Don’t get me wrong. As Jewish as I am, I’m all for Noddy Holder roaring ‘It’s ChrisssssssssMAS!’ or John Lennon hoping war is over or Roy Wood wishing it could be Yuletide every day. They all have their place. Ditto Shane McGowan and Jona Lewie and Darlene Love and even, in my soppiest moments, the L from ELP. That said, for this particular heathen, only three songs about the Christian Chanukah have ever reverberated beyond the turkey and tinsel.
Bronze goes to Randy Newman’s Christmas in Cape Town, a blackly comic snapshot of life at the sharp end while apartheid still had the vast majority of South Africans in its relentless, abhorrent grip. As ever, it's tricky deciding where, if anywhere, Randy the Singer’s persona coincides with Randy the Writer. The following may or may not confirm your suspicions:
This English girl from the North somewhere Is stayin’ with me at my place Drinkin’ up all my beer Talkin’ about the poor niggers all the time It’s a real disgrace, she says I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about things you don’t understand I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about something you don’t know anything about I tell her, Darling, if you don’t like it here go back to your own miserable country
Silver? Indisputably Laura Nyro’s Christmas In My Soul, an eight-minute lament from the gut that combines simmering wrath and incurable optimism. Nature, the Black Panthers and the Chicago Seven check in as the Bronx Bronte urges the world to spread the love a bit more. OK, a lot more:
Red and silver on the leaves Fallen white snow runs softly through the trees Madonnas weep for wars of hell They blow out the candles and haunt Noel The missing love that rings through the world On Christmas
For me, though, head and shoulders above the lot stands Alan Hull’s Winter Song, the finest composition that wise, angry and compassionate yet scandalously neglected Geordie ever penned – but more, much more, than that.
I’m not sure when he wrote it. It may have been while he was working as a psychiatric nurse at St Nicholas Hospital in Newcastle. He may even have drawn inspiration from Christmas In My Soul. The sentiments certainly spring from the same pod. The keystone of Lindisfarne’s first and best album, Nicely Out Of Tune, it’s a cri de coeur with knobs on, yet infused with a delicate beauty, thanks in good part to the exquisite acoustic guitar that guides and drives, a perfect accompaniment to Hull’s plaintive, wistful rasp.
Before Lindisfarne formed Hull ran a folk club, and it shows here more than anywhere else in his canon. At times you can hear John Martyn, at others Lennon, but to these ears neither was ever quite as poetic or humane as this:
When winter’s shadowy fingers first pursue you down the street And your boots no longer lie about the cold around your feet Do you spare a thought for summer whose passage is complete Whose memories lie in ruins and whose ruins lie in heat When winter... comes howling in
When the wind is singing strangely, blowing music through your head And your rain-splattered windows make you decide to stay in bed Do you spare a thought for the homeless tramp who wishes he was dead Or do you pull your bedclothes higher, dream of summertime instead? When winter... comes howling in The creeping cold has fingers that caress with permission And mystic crystal snowdrops only aggravate the condition Do you spare a thought for the gypsy, with no secure position Who’s turned and spurned by village and town at the magistrate’s decision? When winter... comes howling in
When the turkey’s in the oven and the Christmas presents are bought And Santa’s in his module, he’s an American astronaut Do you spare one thought for Jesus, who had nothing but his thoughts Who got busted just for talking, and befriending the wrong sort? When winter... comes howling in When winter... comes howling in As a singer, Hull was better on tenderness and wit than rage, though he found a suitable balance for his most overtly political compositions, All Fall Down and Poor Old Ireland from Dingly Dell, both magnificent. He was never tenderer than here, the fury serving the humanity. In extending the final line of each verse a notch more each time, he accentuates the despair, deepens the empathy.
For a long time, Van Morrison was driven by the quest to capture the spirit of WB Yeats, the lion, the yaargh; he would have found common ground with Hull as the latter prolongs the concluding two words for all they’re worth, fusing them and tugging them and stretching them and plucking them but never quite snapping them… howwwwwww-aaaa-linnnnng iiiinnnnnnn.
He doesn’t quite hit those heights on the live Back To Basics, recorded a year before his horribly early death in 1995, but he goes pretty damn close. If you don’t shiver at that, you might want to look under the bonnet and check whether you still have a fully functioning soul.
Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Nail and Malcolm ‘Supermac’ McDonald were among the Geordie heroes who supported a proposal to honour Hull with a plaque outside Newcastle City Hall, which was duly approved. ‘Lindisfarne were to Newcastle what The Beatles were to Liverpool,’ claimed Councillor Henri Murison: initially at least, that probably pissed off Eric Burdon and Alan Price royally, but I suspect they knew what he was getting at. Either way, the words time, about and bleedin’ sprang to mind, if not quite in that order.
This is a revised version of a blog first published at rocksbackpages.com on 12 December 2012
Enjoy Phil Shaw's alternative festive playlist