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Dec 14

Jona And The Wassail

FT54 comments • 2,274 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.

Comments

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  1. 1
    enitharmon on 16 Dec 2014 #

    While few would mourn the loss of McCartney’s offering I’m sure there are many of us wrinklies who would be very sad indeed to lose Lennon’s Christmas song, Merry Xmas (War is Over), from the A-List.

  2. 2
    flahr on 16 Dec 2014 #

    I am literally unable to parse the suggestion that “Wonderful Christmastime” is anything other than TOP-NOTCH. WHY ARE YOUR THUMBS NOT ALOFT.

    Pleased to see upon checking that “Fairytale of New York” has been a Christmas chart entry ever since downloads started counting – in my mind, its current popularity stemmed from 2007 when there was a storm about the word ‘faggot’ being bleeped out of it, and since then I’ve had a slightly oily uncomfortableness about the motives of the people buying it.

    I do have to wonder who exactly has decided that THIS YEAR is the year they will buy Mariah’s 20-year-old hit though. At least streaming makes sense.

  3. 3
    ruudboy on 16 Dec 2014 #

    Depending on your attitude to shouty indiepop, you may like to note that Jona has been updated for the new generation!

  4. 4
    pink champale on 16 Dec 2014 #

    Stop the Cavelry is my nine years olds’ favourite so it may live on yet. and yeah, Wonderful Christmastime is great, though the video does make you realise what a colossal pain in the arse it would be to have Macca jollying you along all the time

  5. 5
    Ed on 17 Dec 2014 #

    At least someone is still lighting a seasonal candle for Jona Lewie: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7qQAE794uvo

    A recent addition to my personal Christmas canon.

  6. 6
    weej on 17 Dec 2014 #

    Count me into the fans of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ – it might even be my favourite in the UK cannon. Suppose there must be a bit of a marmite thing going on with that squelchy keyboard sound

    The problem ‘Stop The Cavalry’ has is that for people under, say, 35 years old it’s only been present on the radio or in shops during the Christmas period – but the song’s title isn’t prominent in the lyric and the singer isn’t otherwise famous. I’d guess that lots of people know it, but couldn’t tell you what it’s called or who the singer is – and that’s not good brand value for actually downloading or streaming songs.

    I’m in the odd position of “selling” this music to people in China this Christmas – I made a Christmas playlist for the public area where I work and had to edit out anything too jarring or rude while trying to slip in as many of my own favourites as I could. This goes down fine at work but my wife is confused by the lack of things like “jingle bells” or “rudolf” or “we wish you a merry christmas” – I guess these all came from the days before recorded music was dominant, but it’s still odd that no definitive version has emerged at any point.

    (oh, and admin – I have a comment stuck in approval limbo over at “Popular ’58” – please save it, for Christmas)

  7. 7
    Mark M on 17 Dec 2014 #

    My tolerance for Wonderful Christmastime is somewhat enhanced by De La Soul’s use of the keyboard hook on their track Simply.

    Instinctively, I prefer the Great American Christmas Songbook to the British glam-and-beyond version. However, not when it’s in the hands of Bublé (Harry Connick Jr was much less aggravating, for some reason) or boybands.

    Re 2: Who’s buying Mariah after all this time? Definitely 1) parents of kids 2) people who bought it back in the day but need a digital copy and (my guess) 3) people who have grown out of their adolescent rockism and realise it’s a belter of a song.

    Re 1: Whereas there is no seasonal song I’d sooner be shot of than Merry Xmas (War is Over). Sorry, Rosie.

  8. 8
    Tom on 17 Dec 2014 #

    I have not yet bought a copy of the Mariah song! Though I think I have it on a CD somewhere. Perhaps I will become one of Those People this year, since (obviously) I like it.

  9. 9
    JonnyB on 17 Dec 2014 #

    Another theory for the mix: out-and-about effect. This is utterly anecdotal, but my recollection is of the ubiquity of Christmas piped music being a relatively recent thing. It’s hardly an original thought to grouse about piped music, but I always remember it from shopping centres and big stores as Christmas approached, not on a loop in every shop and – especially – supermarket in Britain, from December 1st.

    I am perfectly willing to back down RE this expansion theory in anticipation of contradictory evidence from long-suffering shop assistants. It’s just an impression I get.

    I guess my theory goes something like: supermarkets and stores play the safe, established canon. So they are increasingly dooming the joy around that particular selection of tracks.

  10. 10
    intothefireuk on 17 Dec 2014 #

    I would totally endorse #9’s point that the proliferation of fave xmas hits at supermarkets and every damn shop you go in throughout December has had a numbing effect on the Christmas song. If I want to hear my fave Christmas tunes I would prefer it either accidentally by turning on the radio or TV or deliberately via one of my playlists or CD’s, NOT when I’m picking up toilet tissue, humous and toothpaste (lovely with whipped cream I’m told).

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 17 Dec 2014 #

    as well as the ubiquity of seasonal piped music I think that fewer contemporary music acts have the desire, ambition or opportunity to release Christmas material that will appeal to ‘the whole family’ in the way that Slade, McCartney and others did in the past – perhaps because audiences are becoming increasingly niche and also because there are so many competing channels of dissemination in comparison to the days of Top of the Pops and only 3 or 4 TV channels.
    I suspect that the experience and consumption of Christmas music has developed over the last 70 years or more to reflect changes in technology, media and population growth spurts.
    I should add that I love Christmas music and have a separate playlist of 80 songs with more waiting to be uploaded that trace some of these changing tastes – including wonders such as ‘All I want for Christmas is my daddy’ by Buck Owens and the bluesy innuendo of ‘On a Christmas Day’ by C.W. Stoneking.

  12. 12
    Ed on 17 Dec 2014 #

    I guess it would make sense if Stop The Cavalry did stop being a Christmas standard, because it was not originally intended as one: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=5513

    It says something about the mood of 1980 that lyrics about “the nuclear fallout zone” and so on made perfect sense in a Christmas hit.

    I always think it must be one of the hardest things to reconstruct for anyone born since 1989: that sense that the world really could end at any moment.

    Here’s hoping a new generation doesn’t get to discover it all over again.

  13. 13
    punctum on 17 Dec 2014 #

    You mean they’re not?

  14. 14
    thefatgit on 17 Dec 2014 #

    I’m fairly ambivalent towards “Stop The Cavalry”, perhaps it falls between the sublime “10,000 Miles” and the dreadful “Fairytale Of New York”. Looking at the OCC list, I was drawn to the Ariana Grande track, having not heard it yet. So off to YouTube I pop, and I immediately thought: STC had been ousted for this? I guess the jury’s out for any new stuff, until at least a few years down the line.

    If the “nuclear fallout zone” line dates STC to Cold War era, it’s no less relevant than “take a look in the 5&10” line from “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”. I guess we’re all prepared to overlook anything that dates something, because Christmas is built on nostalgia anyway, even the imported stuff. Mentally, I’m editing 5&10 for Woolworths or more recently, Poundland.

  15. 15
    flahr on 18 Dec 2014 #

    (my guess) 3) people who have grown out of their adolescent rockism and realise it’s a belter of a song.

    Given that ‘adolescent rockists’ is not a big enough demographic to have much chart impact, I struggle to imagine a world in which ‘people who have just stopped being adolescent rockists’ is. Rockists are a minority among teenagers, and I suspect rockists who stop being rockists are a minority among rockists.

    I appreciate ‘a world where teenagers are an unthinking mass of sneering rockists, converted en masse to the holy light of poptimism by a Christmas mariahcle’ makes for a better story, though. And I suppose if their first step out of rockism was to buy, er, a glam rock single, that would have a sort of pleasing plus ça change quality to it.

    Meanwhile, I can provide a sort of me-too attestation to #6; I spent Christmas of second-year asking people “what’s that one that goes ‘dah dah dah-dah-dah, dah dah dah-dah-dah” until catching the song’s identity on TOTP2. Also this provides me an opportunity to plug an essay I wrote for the student newspaper partially about STC.

  16. 16
    Mark M on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Re15: It was the third, and explicitly the most speculative, of my potention reasons. ‘Rockism’, on reflection, was shorthand here for ‘the preference for anything someone might deem more serious than a girl singing a seasonal pop song’ – from Billy Bragg to Busta Rhymes, Carcass to Culture, Debussy to Derrick May, Einstürzende Neubauten to Elbow etc.’ Probably less so now, but certainly when I was a teenager, there was a pressure to position yourself for and against stuff more strictly than (I’d argue) is natural. I.e., when you actually look at them in an unedited form, most grown-up people’s music collections appear to be fairly random to the observer, whatever internal logic may apply.

    On the other hand, using a tighter definition of rockist, I’d always be tempted to sell them the Mariah song by claiming it was secretly written by Bruce Springsteen.

  17. 17
    James BC on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Who’s still buying Mariah? I assumed that people who don’t download very much music were going on iTunes to buy songs for a Christmas party playlist one year, then losing the MP3s in the intervening year, or replacing their computer or phone without a backup, and having to buy them again the next time.

  18. 18
    flahr on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Einstürzende Neubauten to Elbow…

    Someone else who remembers BBC4’s quickly-cancelled Popstar to Operastar spinoff!

  19. 19
    punctum on 18 Dec 2014 #

    #16: so rockism is essentially misogynist? And here’s me thinking it was a JOKE that Wylie did in the NME a third of a century ago.

  20. 20
    JonnyB on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Re #4 – A vision: in one of the infinite parallel universes, there is a ‘Let it Be’ like atmosphere as Paul tries to teach the still-together Beatles the chords.

    If the mighty Jona track has slipped due to brand awareness issues, I think that’s finally curtains for ‘Keeping the Dream Alive’ (which I know isn’t really a Christmas song.)

  21. 21
    wichitalineman on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Nice work, Tom.

    Macca’s hit seemed ridiculous in 1979, its squelchy minimalism made no sense pre-McCartney II. I’d say it has grown considerably in stature since, though now may be on the wane.

    Interesting to see the Pogues resurgence may be down to a UKIP knee jerk.

    Try and find a non-digital single of Mariah. There was one on ebay last week which was up to £60 with a couple of days to go.

    Slade seem more susceptible to Xmas fashions than most. It feels like we need periodic breaks from MCE. Likewise, I haven’t heard the Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping once this year.

    Jona Lewie (and Freiheit) will be around for a while I’m sure. The relatively recent UK discovery of things like Brook Benton’s You’re All I Want for Christmas (which I’d never heard outside of my home til this year) may be rendering the canon passé for some but Stop The Cavalry et al will surely get handed down as part of the folk narrative, like every other inexplicable Christmas tradition.

  22. 22
    punctum on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Mariah’s 2CD Greatest Hits compilation – would be indispensable, but “remix” (i.e. ruination) of Xmas song renders it instantly dispensable. Her original Xmas album readily available from charity shop near you.

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Yeah the Christmas Canon is very unforgiving to anything that didn’t initially make the cut – interested in why ‘Christmas Wrapping’ didn’t do better when it was first released. Transatlantic disconnect in the pre-Mariah era? It would need serious airplay and TV coverage to at least re-enter the chart – probably too late to ever improve on its original position/sales.

    ‘Stay Another Day’ is still the biggest Xmas-not-Xmas playlist inclusion.

    Mariah’s song resonates more with each new crop of kids having their first Xmas parties with friends at home than any other Xmas song partly because she’s still just about active and well known enough to them.

  24. 24
    punctum on 18 Dec 2014 #

    “Christmas Wrapping” considered too indie and weird by 1981 radio, which preferred to play classics by Ken Dodd, Showaddywaddy and the Snowmen.

  25. 25
    Cumbrian on 18 Dec 2014 #

    I have heard very few Christmas songs at all this year but this is likely due to my online Christmas shopping and eschewing of commercial TV, so I am not running into them often. This was an interesting read as a result – I guess there is a Christmas canon but I am gradually programming it out of my life – which is, I think, in some respects sad. I’m no longer as plugged into what is heard by the population as I once was, if I ever was. Sad for Jona – those royalty cheques must have been very useful over the years.

    That said, I heard AC/DC’s effort at a Christmas song for the first time today. Maybe it was because I haven’t had a dose of seasonal cheer yet but I thought it was awesome – and having not made the canon yet, won’t now. Basically, it’s got sleigh bells over an Angus riff for the first 30 seconds and then is just an AC/DC song for the rest of it. I’d even hazard a guess that they wanted to write a song about a Mistress, thought “what rhymes with mistress” and then retrofitted the whole thing around that. Sort of Slade like – with fewer lyrics actually referring to Christmas. Awesome in the sense that it genuinely inspired awe in me – this is the most half arsed effort at a Christmas song I’ve ever heard and yet so obviously AC/DC that I can forgive it.

    I managed to snag a ticket to Wembley, so this is what inspired this. No Malcolm but I’ll have to make do.

  26. 26
    punctum on 18 Dec 2014 #

    The only use I have for canons is for printing out stuff I’ve typed.

  27. 27
    lockedintheattic on 18 Dec 2014 #

    To complement the streaming list, here’s the list of Christmas songs from the top 200 sales chart last week – and we can see that Jona is just about hanging on in there (as is Macca, and Mud). No sign of The Waitresses, The Pretenders. Or Sir Cliff, thankfully.

    #12 Band Aid 30 – Do They Know It’s Christmas? (2014)
    #17 Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You
    #18 The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale Of New York
    #39 Wham! Last Christmas
    #52 Wizzard – I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
    #53 Shakin’ Stevens – Merry Christmas Everyone
    #59 Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?
    #67 Chris Rea – Driving Home For Christmas
    #68 Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody
    #69 Brenda Lee – Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
    #79 Michael Bublé – It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
    #86 Andy Williams – It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
    #95 East 17 – Stay Another Day
    #97 Elton John – Step Into Christmas
    #102 Dean Martin – Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
    #108 Ariana Grande – Santa Tell Me
    #129 Boney M – Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord
    #130 Leona Lewis – One More Sleep
    #132 John & Yoko &The Plastic Ono Band with The Harlem Community Choir – Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
    #135 Michael Bublé – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
    #139 The Ronettes – Sleigh Ride
    #142 Greg Lake – I Believe In Father Christmas
    #145 Frank Sinatra – Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
    #156 Coldplay – Christmas Lights
    #159 Kylie – Santa Baby
    #160 The Killers featuring Jimmy Kimmel – Joel The Lump Of Coal
    #162 Paul McCartney – Wonderful Christmastime
    #164 Perry Como & The Fontane Sisters with Michell Ayres & his Orchestra – It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
    #166 Gabrielle Aplin – The Power Of Love
    #178 Michael Bublé – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
    #181 Jona Lewie – Stop The Cavalry
    #182 Bing Crosby – White Christmas
    #185 Michael Bublé & Shania Twain – White Christmas
    #188 Michael Bublé – Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
    #191 Mud – Lonely This Christmas
    #197 Michael Bublé – All I Want For Christmas Is You
    #200 Michael Bublé – Holly Jolly Christmas

  28. 28
    punctum on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Is “The Power Of Love” really a Christmas song?

  29. 29
    enitharmon on 18 Dec 2014 #

    Is Stop the Cavalry really a Christmas song? Greg Lake’s is more like an anti-Christmas song, as is Judy Garland’s bitter little “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” which isn’t in this list but was always a staple of US radio’s Tin Pan Alley Christmas.

  30. 30
    Ed on 18 Dec 2014 #

    My first ever encounter with the NME was it making ‘Christmas Wrapping’ Single of the Week, and in the same column panning the live version of ‘Closer to the Heart’ by Rush, presumably released as some kind of heroically optimistic attempt at a Christmas cash-in.

    It was enough for me to conclude that the NME was stupid and had no taste, and it was about four years before I picked up a copy again. These days, I can see perhaps it might have had a point.

    @27, @28 ‘The Power of Love’ does at least have vaguely spiritual lyrics. (Very vaguely, I admit). And I remember Morley saying it was about religion.

    The one that baffles me is ‘Stay Another Day’. The only Chrisymassy thing about that is a couple of bells and E17 wearing white parkas in the snow in the video.

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