Monday, 5 November 2012

25 Days, 25 Songs (December 1st - 25th 2008)



This was the second Billy Blagg Advent Calendar, run on my old football home site of www.westhamonline.net and a blog at Soccernet before it became ESPN FC. I had no idea the idea would prove so popular and I have saved the original posts here, both for posterity and to enable those who like to join in the still-running Calendar, to see what has appeared previously and make suggestions for new songs.

In the early days of the Calendar, the general WWW usage for music was MySpace and there wasn't a lot of opportunity to actually hear old tunes. Consequently, some of the text here explains what I was listening too and I've left that alone in order not to change the tone of the blog. 

For the most part - although not all - this changed with the rise of YouTube. The third calendar was the first time I started to use YouTube but not for all songs as many simply weren't available. To keep this blog relevant I have returned since to update all to YouTube where possible and I return periodically during the following festive season's to check and update the links (but you'll understand it's not something I'm not keen to do it in April or July!).

As of November 2016, this blog was up to date.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Return of Billy Blagg's Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs

1st December 2008
I did this last year to staggering apathy and almost universal indifference - so what better way to respond to that indolence, but to do it all again?  25 days, 25 Christmas songs, a few turkeys and a few crackers, from the good to the bad via as an obscure a route as possible.

Along the way, if you can find me a good (or BAD) Christmas song that I haven't heard - and believe me you will have your work cut out - then email me at billyblagg@hotmail.com and you may be invited round to Blagg Acres for a festive eggnog or two.

OK here we go...

Photo: B.Blagg


Day 25 - 'Christmas in the City'- Mary J Blige ft Angie Martinez

Not without resonance to me this year, as I missed mine and had to settle for a Christmas in the Town - and it is not the same thing at all. In fact I'm not sure it hasn't knocked the whole season out of kilter... but I digress.

This list is supposed to be a potpourri of songs and is not intended to end on a high or with the best, but last year I succumbed on the 25th to the genius that is 'Fairytale of New York' so this year I've gone for the song that is Lady B's favourite Christmas record. Well, she's cooking the Turkey later so it's best to stay on her good side.

This is smooth, soulful, sultry and full of the joys of the Christmas spirit and will sit well with your brandy and chestnuts. Enjoy it, the season and Merry Christmas to you all.





Day 24 - 'O Holy Night'- Sufjan Stevens

Recorded in December 2003 and to be found on Volume III - 'Ding! Dong!' - Of the sometimes wonderful and other times downright puzzling 'Songs for Christmas' CD Box set, comes this stirring version of the classic Carol.



It's pretty hard to ruin this anyway - even the cherub faced boy soprano Blagg could warble this to good effect - and there's some shiver inducing versions out there to be found, but I love the strange sound on this and the way the track develops.


It starts with the plink plink of Sufjan's banjo - his instrument of choice - and that weird vocal accompaniment style that sounds as if Steven's has invited his neighbours in to harmonise with him but not told them exactly what they will be singing.

The plaintive style is both charming and moving and builds impressively until you get to the line 'Fall on your knees' when the full band comes in and the hair rises on your neck and you find yourself punching the air like a home goal has been scored.

A great addition to the Holiest of Night.

There's a live version here but try to hear the recorded version if you can




Day 23 - 'On a Quiet Christmas Morn'- Mary Chapin Carpenter

As the Day draws closer there is more time for quiet introspection 'No one raced off to work through the din of honking horns / There was truly peace on earth on a quiet Christmas morn'


Just gorgeous!


Day 22 - 'Little Saint Nick'- The Beach Boys

No-one applauds the genius of Brian Wilson more than I but, if you are ever tempted to purchase 'The Beach Boys Christmas Album' don't - it's utter gash.

On the final track - a Merry Christmas finale spoken by the lads themselves - Dennis Wilson actually makes a mistake but they just carry on recording anyway.

No, save yourself some money and just download the first track. 'Little Saint Nick'. This small classic is pure Wilson circa '63 and is really nothing more than a festive 'Little Deuce Coupe' and it's all you need from the Great Man to make your Christmas.

Great live version from 1964 here and great to see Brian looking so well:




Day 21 - 'White Christmas'- The Four Lovers

Every selection has to have at least one version of White Christmas on it and this one is up there with the best.

This is from 1956 - about 20 years after I first started collecting Christmas records (Just joking ok?) - and features some red hot electric guitar on a version of the old standard that roars along at a fair old lick. They'll be no crooning to this one!

In fact, if you can play this without finding yourself singing "Well, I Yi Yi Yi Yi'm dreaming of a White Christmas" for the next day or so then I'll consume my Titfer and put Gary Glitter into next year's list. Catch it here:



Day 20 - 'Gee Whizz It's Christmas'- Carla Thomas

Along with the late great Otis Redding, Carla Thomas was part of the duo that made 'Tramp' the record it undoubtedly was.

Thomas was a fine singer in her own right though as this excellent song - co-written by Carla along with the MG's Steve Cropper - shows. In fact, I assume the Stax House Band played with Thomas on this so we can easily forgive them for Day 6 (see below).

It's funny that I never thought to call you before / And why didn't I ever see you around anymore / Another year has passed, and I can't erase / The memory of your smiling face

As warm and comforting as one of those festive chocolate drinks from Whittard's.

  


Day 19 - 'Zat you Santa Claus?'- Louis Armstrong

Folk, Pop, Prog and now Big Band Swing; there's something for everyone here!

And this recording is just great; with Satchmo's vocal as good as you could possibly want. There's a passable version from ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer - how good was 'Stray Cat Strut'? - At
'Brian Setzer - Zat you Santa Claus?' a version which may even do me for another Christmas.

But let's stick with Armstrong's seminal version now though. There's a great old cartoon accompaniment here too.



Day 18 - 'Feels Like Christmas' - The Feeling

There may be some raised eyebrows with this selection, seeing how the musical trend has been going for the last five days, but you'd be wrong to sneer.

This bunch are current holders of the coveted 'Toppermost of the Poppermost Plaque for Purveyors of Perfect Pop' (sometimes known as the 'I know it's not Joy Division but I want to play air guitar and dance round my lounge Award'), as anyone who has their fine 'Twelve Stops and Home' album will testify to.

And this is just fine stuff. Of course, there's a touch of Disney strings and a tinkling piano but what the hell - it's Christmas or am I just going insane? (See what I did there?) - And this is just a kind of Mud for the Norties.

More power to 'em, I say.




Day 17 - 'Christmas Sucks' - Peter Murphy and Tom Waits

I've been under a lot of pressure to include Waits' 'Christmas Card from a Hooker' on the list but I've been holding out because I wanted to put this on instead but couldn't find who Tom Waits was singing with, even though I've had the track downloaded for some years.

But as you can see, my friends at Google have helped me out and, if you're one of those who hate the festive season, you may welcome this addition to this year's Advent Calendar.

'Oh, give me a noose I can hang from the tree / I need no excuse to end my misery / This holiday season is all the more reason to die'

And if that doesn't indicate where these sentiments are coming from, there's plenty of cracking rhyming couplets to help. 'Oh, pull up a stool and an ear to a fool / who once found some solace in the season of Yule' and 'The bottle is empty / The sleigh has a flat / The stripper in my bed is ugly and fat' and if that isn't enough how about 'This time of the year makes me sick to my guts / All this good cheer is a pain in the nuts'

On top of all this you get Waits growling like a hackneyed Santa just out from an AA meeting; making his way back to the other hobo's in the boxcar and...errr... Peter Murphy? Well, it's your turn to look on Google for that one.

Best played when you want the last party stragglers to go home.



Day 16 - 'Christmas Song' - Jethro Tull

From the sublime to Tull and I must admit to having a little soft spot for this obscure 'B' side from 1968's 'Love Song' single.

For reason's I can't fathom it's one of those songs that produces an instant and fully graphic memory of where I was and what I was doing when I once heard this playing (so it wasn't necessarily 1968 smartarse!). It's not a startling or important memory - so offers of a festive Kummel and ice for the secret aren't worth making - but somehow that makes it all the more poignant.

This song was right at the start of the band's career, before Mick Abraham's left, so it features that early jangly, almost medieval, guitar sound that was the bands trademark before Ian Anderson's flute became the predominant instrument.

But don't worry flute lovers, the sound is to the fore at the start, as Anderson plays the 'Once in Royal David's City' intro, before the song proper starts and the pithy lyrics manage to slam about nine-tenths of the listening audience by reminding us that 'the Christmas spirit is not what you drink'  Yea, thanks for that Ian, so you'll not be drinking over Christmas then?

Revived on Tull's later Christmas album but without the medieval sounding guitar sound, it's the 45rpm version you need to seek out if you feel it's worth it.



 

Day 15 - 'A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss)' - Glasvegas

My God, this is good!

Everyone knows the debut album from Glasvegas is one of the best of the year but the whole thing is now available with an additional six track Christmas CD that is quite likely to figure on this annual list for as long as I can be bothered to do it.

The title track, A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss)- which is a brilliant title in itself - is beautiful, haunting, and chilling (in the old sense of the word) and sounds just astounding when listened to with just the Christmas lights on and a stiff brandy in the hand.

You can catch the whole thing here at 
but this is best heard in full on the included CD and is well worth £10 of anyone's money.

One for the Christmas list!





Day 14 - 'The Light of the Stable' - Emmylou Harris

It's Sunday so time for a Carol, and who better to sing it than Ms Harris?

Emmylou is one of those gals who can sing the Yellow Pages and make it sound like essential listening, and her pure vocals on this make it a goosebump raising selection. Don't miss it



Day 13 - 'The Happiest Christmas of All' - Morecambe & Wise


Every list has to have at least one novelty record on it and they don't come much more novel than this.

The cabaret song (such as it is) is a trite little ditty - although you may find you're singing it for several days so be wary - but it's the speaking part in the middle where you strike comedy gold, as Ernie discovers Eric using all the cards he got last year to send out this Christmas. "Oh but it's simply not right" says Ernie, "No, but it's cheap" retorts Eric.

This track is why Blagg Jnr and I can often be heard to say, when asked who a Christmas card is from, that it's "from George Bartholomew". To which the usual reply is "George Bartholomew? - But I hate him!"

Ya gotta be there really...



Day 12 - 'Is this Christmas?' - The Wombats

OK this is getting silly now. We have serious 'Red Bus Syndrome' occurring; there have been no Christmas records worth a carrot for about 10 years now and this year we are just inundated.

'Fer Gawd's sake even hoary old rockers The Quo were on TV at lunchtime and managed to raise a storm with their festive three chord trick, probably the first time in a couple of decades that you remember why you liked 'em back in the day. Something is in the air out there. I blame the credit crunch...

Anyway, daughter Natalie put me on to this little gem from Liverpool's current darlings and it's a bit of a belter featuring as it does a brass band - always something that should be used more often in pop music if you ask me.

I've always had a soft spot for this mob as I stumbled across them playing live in an HMV in Leeds a couple of years back and have followed them ever since. This endears me to them even more. 




Day 11 - 'The First Snowflake' - The Boy Least Likely To

You can't claim this countdown isn't relevant and contemporary when this track hasn't even been released yet.

Available for download and out as a single on December 15th, this is absolutely gorgeous with a real Christmas feel. According to 'The Boy' - actually a duo in case you were wondering - this is 'a little pop song about feeling lost and alone at Christmas'. Bless!

If we're trying to stop the X Factor winner from being No: 1 at Christmas can't we throw our weight behind this instead of Terry and Aled?

The band are playing at Hoxteth Bar and Grill on single release night and they may be worth catching.




Day 10 - 'Don't Need A Reindeer' - The Moody Blues

Ah! One for all you old Acid Heads out there, who really did go in search of the lost chord.

Of course, one of the more amusing ironies about what we now know as 'Progressive Rock' is that it isn't really all that progressive at all. In fact, this gorgeous song, beautifully sung and crafted by Justin Hayward would easily stand being used as one of the seasonal songs on the annual X-Factor Final Christmas jamboree. I can see it is a crowd pleasing, hand clapping singalong. But then that's probably why Simon Cowell is where he is and why I'm reduced to selecting Christmas records on a football site...

Anyway, seek this out, some people on You Tube have done some strange animations to it and you can write and thank them for their efforts. Or not - your choice. There's a live version there - although frankly it's not very good and but it gives you the added joy of some daytime TV and a young looking Eamonn Holmes. Justin's hair still looks nice though, dunnit?




Day 9 - 'Santa Claus is Black' - Mikey Jarrett And Mikey General


By popular demand, according to some emails I have received, come the two Mikey's.

'I don't care what the white man say / Santa Claus is black anyway '

Well; there will be some consternation in Windsor this December 24th if that is true!

'Santa Claus, Santa Claus / When he come to the Ghetto / He never did pause'

Hmmmm.... still, no denying the power of this slice of Dub Reggae with - or is it just me? - early overtones of Rap. Good stuff but perhaps not best played at your Aunt's annual Boxing Day party. After year's in obscurity you can now listen to it here thanks to the wonders of YouTube.





Day 8 - 'Christmas Soca' - Director

I can't tell you much about this one as a Google search only brings up a bunch of whey faced poltroons from Ireland, and that is surely not the same Director who gets all excited about Christmas on this Caribbean calypso, reggae tinged stomper.

'Bring me Christmas soca / Bim Bim Bim Bim Bey / All I want is Soca / On this Christmas Day'

So joyous and infectious is this song I'd love someone to bring me some Christmas soca - if only I knew what the hell it was! So obscure it's still unavailable (last check in 2014) anywhere - with even YouTube looking perplexed.


Day 7 - 'Gaudete' - Steeleye Span

It's all very well you kids rolling your eyes and screwing a finger against your head when your parents talk about how much better and more eclectic the charts were in the '70's but, listen to this No: 14 placing from Christmas 1973, and you'll have to admit they could make a good case in court.

Steeleye Span were (still are actually) best described as Folk Rockers and 'Gaudete' was a track from their 1972 album 'Below the Salt'. Folk music of any type is a rarity in the charts but this is - get this! - Not only a Carol, it's also sung completely acapella and in Latin!

I'll leave you to look up instances of what other chart records have been sung in Latin, as I'm busy reading the lyrics that have been nicely written on the single cover. All together now...



Day 6 - 'Jingle Bells' - Booker T and the MG's

I always like to throw a few curve balls in and they don't come much curvier than this.

Yes, Ladies and Gentleman, it is the Booker T and the MG's - one of the greatest rhythm sections in pop music history - the very same Stax House Band that played on so many great records, attempting to deliver one of the most hackneyed pieces of music ever written, a song you may well hear your eight year old niece play on a recorder at a Carol concert at school.

Whatever Steve Cropper, Booker T Jones, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson made of it all is not recorded to my knowledge, but it was a bizarre choice of song regardless.

I'd love to be able to tell you that the guys rip up a storm and you'll never hear the song again without thinking of Booker T's soaring organ part or Al Jackson's driving drums but, sadly, all it is likely to do is make you reach for your copy of 'Green Onions' or 'Time is Tight' to cleanse your ears. Best avoided.




Day 5 - 'Christmas on the Bayou' - Lonnie Brooks

Tell you what; while you're on your feet pogoing - try keeping up with this little stormer too.

Blues artist Brooks is best known for his type of swampy Louisiana funk and its never more evident than on this festive gem. Blistering guitar and fiddle on a song that leans more to rock than anything, but there's enough evidence of Lonnie's background of C&W, R&R and Zydeco music to keep everybody happy.

In fact, Cajun is a whole sub-genre of Christmas music and 'Christmas Cajun' is an album worth listening out for if your tastes veer away from Gary Barlow and X-Factor slop pop.

For a quick burst of Lonnie Brooks at his best you could do worse than pop along to Alligator Records and investigate the 'Alligator Christmas Album' (The Alligator Christmas Collection)


Then raise a Christmas Yee-Harr to this.





Day 4 - Space Christmas' - Shonen Knife

All the way from Osaka in Japan - where I wouldn't have though Christmas counted for very much - come Shonen Knife with the punky absurdity that is 'Space Christmas'.

Think The 5,6,7,8's combined with The Slits via Girls Aloud and a slice of Bjork and you have some idea (or probably not) of what this sounds like. Fortunately, the second decade of the 21st Century brings you the chance to see and hear a track that has been woefully obscure for most of it's existence.

I wanna go to Pluto / I wanna go with you / Oh, I bring space food / They are marshmallow and Ice Cream

These are the type of girls you want at your office party. There are better YouTube videos than the one below - including one of the girls in action here 'Space Christmas' - but most of them won't link so you're encouraged to seek them out.


Day 3 - 'Holly Jolly Hollywood' - The Wedding Present

This was supposed to be a festive nod to the band that I had hoped to be watching not five hours ago at Colchester Arts Centre but, sadly, the gig was cancelled and I doubt 'Holly Jolly Hollywood' will have much resonance when the Weddoes reschedule for 'sometime next year'

"I've wanted to release a proper, bona fide, Christmas song for years" says the Wedding Present's main man David Gedge "so this is something of an ambition fulfilled."

So, has the Great Man Gedge got his tongue firmly in his cheek with this December 2008 release, is it ever so somewhat cheesy, or is the spirit of Gedge's spin-off band, Cinerama, alive and well at Christmas?

The man can do no wrong for me, but you can decide for yourself




Day 2 - 'Run Run Rudolph' - Chuck Berry

This is one for the kids. Released in 1958, this would originally have seen the light of day as a 78rpm on shellac (That's the material it was made out of, not the label, you Dodo). What is this MP3 you speak of?

Time hasn't diminished its power though, as the man who was to revolutionize Rock 'n' Roll guitar, duck walks his way through a storming ode to Santa's favourite Reindeer and manages to be the first person to mention 'freeway' in a song too.

Covered by artists as diverse as Dave Edmunds, Dave Grohl, The Grateful Dead, Bryan Adams, The Rolling Stones and, yep, Hanson, you can currently hear it on the Argos adverts on ITV.

Guaranteed to get your Granny twisting.



Day 1 - 'December' - The Waterboys

A contentious start perhaps, as this is probably best described as seasonal rather than a straight Christmas record. But there's no denying a gorgeous bleak, wintry, feel to this song that builds magnificently over six minutes or so.

Mike Scott's 'Big Sound' was never better than on this 1983 classic. Jangling overlaid, almost discordant, guitars combine with a driving beat backed with some of that Gaelic hokum that Scott later made his own. December is a trusted friend / I always recognise her face / It's a plague of fools thrown aside forever / By her soft and silent grace

I don't understand it either but, on something as great as this, who cares? It should have been Number one but bombed in spectacular fashion. I've found an astonishing video from an unknown TV show but it's all there: big hair as well as a big sound! Although if it sounds a bit lo-fi, be sure to seek out the proper recorded version.

It's a great opener to any festive collection.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 Photo: B.Blagg