Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

The stories of the Christmas hits

Clockwise, from top left: Cliff Richard, Wizzard's Roy Wood and Kirsty MacColl
Clockwise, from top left: Cliff Richard, Wizzard's Roy Wood and Kirsty MacColl

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

A select few songs, played on heavy rotation every year, have come to be considered Christmas classics.

The writers and co-writers of three of the biggest festive favourites tell the stories of their songs.


How did the song come about?

I decided to start writing a Christmas song.

Marcia, my wife, said it was a load of rubbish, lyrically and narratively speaking, so she suggested a storyline about a couple who are down on their luck.

The guy went out with what little money they had to buy a Christmas tree and presents but, on the way, he decided to go into the bookies and it all went horribly wrong - he came back and they had a row.

The row was quite a crucial part of it. But then there was a redemptive quality - love took over from the more material aspects of Christmas.

Jem Finer
Christmas number two for The Pogues in 1987
It was co-written with the band's frontman, Shane MacGowan
The hit version, featuring Kirsty MacColl and produced by Steve Lillywhite, was recorded two years later
Multi-instrumentalist Finer, 53, of London, last performed song "the night before last" with The Pogues
Favourite other festive song is Captain Beefheart's There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evenin' Stage

Shane [MacGowan] had been working on the same idea as well, a Christmas duet. He had written the first section and we kept the melody from my first song - the one with the really bad story - and basically the storyline from the second one, which Shane transposed to New York and rewrote in his own inimitable style.

Do you get bored with it?

I never got bored of performing it. There's always a lot of excitement. There's excitement when another singer arrives on stage - for the last few years it's been one of our daughters, Ella. Then when people realise it's Fairytale of New York, the piano starts out, then they get more excited.

The audience always respond in increments of excitement.

It must be disappointing that the song didn't reach number one.

It doesn't surprise me that the Pet Shop Boys with a not-very-interesting remake of an Elvis Presley song [Always On My Mind] got the Christmas number one.

I wrote a Christmas song called Is It Christmas Time on Venus? I don't think it's going to knock Fairytale off its pedestal

I suppose it might be nice to be number one but, as far as I'm concerned, it's had a longer life than that particular song.

Have you written any other Christmas songs?

I worked in an astrophysics department for a couple of years as an artist-in-residence, and I formed a band there. I wrote a Christmas song there called Is It Christmas Time on Venus? I don't think it's going to knock Fairytale off its pedestal.

Has the song provided you with your pension?

I don't know because I'm not of pensionable age. I'll let you know when I've got my bus pass.


How did the song come about?

I actually had some ideas for the song about two years before we recorded it and I'd written bits for it and kept it in a folder until I was in the mood to write the whole thing.

We recorded it in the August and, to try and get the atmosphere going, I went into the recording studio early on with the road crew and we put on some big fans and blue lights and left them on for an hour.

So we got the band to record the song in overcoats and scarves and we put a Christmas tree up and lights and all that sort of stuff.

Do you get bored with it?

A lot of songs that were hits for me years ago, I do get bored of, to be honest, because I've been singing them for donkey's years. The Christmas one's different.

Wizzard's Roy Wood
Wood's song, performed by his band, Wizzard, reached number four in 1973
Wood, aged "older than you", lives in Derbyshire, and performs with The Roy Wood Rock 'n' Roll Band
He last played the song "two nights ago"
Wood has a gold disc for the record - from "the days when you really had to sell a lot of records"
Favourite other festive song is All I Want for Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey

I listen to a lot of the stuff I've recorded in the past when it comes on the radio and you think, with modern technology you could have recorded it a lot better than that.

But the Christmas one is different because it's just got a certain atmosphere about it and you think, well yeah, it was all right.

It must be disappointing that the song didn't reach number one.

I think the main reason that Slade hit the Christmas number one slot that year [with Merry Xmas Everybody] was that their record company released it three weeks before ours and they had more time to get the sales.

Have you written any other Christmas songs?

In 1980, I wrote a New Year song called Sing Out The Old, Bring In The New. Unfortunately, the radio stations were just playing I Wish It Could Be Christmas and they wouldn't play the new one. I was competing against myself.

Has the song provided you with your pension?

I'd rather rely on that than the modern day pension.

You don't get it at Christmas, though. You have to wait until they work it all out so I'm usually broke at Christmas!


How did the song come about?

It was written in 1976 for a musical of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Match Girl, which I directed.

The song was written as almost the opposite to its meaning now. We wanted a satirical Christmas carol when the little match girl is being kicked away into the snow by the unfeeling middle classes in a Dickensian setting.

The turning point of it was when Twiggy sang it on a TV production of the show in 1987. By this time it had got itself into being used in a different way in the show - she sings it as a sort of pub song - she's playing the local whore.

Jeremy Paul
It was Christmas number one for Cliff Richard in 1988. It sold 750,000 copies
It was co-written with Leslie Stewart and Keith Strachan
Cliff's 99th single, it was the best-selling single of the year
Screenwriter and playwright Paul, 69, admits the song has been mocked by "sophisticated musos" as "old codswallop"
Favourite other festive song is Santa Baby, by Eartha Kitt

She sings it lustily and all the people in the pub sing it along with her.

The director of the television show, Michael Custance, moved house. This is the freaky thing about it - his new next door neighbour had been a roadie with Sir Cliff [Richard].

They got talking, virtually over the garden fence, and Michael played the show to this guy and he picked out Mistletoe and Wine and he said, "I think Cliff would be interested in this".

In 1988, he brought it out for the Christmas song and the rest is history - the moral is never throw out your old songs.

We were absolutely overwhelmed by it.

We didn't particularly, the three of us co-writers, at that point, understand the power of Cliff's world.

Do you get bored with it?

No. I think kids can skip to it, old granddads can enjoy it.

My strike rate is absolutely unbelievable

I think it evokes Christmas past, even going back to the war. Each generation can bring a private view of it.

It hits the spots that surprise people. And as many people as get it on the level I've just described, are the people that are saying "what a trashy song" and they're entitled to that, as well.

Have you written any other Christmas songs?

No. Because the only context in which I have written any songs at all is in the context of writing a musical - I'm not really in the business.

My strike rate is absolutely unbelievable.

It's a one-off. It's a freak or a fluke - a happy accident.

Has the song provided you with your pension?

The truth is it has. And it's pretty constant. Each time you think, "oh, it'll dip this year", it sort of flares back into life.

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