The uncomfortable truth behind those festive favourites
Do They Know It’s Christmas?
It’s easy to condemn the efforts of all those coke-fuelled, coiffured mid-eighties popstars for their self-righteous, tuneless, foray into geo-politics, so I’m going to. In recent years, the whole Band Aid phenomena has been revisited through the lens of the ‘white saviour’ framework, whereby western white people take the credit for helping/saving/feeding impoverished or enslaved black people, especially on the continent of Africa. It’s why everyone’s heard of William ‘white saviour’ Wilberforce but few have heard of Queen Nanny who successfully led a guerrilla army against the British in Jamaica. Doesn’t fit the narrative, see.
Lest you think this is some recent retro-fitting of woke-ness onto a perfectly laudable charitable effort 35 years ago, Band Aid and Live Aid came under fierce criticism at the time. Those anarcho-communist funsters Chumbawamba released their album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records in 1986 as a sharp rebuke to what they saw as hypocrisy by the likes of Queen who would happily headline Live Aid, but also play Sun City.
Even the Fabian Society got in on the act, publishing Beyond Band Aid: charity is not enough. They had a point: the many millions raised by Band Aid over 35 years is dwarfed by a single year of the UK’s aid budget (even after the Tories reduced it this year), and represents a drop in the ocean compared to Western nations’ cancellation of debt. Do They Know It’s Christmas? Of course they do — they’re struggling against the legacy of centuries of colonial oppression and a rigged system of global trade, they’re not stupid. No wonder Weller looks so miserable.
I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus
This is a real Rorschach test of a song. I never for a second contemplated that it’s about a child witnessing Mummy kissing actual Santa Claus, thus embedding the childhood trauma of seeing a parent commit an infidelity, whilst simultaneously unearthing the presence of the supernatural. But there are some people who read it like this, and frankly they need help. The far more innocent explanation is that the child sees Mum and Dad engaged in a little harmless yuletide role-play (‘I saw Mommy tickle Santa Claus/underneath his beard so snowy white’). However, either way the child still believes that the man is really Santa Claus, so the deep-seated psychological damage is done.
I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus was written by a British songwriter Tommie Cooper, who was born in 1904 and wrote whimsical songs from the thirties onwards. Cooper was no slouch when it came to Christmassy themes. His titles include: I’m Spending Christmas with the Old Folks, My Christmas Wish, The Village of Christmas Pie (wait, what?) and the psychodrama of The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot, a hit for Vera Lynn in 1937.
The Ronettes’ version is the best, on the 1964 Phil Spector Christmas album, but the Jackson 5 also recorded it for their 1970 Christmas album, with the 12-year-old Michael Jackson playing the part of the confused child building up unresolved trauma in adulthood because of his parents.
Baby It’s Cold Outside
‘Say what’s in this drink?’ is the line in Baby It’s Cold Outside, first recorded in 1944, that raises the alarm that this may not be an encounter overly imbued with mutual consent. It’s a romantic duet between a gal, who is desperate to leave (‘I really can’t stay’), and a creepy lothario who really can’t take no for an answer (‘Mind if I move in closer?’). It would make a good training video for those sexual consent awareness courses students have to take.
Despite the whiff of rohypnol hanging over it, the song has been covered by showbusiness royalty: Louise Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jnr, Carmen McCrae, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Skeeter Davis, Barry Maniloe, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, and despite the only relevance to Christmas being the snowstorm raging outside, it remains a festive favourite.
It’s the musical equivalent of those fifties sitcoms with male executives chasing their female secretaries around the desk, or early Bonds where the women resist, but then somehow melt into his arms. Spoiler alert: the girl ends up staying the night. Needless to say, Baby It’s Cold Outside wasn’t written by a woman.
There are those who defend the song by suggesting the female voice is merely stacking up excuses for the consensual act she is about to commit, in an age when women were denied sexual agency. As such, it is ‘of its time’. But then again, so is the Black and White Minstrel Show, and nobody wants to see that.
Soul singer Clarence Carter’s contribution to the Christmas playlists is an epic piece of boasting about his sexual prowess and success at seducing other men’s women (‘I make all the little girls happy while the boys go out to play). The song is an extended series of innuendos (‘I ain’t like old St Nick, he don’t come but once a year/I come running with my sack, girl, everytime you call me, dear’).
Aside from the jingle bells in the background, there isn’t much Christmassy about Backdoor Santa, but that didn’t stop Run DMC sampling the horn riff for their Christmas in Hollis in 1987, perhaps because it was the last 20 seconds of sixties soul to remain unsampled by eighties hip hop acts.
If you don’t get the subtextual reference to ‘backdoor’ (see also Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love), I’m not going to tell you. But it’s about anal sex. All of which makes for a raunchy, rude slice of classic sixties soul, as far removed from Silent Night as you can get.
Fairy-tale of New York
Where once we had Christmas traditions like Morecambe & Wise, wassailing, and giving children lumps of coal, now we have the controversy every December over the lyrics of Fairy-tale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Because people are offended, I’m more than happy to hear the bowdlerised version recorded on Top of the Pops in 1992 instead. As a general rule, if oppressed minorities describe their oppression, it’s probably best to listen.
The key offending word (and look away now if you’re offended) is ‘faggot’, which as a homophobic slur has more power in the USA than in the UK. It has been imported through US television drama, but maintains other entirely innocuous meanings in British-English. It is sometimes used in reference to lighting fires, and more liberally in cooking. The contestants on BBC 1’s Masterchef: the Professionals the other night were making faggots from rabbit, for example. See also ‘fag’ which Brits use to mean ‘cigarette’ (as in ‘I’m popping out for a fag’) or rather more obscurely in reference to the hierarchy within boarding schools whereby younger boys (‘fags’) perform menial tasks for older ones.
The point is that Kirsty MacColl and Shane McGowen are playing rowing, drunken, drug-addled characters in a mythologised (hence Fairy-tale, a title borrowed from the book by JP Donleavy) New York, where the cops are all American-Irish and sing Galway Bay. Kirsty MacColl was by all accounts one of the loveliest people you could meet and would rarely call anyone a scumbag or maggot. She’s playing a character. No-one says ‘I can’t believe that nice David Tennant murdered all those young men’, or ‘I never knew Taika Waititi was Hitler’, so it shouldn’t be too much to apply the same logic to Kirsty and Shane.
In retaliation to her barrage of insults, the man calls his woman an ‘old slut on junk/lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’ and nothing says Christmas like heroin addiction. Fairy-tale of New York is the nation’s favourite Christmas song (take that Macca, Noddy and Cliff) and to top it all, Shane McGowen was born on Christmas Day.
Paul Richards is a writer-for-hire.