Six 1980s Christmas Songs Not Just For Christmas

3175516482_2745396c60_bCrimbo, eh, readers?

The ’80s certainly has its fair share of duff Christmas tracks, maybe more than most decades, but at least there’s also a lot of variety.

The Christmas number one suddenly had a bit of prestige. Consequently a huge variety of artists tried their luck from Sting, The Eurythmics and U2 to Siouxsie And The Banshees, Jethro Tull and Depeche Mode.

Here are six Christmas singles from the 1980s that I could just about tolerate hearing any time of the year.

6. The Waitresses: Christmas Wrapping (1981)

The New York new-wavers’ charmingly-ramshackle little number has only grown in stature as a seasonal favourite despite not even making the UK top 100 on its original December 1981 release.

5. The Three Wise Men: Thanks For Christmas (1983)

XTC in disguise. Andy Partridge came up with this very pleasant but almost totally ignored singalong, unfortunately released smack-bang in the middle of a period when the Swindon three-piece couldn’t get arrested. But what’s really cool about ‘Thanks For Christmas’ is THAT chord change…

4. David Bowie/Bing Crosby: Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy (1982)

Just two days on from taping a superb performance of ‘Heroes’ and a duet with Marc Bolan on the ‘Marc’ TV show, Bowie was invited onto Bing’s ‘Merrie Olde Christmas’ to film this great and genuinely surreal clip on 11th September 1977. Apparently the ‘Peace On Earth’ segment of the song was composed on the day of filming (by the show’s music consultants Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman) and rehearsed for only an hour before the cameras rolled – pretty impressive. When finally released as a single in 1982, ‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ peaked at number three in the chart. Was it an subconscious influence on the wistful ‘Fantastic Voyage‘ released just over a year later?

3. Jona Lewie: Stop The Cavalry (1980)

Nothing says 1980 to me like this strange little Christmas song (though, according to Lewie, it wasn’t intended as such) which peaked at UK number three, only kept off the top spot by two posthumous John Lennon singles.

2. Band Aid: Do They Know It’s Christmas (1984)

Yes, it’s as over-familiar as an uncle’s Boxing Day bear hug, but it retains some power due to its musical-chairs approach, great Boy George vocals and the lack of a proper chorus. I think it was the first 7” single I actually went out and bought.

1. The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl: Fairytale Of New York (1987)

Only the hardest heart could deny the poignancy of this all-time classic. Written, arranged, played and sung with consummate care, this tale of doomed love in the Big Apple reached number two in December 1987.

Happy Christmas to one and all.

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Illicit AOR: The Tubes’ Completion Backward Principle

tubesCapitol Records, released April 1981

8/10

From Loose Tubes to The Tubes. Even as a teenager, I picked up something faintly illicit about this band. A cool friend of my dad’s stuck ‘Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman’ on a cassette for me alongside Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and Bill Withers’ Greatest Hits sometime around the late-’80s. I loved it, though it would take me a good few years to find out who had recorded it. A lot of detective work was called for – The Tubes weren’t exactly big in the UK.

To my adolescent ears, the song sounded something like a collision between Steely Dan and Frank Zappa, marrying sophisticated arrangements and jazzy chords to B-movie lyrics, and that still sounds somewhere in the right ballpark.

The band’s earlier career had taken them through glam/punk, Spector-style pop and new-wave rock, but The Completion Backward Principle was the first Tubes album produced by David Foster, a gifted Canadian keyboardist who already had a proven track record as a first-call session player, arranger and songwriter. He had worked extensively on Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am (co-writing the megahit ‘After The Love Has Gone’), Lee Ritenour’s Rit and Boz Scaggs’ Middle Man. According to most accounts, as a producer he was a pretty hard taskmaster, demanding absolute perfection. He wasn’t above telling a band member to go home early and calling in a name session player in his place (which he frequently did during the recording of Chicago 17).

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But the results speak for themselves. The band had made a quantum leap since 1979’s Todd Rundgren-produced Remote Control. Fee Waybill had turned into a pretty damn good singer. Drummer Prairie Prince is hardly the most subtle player in the world (Jeff Porcaro was surely waiting in the wings) but he’s every bit the human metronome on these songs and plays a blinder on the brilliant ‘Think About Me’.

Maybe ‘Don’t Wanna Wait Anymore’ and ‘Amnesia’ sound more like Chicago than Devo but they are subtle, memorable and interesting with great chord changes, while the fairly risqué ‘Sushi Girl’ could have come from Zappa’s You Are What You Is. ‘Let’s Make Some Noise’ even taps into the kind of pop/funk that Let’s Dance took to the bank a few years later. The album is also beautifully recorded, engineered and mastered, sounding superb on my original vinyl copy.

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I also love the cover concept. The band’s corporate attire and conservative ‘message’ were apparently a satirical take on Reagan’s inauguration and the rise of motivational business concepts. But the smarter the clothes, the weirder the content, as the Surrealists proved decades before.

According to this interview with Fee Waybill, The Tubes imploded a few years later after The Completion Backward Principle when David Foster suggested that only he, Waybill and a few outside songwriters should compose singles for the band. He would appear to have a point, that team having co-written ‘Talk To Ya Later’, the Top 40 hit ‘Don’t Want To Wait Anymore’ and the number 10 hit a few years later, ‘She’s A Beauty‘. Waybill believes they might have become as big as Foreigner or Journey had they taken Foster’s advice, but it wasn’t to be – the rest of the band vetoed the suggestion and Waybill left in 1985 after the disastrous Rundgren-produced Love Bomb. However, they have continued to be a successful live band to this day. I loved seeing them in 2000 at the much-missed London Astoria.

Big Band Revolutionaries: 30 Years Of Loose Tubes

loose-tubes102_v-panorama

A small segment of Loose Tubes, 1985

Anyone who got into jazz in the 1980s must surely have a soft spot for the legendary anarcho-big band Loose Tubes.

I saw them play live sometime around 1986 in one of those great community-run London venues (Logan Hall? Shaw Theatre? Camden Arts Centre?) that appeared quickly, burnt brightly and then disappeared. I don’t recall much about the music but do remember the crowd; the jazz revival was in full flight so there were lots of very hip people wearing chinos, black polo-necks and sometimes even berets dancing unashamedly.

Then, a bit later, Loose Tubes played on Saturday-evening primetime TV wearing very loud clothes, dancing idiotically and generally clowning around with the audience. It was youthful and different and gave Big Band Jazz a much-needed makeover. Of course there’s always the chance that some people just didn’t think of their music as ‘jazz’ at all, and their clowning may well have put a lot of potential punters off. But the band probably weren’t too bothered about that.

loose tubes

In a way, the Loose Tubes could only have originated in the ’80s, emerging as it did from composer and educator Graham Collier‘s community big band workshops. There was no ‘leader’ per se (although keyboards/French horn man Django Bates was occasionally seen conducting in very syncopated sections) and any member of the band was free to submit compositions. Consequently, Loose Tubes’ music touched on anything that took its composers’ fancy – samba, heavy metal, folk, Weather Report-style fusion, flamenco, Hi-Life, blues, reggae, free jazz.

Their first self-titled album came out in the summer of 1985 and it was a really nice distillation of their sound (and featured one of my favourite UK drummers, Nic France, who left soon after the recording to join Working Week). Django Bates’ composition ‘Yellow Field’ remains a classic. The followup Delightful Precipice is probably their best known album, and the final studio recording was 1988’s Teo Macero-produced Open Letter.

It was probably a miracle that such a huge band lasted as long as it did (six years) but Loose Tubes was also a superb career springboard for Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Tim Whitehead, guitarist John Parricelli, flautist Eddie Parker, drummers Nic France/Steve Arguelles and ‘bone man Ashley Slater, all of whom are going strong today.

And guess what – they reformed in 2014, playing concerts at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Brecon Jazz Festival and a sold-out week at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. Two live album have also recently been released, Sad Afrika and Dancing On Frith Street, both of which featured music from their original farewell gig at Ronnie’s in September 1990.

Check out lots more about Loose Tubes and the ’80s UK jazz revival in this excellent BBC doc:

Don’t Mention The Prog: It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis

eat-me-in-st-louis-527b870be5b7fVirgin Records, released June 1989

9/10

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, June 1989

It Bites go Metal? Nearly. A brave attempt to break the US? Possibly. Even Kerrang! magazine took notice of this one. Riff-heavy, blues-based rock was making a big comeback on the late-‘80s UK music scene, typified by the success of Thunder, The Quireboys, Gun and Little Angels.

The gifted Cumbrian four-piece came up with a neat twist and produced their heaviest album yet – but they could never completely jettison their penchant for brilliant pop hooks, colourful instrumentation and intricate arrangements.

it bites

Francis Dunnery’s guitar playing was leaner, meaner and more direct than before, with a stronger blues flavour; Hendrix and Clapton were touchstones now rather than Holdsworth and Gambale. The song and performance were paramount. He had also added a lot of grit to his vocals and talked glowingly of David Sylvian and The Blue Nile in interviews. Producer Mack brought the big drum sound and ban on reverb. Dick Nolan expanded the grooves with his new six-string bass. There were three near-hits (‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Sister Sarah’). Roger Dean provided the album cover concept/graphics/masks, possibly a weird move for a band trying to escape the Prog tag. It was red rag to a bull for the NME who ran a sarcastic mini-interview with Dunnery which barely mentioned the band’s music.

First single ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ was Classic Rock of an early-‘70s vintage, sounding more like Family, Cat Stevens or Free than Genesis or Marillion. Virgin flogged it mercilessly with not one but two re-releases but there was still no sign of a hit. I remember excitedly rushing out to the buy the 12” version one beautiful spring day in 1989. Its superb B-side ‘Vampires’ features one of Dunnery’s most outrageous guitar solos. Other fine B-sides of the time include ‘Bullet In The Barrell‘ and ‘Woman Is An Addict‘ which features a killer whole-tone Nolan/Dunnery riff.

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, It Bites were shaping up to be one of the bigger live draws in British rock – they embarked on three tours in the space of a year, selling out the Hammersmith Odeon and impressing everyone. A glorious night at the old Town And Country Club featured on the ‘Meltdown’ TV show. They played extensively in Japan and toured the States with Jethro Tull. The feeling in the Virgin camp was that the fourth album would deliver the big hit they were striving for. Too heavy for pop but too pop for metal? Too good for the charts? Suddenly, despite the lack of singles action, it didn’t seem to matter too much.

But the cracks were starting to show – Dunnery was a barely-functioning alcoholic whose self-loathing tendencies led to sublimely pissed-off guitar solos but more often than not wound up the rest of the band – especially the equally gifted yet far more docile John Beck (Dunnery recently said in a Classic Prog interview that they had very different ‘energy levels’), often leading to some thrillingly edgy onstage duels but also some resentment.

Decamping to Los Angeles to write songs for the fourth album proved a career move too far – Beck, Dalton and Nolan refused to work with Dunnery who was AWOL periodically throughout the sessions. The band splintered and that was that, despite a brief reunion of the original line-up the early noughties. It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been if they’d been able to hold on a bit longer and harness the creative tension between Beck and Dunnery. The breakup was a sad end to one of the most prodigious groups of musicians in the ‘80s pop pantheon.

The Sundays: Can’t Be Sure

the sundaysAs December rolls around once again, my music listening takes on a far more wintry hue. And they don’t come much more wintry than The Sundays‘ sublime recording debut ‘Can’t Be Sure’.

I’m really not sure how I first came to be aware of The Sundays. I don’t recall seeing them on TV or hearing them on the radio, though do vaguely remember a Vox magazine cover feature in early 1991 (see below).

To this day, I don’t really know what they look like and don’t want to know – I started watching the video for ‘Can’t Be Sure’ while writing this and had to turn it off…

With hindsight, some of the band’s ‘indie’ influences would generally have been a turn-off to me in 1989/1990 – instead, we were all drawn to the crystalline, unfettered beauty of Harriet Wheeler’s voice and her winning way with a melody.

Though ‘Can’t Be Sure’ was released as a UK single in January 1989 and reached just 45 in the singles charts, it ended the year as number one in John Peel’s Festive Fifty. The track also has a weird prog connection – it was (excellently) co-produced by Ray Shulman, a founding member of Gentle Giant.

‘Can’t Be Sure’ and its attendant classic album Reading, Writing And Arithmetic now seem redolent of a far gentler time, an era of hope and innocence, pre-Grunge and Britpop. For that reason, along with the Cocteaus’ Heaven Or Las Vegas, they’re quite hard to listen to now but no less powerful. The Sundays were also arguably a very influential band on many inferior acts (The Cranberries, The Corrs etc etc).

sundays