The Winter Collection
by Thomas Blake
There are Christmas songs and there are songs about Christmas and there are songs released at Christmas that everyone refers to as Christmas songs despite the fact that they don’t mention Christmas and there are songs that aren’t meant to be about Christmas but are for one reason or another inextricably linked to Christmas in the mind of an individual listener or group of listeners. And there is this:
This is Gayla Peevey, and she is horrible. Say what you like about The X-Factor, but this little witchlet would never have got through the opening rounds. Not without changing her name anyway. And what about Ed Sullivan? Never the most charismatic of geezers, here he becomes a kind of creepy, lurching anti-Santa.
But enough of this. Christmas songs don’t have to be about pachyderms. They don’t even have to be about Christmas, as the Flying Pickets cleverly realised. For a song to be Christmassy, it only has to make one person think for a second about Christmas. For that reason, Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom is a Christmas song. I don’t know why. It might be that the word ‘chimes’ connotes the word ‘bells’, and bells can be pretty festive. It might be that I once spent part a rainy, dusky Christmas shopping trip sheltering under the neoclassical arch of Bristol Museum with this song lodged firmly in my head. It may just be Dylan. Much of his material from 63 and 64 has a similar effect on me – a kind of nostalgia for the unknowable. Or there may be no explanation. Inexplicability contributing to the wonderful mystery of Christmas. Anyhow, here’s the man doing his thing live.
Another band that have this weirdly nostalgic effect on me are Tindersticks. If I went alone into a quiet cafe on a December evening, just after dark, and if there was a window seat looking out onto a brightly-lit street, wet with rain, and if there was a smell of good coffee, and the waitress looked like Audrey Tautou, and My Oblivion by Tindersticks was playing, there is a good chance I would die on the spot. The taut string between happiness and depression would snap, and my brains would spill out on the table, and Audrey would say ‘Not again,’ and hand in her notice.
Almost exactly a year ago, I went to see Lisa Knapp perform a daytime concert at Islington’s Union Chapel. The creaky, old-smelling Chapel is not only my favourite venue in London, it is also the most suited to a Christmastime concert. It was a strange day. I drank too much coffee, bought a load of badly-chosen and overpriced Christmas gifts and cards, spilled a bottle of water in the bag containing said gifts and cards, and walked up and down Holloway Road and Upper Street for hours because I had arrived far too early. But Lisa Knapp and the Union Chapel hushed me, and through no fault of its own the following song has entered my seasonal canon.
The Pogues, despite the surface blarney, were always one of the most London-y bands out there, and London, somehow, is an inherently festive place. So no surprise then that MacGowan and his merry band were responsible for one of the most (rightly) lauded Christmas songs ever. But there are other heartbreaking and raucous moments in their oeuvre that slip just as easily into the festive soup, songs like Rainy Night in Soho, or this cheery little pan-seasonal number that always gets me going:
Dylan Thomas had a way of dragging nostalgia from the past, making it seem somehow raw and present. His prose work A Child’s Christmas in Wales was perhaps the best example of this. It was so good fellow Welshman John Cale wrote a song about it. Cale had a thing for Christmas in the 70s – it also gets a mention in his marvellous Ship of Fools.
It’s A Wonderful Life is your favourite Christmas film, right? Well, It’s A Wonderful Life can now be your favourite Christmas song too. It’s not technically a Christmas song we’re talking about here, but everything the Felice Brothers released in the first few years sounded like a lonely Christmas Eve, and not in the Mud way.
And now for some real Christmas songs. Minnesota slowcore Mormons Low were responsible for what is regarded (at least by indie boys like me) as the greatest Christmas record ever released. It’s almost certainly the coolest. No plastic antlers or pissed uncles here. (For the record, Low also made one of the best post-Christmas songs ever, Taking Down the Tree).
What’s that I hear you say? Not one but two acts from Duluth, Minnesota on your Christmas list? And nothing from Swindon? Well, it’s funny you should say that. Andy Partridge, the main man behind Swindon’s finest, XTC, is a sucker for some seasonal cheese, including the disco-tastic Countdown to Christmas Partytime, which sounds weirdly like Paul McCartney jamming with Phoenix. Better known is XTC’s Thanks For Christmas, which hits all the right jingly notes. Gotta be the best Christmas song to come out of Swindon, unless you count Justin Hayward’s strangely warming rendition of A Winter’s Tale, a song written by Mike Batt and Tim Rice and made famous by David Essex. Certainly better than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s excruciating Christmas Song or Desmond Morris’s Jesus Came (okay, that last one doesn’t exist).
Merry Christmas everyone. Pull up a mince pie, extract the bits of broken bauble from your cat’s feet, fuck the shopping and listen to this. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to go back to the classics. You’ve made it this far and you deserve a treat. I give to you The Greatest Christmas Song Ever (narrowly beating Shakin’ Stevens into second place)…