The ten greatest Christmas tunes from the 1980s
The 1970s and 1980s were probably the best decades for Christmas chart singles. So much so that Messrs Wood and Holder make a fair amount of their royalties in December. For this Not So Perfect Ten, I could have just focused on the 1970s and the 1980s. Instead, just the one decade, the one decade I remember fully of course.
That’ll be the 1980s, then.
- Stop The Cavalry, Jona Lewie (1980);
- December Will Be Magic Again, Kate Bush (1980);
- A Winter’s Tale, David Essex (1982);
- Christmas Countdown, Frank Kelly (1983);
- Last Christmas/Everything She Wants, Wham! (1984);
- Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Band Aid (1984);
- Merry Christmas Everyone, Shakin’ Stevens (1985);
- The Fairytale of New York, The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl (1987);
- Mistletoe and Wine, Cliff Richard (1988);
- Let’s Party, Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers (1989).
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1. Stop The Cavalry, Jona Lewie (1980):
Firstly, Jona Lewie’s smash wasn’t meant to be a Christmas song. A slight tinkering with the lyrics made sure of this typecasting. In part, it is about yearning to see a soldier’s loved one. In another, anti-war in sentiment, with the line ‘nuclear fallout zone’ firmly placing this number in 1980.
Stop the Cavalry was Mr. Lewie’s second chart single of 1980 (the other being You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties which peaked at number 16). It was kept off the top spot by John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and St. Winifred’s School Choir with There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma.
- UK Chart Position: 3 (11 weeks).
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2. December Will Be Magic Again, Kate Bush (1980):
Whereas Mr. Lewie cross-referenced nuclear war and yearning, Ms. Bush went for cosy Christmas card images. Huskies and Bing Crosby was the order of the day compared with her year’s previous output (for instance Breathing, which sounded like Threads set to music). It was originally performed in a 1979 BBC Christmas Special and charted a year later.
More than anything, the song is warm hearted. Akin to being sat in front of a warm coal fire, whereby opening the front door would usher in a Saddleworthian winter blast. It deserved a much higher chart position than the one she received. One for my all time Top Twenty Christmas songs though.
- UK Chart Position: 29 (7 weeks).
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3. A Winter’s Tale, David Essex (1982):
At about the same time when Kate Bush met David Gilmour (four years before Wuthering Heights), this fellow would adorn many a bedroom wall next to the Bay City Rollers and The Osmonds. By 1982, his acting interests would also keep him in the public eye. His Christmas song would be his biggest hit of the 1980s.
A request by David Essex to Messrs Batt and Rice resulted in a memorable Christmas song. One which was atheist friendly; referencing the celebration, though suitable enough for the 25 February as well as the 25 December. Its staying power went beyond the winter season, having been used as the opening song in his musical All The Fun of the Fair.
It peaked at number two in the following year, at the start of January 1983. Number One that week was another song that first charted in 1982: Phil Collins’ cover of The Supremes’ classic You Can’t Hurry Love.
- UK Chart Position: 2 (10 weeks).
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4. Christmas Countdown, Frank Kelly (1983):
Two other things associated with Christmas: one is traditional songs and hymns; another is drink. DRINK! The two collide with Christmas Countdown, sung by the person known to many as Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted.
Frank Kelly’s Christmas Countdown sends up The Twelve Days of Christmas. It uses the presents within the original song with Nola writing a letter to Father Christmas. It mentions how high the vet’s bills are, plus the joys of keeping seven swans in a bathtub. The song reentered the charts in 1984, peaking at number 54. In the Republic of Ireland singles chart, it peaked at number eight.
As Half Man Half Biscuit says, “it is cliched to be cynical about Christmas”. Frank Kelly’s tune proves that point.
- UK Chart Position: 26 (5 weeks).
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5. Last Christmas/Everything She Wants, Wham! (1984):
I have no regrets in going off on one with this tune, and shouting from the rooftops about this tune. The greatest Christmas tune of the 1980s, bar none. Firstly, the lyrics are absolutely timeless: there is nothing that would pigeonhole the song in a given decade or year. Secondly, the observations: friends with tired eyes – so true at around 7pm after Christmas dinner before Only Fools and Horses.
Thirdly, the scene setting video with the chairlift – just perfect. For me, the nearest I got to the chairlift scene with Pepsi and Shirlie (as well as George and Andrew), was a Boxing Day 343 to Mossley, in the good old days of public sector bus operations. The top deck of a Leyland Atlantean and snow atop Wild Bank, Alphin Pike and Mossley had a similar resonance. (But George Michael never got to try my late Nana’s Butterfly Buns – the stuff of legends).
Not only that, the double A side on its original release was pretty good too. Everything She Wants presents in a funky fashion the social comment seen in Wham! Rap, and the teen angst of Bad Boys. It is unfairly typecasted as a Christmas song owing to its original release date.
On any other year, Last Christmas would have been a surefire Christmas Number One single. Instead, it was a juggernaut driven by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof that scuppered it. Therefore, it reentered the charts in 1985 (number 6 for seven weeks) and 1986 (number 45 for four week).
- UK Chart Position: 2 (13 weeks).
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6. Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Band Aid (1984):
The original and the best: not a cliche, but a genuine opinion. In November 1984, a news report by Michael Burke moved Messrs Geldof and Ure to assemble a bunch of fellow musicians for a charity single. This at the time was a new-fangled idea, but one which gathered momentum.
Having the honour of singing the first line was Paul Young. It was recorded in Sarm Studios South (produced by Trevor Horn and Midge Ure) on the 25 November and ready for the 29 November. Besides being the first charity ensemble to chart in the UK, it was also Britain’s biggest selling single. Reluctantly, Margaret Thatcher agreed to waive V.A.T. from the single.
It was Number One for five weeks and spawned a follow-up in 1989. This year, it has been reprised with reference to Ebola in the lyrics. From what I’ve heard, it’ll never have the quality nor the innovation of the very first release.
- UK Chart Position: Christmas Number One (20 weeks).
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7. Merry Christmas Everyone, Shakin’ Stevens (1985):
Shakin’ Stevens was one of the decade’s most successful solo artistes. He never peaked below the Top 40 from the 16 February 1980 to the 14 October 1988 (apart from one re-entry). Scooping the top spot in the Christmas of 1985 was Shaky.
The song was typically Shaky in the rock ‘n’ roll style though had the usual formula for a chart-topping Christmas song of that era. That of the snow and Christmassy bells in the video, albeit with more child appeal with the trip to ‘Santaworld’. And the cameo appearance of a Fokker Friendship in Air UK livery.
Shaky’s tune hit the Christmas Number One spot shortly after Whitney Houston’s UK debut single. It re-entered the charts in 1986, peaking at number 58.
- UK Chart Position: Christmas Number One (11 weeks).
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8. The Fairytale of New York, The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl (1987):
A lot of critics would claim this single is overplayed today, but it still holds a certain magic today. I remember listening to this on Radio One at stupid o’clock and thinking ‘WTF was that?’ thinking it went against the grain for Christmas songs. My fellows at the Ewing School probably wouldn’t have been too pleased if I used ‘scumbag’, ‘slut’, ‘maggot’, ‘faggot’ or ‘arse’.
For me, the slight subversion appealed to my eight year old mind, but listening to it today, well written and arranged. It is the friction between Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty McColl which hits it off. As with Last Christmas, this was kept off the top spot by The Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always On My Mind (which was equally fantastic).
- UK Chart Position: 2 (9 weeks).
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9. Mistletoe and Wine, Cliff Richard (1988):
Christmas and Sir Cliffy: the two, a match made in Heaven. As soon as I heard the tune on Piccadilly Radio 1152, the first thing I thought was “nailed on Christmas Number One”. I was in a taxi coming back from the Ewing School and heard the song on Phil Wood’s show as it passed the BT Roundabout in Ashton-under-Lyne.
If Mistletoe and Wine was a Christmas foodstuff, it has to be the award-winning plum pudding. Full of candied peel, sultanas and a bit of rum for good measure. The hook with the jingle bells sounded like a clarion call for Cliff’s hold on the Christmas number one spot. In 1987 and 1988 he enjoyed some renaissance with the Always Guaranteed album spawning two strong singles. Before it was fashionable to knock him, it was universally well received.
- UK Chart Position: Christmas Number One (8 weeks).
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10. Let’s Party, Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers (1989):
Musically, 1989 would be known for Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s domination of the singles chart. Alongside The Hit Factory was The Music Factory, based in Rotherham. Lee Hemstock and Andy Pickles, inspired by Stars on 45, revived the medleyed form with a cartoon rabbit. Known as Jive Bunny (the Mastermixers were the twosome), their first two hits Swing The Mood and Baby That’s What I Like hit the top spot in July and October of 1989.
Let’s Party was their Christmas hit, and entered the UK singles chart at the top spot. Somehow, it seemed as if this could have been their year. At Christmas, it fell to number two with Band Aid II’s (Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced) revival of Do They Know It’s Christmas taking the coveted position.
The bulk of Let’s Party was The March of the Mods, originally by The Joe Loss Orchestra. Sandwiched between the instrumental tune was Starsound-esque bite size chunks of Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade), I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day (Wizzard), and Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas (Gary Glitter).
Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers would clock up another two Top Ten hits in 1990 (That Sounds Good to Me and Can Can You Party?) but subsequent releases saw diminishing returns. More of their back catalogue appeared on CD albums, often on the Music Club label and sold at Woolworths. Lee Hemstock became a trance DJ working alongside Paul van Dyk and Andy Pickles, went on to form Hard House music label Tidy Trax.
- UK Chart Position: 1 (6 weeks).
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A Christmas Bonus!
Being as this a Christmas edition of The Not So Perfect Ten, we would like to offer our readers a little bit extra to our latest entry. This time, a few more entries which missed the cut. Plus a few 1980s songs that could be typecasted as being Christmas tunes though weren’t Christmassy at all.
- Christmas Wrapping, The Waitresses (1982);
- Little Town, Cliff Richard (1982);
- The Power of Love, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984);
- We All Stand Together, Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus (1984);
- All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit, Half Man Half Biscuit (1986);
- Rocking Around The Christmas Tree, Mel Smith and Kim Wilde (1987);
- Driving Home for Christmas, Chris Rea (1987);
- Keeping the Dream Alive, Freiheit (1988);
- Christmas is Really Fantastic, Frank Sidebottom (1988);
- When You Come Back To Me, Jason Donovan (1989).
Merry Christmas to all our readers, old and new.
S.V., 08 December 2014.