30 Years of NOW – The Christmas Album Part 1 (1985-2000)
The internet never fails to amuse itself by asking “Want to feel old?”, does it? “Here’s what the kid from Cadbury’s Fudge advert looks like now”, “We’re now further away from the release of back to the Future than the number of years Marty travels in the whole trilogy”, and of course, “That person you fancied in your teens now looks like your Nan/Grandad”.
Well, now it’s my turn. Want to feel old? This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first NOW Christmas album. Yep, 30 years since this the sound of John Lennon heralded the arrival of one the most ubiquitous adverts of the festive season (everywhere except on You Tube it seems, where the original remains oddly elusive), and the album became a party must-have for every generation that followed.
If you weren’t around when the first NOW Christmas Album landed in 1985, it’s difficult to convey just how legendary this was. Finally, all your favourite Christmas songs could be found on one album (if the words ‘favourite’ and ‘Christmas songs’ do ever feature in your particular vocabulary). In the dark times, before NOW, Christmas albums fell into very distinct categories. There was your album of standards popularised by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra (in our house the Elvis Christmas Album would hit the deck as we were decking the halls and wouldn’t leave the record player until mid-January). Occasionally, someone like James Brown would pop up with a truly interesting attempt to do something different, but these were rare and often overlooked in the December record buying chaos. (Brown’s Funky Christmas is a brilliant piece of work, combining the familiar and new, socially conscious Christmas fare. It does have a dreadful, fuzzy felt-style cover though). Next was your loose collection of artists from the same record company performing contractually-obligated numbers for a ‘Merry Christmas From…’ collection (the best examples hail, of course, from Motown and the Phil Spector Christmas Gift For You, which hasn’t let the fact that the producer/genius/nutcase is a convicted murderer prevent it from being an annual best seller). There was also your ‘Sing-a-long-a-thons’ from the likes of Chas n Dave and Max Bygraves, instrumental concoctions from Mantovani and James Last, and the inevitable Carols from King’s type affair. As ‘traditional’ as these may all have been, come the 80’s it was very difficult to have a Christmas party and only stick one album on. At least for an hour. Party DJs needed serious help, and Christmas 1985 saw that help arrive in the shape of the first NOW Christmas Album.
If you’ve paid any attention to this infrequently updated collection of ramblings about 80s pop, you’ll know that by the end of 1985 NOW was huge business. The regular series of chart compilations were beginning to be augmented with additional collections under the NOW brand, starting with NOW Dance in the summer of 1985. A Christmas addition must have seemed like a no brainer, particularly with so little serious competition. Even nearly 30 years on the tracklisting is pretty definitive, having the advantage of coming at the end of the Christmas song Golden Age which kicked off in the early 70s, with the likes of Mud and Slade, and ending with Band Aid, Wham and Shakey’s Merry Christmas Everyone (1985’s yuletide chart topper, but sadly, and obviously, omitted).
The great thing here also is the songs are all so ingrained in your brains that I don’t have to spend too much time discussing the merits (or otherwise) of individual tracks and can instead witter on about useless trivia and be rude about Chris de Burgh and Paul McCartney. Hooray!
NOW That’s What I Call Music – The Christmas Album (1985)
(The spine title is NOW – The Christmas Album. The cassette version was known as NOW – The Christmas Tape, and the CD release in 1986 was, rather cunningly, titled NOW – The Christmas Compact Disc)
|Do They Know It’s Christmas?||Band Aid|
|I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday||Roy Wood With Wizzard|
|Merry Xmas Everybody||Slade|
|Step Into Christmas||Elton John|
|In Dulci Jubilo||Mike Oldfield|
|Another Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas||Gary Glitter|
|Wonderful Christmastime||Paul McCartney|
|Blue Christmas||Shakin’ Stevens|
|Merry Christmas (War is Over)||John Lennon & Yoko Ono*|
|I Believe In Father Christmas||Greg Lake*|
|A Spaceman Came Travelling||Chris De Burgh|
|Stop The Cavalry||Jona Lewie|
|Little Saint Nick||The Beach Boys|
|Thank God It’s Christmas||Queen|
|Lonely This Christmas||Mud|
|When A Child Is Born (Soleado)||Johnny Mathis|
|White Christmas||Bing Crosby|
(* – omitted from the 1986 CD re-issue)
As I said, that’s pretty much all you need, right? Everyone is going to have their favourites on that, but for me the standouts are Step Into Christmas (a song I seem to love more and more each year), In Dulci Jubilo, and Greg Lake’s wonderfully sardonic I Believe In Father Christmas, a song written in criticism of modern Christmas that has become a staple of the very thing he is railing against. I’m sure his bank manager doesn’t mind though. That’s not to say Slade, Wizzard, Wham and all the other artists whose names are only one word bring nothing to the table. Christmas would not be Christmas without Noddy’s yell, Roy Wood’s glittery cheeks or George Michael’s bouffant, even for someone like me who endured seven years of shop work at Christmas having them beamed directly into my cerebral cortex from mid-October.
Obviously there are some problems though. The ridiculously popular-with-my-Dad-for-reasons-I-never-understood A Spaceman Came Traveling has much to answer for, not least because it was included here BEFORE De Burgh became a star through The Lady in Red. No one had given a toss about this song for the previous decade, so its inclusion here not only led to it gaining a reputation as a ‘Christmas classic’ (and annual appearances everywhere) but also increased his popularity with the public and, probably, led to the success of The Lady in Red the following year. Chaos theory.
The other pop music criminal hiding in plain sight is Macca, positively glowing on the cover whilst delivering one of the worst pieces of music ever recorded. I’ve said before that the billions he made off of Yesterday and Hey Jude were just flukes, and I submit Wonderful Christmas Time as Exhibit A. Maybe that theory about him dying in the 60s are true, because it’s hard to believe that the same guy wrote this and Hey Jude. What IS that squelching noise? It sounds like a synthesised version of someone playing a guitar through a synthesiser. And then synthesising it. Take the sleigh bells off and you’ve just got a squelchy noise. Macca apparently recorded the whole thing himself, which is a shame as he could have done with a Wing or two to point out it was shite, despite making him a reported £200,000 a year. Which just makes me sick. (I’m rather fond of this Tom McRae cover version which, for me at least, wonderfully sums up the utter joylessness of listening to the bloody thing.)
Paul McCartney, Yesterday
And Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a little Glitter. Yes, we are never going to see Another Rock n Roll Christmas gracing a UK Christmas compilation ever again, because while it’s fine to continue to swell the coffers of a convicted murderer like Phil Spector, Glitter is now considered something less than human. It’s still a great track, though. There, I said it.
Of the rest, Shakey’s Blue Christmas seems like an afterthought to modern eyes, presumably because he didn’t want Merry Christmas Everybody included and damage his chances of getting the festive top spot (he’d already held the track back a year to avoid a clash with Band Aid in 1984) and it was cheaper than licensing the far superior Elvis version (which, although not the first recording is probably the definitive recording). In fact Shakey’s version was a huge hit, and was only stopped from being his first festive chart topper by the baffling popularity of Renne and Renato’s Save Your Love; The Beach Boys experiment with the sleigh bells which they would soon adopt and become the only band allowed to use them the rest of the year; and Jona Lewie becomes a millionaire overnight despite not actually writing a Christmas song (this is a theme which will recur as we move through the ages, not least here, where Johnny Mathis’ When A Child is Born makes no specific reference to Christmas beyond mention of a ‘tiny star’, but the production is amazing…)
Ol’ Black Eyes, Bing Crosby, is the sole inclusion from outside the Golden Age, but you always need something for the old folks, don’t you, so what better than perhaps the most famous Christmas song of all time (and even that made the top 10 during the Golden Age, in 1977).
The Golden Age of the Christmas song is worth brief further analysis (with the emphasis on the word anal) as it’s often bemoaned that the recent crop of crimbo chart-toppers (say, the last 20 years) aren’t really in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, being as they are now manufactured and manipulated by the telly to snag the top spot from the rightful grasp of some millionaire pop stars ruthlessly manipulating the charts by releasing a festive themed tune around December in the hopes of securing the summit, and a tasty pension pot at the same time. This is, of course, nonsense. In the entire history of the singles chart only 12 Christmas number ones have actually been about Christmas. That’s 12 out of 61. That 12 includes When a Child is Born (which is tenuous), 3 Band Aids, 2 Mary’s Boy Child and Slade and Mud. But not Wizzard. It doesn’t include the ‘adopted’ Christmas songs such as East 17’s Stay Another Day, which just happened to be number one at Christmas, and thanks to the music TV channels are as ingrained in the public consciousness as any number of sleigh bell riddled ditties. It is interesting though that five of those twelve appeared between 1973 and 1985, and since then only The Lord Antichrist Cliff and Band Aid have had actual Christmas number ones. So any talk that the Christmas number one isn’t the same as it used to be is both way off the mark, but also true if you of a certain age (as, to be fair, most people who complain about it are).
But what of NOW, or rather ‘then’. The first NOW Christmas is pretty perfect but a few omissions stand out. From today’s perspective, The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping is perhaps the biggest miss, but the fact is it wasn’t a hit when released in 1981, and only made number 45 the next year, the compilers may have assumed the public wasn’t interested. Kate Bush’s December Will Be Magic Again is a more puzzling MIA as Ms Bush is an EMI stalwart and the song is now a long forgotten gem. The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles, Bowie and Bing’s Little Drummer Boy and Wombling Merry Christmas can be excused by, presumably, prohibitive licensing fees from rival record companies. Paying extra for Wham’s Last Christmas (the biggest selling single in the UK not to get to number one, fact fans!) is one thing. It’s a bit harder to justify it for a bunch of overgrown muppets, even if it is one of the greatest Christmas songs ever.
While we’re on the subject of myth debunking, here’s another: NOW do not re-release the Christmas album every year, and add one track to the tracklisting to get you to buy it again. That would be silly, and not very cost effective. But mostly silly. The album (in its most recent incarnations) is certainly re-issued every year but the tracklisting has only changed nine times in the 30 years since the original release, and all of those changes have occurred since 2000. (Wikipedia states that the original album was reissued in 1986 missing the Queen track, but I haven’t been able to verify this and every copy available on eBay and Discogs seems to have the track present and correct. The first CD issue, also from 1986, is missing the Greg Lake and John Lennon tracks for some reason, but the Queen track is on it, so it would appear odd for it to be taken off of the vinyl and cassette. The track has, however, never appeared on any subsequent new release.)
Part of the confusion for this may arise from the fact that for some reason in 1989 EMI broke ranks from their NOW partners and released It’s Christmas. The tracklisting was near identical but out went Wham, Mike Oldfield, Gary Glitter and Queen, in came Cliff’s Mistletoe and Wine, the aforementioned Kate Bush track, Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. Shakey’s Merry Christmas Everyone replaced his Blue Christmas. It’s branding and cover design are near identical to the NOW design, so it’s very easy (and probably deliberate) that many punters assumed it was the latest incarnation of the more famous cousin. It’s Christmas was reformatted as It’s Christmas Time in 1992, with Glitter and Queen reinstated, as well as Steeleye Span’s Gaudete, which the kids had been crying out for inclusion on a Christmas compilation I’m sure. And more was to come.
Before NOW Christmas was rejigged and re-released at the turn of the decade/century/millennium (delete where appropriate) Virgin would become the second NOW partner to go rogue, in 1993, releasing The Best Christmas … Ever! This album raised the stakes by being a double, and brought in a lot more ‘classic’ (i.e. old and possibly neglected) Christmas tunes from the likes of Eartha Kitt, Doris Day and Dean Martin. More modern tastes were catered for by Snap’s Mary Had A Little Boy and Enigma’s Sadness, which was one of many songs included for their more tenuous links to Christmas (others included Freiheit’s brilliant Keeping the Dream Alive and The Flying Pickets 1983 Christmas chart topper, Only You) which just struck of padding. Along with the usual suspects, some interesting inclusions included a rare appearance for Mel (Smith) and Kim (Wilde)’s version of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (recorded for Comic Relief in 1987) and Miles Davis’ extraordinary Blue Christmas, which is sequenced immediately before Willie Nelson’s version of the more famous song with that title! An almost identical tracklist appeared as the more familiar sounding Best Christmas Album in the World… Ever! (along with truly terrifying cover art)in 1996.
Various other cheaper, tattier, collections would start to litter the shelves of Our Price throughout the 80s and 90s, but special mention must be made of A&M records A Very Special Christmas, which managed to avoid all the obvious Christmas tracks, and included tracks from the likes of Eurythmics, U2, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and is possibly the only mainstream Christmas collection to include Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis (“This IS Christmas music, man!”). Sadly, while it includes a Bon Jovi track, it isn’t R2D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
And so we all meet up in the year 2000, a year which once seemed to promise so much but which ultimately delivered exactly the same stuff in slightly different packaging… like the NOW Christmas Album (do you see what I did there?). After 15 years the annual festive best seller was given a dusting down, a spruce up and an influx of some 22 extra tracks. In keeping with The Best Christmas Album a few years before, a single disc just wouldn’t cut it anymore, and whilst this means an increase in great tracks from the 50s and 60s, it also means more tenuously connected tracks (Angels?), along with some truly bizarre cover versions to bring down the cost of licensing the more famous versions, as we will shortly see.
(From this point I’ll link to the official NOW site for tracklistings, or this is going to get very very very long)
Firstly, the cover. It’s dreadful. The giant floating Perspex letters in space had long been established as the NOW house style, so, I’m not sure what they were thinking branding the Christmas album with what looks like a Poundshop tree topper, and with the NOW logo banished, almost invisibly into the corner. This may go some way to explaining its relatively poor sales, but I would suggest the tracklisting helped also.
Of the new additions, no one can possibly argue with the inclusions of Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, The Jackson 5 and Brenda Lee. The Love Unlimited Orchestra’s It May Be Winter Outside is pushing things a bit, but I’ll let it slide, along with Frankie’s The Power of Love which pub bores will argue about til the cows come home; fact is, it’s not a Christmas song, even if the video did play up to its release date, but I’d miss it if it wasn’t here, mainly because it’s one of the best songs on offer. Walking in the Air seems a no-brainer as well, despite not exactly being a party tune, but then neither is Sinead O’Connor’s Silent Night which is almost as good (but not nearly as bone-chilling) as Simon and Garfunkel’s take on the carol (including THAT would have taken a very brave man). Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews Baby It’s Cold Outside had taken about 30 nanoseconds to become a Christmas mainstay, and in the process rejuvenated a long forgotten song for a new generation and even more cover versions in the following years.
The most bang up to date track is S Club 7’s Perfect Christmas which was mere days old when NOW Christmas was released, being one of the B-sides to Never Had a Dream Come True. Frankly this was good enough to be released on its own and but for the fact its big brother was chosen to be the official Children in Need single for 2000, and thus released in late November, they could have had a good run at that year’s Christmas number one. It’s not a classic, but it is pretty much what you expect an S Club Christmas single to sound like, and that ain’t too shabby.
Also bang up to date, but in hindsight ridiculously presumptuous, is Hannah Morris, whose version of When a Child is Born means poor old Johnny Mathis (and his amazing production) are jettisoned in favour of a flash in the pan teen sensation signed to Virgin on a one album deal. I’d never heard of her and any information about her seems to have been removed entirely from the internet. Fair play, she’s got a great voice for a 14 year old, but this is woeful stuff. The whole thing is slavered in church bells and ye olde Oirish charm. I’d include a link, but I can’t find one. Anywhere.
Robbie Williams’ anointed status in 2000 as the biggest solo artist going (and EMI golden boy) meant he had to be included, so we get Angels just because, that’s why, but also that single’s appalling B-side, Walk This Sleigh (younger readers may need to ask a grown up to help them find out what a B-side is, or rather was). Thankfully it isn’t in anyway an attempt to re-write the Aerosmith barnstormer with hilarious festive lyrics. It’s somehow worse than that. It probably set the template for a number of Christmas hits which followed which tried to repaint Christmas not in hues of white and blue, but in the beige and brown reality that most people experience but try to escape by listening to the likes of Wizzard and Cliff. For some reason Robbie sings most of it a scouse accent, slags off the Spice Girls (who at the time of the single’s release were Robbie’s biggest chart rivals) and whilst it’s clearly a dry run for Millenium, it also invokes the Muppets Manna-Manna just for the sake of being really annoying.
Amazingly it’s not even the worst track on the album. Other contenders include Billie Piper’s pointless, soul-less and emotionless version of Last Christmas which starts off rather effectively with the sound of Billie trapped in a blizzard and whispering to the apparition of her dead boyfriend who has just appeared to her as a vision, but then becomes the worst karaoke backing track of Last Christmas you’ve ever heard, combined with one of the most ‘sod it will this do’ vocal performances I think I’ve ever heard. It also proves what a dreadful song it can be in the wrong hands and, like most Christmas songs, should never be covered unless you do something really special with it (and no, I don’t mean Jimmy Eat World, or even Crazy Frog. Nor sadly do I even mean Whigfield). It was released in 1999 as the B-side to She Wants You if you’re at all interested.
Michael Ball’s version of Driving Home for Christmas is rather odd. Ball is a fine vocalist, but this song needs Chris Rea’s gravelly tones to best replicate the terrain of a bumper-to-bumper motorway on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, possibly, is the fact that Rea’s version wasn’t a big hit on initial release in 1988, only reaching number 53. It took a couple of Iceland campaigns, and then a re-release for the charity Shelter, to get the song to deserved status it has now. Thankfully not for this version though. State of the Heart (presumably some kind of in-house covers band) provide a suitably dreadful version of Please Come Home For Christmas (on later NOW Christmas’ they submit their inimitable take on Last Christmas, which puts Billie’s in a whole new light). This is the kind of toss that turns up in the background of Christmas specials of sitcoms that won’t fork out serious money for proper Christmas songs, and gives Christmas music a bad name.
But perhaps the greatest cover crime on offer comes from the Spice Girls. Now, whilst they had dominated the Christmas charts in the late 90s they hadn’t released an actual Christmas song. (Both 2 Become 1 and Goodbye do feature Christmas themed videos, ensuring annual dust offs by the music channels; the video for their second Christmas number one, Too Much, was slightly scuppered by having to promote the Spice World movie.) For Goodbye, the third of their hat trick of Christmas number ones, someone decided it was a good idea to desecrate one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time. Luckily being a B-side, and appearing on one of the lowest selling NOW Christmas albums, the fallout was minimal. Thank Christ, because their version of Christmas Wrapping is the stuff wars are made of. I’ll admit I don’t hate the arrangement, it’s suitably updated (i.e. it sounds ridiculously cheap and tacky and like it was recorded using Music 2000 on a PlayStation, which it probably was) but the whole thing stinks of a ’15 minutes of studio time left and we need another track for the 3 CD limited edition digipack edition with fold out poster (1 of 5 to collect)’. There’s the fact that Mel C is reduced to sounding as bored as she ever did whilst in The Girls; the fact Emma can’t pronounce “ending” properly; the fact they ‘hilariously’ update the lyrics to mention 24 hour garages and Tesco; the fact that three of them don’t appear to sing on it; the fact it’s a minute shorter (and seemingly cut off early); the fact that it has a billionth of the heart, soul and, let’s face it, brilliance of the original. So, once again The Waitresses miss out on well-deserved royalties from NOW simply to appease the manager of one of the labels biggest acts who had just split up anyway. Sorry, were on ‘hiatus’.
But what’s this? What’s THIS? Maybe the Spices’ isn’t the worst. I’ll let you decide if you think Ronan Keating’s oh-so-heartfelt cover of Fairytale of New York should take the crown. If you read my review of NOW 10 from way back when you’ll know exactly how I feel about this song, and I’ll be honest I’ve only ever listened to Ronan’s version all the way through once before. I’d heard about ‘that’ lyric change and was prepared for it, so what surprised me was how utterly fake the whole thing sounds. It’s like an American producer took the song and decided it needed to be a bit more Oirish, because Oirish is very big right now. Yes Ronan, I like your accent, but can you play it up a bit, it’s not quite hitting the numbers we’d like. We focus grouped it and decided we need more penny whistle, more wistfulness, less aggression apart from that bit you try it and it just sounds like you’ve sworn in front of your parents for the first time to try and show them how independent you are now but you’re actually a bit embarrassed by it all. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned his accomplice in this, but that’s because no one ever remembers her, despite her being (and this was news to me) the lead singer of Clannad. Though no one’s sure if she’s called Maire or Moya.
Almost as a footnote, his Cliffness doubles up with Mistletoe and Wine, and as an added bonus his long-forgotten (even just a year later) Millenium Prayer, which would have been number one if Radio 1 had played it (*stifles guffaw*). This began a (kind of) tradition of including one or two tracks intended for New Years parties too, supposedly to ensure an extra week’s shelf life for the album. Later releases would include ABBA’s Happy New Year as standard, and various Auld Lang Syne’s would soon join it.
From fear of dulling your senses into submission like so many turkey sandwiches, I’ll pause here and allow you a breather.
It would be a further five years before NOW Christmas got a reboot, and in that time pop music changed, man. Just how this affected NOW Christmas, we’ll find out soon.
The original 1985 release features a note on the rear cover stating:
“A donation from the proceeds of sale of this record will be made to the NSPCC”
I’m not sure if this was a gesture that extended to the subsequent releases.