03 December, 2005

Brass tacks

There was a Salvation Army band playing carols in Liverpool city centre this morning. What with the decorations, the cold and their music, the whole place felt infectiously Christmassy. I can't remember precisely what they were performing, but that really didn't matter. It was simply the sound of the brass band, coupled with the environment they were in, that was enough to create an almost hopelessly cliched seasonal tableau.

Just how instantly evocative this cliche was caught me off guard. Christmas carols in and of themselves don't usually move me to feel anything at all. Well, almost anything. They always have an undeniable resonance with innumerable assemblies at primary school, and with having to sing words that didn't seem to mean anything or sound like they were even part of the English language ("Once in royal David's city stood a lowly cattle shed" - eh?).

Regardless of anything of an ecclesiastical bent (ho ho), I've always enjoyed the run up to Christmas far more than the day itself, probably due to the way once religious but now wholly secular rituals can strike a chord within you when you're least expecting.

All the same, it's Christmas songs - proper, non-religious, mainstream pop songs - that have always and probably always will typify Christmas for me. And that's because, quite simply, they have been manufactured to do a job quite different from Christmas hymns or carols, and that is to appeal to as many people in as many ways possible. We're talking masterpieces of popular culture here, songs that have been meticulously crafted to sell millions but to possess the secret of all ace tunes: universality. They pass through time unfettered by changing tastes and seasons; they never become redundant; they never seem out of date.

So apropos nothing, apart from everything I've just written of course, five of the greatest examples of such songs are:

* 'Stop The Cavalry' by Jona Lewie - for being about atomic war, finding a rhyme for the phrase "nuclear fall-out zone", and for that bit with the brass band in the middle;

* 'I Believe In Father Christmas' by Greg Lake - for mentioning how it always rains at Christmas, which it does, for the bombastic orchestral interludes, and for the crafty sign-off "the Christmas we get we deserve";

* 'The Christmas Song' by Mel Torme - not the version by Nat King Cole, which is too syrupy, but the original one sung by the bloke who wrote it;

* 'I Was Born On Christmas Day' by St Etienne and Tim Burgess - an impossibly catchy catalogue of the protagonists' year, taking in for good measure the summer, Halloween and "mid November"; and

* 'Wonderful Christmastime' by Paul McCartney - for being effortlessly hummable, deceptively simple, and for not having any choirs of kids or the missus wailing in the background.


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