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santasometimessays – more than once a year

December 21, 2012

While santasometimessays was laying down his Yule Blog last week, he had to make some tough choices. Despite his protestations that it was not to be the annotated highlights of his Christmas playlist, he was challenged nearly three times on ignoring one song or another. But that’s how it was: he was forced by simple considerations of space and time to omit both crackers (Michael Bublé – Christmas: Baby Please Come Home) and turkeys (Queen – Thank God it’s Christmas).

Now, however, he is pleased – no, let’s end this pretence – I am pleased to present a further selection. Call it a supplement, an appendix, a sequel or whatever – it’s some of the stuff I didn’t say last time. And first among them is the simply stunning choral anthem by Elizabeth Poston – Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. It is so wonderfully calming – if there is anything peaceful to be found in Christmas you can find it here. It has the serenity of plainchant, and an almost otherworldly purity in the vocal lines, which start in unison and diverge through dissonance before reaching a beautifully resolved harmony.

Whether or not you are of a religious disposition, you have to acknowledge the volume of music written for the Christmas story, often by composers whose own spirituality was ambivalent. However, the music and the composer are not the same thing. You can easily accept Britten’s (yes, him again) Ceremony of Carols as music fitted for sacred use, though Britten himself was somewhat uneasy with the orthodoxy of the church’s teachings.

We touched on oratorios last time, but I forgot a favourite modern one – Holy Boy, by David Palmer. Although most usually performed by choirs from a combination of parishes in his area, Holy Boy has had considerable success over time, including national airplay. You’re going to have to take my word for it, as I can’t find a link to any part of it but I recommend it for some of the moments of magic it contains. On the other hand it also demonstrates the difficulty of trying to set idiomatic language set to music. “Angel, I say, would you credit it in this age and day?” I can’t help but wince.

Getting lyrics that scan properly can be very problematic and sometimes results in howlers like that. Rock ‘n’ roll simply adds meaningless words into a line to force a rhythm – ‘now’ being a particularly frequent example – see the otherwise excellent Men at Work Who Can it Be Now? In that genre it’s inexplicably ok, but fillers of that sort in any other kind of song give me “a funny feeling inside of me…  Maybe it’s because I’m” …a fusspot about accurate language.

Actually, you don’t have to be pedantic to know when lyrics and verses just don’t work. Words need to make sense not only on their own, but also in their musical setting. Conversely, the music can sometimes protect the lyrics against their own awkwardness. If I remember the story correctly, while making his contribution to the Band Aid single in 1984, Bono expressed misgivings about singing “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”, often regarded as the most powerful line in the song. Taken at face value those words are not words of charity and Bono’s uncertainty was understandable. I have always been uncomfortable with them myself. It was years before I realised that those words are intended to disturb me, and that the music reaches its climax at precisely that moment to make that point.

Bono took the same line in the 2004 version of the song, Band Aid 20, which otherwise featured an almost complete re-casting. Justin Hawkins (The Darkness –  Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)) sang some of the lines previously rendered by Paul Young and rather unusually made “glass” rhyme with “pass” (or if you’re not in the UK, “farce”).  Cliff Richard (about whom too little can rarely be said) thought that the word “dance” should be given its flatter US pronunciation in a pop song. That ought also apply to “glass”, but Justin gets away with it. Revolutionary.

The most striking feature of the 2004 recording was the extra lines by rapper Dizzee Rascal. Rap is not a form I know much about, and I didn’t until then realise just how powerful it can be. And in case I had residual doubts, Scroobius Pip’s Thou shalt always Kill settled the matter beyond doubt. Huge thanks to ‘legal ninja’ and all-round good egg Matt for that one. Revelationary.

One last point about Band Aid – the largely overlooked 1989 recording, Band Aid 2, which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Pete Waterman cancelled his wedding to produce.
wombles christmas Although it did make number 1, it just didn’t have the same staying power. I don’t know whether that is despite the cast list or because of it: Kylie, Jason, Cliff, Wet Wet Wet … you decide. And while you’re thinking about it, here’s a Zombie Christmas. Brought to you by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler; brought to me by the marvellous lady at Snig’s Kitchen.

And once again, santasometimessays would like to wish you all – A Wombling Merry Christmas.



From → Uncategorized

  1. Oh. I like that Queen song. I can’t get beyond my objection to that to comment on the rest of the post! 😉

  2. Anne-Marie Hethrerington permalink

    Better but still, mystifyingly, no reference to Slade….

  3. Well, my Granny did always tell me that the old songs are the best. I have nothing against the song, which is saying something given the number of times I’ve heard it in the last month.

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