Thursday, 24 December 2015

Dark Christmas

by Lucy Smith

So, here we are again- a week into the Christmas holidays and most of my Christmas shopping is done (though, predictably, none of it is yet wrapped), I’ve managed to catch up with a few friends, and I’m starting to think about making the journey back up to Derby to spend the break with my family and childhood friends. 

Last year I took you on a tour of ten of my favourite alternative Christmas songs, and in the preamble I summed up my feelings towards the season succinctly enough to not warrant repetition here. There’s something so presumptuous about naming a whole month “the season to be jolly”- as if anyone who thought otherwise was slightly unhinged. Well, anyone who has ever partaken in that most British of Christmas past-times that is the Eastenders Christmas Day special will know that Christmas should more accurately be named “the season to have a full-scale family row as a result of spending far more time in close proximity than usual, fuelled by too many Quality Street and brandies, and ignited by a heated game of Monopoly whilst discussing politics with your rather un-PC uncle.”

In that spirit, this year I have chosen to explore a number of songs that have something of a dark underside to them- maybe songs that take a few listens to get into what they’re really saying, a song with a dark story behind the writer, or just a different take on the festive season. Merry Christmas, and enjoy.

1.   This Christmas by Donny Hathaway
This is a beautiful Christmas song by jazz/ soul musician Donny Hathaway. It’s such an upbeat performance, full of hope and cheer. With this song, Donny sought to cut through the “White Christmas” domination and create a true African-American standard, and the sheer number of prominent artists who have covered it is an absolute testament to that fact: Aretha Franklin, Destiny’s Child, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Diana Ross, the Temptations and Cee-Lo Green, to name just a few. Behind the pure, unadulterated joy emanating from this song, it’s hard to forget the fate that Mr Hathaway (as prophetically name-checked by Amy Winehouse in her song Rehab) would go on to meet. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly after this song’s release, Hathaway would jump to his death from a New York hotel window in 1979, at the height of his career.

2.   Do You Hear What I Hear? by Gladys Knight and the Pips
This Christmas standard by then-husband and wife duo Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker conjures up an idyllic pastoral scene involving a lamb and a shepherd boy. The song was first recorded in 1962 by the Harry Simone Chorale, but it is the Bing Crosby version-recorded on 22nd November, 1963 (JFK’s assassination) that turned the song into a staple of the season. You’d be forgiven for not picking up on the dark stimulus that prompted the song, were it not for a line towards the end of the song: “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.” Composed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is song serves as a plea for peace in a time when the writers’ genuinely feared a nuclear holocaust. There are hundreds of versions of this song; I’ve gone with Gladys Knight’s interpretation from the 1975 Christmas album Bless This House.

3.   We Three Kings by The Reverend Horton Heat
No wonder the words to this one get changed around by school children to involve cigars and scooters. Written by a Pennsylvanian Episcopalian minister in the mid-19th Century from the point of view of the visiting Magi, few carols place emphasis on Christ’s fate- a child born to die- in such a direct manner. Focusing on the gifts brought by the Wise Men of St Matthew’s Gospel, the misery is pretty well summed up in the penultimate verse:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Cheery stuff. Perhaps it’s best I’ve gone with psychobilly outfit Reverend Horton Heat’s instrumental version here!

4.   Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland
Ranked as the third most performed Christmas song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is taken from the film Meet Me In St. Louis. This 1944 film introduced the 22 year old star Judy Garland to her second husband, Vincente Minelli- a man almost 20 years her senior, whose homosexual tendencies allegedly drove Garland to her first suicide attempt. Judy’s character Esther Smith sings the song in the film to her younger sister, who is distressed at the change and upheaval of the family’s imminent relocation from St. Louis to New York. The song is pretty wistful as it stands, but Garland vetoed the original lyric from Ralph Blane as too depressing:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past.
 Even so, given the placement of the song in the film and the overall tone of the tune, not to mention the fate of the singer, the title seems, at best, ironic.

5.       River by Joni Mitchell
 Mitchell’s Blue album consistently ranks amongst the greatest albums ever made, with brutally honest reflections spanning from her break-up with James Taylor, to her daughter she gave up for adoption in her early 20s. River has become one of Joni’s most-covered and best-known songs, despite never having been released as a single. Although it is not a Christmas song per se, it is set in the winter run-up to Christmas. The song opens with a minor key piano motif reminiscent of Jingle Bells. She laments the break-up of a relationship, longing to escape her emotional pain in the icy climes of her native Canada, rather than her current warm Californian home.

6.    In the Bleak Midwinter by Worcester Cathedral Choir
Christina Rossetti evokes a snowy nativity scene in this theologically rich poem, published in 1872 following a commission from by American magazine Scribner’s Monthly. The title the poem was published under, Christmas Carol, hints at Rossetti’s ultimate intention for the work, but it wasn’t until some 12 years after her death that the poem was finally set to music. Although Harold Darke’s more musically complex anthem arrangement of the poem has been voted the best Christmas carol of all time by some experts, Gustav Holst’s 1906 setting, included in the English Hymnal, is the more famous of the two.

7.   Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer by Elmo and Patsy
Another quintessential Christmas tradition is dealt with here: the family matriarch undertaking a seasonal overindulgence in festive cheer. The particular grandma in question in this novelty country offering ventures into the snow after slugging back eggnog and forgetting to take her pills. It doesn’t end well, with the family mourning her untimely departure at the hands (and hooves) of Santa and his reindeer- all with the exception of Grandpa, who seems to take the news quite well….

8.   Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis by Tom Waits
This song, written and performed by Tom Waits, is told as a letter from a prostitute to a man named Charlie. The song’s lyrics advance in a hopeful vain, with the correspondent informing Charlie that she is pregnant, met a nice man, and cleaned up her act. By the final verse we learn that this is all lies, and that she is, in fact, in prison and needs to borrow money for a lawyer.

9.   Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well You Deserved It!) by Sufjan Stevens
Indie folk-rocker Stevens has recorded not one, but two five-volume Christmas albums, 2006’s Songs for Christmas, and 2012’s Silver & Gold. Spanning 100 separate tracks, and originally recorded as separate EPs for Sufjan to give to friends and family over the festive period each year, Stevens combines lo-fi interpretations of traditional carols from around the world, festive standards, and original compositions on the theme of Christmas. This vengeful number falls into the latter category.

10.  2000 Miles by The Pretenders
The original incarnation of The Pretenders was an utterly phenomenal band, and it can be easy to understate their influence on a whole generation of indie artists that followed (Johnny Marr, for example, claims to have warmed up before every Smiths gig with the guitar solo from their second single Kid). The band was subject to tragedy when, in the space of nine months in the early 1980s, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon died of cocaine-induced heart failure and a heroin-precipitated bathtub drowning respectively, leaving drummer Martin Chambers and vocalist Chrissie Hynde as the only two surviving members. To the casual ear, the song appears to be a reference to the distance between Hynde and her lover; it was, in fact, written as a tribute to Honeyman-Scott, following his death the previous year.


Happy Christmas, one and all!

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