In praise of seasonal chart fodder

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Christmas: the most vulnerable time of the year. I heard ‘A Winter’s Tale’ by David Essex on the radio the other day and, oh boy. It was Noël Coward who wrote, in Private Lives, that smart little line about the strange potency of cheap music. It is a truism never more apparent than at Christmas, when we allow the gaudy and sentimental access to our hearts with only the most cursory of security checks. Songs that would never make it past the bouncers in May are whisked directly into the VIP area come December.

A quick google confirms that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ was released in the run-up to Christmas 1982, which means I was nine years old when it was first released. I can’t separate its pale domestic mopery from dusky, melancholic, snow-scattered drives home from my primary school in Inverness to our nearby village. In the lyric lamenting ‘one more love that’s failed’ I must have heard an echo, or an intimation, of the unhappy house in which I was living. ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is nothing if not dignified. It is a self-deprecating shrug of a song, and something in its quotidian sadness felt very grown up to me. I amplified its significance accordingly. The tinny synthesised orchestrations swelled to an epic crescendo in my heart.

‘A Winter’s Tale’ was written by Tim Rice and Mike Batt. Batt is the Barnes Wallis of pop’s emotional stealth bombers. As the mastermind behind the music of the Wombles, he is responsible for the most heart-rending tinsel-tune of them all: ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’. Look beyond — or perhaps deep inside — the cheesy saxophone, knocked-off Glitter Band guitar riff, shouty Slade chorus and sub-Beatles harmonies. There is dark magic in the very bones of this song. ‘All day long, we will be laughing as we go,’ sings Batt as his furry alter ego (I think Orinoco takes the lead vocal). Perhaps the line was intended as a genuine expression of carefree seasonal joy. To me, it reads as a heroic and ultimately doomed bulwark against the massed horrors of the world. The chord change in the chorus from F#7 to B minor should come with a health warning.

I was not even two when ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ became a hit in 1974, but the Wombles album was a proud pillar of my family’s modest record collection, and a staple throughout my early childhood. Hearing the song today still makes me both ecstatically happy and extraordinarily sad. Then there’s ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Christmas 1984). On hearing the song, I can recall being fully conscious for the first time of the otherworldly and transformative force of music. Even to my 11-year-old ears, the band’s first two singles — ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ — were clearly riddled with sex and violence. All good, but ‘The Power of Love’ honoured a different impulse. It felt like a hymn to a sacred love; mysterious, dark and beautiful. ‘This time we go sublime,’ sang Holly Johnston. ‘Purge the soul.’ This was not your standard snowy shlock. Years later I realised that ‘The Power of Love’ isn’t a Christmas song at all. It stowed away on the seasonal gravy train courtesy of a video that told the story of the Nativity. Its dramatic blend of spiritual and romantic love may sound a trifle overcooked these days, but the magic is still accessible.

I could go on. Many of the most emotionally affecting songs in my life were released as seasonal chart fodder. I love them without irony or a knowing wink. There is no guilt in these pleasures. I would chalk it all up to nostalgia, if not for the fact that even at the time, I remember that these songs made me feel something beyond what the music of Shakin’ Stevens, Status Quo and the Stray Cats — my other pre-adolescent loves; ‘S’ was clearly a significant letter — made me feel. Call it a shiver.

I hear these songs now as I heard them then: with breath held, senses heightened, skin carpeted with goosebumps. I realise, oddly, that I have spent much of my life as a listener chasing down music that might make me feel the same way. Wizzard wanted it to be Christmas every day; I say, be careful what you wish for. Northern exposure to David Essex and the Wombles spoiled me, in both senses of the word.

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