Considering the window of opportunity is restricted to a single month of the year -- or as little as 12 days in December by some counts -- tunes that evoke, arouse or simply fake the true meaning of the holiday are disproportionately abundant, presumably because the magic of Christmas remains potent enough to sell large quantities of records. Could you scientifically analyse a sample of the most popular holiday hits to uncover some kind of Christmas blueprint? Or perhaps it’s more like a recipe: guitar, drums, mistletoe, wine … add syrup to taste. If that’s the case, could someone like me -- a musical enthusiast but no virtuoso -- compose a Christmas cracker? Or will it be merely duff?
In late 2003, The Darkness appeared to have nailed the festive formula. After a wildly successful year of hair metal heroics, exhausting falsetto and general spandextasy, the band was poised to dominate December with Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End). "It’s got timpani, sleigh bells, school choir, the works," guitarist Dan Hawkins told me at the time. "You half-think the bells are never going to end and then they just stop, really abruptly." For an hour or so in a draughty Glasgow venue, we debated festive songs and the oddly British tradition of excitement surrounding the Christmas number one. There was some thrilling trash-talk -- "The Spice Girls might have had three Christmas number ones in a row but, ultimately, they’re all a bit s***" -- but after arguing over the respective merits of Slade and Wizzard, Mr Blobby and East 17, we arrived at a sort of consensus. "The best Christmas songs are tinged with sadness," said Hawkins. "That’s what Christmas is about. And that’s what our song is about."
Unfortunately for The Darkness, there was a rival track not so much tinged with sadness as macerated in it -- a sparse, quavery cover of Tears For Fears’ Mad World by Californian singer-songwriter Gary Jules. It was to be the last year when the Christmas number one actually seemed like a contest (Mad Jules won). In 2004, the Band Aid anniversary release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? triumphed and, since then, Simon Cowell’s annual X Factor winner has romped home. Later today we’ll find out if young Joe McElderry has successfully faced down a cheeky online campaign to propel Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to the festive top spot as "a protest to The X Factor bollocks".
The implacable chart dominance of The X Factor hasn’t inhibited other seasonal releases this year: George Michael, Sugababes, The Killers and even Julian Casablancas of The Strokes have all thrown their Santa hat into the ring with songs ranging from the frosty to the gloopy. There are albums too: Bob Dylan’s joyous Christmas In The Heart, with its demented squeezebox-powered cover of Must Be Santa; a new cataloguing of Neil Diamond’s numerous seasonal ditties called, disturbingly, A Cherry Cherry Christmas; even oor ain Hue And Cry have got into the act with Xmasday, a new Yuletide collection featuring awesome cover of Rockin’ Robin. It’s an avalanche of would-be anthems, all jostling to replace old chestnuts on the eternal Christmas playlist. Arguably, the last modern-day track to make it into the hallowed holiday canon was Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit All I Want For Christmas Is You, a throwback that sounds winningly like a song recorded in the 1960s. If the internet hasn’t quite levelled the battlefield (McElderry’s X Factor rendering of the Miley Cyrus ballad The Climb was available for download hours after his victory on the show last Sunday) it has certainly made it a lot bigger.
So if I’m going to join the fight this year with an original composition, I’ll need some songwriting advice. Ricky Ross, of Deacon Blue fame, has been thinking about Christmas songs recently. On December 25 he will be selecting some tracks to play alongside festive dedications on Radio Scotland’s The Christmas Greetings Show. It’s unlikely The Climb will get a spin, but Ross is keen to air a new release by The Pearlfishers called Come Chase The Snow. "It’s just a really beautiful song," he says. He also favours The Band’s classic retelling of the nativity story, Christmas Must Be Tonight, and James Brown’s Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto.
When I press him for songwriting advice, Ross volunteers some valuable nuts-and-bolts pointers and stresses the importance of collaboration. "I suppose I have been doing it for a long time and you go through different phases," he says. "I’ve always found that working with different people stops you from falling into the same patterns." Ross wrote with his bandmate Jim Prime in Deacon Blue, with his wife Lorraine on their current rootsy project McIntoshRoss, and remains an in-demand gun-for-hire for artists such as Jamie Cullum and Nanci Griffith. He extols due process and consummation. "You’ve got to keep chipping away at it. Get some feedback. When is a song finished, anyway? Is it when you record it or when you first perform it?"
Does he have any specific tips for writing a seasonal song? "Christmas is a subject that’s been done a lot, and emotional truth about any song is good, so if it’s your own experience then it might ring a bell with someone else." Emotional truth aside, when should I deploy the sleigh bells? Ross laughs. "Anywhere within the first two minutes and you’re probably going to be OK."
Armed with this advice, I seek out a suitable musical collaborator. An old friend of mine, Cam, is in a country-folk rock band called Friends Of The Stars, who write and record heartbreaking songs brimming with dustbowl sadness. Dylan is clearly a musical touchstone, although they probably look more to Blonde On Blonde or Nashville Skyline than the Bobcat’s current Yuletide record. Despite this, Cam gamely agrees to help write the song and produce it within his cosy home studio, nicknamed The Jam Hole. The studio is stuffed with acoustic guitars, electric guitars, slide guitars, bass guitars and a microphone so expensive that I’m usually not allowed near it.
We set aside a December date for recording, which should presumably help (Wizzard’s songwriting magus Roy Wood has a well-worn anecdote about recording I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day in August: he erected a Christmas tree and made the band perform the song in overcoats and scarves). I present Cam with little more than a basic, repetitive chord sequence and a nagging, tinkling lead guitar line that sounds almost cravenly festive. Sonically, I want to shoot straight for the mass-market, mimicking the soaring secular hymns of Coldplay and Snow Patrol, those galactically popular songs of mid-tempo tenderness and iPod-ready transcendence. But instead of generalised expressions of hope, longing or catharsis, I want to tell a proper Christmas story, with a beginning, a middle and, obviously, a punchline.
There are already songs about spending the festive period in jail -- John Prine’s 1973 song Christmas In Prison is an alternative standard, covered by everyone from Ry Cooder to Lightspeed Champion -- but the high-walled setting is too tempting for me to pass up. Our jailbird protagonist can be plausibly separated from his beloved, and have a legitimate reason for gloomily staring out of the barred window at the weather. And anyway, didn’t Norman Stanley Fletcher do his porridge in Slade Prison? The first lyrical draft is, I think, a fairly harrowing evocation of the dehumanising effects of incarceration. As it turns out, "saviour" rhymes with "good behaviour". When I tentatively sing it to Cam, he nods along politely, then says: "It’s not very Christmassy, is it?" The second draft goes big on snow, tinsel and gifts.
Songwriting is an art, but recording feels more like an industrial process. There’s a lot of grinding repetition playing every musical part separately, and correctly, to create a viable song chassis. There are flubs, retakes and happy sonic accidents. The task of playing most of the instruments falls to Cam, who swaps between twelve-string strumming and fret-melting electric guitar solos. The singing, however, is definitely all me. Aiming for the middle ground between the untrammelled power of Meat Loaf and the vulnerability of Feist, I generally fall a bit flat. Cam assures me that dollops of reverb and sound compression will eke out the best from my wobbly voice. "When you compress it, it sounds bigger," he explains enigmatically.
As our song, Christmas Inside, fills out, we discuss an appropriate band name for such a lopsided duo. Cam suggests The Yellow Snowballs, presumably a reference to the Advocaat cocktail popular at this time of year. But Snow Parole wins out, encapsulating as it does both evocatively festive weather and a slight judicial vibe. After a sustained session of post-production, Cam manages to buff what began as a skinny strumalong into a genuinely expansive, lighters-aloft ballad. The addition of a glockenspiel amps up the vital Christmas twee factor; sleigh bells proudly ring out within two minutes. There is no time to enlist the services of a chorister, but it sounds pretty damn festive to me. So what do the experts think?
When I catch up with Ricky Ross, he is gracious and complimentary. "Well done for actually getting it finished," he says. "I think a lot of people start writing a song but not that many finish it." Does he think Christmas Inside has the potential to become a Christmas classic? "I think it’s quite hard to consciously write a classic song," he says diplomatically. "It does sound quite tongue-in-cheek." Ross is too polite to point out the general flatness of my voice, or the increasingly convoluted rhyme scheme.
Radio Scotland presenter Janice Forsyth gives it to me straight when I approach her for a professional opinion. "You didn’t hit all the notes but I thought at times you sounded a little bit like the young Lloyd Cole," she says. "Rhyming ‘Lexus’ with ‘Christmas’ was pretty appalling, though."
And what about the emotional crux of the song? "I think it’s easier to write a song that’s a parody than to write an emotional song," she says. "And the pace could have been quicker."
It is unlikely Christmas Inside will ever make it into the canon of classic Christmas songs that soundtrack our annual trawl round the shops. But perhaps that’s no bad thing. "Some of the ones that do make it big, they’re pretty simplistic," says Ross. "It’s not that the song has captured some universal thing, it’s just that it’s got the word Christmas in it." I take heart from the fact that Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody -- 36 years young this month, and voted the UK’s most popular Christmas hit as recently as 2007 -- was inspired by psychedelia rather than sentimentality.
Noddy Holder told me the story himself once, while promoting his autobiography. "It was actually the first song I ever wrote, and it was at the height of the hippie acid period of music," he said. "The original lyrics of the chorus were very melancholy: ‘So won’t you buy me a rocking chair, to watch the world go by/ Buy me a looking glass, to look me in the eye’."
So if there is some magic festive formula, Slade seem to have invented it by accident. And trying to recreate their songwriting success has somehow changed me. To borrow the emotive parlance of The X Factor, it feels like I’ve been on an incredible journey. And it’s even made me reconsider what I’d like under the tree. So if you’re reading, Santa, forget the PlayStation 3: how about a rocking chair, a looking glass and a new rhyming dictionary? Click play to listen to a future Christmas classic
The McIntoshRoss album The Great Lakes is out now, and they play Celtic Connections on January 16. To hear Cam’s non-Christmas band, visit www.friendsofthestars.co.uk
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Many thanks to staff at The Belle , Great Western Road, Glasgow, for their assistance