Presenting an alternative festive playlist… to show there's more to Christmas music than Noddy Holder, Roy Wood, Shakin’ Stevens and that saccharine Bing Crosby/David Bowie collaboration. Come to think of it, one of the first records I owned nearly 60 years ago was the Beverly Sisters' version of The Little Drummer Boy, a regular on Children's Favourites, the programme that led me on to The Shadows and a lifelong love of pop. Enjoy these below-the-radar nuggets.
THE BEATLES: Christmas Time (Is Here Again)
The Fabs and the festive season was a marriage made in Liverpool. Every December from 1963 to ’70, fan club members received a flexidisc of songs and Goons-influenced sketches, jokes, improvisations and messages. This gem from ’67, the year of the group’s last Christmas No1, Hello, Goodbye, is credited to all four members (indeed Ringo cut his own version in 1999). It was also the B-side of Free As A Bird and has now resurfaced on a box set of the fan-club offerings. Two versions exist, one six minutes-plus, the other half that length… and both fab.
LOW: Just Like Christmas
So you thought there was nothing left to say about the season to be jolly once the ’70s pop-rockers had gorged on it like Christmas pudding? Wrong. Low, a vehicle for the heartbreak harmonies of husband-and-wife Mormons Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk from Duluth, Minnesota, created a modern-day standard with this dreamy, lo-fi track from the 1999 EP Christmas. A ghostly, wintry melody is underscored by sleigh bells while the lyric references snow, Stockholm and Oslo, creating an Arctic ambience. ‘We felt so young,’ they croon. ‘It was just like Christmas.’
TWICE AS MUCH & VASHTI BUNYAN: The Coldest Night Of
A pairing of two acts searching for a breakthrough in the mid-60s. Twice As Much were a Home Counties baroque-meets-folk-rock duo on Andrew Loog Oldham’s ultra-cool Immediate label; Vashti a singer with a silky-soft, breathy psych-folk style, who resurfaced in 2000. They teamed up for this pop jewel – originally recorded by Nino Tempo and April Stevens of Deep Purple fame – which glistens like an early-morning frost in the sunlight. Oldham added sleigh bells on it, contributing to the wonderful wintry atmosphere.
DAVITT SIGERSON: It’s A Big Country
The best-known track on the American hipster label Ze’s 1981 album A Christmas Record was The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping. The best, by a big country mile, was Sigerson’s festive road song. To a steady jangling rhythm which has a real ‘holiday’ feel, the then 24-year-old American brought together distant, disparate places and friends and family. ‘Got some folks in Oklahoma, never been out there myself,’ he tells us. Then there’s ‘an uncle in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills to be precise’. A lovely, life-affirming song. Reach for it when Slade or Wizzard come on.
JONI MITCHELL: River
A song which uses the trappings of Christmas togetherness – trees, reindeers and ‘singing songs of joy and peace’ – to contrast with Mitchell’s personal desolation at the break-up of a relationship. ‘Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on,’ she laments, unable to share in the festivities. Meanwhile the melancholic piano accompaniment incorporates a few bars of Jingle Bells. This track, from the extraordinary 1971 album Blue, is her most-covered, apart from Both Sides Now. Check out Barry Manilow’s version: well-arranged and with a decent vocal, yet somehow so wrong.
LEISURE SOCIETY: The Last Of The Melting Snow
Three minutes 33 seconds of perfection from the criminally overlooked British chamberpop quintet, a melange of harps, pianos, acoustic guitars, great melodies and richly evocative words. Written and sung by Nick Hemming, formerly in the indie band She Talks To Angels with actor Paddy Considine and film director Shane Meadows, this was their debut single. It was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, with Brian Eno, Ray Davies, Laura Marling and Guy Garvey all declaring themselves admirers. A classic for all seasons.
THE COCTEAU TWINS: Frosty The Snowman
The Scottish indie Twins, all three of them, didn’t usually bother with recognisable words. Elizabeth Fraser’s sumptuous soprano was applied to lyrics which, she said, had ‘no meaning’. The tale of Frosty, who was ‘made of snow, but the children know how he came to life one day’, was an ethereal exception. The original version was released in 1951 by ‘Singing Cowboy’ Gene Autry (following up his smash from the previous year, Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer). The Cocteaus’ cover, accompanied by Winter Wonderland, came a mere 42 years later.
BOB B SOXX & THE BLUE JEANS: The Bells Of St Mary’s
The great Darlene Love, voice of several hits by The Crystals, was in the Soxx trio who appeared on Phil Spector’s fabled Christmas album in 1963. Lead vocal on this pearl went to Bobby Sheen, although Spector’s production, especially the bells, was the real star. The song was written in 1917 by A Emmett Adams after he visited St Mary’s Church, Southampton. It had no Christmas connection until Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman sang it at a ‘holiday’ pageant in a 1945 film. A Drifters version featured in a Christmas scene in Goodfellas.
THE CHIEFTAINS & JACKSON BROWNE: The Rebel Jesus
Written and sung by Browne for the Chieftains’ Christmas album The Bells Of Dublin, the song also inspired a gorgeous Martha Wainwright cover on The McGarrigle Christmas Hour. Browne’s critique, set to an infectious melody, is that the putative Christian festival pays lip service to what the ‘saviour’ stood for. He approaches the subject as ‘a heathen and a pagan on the side of the rebel Jesus’, yet is no killjoy. ‘In a life of earthly toil, there’s a need for anything that frees us,’ he sings, encapsulating why this atheist enjoys celebrating Christmas.
JETHRO TULL: A Christmas Song
Tull mined a rich seam of singles between 1968 and ’71 – Living In The Past, Sweet Dream, Witch’s Promise, Life’s A Long Song – and hidden away on the flipside of Love Story was this Christmas cracker. Like Jackson Browne’s song it asks us to consider what it is we’re celebrating. Sleigh bells and Ian Anderson’s flute, playing Once In Royal David’s City, start things off before his own song reminds us that ‘the Christmas spirit is not what you drink’. Lest that sounds a tad pious, when the music stops Anderson is heard saying: ‘Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will you?’
BUBBLING (SNOWED) UNDER…
MARVIN GAYE: Purple Snowflakes
FUNK BROTHERS: Winter Wonderland
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Spotlight On Christmas
THE CRYSTALS: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
THE SHINS: Wonderful Christmastime
SHAWN COLVIN: In The Bleak Mid-Winter
JUDY GARLAND: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
LOVE UNLIMITED: It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It's Spring)
MARY MARGARET O'HARA: What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
GEORGE HARRISON: Ding Dong, Ding Dong
Play All: Phil Shaw's YouTube Alternative Festive Playlist