Brit Beat

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Christmas songs have a reputation for being ghastly. I love them. As you have discovered over the last few months, my cheese-threshold is very high, which allows me to get into the yuletide spirit without any concerns about what is cool. Indeed, the more fake snow, reindeer sweaters and faux-skiing pastiches in a pop video, the better. If we can’t all let our hair down under the mistletoe, then when can we … for Christ’s sake? Jesus would have loved the mournful regret and life lessons offered to us by Wham’s “Last Christmas”; he would have approved of the exultation of love and rejection of material greed in Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas (Is You).” As for Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child,” he’d be thrilled for his mum to be getting some acknowledgement for the hard work and donkey-driving she had to do that starlit night in Bethlehem.

The first Christmas record I bought was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which was sold in the UK to raise money for Ethiopia. It was 1984. I was 9 years old and couldn’t believe all my favorite artists were gathering in a somewhat grim, dingy London recording studio together. The video of them all kissing and cuddling and throwing their egos out into the cold lit my little pre-teen heart up like a Christmas tree.

This being England in the ’80s, the stars jostled for space (that darn Phil Collins took up half the room with his drum kit) amongst the shoulder pads and dyed-blonde mullets, looking hungover and unwashed. Boy George was the only one who made any effort for the occasion, dying his hair Santa Claus red and donning a festive, glittery green eye shadow. Paul Weller lurked around looking sheepish in the background, scared by all the excitement, no doubt. Sting, Bono and Simon Le Bon jostled for the microphone. Paul McCartney and David Bowie mailed their lyrics in to songwriter Bob Geldof so he could add them later.

Clearly, it was going to be a massive hit and a huge money-earner, but no one knew just how big it would be. It became the fastest-selling single of all time in the UK, selling a million copies in the first week alone. It stayed at No. 1 for five weeks, selling more than 3 million copies and becoming the biggest-selling single in the UK (ending the seven-year reign of “Mull of Kintyre”) until Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” surpassed it 13 years later.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been re-recorded twice, to raise money for Ethiopia and the Sudan. The 1988 version is best forgotten (Kylie Minogue was given the difficult lines to sing, if you can imagine that), while the 2004 reincarnation featured a who’s who of 21st century British greats, including Coldplay, Radiohead, Snow Patrol and Keane.

From the sardonic, dramatic title of the song to the doom-threatening bells in the introduction, this is one of the greatest Christmas and charity songs ever made. It still gives me goose bumps.

The following year, in 1985, America offered “We Are the World,” a far more positive, cutesy charity song with an undercurrent of assumed global domination and martyrdom. (Why do you always do that?) Your studio was much brighter and cleaner than ours, and your stars far more polished (again, why do you always do that?). You had a logo and fancy graphics and everything. Michael Jackson, the song’s creator, wore a sparkly glove, while ogling his beauty icon, Diana Ross, and Cyndi Lauper offered her unique brand of ker-razy. Bruce Springsteen tried to rock things up a little bit with some raspy pleas but was watered down by that Father Christmas Doppelgänger Kenny Rogers. There were so many mentions of God, love and global unity in your version, you made our earlier British attempt look like it was recorded by a bunch of frenetic hippies holding an Occupy Billboard demonstration. It was brilliant, too, though, and raised squillions for a worthy cause, which was the point.

Anyway, it’s the most wonderful time of the year … so sing and dance. Be merry and bright. Give to charity. And try not to embarrass yourself at your office party. Happy Holidays!

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