As soon as December comes around (and as early as October for some eager shops!), the normal fare of old hits intermingled with current pop dies down on radio, shops and elevators alike, to be replaced with an almost-repeated stream of Christmas hits.
We all know them all by now, though new ones do make it into the hallowed list every now and then for some very lucky songwriters, but what do we really know about their beginnings? For a festive article, we thought we’d take a look at the origins of some of the best known, and best loved, Christmas songs.
Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade / 1973
You know this one, it’s the one that screams “IT’S CHRIIIISTMAAAS!” just in case you are unsure of the season, and it’s been doing so for 46 years which is quite the run.
It was a period that was quite strong for enduring Christmas hits. Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday was also doing the rounds during the early 70s, for example.
Noddy Holder is best known for the song, as he fronted the band and has probably sung it more times than anyone else in the world, but bassist Jim Lea was an equal part of the song’s creation and was responsible for most of the instrumentation on the song, playing bass, acoustic guitar, piano and harmonium. The lyrics were a real reflection of the times, with Holder determined that the country needed some cheering up after a year of strikes – it seems he did a good job.
Five fun Merry Xmas Everybody facts:
- The single still brings in around half a million pounds a year for the band.
- It was estimated in 2009 that 42% of the world’s population had heard it.
- It’s beloved by the Doctor Who team and has featured in no less than six episodes.
- The original recording was done in the studio hallway to allow for larger booming acoustics than was usual for the time.
- It’s been covered numerous times through the years, including bands like The Cure and REM. Most recently it features on Robbie Williams’ 2019 album The Christmas Present.
Do They Know Its Christmas – Band Aid / 1984
The most famous charity single of all time, Do They Know It’s Christmas has broken more records and achieved more than pretty much any other piece of music cut into seven inches of vinyl.
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s idea of raising a little bit to help starving Ethiopians became so successful, in fact, that it led to multiple charities and events around the world, not least the Live Aid concerts and the birth of Comic Relief in the UK.
The song itself was a hugely interesting project, featuring over thirty well-known UK pop and rock artists each of whom sung a line of the song. Phil Collins unexpectedly brought his own full drum kit to the studio and Boy George was convinced to fly from the US by Concorde to make the session and sing his piece!
Five fun Do They Know It’s Christmas facts
- Morrissey (of The Smiths) famously said he hated the single, calling it ‘diabolical’, ‘absolutely tuneless’ and a ‘daily torture’ for the public forced to listen to it. Okay maybe some of the lyrics are a bit brutal… “Thank god it’s them instead of us” springs to mind.
- The song has been re-recorded multiple times for various anniversaries, most recently in 2014 where it featured the likes of One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora.
- The fastest selling single in UK history, it sold a million copies in the first week alone.
- The planned target for the charity was £70,000. Needless to say, they reached that goal fairly early on.
- One ‘artist’ was actually turned away from being on the record. Neil from 80s hit comedy The Young Ones (actor Nigel Planer) turned up unwanted and tried to get involved but was eventually made to leave!
Jingle Bells – James Lord Piedmont / 1857
Probably the best known Christmas song in the world, Jingle Bells is neither a Christmas song, nor called “Jingle Bells”!
It is in fact, a piece called One Horse Open Sleigh and was written in America in the autumn of 1857 as a Thanksgiving song. Later musicians (and people in general) revisited the song many times, taking it from its Thanksgiving origins and marking it as a wintery Christmas song for future generations.
Now, of course, Jingle Bells is sung everywhere, and there’s no definitive version though many have tried. Ella Fitzgerald, Boney M, Dean Martin, Al Green and Johnny Cash have all recorded versions that are highly regarded and oft-repeated.
Five fun Jingle Bells facts
- It’s a sleigh song, inspired by the 19th century sleigh races that took place in Medford, Massachusetts. Not Santa Claus, then.
- Foreign versions often keep the tune yet have completely unrelated lyrics.
- ‘Jingle Bells, Batman smells,’ is such a well-known version that it’s actually sung by The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series.
- Jingle Bells was the first song ever broadcast from space as part of a prank by the crew of Gemini VI who made a report insinuating they’d seen Santa Claus crossing the world before singing the song.
- Jingle bells themselves, a fine percussion instrument, are also thought to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. Even today, some superstitious motorcyclists strap them to their handlebars to warn away road demons.
Last Christmas – Wham / 1984
This song needs no introduction, so let’s jump to the video and George Michael’s character’s (because we all know this is fiction, right?) incredibly poor attitude towards his current girlfriend, someone he has brought to a ski resort for a wintery holiday.
He moons over his ex (to the extent that he’s written a song for her!), and treats the poor girl who has come with him with absolute disdain, ignoring her so that he can steal glances with Miss Last Christmas across the dinner table.
And apparently she’s the new ‘someone special’. No thanks George!
Music video aside, Last Christmas was a spectacular hit for Wham!, providing a yearly charting single almost every year since. In Germany, Last Christmas is the biggest Christmas song of all time. The timing of its release, however, meant it had to settle with the number two spot in the UK – Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas was the same year.
In the vein of the time, Wham! donated all the profits from their royalties to the Ethiopian Famine appeal.
Five fun Last Christmas facts
- The full original version of the song has never been released! The original single releases contained edits, and later releases were remixed, making the full original mix a lost masterpiece.
- Martin Kemp, then the Spandau Ballet bassist and later an actor famous as Eastender Steve Owen, is in the video due to his relationship to Wham! backing singer Shirlie Holliman.
- Despite it being a Wham! song, every instrument was played by George Michael, who also sang, wrote and produced it.
- The video for Last Christmas is the last time we see George Michael without a beard (or the designer stubble he was famous for).
- Finally, it’s not a Christmas song – not really. Only the fact that the central focus is a Christmas present and memory ties the song to Christmas itself. There’s nothing festive about it whatsoever and the only mention of the season is in the titular line of the chorus.
Creating a Christmas hit
At Bravura we welcome musicians looking to improve for any reason and at any age – and what could be more inspiring than a desire to write the next hit Christmas song?! For lessons in guitar, voice and piano, to learn how to develop and produce a song in a home studio or to book lessons as gifts for your friends and family, why not give us a call or contact us using our form today for your free trial?
We wish you the merriest of Christmases, full of cheer and joy!!
By Shane Chauhan.