Classic 1970s Christmas Tunes: The Not So Perfect Ten

East of the M60’s countdown of favourite 1970s Christmas songs

I make no apologies for jumping on the Christmas bandwagon for this month’s Not So Perfect Ten. For many people, the 1970s was a decade punctuated by strikes, the Three Day Week and the Silver Jubilee. For many more, a happier time compared with the more cynical and money-minded 1980s. We only had three television channels throughout the whole of that decade. Working class people could still afford to watch top flight football.

Before I go into some cultural monologue, the 1970s was undoubtedly a high water mark for Christmas chart music. Our Not So Perfect Ten represents this, though not in any particular order.

  1. Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John and Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band (1971);
  2. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, Wizzard (1973);
  3. Step Into Christmas, Elton John (1973);
  4. Hey Mister Christmas, Showaddywaddy (1974);
  5. Lonely This Christmas, Mud (1974);
  6. Mary’s Boy Child, Boney M (1978);
  7. Wonderful Christmastime, Paul McCartney (1979);
  8. When A Child Is Born, Johnny Mathis (1976);
  9. I Believe In Father Christmas, Greg Lake (1975);
  10. Merry Xmas Everybody, Slade (1973).

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1. Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John and Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band:

The message is just as pertinent in 2013 as it was in 1971. John and Yoko’s number came about after two years of peace orientated activism including the bed-ins. Following a billboard poster campaign in 12 major cities (with the phrase ‘War is Over (If You Want It)’), recording began in October 1971. The bare bones of the song was embellished upon thanks to vocal backing from The Harlem Community Choir, a few sleigh bells and Phil Spector.

It was re-released in Christmas 1980, weeks after John Lennon’s death. Peaking at Number Two, it was kept off the top spot by St. Winifred’s School Choir’s There’s No-one Quite Like Grandma.

2. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, Wizzard:

Guess the lateral link between Roy Wood and John Lennon: the Electric Light Orchestra. With the latter, Lennon adored their 1973 hit Showdown, whereas Roy Wood was a founder member of ELO. Mr Wood took a back seat with Jeff Lynne taking over songwriting duties to concentrate on Wizzard. After a UK Number One single with See My Baby Jive, Roy Wood wrote and produced this number which oozes Christmas in abundance. Aural and visually with the bells and a memorable video featuring the band in Christmas garb.

They were also ably backed by The Suedettes and the choir of Stockland Green Bilateral School’s first years. Again, Christmas garb, with the schoolchildren with hats and scarves. The crowning glory of this tune, besides the obvious Christmas-ness is its fantastic hook. First the till, then the ‘Are You Ready, Children…?’ and their response: a high pitched ‘yes’, a low pitched one, and a raspberry for good measure. Genius!

In spite of its continued popularity, its peak position in the singles chart was number four. It has in the last forty years been a popular cover version choice. 1989 saw it, along with Slade’s number, re-recorded by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers on their third single Let’s Party.

3. Step Into Christmas, Elton John:

Though Edward Heath said ‘we shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war’, there was one reassurance which Elton John gave us. In Step Into Christmas, he claimed ‘the admission’s free’ (‘phew!’ – one slightly impressed 1970s household). Over seven inches of vinyl, Elton invites us to escape the tedium. Production, with the excellent Gus Dudgeon, and the cooperation of Bernie Taupin, made for a Spector influenced sound.

Though it only reached 24 in the singles charts in 1973, it is a fondly remembered and oft played piece. Less played is the sensational B Side entitled Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d Be A Turkey at Christmas). It gives us the view of Christmas from a turkey’s perspective. A vegetarian’s Christmas tune? Quite probably.

4. Hey Mister Christmas, Showaddywaddy:

From overlooked B sides to overlooked A sides now, this time from Dave Bartram and Co. from the following year. Showaddywaddy’s Hey Mister Christmas combines the bombast of Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll and the usual Christmas themed instrumentation. In other words, bells and choirs.

The fusion of a rock ‘n’ roll beat, youthful choir, sleigh bells and schmaltzy lyrics make for a most effective number. By rights it should have had a better hearing, but it only peaked at 13 in the UK singles chart. It is one which seems to be overlooked in compilation albums and on radio stations. However, there was one other Christmas tune from 1974 which won the affection of our record buying public.

5. Lonely This Christmas, Mud:

In 1974, thanks in part to having Chinn and Chapman’s productions and their live shows, Mud was a pretty hot property. They had had a UK Number One single with Tiger Feet and regular TV appearances. However, it was at one of their gigs where Mud’s producers heard their Elvis style composition. Cue Lonely This Christmas.

Borrowing from the Elvis style (Are You Lonesome Tonight? more specifically), it scotched the myth of Christmas being a happy time for some. For many, it could be a lonely time through bereavement, or their loved one having to work on Christmas Day. Lonely This Christmas not only came across this eloquently, but in a style that very true to Elvis Presley’s work (and probably a bit of Roy Orbison’s for good measure). It would become Mud’s Christmas Number One, and stayed at the top spot for four weeks.

6. Mary’s Boy Child, Boney M:

Before Do They Know It’s Christmastime, this was the UK’s biggest selling Christmas Number One single. Boney M was massive in 1978. Their third album Nightflight to Venus sold shedloads, even in the shadow of the Grease/Saturday Night Fever juggernauts. Throughout Europe, Rivers of Babylon, and this single detailed above, were huge smashes.

Boney M’s version of Mary’s Boy Child reworks the song into Farianist Eurobeat and puts the Christmas feel up another three notches, with a neat segue into Oh My Lord. The video is a wintery as you could get with our group in prototype white onesies. And it works. Very well, with shots of our quartet outside St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and a mainly white studio complete with Star of Bethlehem.

7. Wonderful Christmastime, Paul McCartney:

The lyrics are trite, but there is something about Wonderful Christmastime which adds to its charm. It ticks all the boxes for Christmas cheesiness, not only in the visuals department but also in its lyrics. The singalong chorus is earwormtastic. The special effects in the promotional video are wonderfully dated by 2013 standards but we love them.

The real icing on the cake is down to two factors. One is the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 riff. The other, is one thing which you seldom see in music videos of Christmas songs: a busy pub. In this case, The Fountain Inn in Ashurst, West Sussex. A favoured watering hole of Sir Laurence Olivier, it was a former Brickwoods house before Whitbread’s takeover of the Portsmouth brewery and a Grade II Listed Building. Today, it is a free house known for its real ales and fine food.

Wonderful Christmastime peaked at Number 6 in the UK singles chart in January 1980. In spite of the criticism it has received, it is a well performed number which has seen numerous cover versions.

8. When A Child Is Born, Johnny Mathis:

Where cultural commentators have marked 1976 as a Year Zero for punk music, that year’s chart did see some eclecticism. The UK Christmas Number One that year was a tune based on Soleado a 1972 piece by Zacar (Ciro Dammicco). Produced by Jack Gold, it was Number One for three weeks, leading in to the following year.

The humming part of the song draws the listener into this piece. Fred Jay’s English language lyrics along with the spoken word sections of the song makes for a most memorable song. Since Johnny Mathis’ release, it has been covered by Demis Roussos, Il Divo, Joe McElderry, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Placido Domingo.

9. I Believe In Father Christmas, Greg Lake:

Now to the opposite end of 1976, the point where the late great Anthony H. Wilson thought songs like Sherbet’s Howzat and rambling guitar solos brought about punk music. Aside from being the ‘L’ in Jim Davidson’s favourite progressive rock group [Emerson Lake and Palmer], Greg Lake’s three and a half minute opus was released just missed out on the Christmas Number One spot. (Thanks to another band whom in late ’76 unintentionally did a lot of good for The Sex Pistols).

Reaching number two, it was dubbed by some as an anti-commercialism of Christmas song. However, songwriter Peter Sinfield (also of Bucks Fizz’s Land of Make Believe fame) insisted it was about a loss of innocence in The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. It has a healthy dose of bombast, samples of choirs and a Wall of Sound style of production. Plus it puts its point across so succinctly without the usual clichés and tropes of progressive rock music. Also one of my all time favourite Christmas songs along with…

10. Merry Xmas Everybody, Slade:

There’s every chance this song would still sound as fresh in 2073 as it did in 1973. The lyrics are just as poignant in our era of prolonged austerity, as they were during the Three Day Week. Slade’s number dusted away the cobwebs of what was for many people a tough year. For me, Christmas isn’t the same without this number (music snobs, if you don’t wish to read the rest of this entry, please look away now).

Merry Christmas Everybody has its roots in a number of discarded melodies. The timing was immaculate, not only in the grim economic situation but also being in the midst of Slade’s commercial peak. Its lyrics will stand the test of time till kingdom come; grannies will always say the old songs are the best and still dance to the latest sounds in 2073. Families, though sat with quantum powered iPads capable of fracking for shale instead of watching ITV, would still be waiting for fellow relatives to enjoy their 20 Bird Roast by then.

Deservedly so, it was 1973’s Christmas Number One in what was probably a vintage year for Christmas derived popular music. It has re-entered the UK singles chart eight times in the 1980s and re-entered the singles chart a staggering nineteen times. This year, it re-entered the singles chart only last week at number 57. It is at this time of writing at Number 49 in the Official Chart Company’s Singles Chart.

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There we have it, what could be our last Not So Perfect Ten of 2013. In fact, we might be able to sneak another one in within the next week. If you have any comments on our ten 1970s Christmas songs, or wish to add some more favourites to the list, feel free to do.

S.V., 16 December 2013.

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