Monday, 5 November 2012

25 Days, 25 Songs (1st - 25th December 2007)

This was the first-ever Billy Blagg Advent Calendar, run on my old football home site of and a blog at Soccernet before it became ESPN FC. I had no idea the idea would prove so popular and I have saved the original posts here, both for posterity and to enable those who like to join in the still-running Calendar, to see what has appeared previously and make suggestions for new songs.

In the early days of the Calendar, the general WWW usage for music was MySpace and there wasn't a lot of opportunity to actually hear old tunes. Consequently, some of the text here explains what I was listening too and I've left that alone in order not to change the tone of the blog. For the most part - although not all - this changed with the rise of YouTube. The third calendar was the first time I started to use YouTube but not for all songs as many simply weren't available.

To keep this blog relevant I have returned since to update all to YouTube where possible and I return periodically during the following festive season's to check and update the links (but you'll understand it's not something I'm not keen to do it in April or July!).

As of December 2017, this blog was up to date.

Billy Blagg's Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs! The column that is happy to tip a hat to Shaky, Slade, Mud and The Wombles; but goes to more obscure lengths to put together a definitive Christmas CD that will warm the cockles of even the most aurally dense listener.

Hit it!

Paolo Di Cattio: Photo B.Blagg

Day 25: 'Fairytale of New York' - The Pogues

This wasn't intended to be a countdown to the best Christmas song ever but, when it came down to it, I just couldn't leave this off.

Not alternative enough? Well, if records sold and chart placing count for anything then - No! But listen properly to this; Slade, Shaky and Cliff this is not. It says a lot about discerning taste that this has almost come to symbolise the ultimate Christmas record.

I heard someone call it 'cheesy' the other day. That moron probably thinks 'Bleak House' is an old book by a dead geezer, Shelley wrote some rhyming stuff and the Sistine Chapel is a nicely coloured ceiling by a bloke who could paint a bit. In fact, 'Fairytale' is a beautifully structured song with poignant, funny lyrics, stunning musicianship and a brilliant theme. It is touched by genius and will stand for all time.

Utter, utter genius - it sounds as good now as the first day I heard it. The video is nearly as great as the song too.

Most of all though, 20 years ago this very night 'Fairytale' was the backdrop to a meeting with a woman who will be cooking my Christmas turkey later day (Not my Mum you idiot!). For that alone it has to go on the CD.

Well, I'm off to burn the bloody thing now (the CD not the pudding). 

Merry Christmas!

Day 24: 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas' - The Pretenders

Chrissie Hynde's voice really isn't suited to this type of song - let alone a classic Christmas standard like this - but, somehow, her delivery actually adds to the melancholic atmosphere of this tune. 'Next year all our troubles will be out of sight' is always a line with a double edge to me. Or is just because it's Christmas Eve?

Whatever, this is one for late tonight once the brandy has been opened, the kids have gone to bed and the Mrs has had enough of the whole holiday. Bless!

Day 23: 'Just like Christmas' - Low

All the way from Duluth, Minnesota come Low singing mysteriously about 'By the time we got to Stockholm / It started to snow' / And you said it was like Christmas / But you were wrong'. Beautifully restrained and oddly festive. There's live versions on YouTube but I like this video:

Day 22: 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' - Darlene Love

Convicted felon he may be, but you must have at least one track off of Phil Spector's seminal Christmas album and this one is the best. Astounding production, great vocal, amazing sound. When Darlene sings 'But It's Christmas Day, Please, Please, Please, Baby please come home' You just wonder what on earth is keeping him away.

Day 21: 'Donna and Blitzen' - Badly Drawn Boy

Gorgeous closer to the 'About a Boy' soundtrack; Damon Gough had hit a rich vein of form having just finished 'Year of the Bewilderbeast''. Atmospheric.

Day 20: 'Ring out Solstice Bells' - Jethro Tull

See! Prog Rockers love Christmas too!

Actually, this compilation wasn't intended to provide a song for every genre, but it seems a shame to waste the opportunity now we're here, so I offer up this hoary old gem for those who like their Christmas music a little more on the ..errr...'progressive' side.

During a recent Tull thread I named Tull as purveyors of one of the worst concerts I'd ever been too. But, it's Christmas, and anyway, I've got a very soft spot for 'Christmas Song' which brings back some very warm memories. 'Bells' is a stronger song though - despite the ludicrous lyrics - and Anderson's flute gives the whole thing a seasonal olde English feel as this veers more towards folk rock than anything. It's actually not bad at all.

You can see an enjoyable 'Top of the Pops' performance here - mimed obviously so you can hear the original song:

 Listen to it standing on one leg.

Day 19: 'Jingle Bell Rock' - Randy Travis 

Completely out of left field this one as Travis takes a hoary old chestnut and nails it stone dead by making it all his own.

I've rarely played this without finding everyone is joining in, particularly on the glorious chorus 'It's the bright time / It's the right time / To rock the night away'.

When the song finishes, Travis - realising he'd hit pay dirt - can be heard drawling "Hey that was great guys can we do it one more time?” The tape stars rolling and the band strike up again for another stirring chorus.

Top stuff!  And for those of you who, like me, get a perverted kick from watching two tapes going round, then the video is for you too!

Day 18: 'The Christmas Song' - Nat King Cole

You might know it better by its opening line 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire'. Not very alternative you might think, but no Christmas compilation is complete without this gorgeous arrangement.

There are many alternative versions for those who really want something outside the norm but you'll only be fooling yourself if you think any of them are better than this little cracker.

Nat's velvet voice and George Shearing's exemplary piano make this a season staple and the closer Christmas gets the more this pulls at your heartstrings. You can see the man himself singing it here.

Day 17: 'Christmas in Hollis' - Run DMC

Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it / It's Christmas time and we got the spirit

Yes Indeedy! Sampling the opening bars from 'Back Door Santa' (See Day 1) Run DMC proves it's Christmas in the world of Rap too. Rhymes as tight as you'd expect and a wonderful Carol 'break' in the middle make this a festive must.

‘My name's D.M.C. with the mic in my hand / And I'm chilling and coolin' just like a snowman / So open your eyes, lend us an ear / We want to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!’

Great video too!

Day 16: 'Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight) - The Ramones

Gabba Gabba Yuletide Hey! Need we say more?

You can see one of the greatest and most influential bands ever on a seasonal video here

Day 15: 'Presents for Christmas' - Solomon Burke

Recorded in New York in 1962 with Guy 'Slipper' Quad on Tenor, one of Soul's best voices storms his way through this classic number.

‘This is for all the Policeman / And all the DJ's / And all the pretty girls..’.

Indeed! It's all here and you can gaze in wonder at the beautiful Atlantic label....No? Just me then...

Day 14: 'Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!" - Sufjan Stevens

Every year, Sufjan breaks off from his uber project to record an album for each one of the U.S. States, to make some Christmas music for friends and family (Stevens is not a man who likes to sit around and do nothing).

These have been drifting round the Internet for years but are now available in a handsome five disk box set for the price of a couple of pints. Featuring such gems as 'Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well you deserved it)' and 'That Was The Worst Christmas Ever' as well as some delicious traditional gems.

Anyone who re-introduces the banjo to a song or can make you want to dance to a Carol has to have something going for them, and picking just one track is particularly difficult, but I'm going for 'Hey Guys!' if for nothing else other than you know if Snow Patrol covered it, we might well be seeing it at Number One this year instead of the latest X Factor shite.

Day 13: 'Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year - Parts 1 & 2' - James Brown

Why Parts 1 AND 2? Well, then you get a full eight minutes of James yelping and screaming as he thanks God, Us and everyone for Christmas. But in truth it's those delicious violins and Girlie chorus that really make this the track it undoubtedly is.

Brown made a number of significant contributions to the soundtrack of Christmas and I don't think it's a coincidence that he shuffled off this mortal coil on Christmas Day 2006, do you?

Day 12: 'Silent Night' - Sinead O' Connor

It's not a Christmas compilation without a Carol or two; the difficulty is what to choose as there are a surprising number of worthy options out there.

Even such as luminaries as Alison Moyet, Steve Winwood, BoyzIImen and even - Gawd 'elp us - Sting have made passable attempts at traditional Carols. Perhaps the festive season brings the best out in everybody.

However, I'm going for Sinead this year. She may be as mad as a box of frogs but she sings like an angel on this and her breathy style of singing matches the echo-y, sparseness of this mournfully Gaelic version.

Best heard with just the tree lights shining on Christmas Eve with a brandy in your hand. I mean this in the old sense of the phrase when I say this is 'seriously chilling'. Listen below and give it the reverence it deserves.

Day 11: 'The Man in the Santa Suit' - Fountains of Wayne

I could have had FoW's 'I want an Alien for Christmas' but I like the wordplay on this ode to the men who stand in for the real Santa each Christmas.

'He calls the hair salon / says 'put Loretta on' / 'You know, the Mall's just called and said the last guy's gone'

or how about

‘And he's a big red cherry / But it’s hard to be merry / When the kids are all laughing / Saying hey it’s Jerry Garcia / Ain't he cute? / The man in the Santa suit’

The Fountains have the more respectable end of pop sown up, and never more so than on this jangly festive offering.

Day 10: 'There Won't Be Any Snow (Christmas in the Jungle)' - Derrick Roberts

This is so obscure that, even though I've had it on tape and CD for years, I had to Google it to find out who it was by.

Apparently a U.S. hit in 1965 it tells - in the form of a spoken letter - the story of a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War. His words punctuated by sniper fire, he writes to his wife and tells how things are when its Christmas and you're in the jungle.

There's a girlie chorus (There's no tinsel / There's no choir / And there isn't any mistletoe / For its Christmas in the jungle / And there won't be any snow') and some Cold War claptrap 'I feel like I'm taking out a little insurance for the future' before the soldier gets the good news: he's coming home for Christmas!

'When I get home I'm gonna - ' A shot rings out and we get 20 seconds of heavenly choir and jungle noises before his 'buddy' finishes the dead soldier's letter 'I found this letter in his things / I thought you'd like to have it / so I'm sending it on'

Sound awful? It is! But there's the rub. It's so bad you will want to play it again and again.

If there's any doubt about the major steps that mankind has made in the last ten years or so then surely the fact that this is now available on YouTube is undoubted proof of progress. Listen to it in all it's awfulness here: 'Christmas in the Jungle' if the link below doesn't work. (The YouTube page won't always link properly for some reason)

Day 9: 'Christmas Wrapping' - The Waitresses 

A hit! Well, sort of, it got No: 41 or something in 1981 (I think) but I have no idea why it didn't get higher.

The girls (although it wasn't an all-girl band) sing / rap their way through a song describing their inability to grab the man of their dreams throughout the year eventually finding themselves alone at Christmas.

(Turkey) already in the oven / nice and hot / Oh damn! Guess what I forgot? / So on with the boots / back out in the snow / To the only all-night grocery / When what to my wondering eyes should appear / In the line is that guy I've been chasing all year!

Christmas works it's magic and everyone is happy. Especially anyone listening to this festive offering. Because I am a vinyl junkie I  recommend this video where you can watch a 45rpm going round and round at 'Christmas Wrapping' or, if you've never been bitten by the allure of plastic, then take a look at the dancing Christmas lights here

Day 8: 'Frosty the Snowman' - The Cocteau Twins

A stunning version of what is normally a trite little song but one that becomes something of a masterpiece with the voice of Elizabeth Fraser 'cathedral swooping' (phrase courtesy of the late producer John Walters) all over and barely singing the words at all.

This is pure Cocteau music with Robin Guthrie's distinctive guitar sound to the fore but somehow all the more enjoyable when the song is so familiar.

Day 7: 'White Christmas' - Otis Redding

I wouldn't blame anyone for putting Bing's original on but, if you're looking for a good alternative - and there are a surprising number of excellent covers out there - I don't think you can top this spine-chilling version by soul's greatest (IMHO) singer.

Otis emotes like no other and he even manages to get in a 'White Christmas y'all' and a 'little biddy, little biddy children listen' to make sure we know he had his Christmas to Macon, Georgia.

Sadly, Otis has had no Christmas - on this Earth anyway! - since 1967. But if this is his legacy then it's a helluva one to leave. Enjoy it here:

Day 6: 'Blue Christmas' - Porky Pig

Well, it's my company Christmas party tonight and I'm in festive mood (well, actually I'm not - I've got the raving 'ump - but let's pretend shall we?) and every Christmas compilation has to have at least one novelty record the rules say, so the problem now is, what to choose?

Stan Freberg's 'Christmas Dragnet' is a personal favourite but, even within the confines of this selection, it's a little TOO esoteric; so I'm going with Porky Pig. And - yes! - it is that stuttering Porky Pig from the cartoons.

Frankly, I can't think of any Christmas scenario where you won't laugh out loud at this one; even after repeated plays it still never fails to raise a smile. You'd have to have a heart pierced by holly not to chuckle when Porky sings: "I'll have a bl-bl-bl-bl-bl blue Christmas with-with-with out you" Move over Elvis.

Oh joy! There's now a video!

Day 5: 'Step into Christmas' - The Wedding Present

The Weddoes don't so much knock Elton John's 'classic' into a cocked hat but rather they demolish said hat in a welter of discordant guitars, loud drums and thumping bass; in other words a normal Wedding Present track.

If you like The Wedding Present - and they are one of my favourite ever bands and if you don't agree I may need to send the boys round - the joy in this song is hearing them take a well-established tune and making it their own.

Also for those of you complaining this Festive list is too obscure, this was actually a hit being on the B side of 1992's 'No Christmas:' the final single of the Weddoes year in which they released a hit single every month.

Day 4: 'Spotlight on Christmas' - Rufus Wainwright

'You can measure it in blood /you can measure it in mud / Let us say for these twelve days / put the measuring away'

Gaw'd knows what Loudon Wainwright's wonderful – but frankly odd - son is singing about but the song is gorgeous and the voice, of course, unique.

There's a live version with an introduction by Rufus here, but try to listen to the recorded version if you can.

Day 3: 'The Night before Christmas' - Huey 'Piano' Smith

Yes it is Clement Clark Moore's classic poem set to music, but with a raucous 'Boogie Woogie Santa Claus' chorus and a horn riff to die for. Totally obscure but rather wonderful.

Day 2: 'It's a Big Country' - Davitt Sigerson

The great lost Christmas single. Davitt Sigerson - who he? - serves up 2:45' of perfect pop as he bemoans the fact that the United States is a big country' and he can't get to see all his relatives.

'Got some folks in Oklahoma / Never been out there myself / But Aunt Ruby bakes some bread at least / And sends it East / To help the celebration'

Catchy chorus, jangling guitars; just Superb.

Day 1: 'Back Door Santa' - Clarence Carter

A paean to the joys (?) of anal sex, Clarence Carter opens our advent calendar with a wonderous horn riff - sampled years later by Run DMC for their 'Christmas in Hollis' track - in a classic hard-edged soul number.

Carter - best known for his hits 'Patches' and 'Slip Away' - tells how he 'makes all the little girls happy while the boys are out to play' and, in case the sexual innuendo of entering by the back door passes you by, Carter makes it quite clear by informing us 'I ain't like old Saint Nick / He don't cum but once a year'.

Recorded in the famous Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama this is a storming opener to any festive collection.


Photo: B.Blagg