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Retro Crimbo 2014: George’s Journal’s official top 40 tinseled tunes (40-21)

December 22, 2014

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Three cool cats: or maybe three yule rats – it surely comes as absolutely no surprise that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. all appear on this chart rundown, but exactly where…?

On reading this post’s title, it may have occurred to those visitors to this blog more regular than others that it’s already offered several Christmas-related songs in a seasonal playlist – and I could try to argue that this one is completely and utterly different, but let’s be honest, it really isn’t – so why not we just agree that it’s the yuletide and, thus, I’m offering you all, each and every one of you, an extra lashing of Crimbo tune goodness?

There is a specific focus in this post, though. Unlike many of my playlists of the past – including the seasonal ones – this rundown isn’t likely to feature many a rarity; practically all of you will surely recognise every tune it contains. For this is a post entirely dedicated to nostalgia and whimsy. Yes, in the spirit of the UK’s annual Christmas singles chart, this is George’s Journal‘s version, peeps; my top 40 countdown of my favourite/ greatest seasonal songs of all-time.

So, without further ado, let’s get the first half of the the rundown underway… hand Tony Blackburn his microphone, give Pan’s People their ‘ten-minute-call’ and cue CCS’s take on Whole Lotta Love – with cowbells, of course. A whole lotta cowbell…

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40. A Spaceman Came Travelling ~
Eela Craig (1976)

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What? Austrian prog rockers’ cover of, yes, Chris de Burgh’s song released the same year that reimagined Christ’s birth as a close encounter of the third kind

Well? Always a decent tune (although it’s not easy to admit ‘de Blurgh’ actually ever came up with one), for me this has a substantial edge over the original owing to its synthy touches, guitar solo, crazy soprano notes and the general ethereal, mystical feel

Wow? de Burgh’s version didn’t actually chart in the UK until 1986 – when it hit a high of #40 and remained on the chart for five weeks

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39. Do You Know How Christmas
Trees Are Grown?
~ Nina (1969)

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What? John Barry and Hal David-penned ditty for the 1969 Christmas-set Bond spectacular On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Well? Lyrically as sickly sweet as an entire Terry’s Chocolate Orange consumed before Christmas Day turkey it may be, but a charming tune with an infectiously appealing melody it is too. It actually features in the above flick while the hero’s being pursued across a Swiss ski resort’s town square by potential killers, thus acting as a finely effective counterpoint to the scene’s action.

Wow? The singer, billed during her career simply as ‘Nina’, is actually a Baroness, her first husband having been the Danish-Dutch Baron Frederik van Pallandt, whom in the ’90s was shot dead possibly due to his many years’ involvement with a drug trafficking ring. During the early ’70s, Nina dated Clifford Irving, the author whom notoriously attempted to fake a Howard Hughes autobiography.

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38. Another Bloomin’ Christmas ~
Mel Smith (1991)

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What? The song that features as the centre-piece to the UK Channel 4 adaptation (1991) of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas children’s book

Well? Accompanied, as it is, by the terrific animation in its sequence from the 30-minute TV special, this is always a festive delight; however, to listen to it on its own, one realises Mel Smith’s delivery (just like his vocal performance throughout Father Christmas) really is bloomin’ marvellous

Wow? Best recalled as the comedian partner to Griff Rhys Jones (with whom he also appeared, as well as alongside Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, in the early ’80s’ groundbreaking sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News), Smith went on to become a successful comedy film director, helming the likes of The Tall Guy (1991) and Bean (1997). Sadly, he died in summer 2013, aged just 60.

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37. A Winter’s Tale ~ David Essex (1982)

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What? Somewhat cheesy ballad of lost love from the Silver Dream Racer himself that peaked just one spot shy of the UK charts’ summit in January ’83

Well? Cheesy it may be, but this nicely melancholic melody rarely fails to get under the skin (or at least mine); unsurprising perhaps, given it was written by pop music supremo Mike Batt and lyricist extraordinaire Tim Rice. The flaring guitar bits may be unnecessary, but the oboe opening and its repetition throughout is lovely to say the least.

Wow? Among his many screen performances, David Essex starred as a passenger on the notorious nuclear-powered charabanc in cult disaster movie spoof The Big Bus (1976)

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36. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) ~ Darlene Love (1963)

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What? Phil Spector-produced, Motown-esque ballad performed by Ms Love every Crimbo on David Letterman’s US chat show and memorably to be heard over the opening titles of the seasonally-set Gremlins (1984) and in a scene from Goodfellas (1990)

Well? A true perennial of the American Christmas season thanks to the Letterman connection, it’s now fairly crossed over as a global festive favourite owing to its quality – those heartfelt vocals, that ‘Wall of Sound’ production and that rumbling rhythm that drives the whole thing along. So many Christmas tunes are ear-worms, but this is one you don’t mind being on the brain for days on end.

Wow? When originally recorded back in ’63, Spector felt it such a good tune he had Darlene Love record a non-seasonal version entitled Johnny (Baby Please Come Home); it didn’t see the light of day until 1977, though, when eventually released as the B-side to Love’s single Lord, If You’’re A Woman

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35. Santa Baby ~ Eartha Kitt
with Henri Rene & His Orchestra (1953)

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What? Catwoman herself’s slinkily sexy Christmas list-cum-love letter to St. Nick, a US top 10 smash for the equally slinkily sexy Ms Kitt on its release

Well? Covered by everyone from Kylie to Mariah and Madonna to Miss Piggy, it’s an evergreen erstwhile novelty tune, of course, but Eartha’s version is the definitive one, her shaping of those lyrics ensuring she’s suggesting Santa should come hither with her mouth rather than her eyes. And to listen to those clever lyrics is always a pleasure – this is basically the Crimbo equivalent of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend (1953). Sort of.

Wow? Aged 81, Eartha Kitt died in 2008 – on Christmas Day

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34. Lonely This Christmas ~
Mud (1974)

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What? Elvis-slow-ballad take-off that powered to the top of the UK’s festive chart in the mid-’70s

Well? At best an homage, at worst a spoof, Lonely This Christmas is nonetheless a silly-but-fun ballad from the Tiger-Feeters with Les Gray’s memorable Presley impersonation; one of the more unusual – and finer – exponents of the glam rock era and always a staple of the season in shopping centres up and down the nation that, whenever played, always has a habit of growing on you

Wow? It was written by Mick Chapman (with then writing partner Nicky Chinn), whom together with Chinn wrote 19 UK Top 40 hits between 1973 and ’74 for artists including Mud, Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Smokie, then later co-wrote Toni Basil’s Mickey (1982), Pat Benatar’s Love Is A Battlefield (1983) and Tina Turner’s The Best (1988)

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33. Ding Dong, Ding Dong ~
George Harrison (1974)

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What? The ‘Quiet’ Beatle’s attempt to crash the Glam Rock-ification of Crimbo in the early to mid-’70s

Well? It may not be up there with Lennon or Macca’s best merrily tinged tunes, but this effort from The Georgester remains a more-than-likeable song driven by his trademark heavy bass line and decorated by its bell-related inferences and effects. Warning: if you’re yet to hear it for the first time, you may well be humming it for days afterwards.

Wow? The video was filmed in the extensive gardens of Harrison’s long-time, post-Fabs home, the Oxfordshire pile Friar Park. The song’s lyric ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring out the false, ring in the true’ is actually lifted directly from a carving erected in the gardens – among many other eccentric things – by the former owner, Victorian lawyer and microscopist Sir Frank Crisp.

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32. In Dulci Jubilo ~ Mike Oldfield (1975)

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What? The Tubular Bells supremo’s jolly take on the traditional European carol variously known as In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing) and Good Christian Men Rejoice that rather marvellously hit #4 in the UK charts in January ’76

Well? A layered instrumental of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, synthesizer, recorders, kortholt, snare drum and tambourine, Oldfield’s rendition of the tune that’s so old it dates back to the Middle Ages may be idiosyncratic, but it’s also distinctly dignified as it delivers that upbeat, unforgettable melody. In short, it festively warms the heart.

Wow? Legend has it that In Dulci Jubilo’s original text, a combination of Medieval German and Latin, was the work of German mystic Heinrich Seuse in 1328 – whom took the words down after he heard angels sing them and he joined them for a boogie. Nice.

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31. Christmas Children ~
David Collings, Richard Beaumont
and Karen Scargill (1970)

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What? The song from Scrooge (1970), the movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, sung by Bob Cratchitt and two of his children as they press their noses to the glass of a shop window

Well? A wonderfully atmospheric jingly Crimbo tune this one, featuring infectious toy- and food-themed, aspirational lyrics delivered with almost almost eerie portent by Collings

Wow? Composer of the song (and all of Scrooge’s songs, in fact) Brit Leslie Bricusse (co-)wrote hits for an assortment of artists, many of them film-related, including Goldfinger (1964) for Shirley Bassey, You Only Live Twice (1967) for Nancy Sinatra and, rather bizarrely, Can You Read My Mind? for Maureen McGovern, a task that saw him add lyrics to John Williams’ Love Theme from Superman: The Movie (1978)

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30. It Feels Like Christmas ~
Jerry Nelson (1992)

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What? The Ghost of Christmas Present’s welcoming of Michael Caine’s Scrooge to all the wonders of the big merry morning itself in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Well? Another ditty from a Dickens adaptation and it’s a stonker. Sure, the sequence in which it features is fabulously festive and crammed full of cuddly furry creatures (all Muppet cats miaowing and crows cooing) and Michael Caine doing a comedy cockney-walkabout dance but, don’t doubt it, the tune itself is an infectious melody and its lyrics spell out the very spirit of Crimbo itself.

Wow? In Jim Henson’s universe, Jerry Nelson, whom sadly died two years ago, also performed (including the voices of) the characters Count Von Count, Mr Snuffleupagus, Dr Julius Strangepork, Lew Zealand, Robin the Frog and Gobo Fraggle. He also provided the vocals of Electric Mayhem’s lead singer Floyd Pepper.

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29. Pipes Of Peace ~ Paul McCartney (1983)

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What? The first of two entries on this chart from Macca, his anti-war hit whose memorable video was this autumn ripped off by Sainsbo’s to flog chocolate. Or something.

Well? In spite of lacking any reference to this time of year at all, a rarity for this countdown to say the least, this is one of McCartney’s most effective post-Beatles efforts; less perky and punchy, more sleek and mature than many of his melodies, its subtle synthy touches and tabla-tastic credentials help the love-not-war message go down as smoothly as that sherry left out for Santa.

Wow? This was Macca’s first and only solo UK #1 (for two weeks), following one with Wings (1977’s Mull Of Kintyre), one with Stevie Wonder (1982’s Ebony And Ivory) and 17 with The Beatles

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28. Stop The Cavalry ~ Jona Lewie (1980)

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What? Curious ‘festive’ protest song that was a hit right around Europe in December 1980, including in the UK where it made it to #3 in the charts

Well? Not quite a one-hit-wonder for the marvellously monikered Jona Lewie (there’s that other one of his where he goes on about always being in the kitchen at parties), but to say Stop The Cavalry’s unusual and idiosyncratic for a Christmas song’s putting it mildly. Essentially about the suffering of a sort of ‘eternal soldier’ (with references in the lyrics to Winston Churchill and nuclear fallout; while the video is, Pipes Of Peace-like, set in WWI trenches), it smartly and terrifically adapts a theme from Hugo Alfvén’s Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, while other moments are reminiscent of Mozart’s Rondo in D Major, K382, all making for a marvellous melody.

Wow? Apparently, another version released a year later by Lewie’s label Stiff Records, and performed by the Welsh mens’ choir Gwalia Singers and backed by the Cory Band, has become one of the most requested songs on US radio at Christmastime. I know, I’d never heard it before either.

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27. December Will Be Magic Again ~
Kate Bush (1979)

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What? Kate The Great’s one-off contribution to the Crimbo pop pantheon, which she debuted on a BBC Christmas special in ’79 (see above video) and released a year later where it hit a high of #29 in the UK

Well? Lyrically nothing to write home about, with bits about falling snow and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas making ‘people feel nice’, this is The Bushter in near-full-on Wuthering Heights mode, though, her piano picking out an oh-so hummable, tumbling melody, her voice seeking out those unexpected top notes and cowbells taking centre-stage in a bridge section that Christopher Walken would die for

Wow? An alternative version featuring bongos and slide-whistles (yes, really) exists – its  video, which sees a red-clad, barefoot Ms Bush cavorting in a big red chair, has to be experienced to make every December magic

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26. O Holy Night ~ Mario Lanza (1950-52)

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What? Awesome rendition of the classic carol from the mid-20th Century’s ‘most famous tenor in the world’

Well? For me, the definitive version of this essential festive musical offering (although, rather wonderfully, a 1916 version recorded by Lanza’s idol Enrico Caruso is still in print), the marvellous Mario’s voice soars and swoops majestically through this always most operatic and exquisitely dramatic of carols. Sheer class.

Wow? Possessed of such a powerful voice, Lanza is said to have lived a similarly tempestuous life; the legendary Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper once wrote of him: ‘his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak’

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25. Baby, It’s Cold Outside ~
Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae (1957)

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What? Guys And Dolls composer Frank Loesser’s 1944-written big band standard which, over the last decade, has became a seasonal standard on both sides of the Atlantic, here performed by Sammy and Carmen for their duets album Boy Meets Girl

Well? Always a playful boy-and-girl-leave-party-so-boy-might-persuade-girl-to-shag duet, this version (recorded by arguably the greatest two vocalists ever to have done so) ups the playful factor terrifically, with Davis riffing around the lyrics, in particular, before joining McRae for the rousing finish. Delightful.

Wow? As mentioned, originally the tune had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, first performed, as it was, by Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland at a housewarming party (sort of smartly indicating that the evening was drawing to a close and the time for guests to leave was approaching); apparently, she was appalled when he sold it to MGM as she considered it ‘their song’ – she may have relented, though, when it won the Best Original Song Oscar after appearing in Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

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24. Winter Wonderland ~
Dean Martin (1959)

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What? Dino’s definitive version of the, again, originally non-festive ditty, but which is now surely one of the season’s most popular songs

Well? Recorded for his A Winter Romance album, Martin’s take on the timeless standard is seemingly effortlessly smooth – like you’re gliding over the snow in a sleigh with the super crooner yourself. And then he’d probably crack out the whisky causing the sleigh to crash into a snowdrift, but don’t doubt it, for a full two minutes there, it’d be pure bliss.

Wow? Committed to record now by more than 200 different artists, it was written way back in 1934 by composer Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Smith – the latter apparently contributing the words while he was in a sanatorium suffering from tuberculosis

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23. Silent Night ~ Frank Sinatra (1957)

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What? Possibly the daddy of all traditional carols from surely the daddy of all voices, as featured on his A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra album and backed by the Ralph Brewster Singers

Well? Frank at his mellow best here, delivering Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s carol with effective, lightly lilting understatement, giving the impression the outstanding beauty of the lullaby-like melody is doing all the heavy lifting. But don’t believe it for a second.

Wow? Stille Nachte, Heilige Nachte (or Silent Night) was written for and first performed by its composers at an 1818 Christmas Eve mass in the Austrian village of Oberndorf – only it seems it was written and performed that first time in comparatively fast 6/8 time and may even have been intended as a tune to dance to. It was classed as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2011.

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22. Once Upon A Long Ago ~
Paul McCartney (1987)

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What? The second of Macca’s two tinsel-friendly tunes on my chart, a Linda-McCartney-on-keyboards- and, yes, Nigel-Kennedy-on-violin-featuring anthem to the whimsy of childhood and (sort of) Christmas

Well? Easily one of his finest tracks of the ’80s (certainly up there with, say, 1984’s No More Lonely Nights), this is far from mere power pop with an indulgent echoey guitar solo, as it features a really rather delicious melancholic melody – as do so many of the former Fabs’ best ditties – and some keen sax playing from Stan Sulzmann and very effective fiddling from Kennedy

Wow? Hitting a high of #10 in the UK (Macca’s last top 10-hitter here), the song – along with Beautiful Night (1997) – had been conceived as a tune for the soundtrack of fairy-tale-esque fantasy flick The Princess Bride (1987) only to be rejected by its makers, so McCartney released it for the Christmas market instead

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21. Abigail’s Song ~
Katherine Jenkins (2010)

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What? Doctor Who composer Murray Gold’s elegiacal hymn from the show’s 2010 Christmas special, written for and sung by its guest star, the classical diva/ not-a-real-opera-singer Katherine Jenkins

Well? A mellifluous concoction that, at times, seems to float on air like dancing snowflakes and, at others, rises to a crescendo thanks to the fine backing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the power of La Jenkins’ voice. That man Murray Gold has composed some truly terrific music for Who, no question (I Am The Doctor, anyone?), but this beautiful, irresistible offering really is something else.

Wow? Like this episode of Doctor Who, four of the show’s five preceding Christmas specials featured songs specially written by Gold; however, The Stowaway (the song that appeared in 2007’s Voyage Of The Damned) was performed by jazz singer Yamit Mamo and not that episode’s guest star – even though it was Kylie Minogue

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And if that’s not enough for you – or, rather, if you can take any more – watch this space, for faster than it takes an (admittedly) tubby Santa to descend your chimney, the conclusion of George’s Journal’s Christmas song chart will be hitting you like a mince pie in the eye. Er, yes…

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