Greatest Christmas songs ever
As we have been delving into the commercial value of Christmas background music we decided to take a look at the stories behind ten of the greatest Christmas songs ever.
Fairytale of New York
The track was originally penned as a duet between frontman Shane MacGowan and bass player Caitlín O'Riordan. However, as Caitlín left before the track was finished, female vocal duties were passed to the late Kirsty MaColl. Kirsty was the wife of Steve Lillywhite, the producer of the album. The track was due to appear on, 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'. Although now an immensely popular track, ‘Fairytale of New York’ never made it to No.1 in the UK Charts. It was kept off the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always On My Mind’. It was the subject of considerable controversy in 2007 when BBC Radio One ordered censorship of the lyrics ‘slut’ and ‘faggot’ for broadcasting. Following complaints from numerous listeners and a campaign from MaColl’s mother Jean, the censorship was lifted and it returned to the standard we know and love today.
Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono are rumoured to have written this in a hotel room in New York and recorded it in just 3 days at the Record Plant. It didn’t even chart in the US but did much better in the UK. The basis of the song comes from a billboard message campaign they commissioned in 1969, “War is over! (If you want it)". The track was produced by Phil Spector and wasn’t his first involvement in a Christmas song. In 1963 he put together ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector’ featuring artists like The Ronettes. Unfortunately the album was released on the same day John F Kennedy was assassinated so the album was removed from the market.
This song is most unusual in that it doesn’t mention any of the usual iconic imagery associated with Christmas. It was originally written by James Lord Pierpoint in 1857 but the modern version has a slightly different tune and lyrical variations – a verse seems to have been lost along the way that just refers to a young man attempting to impress the girls on his sleigh. According to The Washington Post, the most hated Christmas song is a 1955 recording of Jingle Bells which may have something to do with the fact that the recording was made by a pack of dogs.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This song has a dark side. When it first appeared in the musical Meet Me In St. Louis with Judy Garland it included the lyrics “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last,” “Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more,” and “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Thankfully Dean Martin rewrote that last lyric for Frank Sinatra’s album ‘A Jolly Christmas’, and that’s the version we are most familiar with: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
All I Want for Christmas is You
Another recent addition to the great Christmas songs canon, this it not a cover of the 1992 Vince Vance and The Valiants track but an original composed by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff. Afanasieff started off as Whitney Houston's co-producer/arranger and co-wrote many of Carey's hits including ‘Hero’ and ‘One Sweet Day’. He also won a 1999 Grammy award for co-producing Celine Dion's ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ It was kept off the UK Christmas top spot by East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ but it became Mariah’s first chart smash hit in Japan where it sold over 500,000 copies. The song also sold over 500,000 ringtones and in December 2006 became the first ringtone to achieve an RIAA gold certification.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Talk about an instant hit - the first known public airing of this song was on a radio show in November, 1934. It sold over 100,000 copies of sheet music the following day and more than 400,000 by Christmas that year.
This song was written by Irving Berlin, considered by many to be the greatest songwriter in history. Apparently he knew he’d penned a classic as soon as he’d finished it – he asked his secretary to take down the song saying “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written. Hell, I just wrote the best song anyone’s ever written!” Bing Crosby made it famous when he sang it on his radio show in 1941 – he then recorded it in 1942. Until Elton John’s version of Candle in the Wind for Princess Diana (1998) it was the best-selling single in any music category.
Merry Christmas Everybody
Feted as the first Christmas-themed rock song, Slade had huge success with this track. It was the Christmas No.1 in 1973 and stayed at the top spot until the middle of January. There were approximately half a million pre-orders and it sold 350,000 units on the release day (7th December). Slade’s frontman, Noddy Holder, said, “We'd decided to write a Christmas song and I wanted to make it reflect a British family Christmas. Economically, the country was up the creek. The miners had been on strike, along with the grave-diggers, the bakers and almost everybody else. I think people wanted something to cheer them up – and so did I. That's why I came up with the line Look To The Future Now/It's Only Just Begun. Once I got the line Does Your Granny Always Tell You That The Old Ones Are The Best, I knew I'd got a right cracker on my hands.”
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This was actually created in 1939 to promote the Montgomery Ward department store chain in the US. When Johnny Marks adapted the character to the song, it pretty much became an instant hit – he was also responsible for Christmas songs ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’.
This song was recorded in 1953 by Eartha Kitt– probably equally famous for playing Catwoman in the Batman TV series. It was written by Joan Javits, niece of a US Senator, and Philip Springer. Javit sold her rights to Springer. Springer tried to get several artists to record it and eventually Madonna took it on in 1987. That brought the song back into the spotlight and since then it’s been recorded by a large number of artists including Everclear, RuPaul, Marilyn Monroe, Macy Gray, Faith Evans, Kylie Minogue, The Pussycat Dolls, LeAnn Rimes, Taylor Swift, Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal, and even Miss Piggy in ‘It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie’.