As my friend and colleague Ben so neatly illustrates above, Noddy Holder made a guest appearance at the office during the week. As painfully affable as the legendary rock singer is, I got the feeling that the endless parade of people wanting a photograph was something he was enduring rather than enjoying, and so passed on the opportunity to stand and grin and pretend he cared who I was.
His visit prompted an interesting debate amongst a few of us, given that it coincided with the annual saturation airplay for his most famous composition. My colleague Danny Kelly noted that Merry Xmas Everybody was an extraordinary piece of work, given that there cannot be a single generation alive who have not danced to it at some stage during their lives, and indeed many do every year. The Wikipedia article on the track cites a PRS study from 2009 which estimates that up to 42% of the entire population of the world could have listened to the song.
I in turn put forward the opinion that it is all the more surprising given that the song itself is utter garbage.
I can remember more or less to the moment the day I first heard Merry Xmas Everybody, or at least became aware of the significance of what I was hearing. The 12-year-old me had discovered British Hit Singles in the school library in the spring of 1986 and after checking it out had devoted a considerable amount of time to committing its contents to memory. Perusing the records, it was hard not to notice a certain Christmas themed track by the band Slade which had become the Christmas Number One while I was filling nappies and struggling to focus and had reappeared in the charts several times in the intervening period. It was during the school trip to Bradford Ice Rink on the last Tuesday evening of term that the DJ in the venue played this raucous seasonal rock song, and whilst listening to the words and recognising the lead singer I realised that I now knew exactly what Merry Xmas Everybody sounded like.
Such a hardy seasonal perennial, and for a great many people I’m sure one of the defining sounds of the holiday period, cannot help but have a special place in musical history and is fully deserving of its place as one of the most famous pop records ever made. Yet look beyond the stomping, peer past the whiff of roasting chestnuts and taste of mince pies that it inevitably prods the senses into recalling and you will appreciate that as a piece of music, as an artistic statement, Merry Xmas Everybody is actually a bit rubbish.
The entire genesis of the song shows this up to be true, assembled from off-cuts of older songs that both Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had never found an outlet for. For sure the chorus is beefy enough, inspiringly anthemic and in the clever way it drags the word “begun” out to four syllables with enough emotional clout worthy of a sing-a-long down the pub, on the terraces or even at home. Yet the main body of the song itself is weak. The verses plodding and devoid of melody, the instrumentation lame and rushed in comparison to their other works. Few of the 42% of the world’s population who have heard the song pay much attention to the lyrics – it is all about Look To The Future Now after all – but they are for the most part banal and lifeless.
Worse yet, Merry Xmas Everybody ranks poorly in comparison with pretty much everything the famous group ever recorded. Assemble in order the greatest ever Slade songs and it is hard to imagine that the festive release even features in the Top 10. Noddy Holder and Slade are at the very least fortunate that they made so many classics in their time that there is no danger of them being recalled for that one single novelty hit, yet in a way, it seems a crying shame that their pension plan is a piece of music that hardly represents their artistry and creativity at its very best.
The sad thing is that it very nearly didn’t have to be this way. Ten years later, during their post-Reading early 80s creative and popular renaissance, Slade released a seasonal single which ranked amongst their very best, an emotional sing-a-long anthem which tugs at the heartstrings and yet makes you feel ready to take on the world at anything. Released in November 1983, the track raced up the singles chart in fairly short order and spent three weeks at Number 2 over the seasonal holiday, denied the chance to be Christmas Number One by the Flying Pickets.
Just think, without the bloke out of Coronation Street and a Vince Clarke song, Slade might well have had their second Christmas Number One a decade on from the first, ensuring that yet another of their songs was able to take its place in the pantheon of holiday favourites and maybe, just maybe, ensuring that generations of party-goers to come would receive regular exposure to the work of this most celebrated of English rock bands at their very best, not their most painfully average.