmas Lights’ from 2010 I think is rather lovely and may well grow in stature over the years.
    As for Cliff, I think he lost a lot of good grace with ’21st Century Christmas’ ten years or so ago. So bad, and instantly forgotton. I like ‘Saviours Day’ though.

  15. 45
    DanH on 21 Dec 2014 #

    Can I throw in a vote for XTC’s “Thanks For Christmas”? I heard it once in some store outside of a casino…when I got home, was surprised to learn it was the sarcastic Swindon group….though this was years before I really got into them, at the time I only knew them for “Nigel.” I see it didn’t chart anywhere on its mid 80s release, so it wouldn’t be part of the canon.

    Another recent song that seems to be wedged into the Christmas scene, at least here in the U.S., is Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal.” One deep look at the lyrics should keep it from the scene, but it mentions scarves and snow, so there it goes.

  16. 46
    chelovek na lune on 21 Dec 2014 #

    George Michael’s “December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)” struck me as both rather lovely, and probably also the best single he had released for years – an enormous return to form. But….straight in the charts, straight out, and completely forgotten ever since, Canon bypassed well and truly. A pity.

  17. 47
    Mark M on 22 Dec 2014 #

    So on tonight’s Channel 5 (I think) prog about Christmas songs, the Tony Mortimer interview made clear (obviously) that Stay Another Day wasn’t written as a seasonal song. But was equally made clear that the arrangement was explicitly intended to make it a Christmas hit. And since in a recorded piece of music all elements count, I’m saying it’s a Christmas song.

  18. 48
    Ed on 22 Dec 2014 #

    @47 Ch 4, I think. That Tony Mortimer interview was great. He’s almost unrecognisable: much fuller-faced, bearded, in a cable-knit sweater.

    He explained very winningly – half-rueful, half-amused – how the song had meant a lot to him, but had been taken out of his hands. It’s about his brother who committed suicide, but became interpreted first as a romantic love song, and then with the video and arrangement as a Christmas hit.

    Realising it’s a song about family and loss makes it seem much more appropriate for Christmas than I had realised.

    A great detail is that the second, Xmas-themed video was a Boney M homage.

  19. 49
    Mark M on 22 Dec 2014 #

    Re48: Yeah, I loved the side-by-side with the Boney M footage.

  20. 50
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Jan 2015 #

    I do wonder (though this may just be an excuse to excuse my ignorance) how many people buying “All I want for Christmas is you” don’t actually think of it as a Mariah song? It doesn’t sound very Mariah, she’s toned down the usual pyrotechnics, in fact it sounds more like a glam stomper – or a glam stomper covering a classic.

  21. 51
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Jan 2015 #

    #6 – the definitive versions are of course the ones on A Christmas Present. Not just because that’s the one we had at home, but also because it has a pop-up gatefold sleeve. That’s science, that is.

  22. 52
    opera tv browser on 5 Jul 2017 #

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  23. 53
    Steve Mannion on 28 Dec 2018 #

    I’ll add this here rather than The Strange Death Of The UK Charts (http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2009/01/the-strange-death-of-the-uk-charts/) post comments which has contained some previoux Xmas chart hits discussion although that post will be ten years old in a few weeks and worth its own comments bump then (if not a whole new post covering the effects of the last ten years and the steady descent to only around 300 new chart hits per year).

    Just over half of the songs in this week’s Top 100 are Xmas-themed, including 8 of the top 10, buoyed by so many shops and restaurants insisting on piping out the same Spotify/Apple Xmas playlists as each other. It’s their staff I feel slightly more sorry for.

    A by-product is that there is no Ed Sheeran presence at all, with last year’s Xmas #1 ‘Perfect’ finally being squeezed out of the 100 after a 67 week run (of 84 total).

    There’s a new high for Jose Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’ just outside the Top 75 at 77.

    The Waitresses ‘Christmas Wrapping’ finally made significant gains on previous years this Christmas vaulting to 46, just one place below its original peak position in 1982.

    The Jackson kids ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is into the Top 40 for the first time, having stalled just outside in 1972.

    Elton John’s ‘Step Into Christmas’ (which I have yet to memorise a note of) continues its unusual resurgence in recent years, surpassing its original peak position (from last Xmas) by one place, into the Top 10.

    ‘Fairytale Of New York’ managed to equal its joint best performance since first release by reaching #4.

    And somehow Mariah was denied again at 2 but it still just seems like a matter of time.

  24. 54

    […] whimsical holiday song about the horrors of war. Thank you to Liam for the requests! Here’s a link to the article that we mentioned in this […]

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