Once a year, members of the pop group “Slade” plan their 11 month holiday in the sun, funded by royalty payments from the “Merry Christmas Everybody” single.
Like similar hits by Wizzard and Mariah Carey, it takes what used to be the hippest dance beat of the thirties and transforms it into a flat-faced, ironed out, shouting racket. It’s the equivalent of a Ray Charles poster on the wall at an office party, and its standard issue, sandpaper shrillness sits comfortably within the enforced enthusiasm and shopping noise of the period.
No automated checkouts will it’s jubilant voice subdue.
All Christmas songs have to have this swing beat. Here’s another one. This beat is only ever tolerated at Christmas, those are the rules and they are rarely broken except by Jona Lewie. But strange things sometimes lurk beneath the tinsel.
Slade’s lyrics are very strange, for a start. Opening with “Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?” a series of bullet point questions follow…are you doing such and such, does he do this, does he do that, does he have a drinking problem? Why the interrogation? Are you question our motives? Are you wondering what the point of all this really is? Are you ruining the party atmosphere?
But the chorus is the real head scratcher:
“So here it is, Merry Xmas
Everybody’s having fun.”
(So far so good, although the “here it is” smacks of a certain level of disdain, as if to say “is that it?”….but then….)
“Look to the future now,
It’s only just begun.”
With a mind consumed by thoughts of decorations, grandma’s gibbering nostalgia for the “old songs” (surely the composers knew this song would become one of them), is there even time to be philosophising about the future? And can the future ever “begin”? Isn’t it always after “now”, forever beyond our reach? A song composed of questions which do nothing but raise further questions, hopelessly caught in its own spiral of doubt. This is not the stuff of Wizzard’s brain dead rhymes, and it’s not Jack Frost nipping at your nose either. It’s a protest against Christmas…look again, they are saying, at your patterns of behaviour, your peculiar rituals, the tat in your trolley.
And then the music. You have to dig down a bit, but… “Everybody’s having fun”….listen to that again, the way “body’s” has a kind of doubting sidestep, a minor key colouration that gives us pause. Wagner might have written it, minus the beat of course, but either way, this is not “fun” music. And the unfaithful mother and her red hooded lover are accompanied by a brilliant change of pace and darkening of mood, then with a sudden uplift, (ahaaaa-aaaaaaa) we are back to where we were, the sort of lurching key changes Talking Heads might have done…everything is restored but nothing is resolved. Making music complicated often darkens the mood, and here it’s fundamentally unsettling. I think it pretty much proves the point that you could set a choir of car horns to a shuffle beat and make a Christmas song out of it. But was it an accident? I don’t think so.
Under Stalin’s regime, Shostakovich used to “smuggle in” clashing dissonance under catchy melodies, fulfilling the brief to stay patriotic whilst preserving a critical stance undetected by the state. And Slade, in their own way, perhaps, are doing the same with us. Perhaps it’s their insurance against the inevitable critical backlash that may come in the future (presumably some time after it’s only just begun). Look, they will say, it may have seemed like an innocent Christmas song to you, but we were criticising, not glorifying, excess. Our song has a troubled energy, uneasy shifts, it unfolds around an almost sermonising series of questions that cast doubt not only on life, but on Christmas itself. Once experienced, there’s no going back. There is no looking to the past or the future, but rather a slow realisation that we are in the moment always.
Quite an achievement for the band that was named after a nickname for a pair of shoes.