(L-R) Noddy Holder, Don Powell, Dave Hill and Jim Lea of Slade perform on a Christmas TV show in December 1973 in Hilversum, netherlands. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Artillery Row

The lost art of the Christmas single

The great Christmas singles came from the broken remains of a country that had forgotten how to be itself

It’s 1973 and Slade bass-player Jim Lea is taking a shower. The band are touring the States and it feels like a long way from home. Maybe in the back of his mind is the discussion he’s had with the band’s manager Chas Chandler about coming up with a Christmas record. All of sudden, amid the soap and the shampoo a line pops into his head, “Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall,” and the rest is history.

1973 is actually a pivotal point for the Christmas single. In that one year, we had two of the greats – Wizard’s I Wish it Could be Christmas and Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody. They battled it out at the top of the charts with Slade ultimately victorious.

We’ve got to be in a real mess to need something that reminds us of what we always wish we’d had

Slade’s great masterpiece was really a bits-and-pieces affair, as so many great pop songs are. Lea remembered that the band’s singer had put together a melody for another song way back in ‘67 in the age of flower-power. The song was awful but the tune had some merit. Noddy, the band’s singer, liked what Lea was doing and a while later having had a heavy night’s drinking he went back to his mother’s house in Walsall and crafted the lyrics.

So it was that Lea and Holder penned a song that has since become their pension pot – so big are the royalties and so strong the nation’s affection for the song.

But why are we still stuck in 1973 – and why does the noble art of the Christmas single seem to have died a death? Perhaps we need to go back to ‘73 and live a little in a Britain that seems like a very foreign country indeed.

I was 11 at the time, and I can remember something of it. The pictures on the news of industrial strife. The miners on strike, the lights going out and the pickets on the picket line. There were IRA bombings and clashes in Northern Ireland. We’d just joined the EEC. And around the world, Watergate broke and there was the Oil Embargo. But on the bright side, beer cost 13p a pint, bread 11p and you could pick up a nice three-bed semi for a cool £10,000.

My overriding memory is that the country seemed cold and grey and uncertain. We felt like we were in decline. I had just started at my secondary school in Northolt. It was a bit grim to say the least. What was most pervasive was a great sense that we were drifting and that our prospects were narrow. It was no coincidence that just a few years later, that punk swept the country with its clarion call of “no future for me.” The nostalgic Christmas of ‘73 had become nihilism and rage by ‘77.

The great Christmas singles capture a kind of longing along with the tinsel and the sleigh bells

Perhaps that’s the real bedrock of the Christmas single. We’ve got to be in a real mess to need something that reminds us of something we always wish we’d had. The great Christmas singles capture a kind of longing along with the tinsel and the sleigh bells. But if that zeitgeist tips over into rage, then what room is there for the big fella in red? In some odd way, I long for 1973. It was a time when I think I understood Christmas and I too wished it might be Christmas every day.

Push, writer for melody maker and now editor of Electric Sound, explains why the 70s was such fertile ground for the Christmas single:

The single was born in the 50s, but it wasn’t until the 70s that we had teenagers with money in their pockets to buy them en masse. I remember that if I saved up two weeks’ pocket money I could go and buy a single, and I did just that. The Christmas songs of the 70s had a mass market just waiting to buy records. We were all watching the same tv shows and listening to the same radio programmes. Today that has fractured.

Slade’s front man, Noddy, understood the odd depth of the Christmas single – the strange relevance of it. He is quoted as saying, “I wanted to reflect a British family Christmas. Economically the country was up the creek. The miners had been on strike, along with the grave diggers … I think people wanted something to cheer them up – so I did it.”

And that’s it. Slade wanted to cheer the country up. Perhaps that’s the ingredient that’s now missing. Plus, the genre he was writing in was tailor-made for a dose of jollity. Push tells me;

Wizard and Slade were both glam bands. Glam rock looked straight back to the 50s in its influences – good-time music in a time when people felt optimistic, the war was over and there was no more rationing. The glam rock of the 70s was nostalgic for that period. People needed relief from the rubbish piling up on the streets.

The great Christmas singles of ‘73 borrowed some of that optimism.

There are other factors too. The music business has changed beyond all recognition. We don’t really do vinyl singles any more. Downloads have skewered the model and artists rely more on live shows to make their money. Charity singles, X-Factor fly-by-night stars and the like have put paid to a really top band doing a really top Christmas single. Who wants to be beaten by someone who everyone will forget in a few months’ time?

But Slade’s Christmas masterpiece has been re-released every decade since 1973. It has been covered by numerous artists. It still sounds brilliant.

It may be providing its writers with a comfortable income, but it was, in some ways, the end of Slade

The band couldn’t understand why the single stayed in the charts for nine weeks after Christmas. But I can. In those bleak winter months, who wouldn’t want a bit of Christmas cheer? As Noddy sings, “Look to the future now it’s only just begun.” Of course, and he’s right. As a priest I couldn’t put it better myself. I could preach it as a one-line sermon and give my congregation a break.

That Christmas single, the Christmas single, had a dark sting in the tail. Indeed, a little darkness hung over the whole thing. The band had to delay recording it as their drummer had been involved in car crash that killed his girlfriend and put him in a coma.

And there’s more. It might be still providing its writers with a comfortable income. But it was, in some ways, the end of the band. They never again had a number one. They never became truly global. Indeed, neither Roy Wood’s song or Slade’s are ever really played in the USA. They remain unknown over there.

So here it is was more of a full stop than a comma. But then who could ever have lived up to that song and provided more from that odd, magical creative source?

The great Christmas singles came from the broken remains of a country that had forgotten how to be itself. Perhaps there’s hope for a new masterpiece to emerge. I ask Push what is going to be the next great Christmas single and will it be around any time soon? “God, I’ve no idea really. Perhaps it will be a Slade tribute band. I think we are all too serious to do Christmas singles any more. That’s sad.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover