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.

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).

tubes

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.

tubes 2

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: