Three months until spring. Four months until the start of the cricket season. And only nine months until the radio starts playing ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ again. Or have you heard enough of Christmas songs by now? Many of us had heard enough of them by Christmas 1988. Every October they return. The first strains of Shakin’ Stevens emerging tentatively from high street shops. Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, still bickering. Greg Lake, possibly alone now in believing in Father Christmas. Roy Wood’s enormous beard, wishing it could be Christmas every day. And for three months of every year his wish is granted. Millions of Britons suffer the consequences.
(The only Golden Age Christmas hit you never hear any more is ‘Another Rock’n’ Roll Christmas’ by Gary Glitter. I wonder why that might be.)
For this is a little corner of popular culture that has become completely stuck. One of the few recent additions to the canon has been Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, and that came out in 1994. It has always sounded like a new version of an old song, harnessing the now incarcerated spirit of Phil Spector, but Carey co-wrote it herself, and this year it sold its millionth copy in the UK. As did, curiously, the Pogues and Ms MacColl’s ‘Fairytale of New York’, which made its tenth visit to the Top 20 this December, reaching number 14. One can only marvel at such longevity, but this might have something to do with the absence of newer songs coming along to supersede it.
So why no new Christmas hits? One or two critics have pinned the blame on Matthew Bannister, the one-time Radio 1 controller who reoriented the station towards de yoof in the mid-1990s and compelled his older listeners to flee to Radio 2. The end of Top of the Pops in 2006 has also been cited, although both these events were symptoms of a wider change in pop music, rather than their cause. The cross-generational consensus we had enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s was finally crumbling, and the young were listening to stuff older listeners could not abide. The thing about Christmas songs is that they need to appeal to everyone. Pop hardly ever tries to do that any more. It has almost forgotten how.
Out of desperation, radio stations started playing even relatively obscure Christmas songs from the 1970s and 1980s. I’m not sure even Sir Elton John would pretend that ‘Step Into Christmas’ was one of his more accomplished songs. Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’, greeted with mild revulsion on release in 1988, has become a staple of the yuletide playlist. Queueing in a supermarket a couple of days before Christmas, behind someone buying worrying quantities of cheese strings, I noticed that the start of the Rea song on the in-store PA made the woman behind the checkout desk grind her teeth. ‘Do you like this one, then?’ I asked her. If she had been a lion she would have bitten off my head with a single gulp.
Rea probably makes a tidy sum from that song every year. The real big-hitters, though, are coining it. Slade clear half a million pounds a year from ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, according to a recent estimate. The Pogues and Mariah Carey each collect £300,000, as does George Michael for ‘Last Christmas’, which he wrote in a few minutes while waiting for Match of the Day to start. But this money isn’t from sales: it’s collected by the Performance Rights Society for plays on radio and in pubs and restaurants and high-street shops. Sir Cliff Richard’s ‘Mistletoe And Wine’ makes £98,000, despite having been banned from Costa Coffee’s playlist this year for being dreadful. ‘The festive happiness of our customers and staff is our upmost priority,’ explained Costa’s retail marketing director, cueing up Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ with an evil cackle on his lips.
And yet, this December, there were a couple of wonderful number ones, each of them Christmassy by implication, rather than by direct reference. Lily Allen’s version of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was rather lovely, I thought, once you detached it in your mind from the John Lewis ad and Keane’s clumping original. And Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ is a delight, an irresistibly catchy summer record warming everyone’s winter. Just add ‘Christmas’ or ‘New Year’ to the title and the job would have been done. Better that than Shaky, anyway.