Six More 1980s Christmas Songs Not Just For Christmas

Here we go again, then. Ducking the bombardment of Christmas musical missives, and two years on from the first collection, we present a few more festive tracks that – hopefully – don’t require the services of a sickbag.

A very Merry Christmas to all.

6. Paul McCartney: Pipes Of Peace (1983)

Paul’s Christmas 1983 chart-topper is, surprisingly, his only UK solo number one single (no doubt helped by the impressive video). The melody maestro puts together a hook-laden mini-symphony that Brian Wilson would surely be proud of. Producer George Martin even conjures a bit of Pepper-style surrealism for the intro.

5. Chris Rea: Joys Of Christmas (1987)

It can’t be easy writing a ‘downer’ Christmas song. ‘Joys Of Christmas’ was a single but wasn’t a hit, reaching just 67 in the UK, but it still sounds like a minor classic, lyrically a harrowing portrait of the North East underclass and musically a kind of ZZ Top/Robert Palmer hybrid (what’s with that weird ‘Addicted To Love’ accordion?) with some scorching Telecaster work from Rea. And his voice has never sounded better – he hits some amazing low notes in the verses.

4. Joan Jett: Little Drummer Boy (1981)

I first heard this on the soundtrack of the 1983 guilty-pleasure movie ‘Class’ and have had a soft spot for it ever since. It was never a single but appeared for a while on Jett’s breakthrough album I Love Rock’n’Roll until it was bumped off in favour of something less seasonal.

3. Wham!: Last Christmas (1984)

Recorded at London’s Advision studios in August 1984, George insisted on playing all instruments (including some very dodgy bass). But the bittersweet lyrics, twinkling synths, George’s gossamer vocals and the poignant memory of his death a year ago make it an indispensable seasonal hit. It was kept off the 1984 Christmas number one spot in the UK by Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.

2. The Replacements: Beer For Breakfast (1983)

Is it a Christmas song? Dunno, but Paul Westerberg drawls ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’ halfway through, and maybe it’s a portrait of his Christmas Day libations. Good effort (swearing alert).

1. Chris Rea: Driving Home For Christmas (1988)

Rea’s song was only a minor yuletide hit on its original UK release in 1988 (though written in 1984 and recorded in 1986) but it’s still played regularly and has made the top 100 every year it’s been re-released. Rea told Classic Rock magazine recently: ‘I do regret that I never got it to Van Morrison because that’s who I wrote it for. I thought he would have done a marvellous job. But I can’t knock it. I always think, if I don’t hear “Driving Home For Christmas”, it means I can no longer go on holiday…’

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Chris Rea’s On The Beach: 30 Years Old Today

chris reaMagnet/Geffen Records, released 1st April 1986

6/10

I don’t really do ‘guilty pleasures’ (some would say a love of ’80s music is a guilty pleasure in itself), but if I did, I guess this would be one.

Rea has never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe he was just too popular. The breakthrough/breakdown was 1989’s ‘The Road To Hell‘, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.

But he’s always been a solid songwriter, great guitarist and distinctive vocalist. He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound). His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial peak.

rea back cover

It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys. Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.

Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences. The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments (but I wasn’t keen on the re-recording of the track that became a hit in 1988).

Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea. ‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.

On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success. But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.