Merry Xmas Everybody
Today is the 50th anniversary of Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody.
We asked Daryl Easlea, author of Whatever Happened to Slade? to write about the song which definitively immortalised Slade in Britain.
For many, there is but one image of Slade, whether it is a genuine image or imagined. It was captured in a television studio in West London in 1973, and it involves balloons, fake snow and four men in their late 20s stomping around singing a modern folk song.
The performers look like a very seventies take on something quite Dickensian: frontman Noddy Holder as an ebullient be-mutton-chopped gang leader, with guitarist Dave Hill as an Artful Dodger and bass player Jim Lea and drummer Don Powell lurking behind them, like two malevolent street urchins primed to mete out retribution.
The song they are playing is called ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, and its beguiling blend of hope, nostalgia and cheer, struck a chord with the people of Great Britain who propelled it to that year’s Christmas number one, and in many respects, it began the modern – and uniquely British – obsession with the record that tops the charts at the festive season and all its attendant ballyhoo.
Slade fans gathering outside Earls Court ahead of a Slade concert there in the Summer before their Christmas hit. 'We were real big time now,' Jim Lea said. MIRRORPIX
Although producer and songwriter Phil Spector had (uncommercially, at the time) trailblazed within the festive pop genre in 1963 with his album A Christmas Gift for You, it was not until John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ in 1971 with, ironically, Spector as producer, that the concept of a modern, contemporary, yuletide song with gravitas was entertained. Although Elvis Presley had offered ‘Blue Christmas’ in 1957, and several Christmas albums, The Beatles – who enjoyed four festive chart-toppers – thought so little of the form, they had honoured the holidays only by making flexi-discs of skits and song snatches strictly for their fan club between 1963 and 1969.
From ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ onwards, an open (festive?) season began. As an ex-Beatle was experimenting with the form, all the acts that looked up to Lennon clamoured to get their own yuletide sound.
That was one factor in Slade’s festivity: another was simply proving family wrong. Kathleen Ganner, the mother-in-law-to-be of Slade bassist, violinist and co-writer, Jim Lea, thought that Slade should write their own Christmas hit. When she teased Lea at the breakfast table that ‘White Christmas’ had sold more than any Slade hit, he was disgruntled, stating that Slade were a rock band, not a Christmas band, but she planted a seed within him. Slade’s manager Chas Chandler, too, had the idea for the group to make a Christmas record. With all these factors at play, the band’s songwriters Noddy Holder and Jim Lea went to work.
‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was an amalgam of melodies and songs they had written and discarded several years before. Lea wrote the majority of the melody and came up with the ‘so here it is’ refrain. Holder’s part was based on a song he had toyed with since 1967 called ‘Buy Me a Rocking Chair’.
The special ingredient, of course, is Holder’s lyrics. Written one night after a heavy session at the band’s Bilston local, The Trumpet, Holder went back to his mum and dad’s house and sat in the kitchen and jotted down a list of all the obvious things people associate with Christmas. It is an accessible, everyman celebration of the festive season. So simple, it was akin to a nursery rhyme. With lines about the anticipation, families arriving, dismissive yet jiving grannies, references to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’, snow, and the overall optimism, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ is undoubtedly Holder’s greatest lyric.
Because of schedules, the group couldn’t record the song in London, so, in September 1973 – during a freak heatwave – Slade went into the Record Plant studios on 321 West 44th Street, New York, and recorded their contribution to the festive canon. The initial version committed to tape was rejected by the group; another was recorded not in the studio itself, but in the adjacent hallway, to get the suitable acoustics. A harmonium that was being used by John Lennon, who’d been in another studio in the complex recording his Mind Games album, was utilised at the suggestion of Lea, giving the song its most distinctive introduction.
Released three months later, on 7 December 1973, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was to become Slade’s biggest hit single, and the one for which they will forever be remembered. It crowned 1973 for them, a year of the highest highs and plummeting lows, selling over a million copies, with 300,000 copies shifted on its day of release alone, and becoming the first Christmas record to enter the UK chart at number one. ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was the absolute view from the summit, their crowning glory. Since its initial twenty-five-week run in the charts as 1973 became 1974, it has been reissued frequently. In the era of downloading and subsequently, streaming, it has revisited the Top 75 each year since 2007.
REPUPROSED WITH FESTIVE AFFECTION BY DARYL EASLEA FROM WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SLADE? WHEN THE WHOLE WORLD WENT CRAZEE
Blog cover image is by Michelle 8bitnorthxstitch. You can find Slade mugs here!