Curate’s Xmas: Ten terrible moments in otherwise excellent festive songs

Cue the Pick of the Pops theme with overdubbed sleigh bells…

10. The line ‘The snowman brings the snow’ from Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

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Lucie Trombone on Twitter mentioned this recently, but it’s annoyed me for years. Because the snowman doesn’t bring the show, does he? He’s made of snow. He is snow. I mean, he might inadvertently bring some snow into your house, if he popped in to get a new carrot or something, but Roy Wood’s assertion introduces a whole ‘So who made God then?’ paradox, one that neither he nor the Stockland Green School choir fully explore.

Justin Lewis argues it’s a pun, and Wood means snowman as in ‘milkman’, ‘coalman’, etc. Well, maybe. But as with the ‘eggman/egg man’ gag in I Am the Walrus, I’m not sure it quite works.

Talking of jokes that don’t quite work:

9. The triple pun at the end of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody

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It starts off so well with superb lines like ‘Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?’ and the bit about the granny, but then we get this:

Do you ride on down the hillside
In a buggy you have made?
When you land upon your head
Then you’ve been sleighed

Sleighed/slayed/Slade – geddit? Nope, I’m calling the joke police on this one. For a start, if you accidentally fall off a sleigh you haven’t been ‘slayed’. And ‘you’ve been sleighed/slayed/Slade’ isn’t even a phrase.

‘It’s Christmas’? It’s gobbledygook more like.

8. The implied threat in Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

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It’s this couplet:

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care

The use of ‘made’ there. Chills the blood far more than Bing’s cardigan ever could.

7. The key change in Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone

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In his excellent Popular blog (where he reviews every British #1 single in order), Tom Ewing writes: ‘Shaky for me is the sound of Christmas shopping, jingling on the Tannoy while you cross names off your list and look at the plastic reindeers in the shopping centre diorama. Still part of the experience, but never something you look forward to.’

I think he’s being a bit harsh there – amidst all the rotten 50s revivalists that cluttered the charts in the early/mid 80s, Shaky’s stuff always had a certain sparkle. My only complaint about his festive chart-topper is that key change, and I consulted Jason Hazeley for advice here – he tells me it goes from A major to B major. Meaning it’s a key change that literally takes Shaky from A to B. Probably with the aid of a wobbly Ford Capri gearstick.

6. The ‘OK, you lot – take it!’ bit from Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

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Roy’s second sin is his toecurling instruction to The Kids. The type of thing that could only put a great big smile on a UKIP voter’s face.

5. Andy Williams referring to ‘scary ghost stories’ in It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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Like Slade, he starts off brilliantly:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow

but then we get:

There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

Hmm. See, what you’ve done there, Andy, is you’ve mixed up Christmas…with Hallowe’en, haven’t you?

I mean, alright, he (or, more accurately, the song’s writers Edward Pola and George Wyle) could be talking about A Christmas Carol, but…it’s ‘stories’ plural. And in terms of high-octane scares, Dickens’ tale isn’t exactly The Howling III: The Marsupials.

Some of you will be yelling ‘M. R. James!’ at your screens. But try as I might, I can’t quite picture the Williams clan having an annual ritual where they settle down with Jonathan Miller’s production of Whistle and I’ll Come To You.

4. The word ‘faggot’ in Fairytale of New York

'It's for the underdog' … Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan promote Fairytale of New York.

Obviously.

3. Boy George’s joyful ‘Oh-oh-oh’ bit in Do They Know It’s Christmas?

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There are many offensive and terrible lyrics in this record: the ‘clanging chimes of doom’, the geographically illiterate claim that Africa has no rain, rivers or snow (maybe Roy Wood’s snowman could have brought some?), the repeated neo-imperial use of the third person, the strange line about ‘banishing shade’…but I can forgive most of it because it was written in a rush and Bob and Midge obviously had their hearts in the right place. It saved lives, which is more than this sneery blog has ever done.

But what’s very odd is Boy George’s soulful purring after (of all lines) ‘The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life’. He sounds really pleased about it. Bananarama were hungover as hell, but they’d never have dropped that kind of clanger.

2. The ‘satirical’ cash register at the start of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

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Because, like, Christmas is getting a bit, like, commercial, yeah?

Well, if you feel that way, don’t make a Christmas single. You just sound like Roger Waters in a santa hat.

Despite its many offences (it’s far too long as well), I still adore I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. That’s how brilliant it is. How many other records can you say that about?

1. The opening line of John and Yoko’s Merry Xmas (War Is Over)

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Altogether now:

So this is Christmas
And what have you DONE?

Yep, we’re going to start our Christmas single by telling you off.

Notice the horrible ‘So’ at the start too, like he’s a weary YouTube vlogger about to complain that there’s too many women in Star Wars. It gets worse, though:

Another year over
And a new one just begun

Which is right up there with Macca’s ‘ever-changing world in which we live in’.

And so this is Christmas…
I hope you have fun

Yeah, you too, you passive-aggressive twerps. Bet you spent Christmas in bed anyway.

Well, there you are – that’s my list. Please feel free send in your own suggestions. (Or ‘OK, you lot – take it!’ as Roy would say.) And remember: no matter how good or bad a Christmas record is, just be thankful it’s not this one:

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Why I still watch Question Time

NB: This is an ‘answer blog’ to a (much better) piece written by Justin Lewis on When Is Bins, which you should read first.

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Right, a question from the gentleman in spectacles…

Firstly, everything Justin says in his article is obviously correct. I don’t disagree with a word of it. Question Time’s bloody awful – of course it is. It’s the TV equivalent of a screaming carsick toddler. It doesn’t work as news, analysis, debate, entertainment, drama or comedy. It’s pompous, dull, depressing, bombastic and silly. And it goes on for AN HOUR. Why would you waste your precious Thursday night sitting through the thing? When it comes to Question Time, the advice of the Why Don’t You? gang has surely never felt more sage.

Well, I still watch it. Every week. With a large glass of whisky of course, but I watch the whole thing. Why? The short answer is because I enjoy getting irritated. But let me unpack that a little.

My first experience of Question Time was as a 12 year old in December 1986, when I was bequeathed a black and white portable TV for my bedroom (to date, this is still the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me). Channel-flipping one evening, I caught Robin Day’s closing remarks on the final show of the year, where he wished the viewers a merry Christmas. Being Robin Day, this greeting sounded like a reprimand – as if he was somehow telling us off for being on holiday. This both amused and intrigued me; here was a show so impressively adult that it was annoyed by Christmas. What could they possibly have been talking about?

As the years rolled on and I gradually understood a bit more about politics, Question Time became appointment viewing. I found the subjects and the arguments interesting, but I found the behaviour of the participants more so – I enjoyed seeing how politicians moved; I liked spotting their facial and vocal tics; I became fascinated by the rivalries, but also by the moments when sworn enemies found tiny pockets of agreement. There was, as people my age will remember, a near-tangible tribalism to politics in the 1980s and early 90s – you could switch on Question Time halfway though and it would be immediately obvious who was from which party, something which is far trickier today.

I’ve always found confidence a fascinating thing, and Question Time panellists have a particular kind of copper-plated confidence that I find both mesmerising and slightly unsettling. After all, why on earth would you put yourself through it? What if they asked you a question about Northern Ireland or Afghanistan and you couldn’t remember who was on which side? What if you forgot who Oliver Letwin was? Politicians answer such questions every day of their lives, of course, which is why the show holds no fear and why you never see them stuck for an answer.

I haven’t rewatched any of those old editions (although I often wish BBC Parliament would repeat them the same way BBC4 show old editions of Top of the Pops), so I’ve no idea how much of my rapture was down to innocence. Maybe those shows were terrible as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure they were. But they were interesting, the same way a slowly-healing scab is interesting.

Once politics started to get more manicured and stage-managed under Alastair Campbell and co, it became harder to enjoy the theatre. Or at least it became meta-theatre, best viewed at a remove. There was so much smoke and so many mirrors in the 90s that it eventually became impossible to decode what politicians (a) were saying, (b) were actually saying, and (c) wanted you to think they were saying . But then that in itself is interesting. Blank canvas phrases like ‘Let’s be clear about this’ told you a lot.

It all comes back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase about the medium being the message. A show like Question Time tells you nothing about the news, but – by becoming the news – it tells you everything. Want to know why the Tories won the general election in 2015? Watch editions of Question Time from 2014. It’s all there. The whole story.

The other reason I still watch it is because of David Dimbleby. I think he’s genuinely good, and people never really talk about how good he is. A bit like The Beatles, he’s so ingrained into the broadcasting establishment that he’s actually quite underrated. For a start, he has a far sharper bullshit-detector than Jeremy Paxman ever did, and I’m continually impressed by his velvet-gloved ‘But hang on, earlier you said…’ pouncings. Everyone else nods off, but he never does. He’s doing actual journalism, and we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Question Time’s followed by This Week, the same way a stuffy wedding is followed by a drunken conga. Now there’s a lot to criticise This Week for – its trivialising of serious issues, its cosying of political discourse, its tastelessness (eg, persisting with a Ghostbusters parody a few hours after a terrorist attack), and of course it’s questionable why exactly Andrew Neil – a man who owns an apartment in Trump Tower – gets to present so many political programmes on the BBC. It also annoys me that, because they’re a current affairs show rather than an entertainment one, they’re allowed to use House of Commons footage for laughs when comedy shows can’t.

But I’m a fan. Mainly because This Week is the dying embers of a genre of programme that’s almost entirely disappeared in the 21st century: the shambolic late-night chat show. Transmitted live from Broadcasting House, it feels very old-school in a way that no other show does. It has the same DNA as The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross or The James Whale Radio Show (programmes I also watched on my black and white portable), and Neil’s very good at the Wogan-style ‘Oh dear, so you can’t sleep and you’re up watching this old rubbish again are you?’ self-deprecation. Nobody else on TV talks like that. Not any more.

The TV geek in me also enjoys watching This Week with subtitles because they’re sometimes taken from early/abandoned drafts of his links. But that’s another detour entirely.

But anyway, back to Question Time. The show’s an awful mess, but then so is the world. Avoiding it feels like avoiding that world; as fruitless and Canute-like as putting a ‘NO JUNK MAIL’ sign on your letter-box. I could stop watching it, but it would still be there.

Justin’s right that the show is hopeless at dealing with grey areas – it has no time for ums or ers or well-I-can-see-both-sides conciliation. Like arts review programmes, Question Time wants your opinion and it wants it NOW, come on come on, quickly quickly. But that in itself is why I watch it: seeing people try so hard to nail their colours to different masts without any of them clashing is a captivating sight, and it ultimately helps me sort out my own views. I go to bed rested rather than angry  (although that’s maybe down to the whisky).

As I get older, I’m increasingly comfortable with cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold two or more supposedly contradictory opinions in my head at once. To talk about a different programme entirely, I remember hearing two people argue about Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies – one of them thought it was an exploitative freak show, the other thought it raised crucial awareness about important health matters. What do I think? I think both of them were right. Both those statements are true. And thankfully, because I’m not a politician or a rent-a-gob pundit, I can say this without breaking into a sweat.

It strikes me, of course, that ‘Why do people still watch Question Time?’ would be a great question for an audience member to ask. Perhaps one day they will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Visit from the Charcoal Wasp

 

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A few years ago I was stood on a railway platform at Wandsworth. It was late, it was cold, and I was already a bit annoyed.

Opposite me was a poster for Hot Chip’s latest album. Now, Hot Chip are one of those bands who get played on 6 Music a lot. They’re the kind of act that gets featured on the front of Time Out and the Guardian with the caption ‘Britain’s most unlikely pop stars’ (usually accompanied by a photo of them looking extremely likely indeed). They make the kind of music that Lauren Laverne loves, which is meaningless because Lauren Laverne seems to love everything. They’re one of those groups who’ll do anything to sound like they’re from the early 80s – anything, that is, except write a song as good as Come On Eileen.

As I say, I was already annoyed, and now I had to contend with Hot Chip scowling at me. In Wandsworth.

Almost immediately, a Hot Chip-style racket started pumping away in my head. As with most bands I dislike, I find it hard to name any specific tracks of theirs – I can, however, conjure up the general noise. It’s a trick I can also do with Arcade Fire, Florence and the Machine and various tiresome solo projects by ex members of Blur. I began to imagine Hot Chip’s trademark synth-trudge: on it went for countless barely-changing bars, the tedium only mildly relieved by an ‘Ooh, ooh’ sample in the background.

I could feel my palms getting clammy already. Here I was, stuck in Wandsworth, imprisoned by this phantom Hot Chip longueur, with no obvious escape route. It was the worst track in the world, and I’d written it. I could already picture them headlining Glastonbury with the bloody thing, bringing the mic down so that the crowd (including Lauren Laverne) could chant the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit. My toes curled inwards.

And then I had another thought: I bet they’ve made a really annoying video. I bet it features them ironically bouncing up and down on little trampolines. I bet it shows them in a fake apartment with vinyl copies of David Bowie’s Low carefully positioned against the sofa. I bet they put on monkey masks and stand in dustbins doing the ‘See no evil…’ triptych. I bet they pull really punchable expressions when they mime to the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit, with their sunglasses and their beards, and their…

Actually, no, even worse. Here’s what’s happened: someone’s made a viral fan-video for the song. Oh god, yes. Some bored vlogger (not even a student, a 36-year-old graphic designer who should know better) has cut together a bunch of LOL-tastic TV footage: the exploding shark from Jaws, random clips from Trumpton, a couple of dancing dogs, Basil Fawly hitting his car, and its pièce de résistance: a clip of Richard Osman from Pointless synched up so it looks like it’s him doing the ‘Ooh, ooh’s.

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Well, by now I was furious.

Not only was this earworm here to stay, but so too was Richard Osman’s face. The video, of course, had been put together very badly – in terms of the technical skill involved, it wasn’t exactly Zelig; it was just one crudely looped clip of Richard Osman with his mouth making a sort of oo-shape. Perhaps he’d been saying ‘Ian Woosnam’ or something. Every time the track got to the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit (which was often), back we’d come to the same hilarious shot. And it was in the wrong aspect ratio as well, obviously. With a ‘Dave+1’ ident in the corner.

Nevertheless, this video became a meme incredibly quickly. Graham Linehan tweeted the link one afternoon (hashtag ‘Oohsman’), and suddenly it was everywhere. Copycat videos quickly sprung up of other songs with ‘Ooh, ooh’ in them, all of them synched to the same footage of Richard Osman going ‘Ooh, ooh’. Time Out and the Guardian ran pieces entitled ‘Hot Chips with everything: How the Oohsman revolution taught us to love the Brexit blues’. It eventually became so mainstream and ubiquitous that even Have I Got News For You sat up and took notice.

So I was still stuck there in Wandsworth, seething in a state of apoplexy I hitherto never knew existed. Never had I wanted to shout ‘FUCK OFF’ at a piece of cultural flotsam quite so much. Its popularity enraged me. I mean, we’ve always had to contend with rubbish, but never has rubbish been quite so openly celebrated as it is now, and here was a textbook example. I could picture the entire country cheerily re-playing the video ad nauseam wearing big Cheshire Cat grins, and I wanted to machine gun the lot of them. I wanted to wash the scum off the streets with a water cannon, hopefully knocking off Richard Osman’s specs as I did so. That’d make him go ‘Ooh, ooh’.

A few moments passed and the absurdity of all this suddenly hit me. Here I was, boiling with rage about something that didn’t actually exist. Not only did the hysteria surrounding the video not exist, but the video didn’t either. In fact, not only did the video not exist but neither did the track. I’d made it up. And where the fuck did Richard Osman come from? What did he have to do with anything? The Hot Chip poster existed, that much is true, but – as my train glided into view – I realised I wouldn’t have to look at it much longer. Or indeed at Wandsworth.

So that was that.

Winston Churchill famously called his depression ‘the black dog’. I call mine the charcoal wasp. I’ll be going about my day, and then I’ll suddenly hear it faintly buzzing away in the background. Once it flies up your sleeve, all hell breaks loose. The picnic is ruined.

Hey, what you’ve described isn’t depression, some will say. If you were really depressed, you’d have jumped in front of the train, rather than invent a bizarre dystopia involving a boring synth band and a quiz-show sidekick. You’d have curled up into a ball, rather than written a terrible episode of Black Mirror. But no, that’s exactly what depression can involve. Stupid thoughts. Really stupid thoughts. Thoughts so stupid you know full-well how stupid they are but you have them anyway. Ones you’d have severe difficulty explaining to NHS Direct.

Depression, after all, doesn’t usually come accompanied by a sad tinkly piano. More often than not, it puts on a silly hat and dances to Yakety Sax. Trouble is, you’re incapable (mid-attack) to enjoy the absurdity, the same way a migraine sufferer is unable to enjoy their free kaleidoscopic light show.

That being said, the video does sound horrific doesn’t it? If it’s in your head now, I can only apologise.

But I mean…just look at them. Sometimes the charcoal wasp has a point.

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Weekend Update: Saturday Night Live in ‘pretty good actually’ shock

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Until recently, I’d never had much time for Saturday Night Live. To me, its legacy seemed largely baffling: lots of over-long, under-written, badly-paced sketches, undeservedly egged on by an insufferably easily-pleased studio audience. Limp and unmagical, a bit like Who Dares Wins.

But that’s mainly because I hadn’t actually seen it. Well, not properly anyway.

You see, there’s a received opinion about many sketch shows (but especially SNL) that the original programmes are more miss than hit, full of longueurs and a real struggle to get through, but they make for very good clipshows and compilations. In the case of SNL, this is not only twaddle but the actual opposite of the truth: as we know from various attempts to repackage Monty Python’s Flying Circus, supposed ‘best of’ selections seldom succeed; deprived of all context, the sketches no longer swim freely but instead flap about like landed trout.

The first five seasons of SNL (1975-1980) were released on DVD a few years back, and I avoided buying them for a very long time. I suspected I’d stick on the first show, watch it in a semi-curious ‘Hmm, interesting historical snapshot’ type way, and then never return to it again. A bit like Who Dares Wins.

But I took a punt on the first season, mainly because I knew I couldn’t really call myself a comedy fan and not own it. Also, I was in the NBC gift shop, and it was either that or a ‘No soup for you!’ apron.

The glorious thing about the SNL boxsets is that they’re uncut. Given the show’s ludicrously famous alumni (in terms of both cast members and guest stars), this is nothing short of miraculous. The first show was hosted by George Carlin, for god’s sake. Later ones feature Frank Zappa, Jodie Foster, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, ABBA, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin…well, you can look up them up for yourself.  Lord knows what kind of contracts were signed at the time, but it appears nobody has been in a position to block anything. Not even Sissy Spacek or The Kinks. Everything’s intact and in order – the final ad break of every show even retains each week’s beautifully-designed caption card, something lesser DVD sets wouldn’t bother with.

What this means is that you get to see the show unfold almost in real time. And it’s a huge privilege to do so. As with the DVD of Spitting Image series one (also uncut), you have the pleasure of watching a learning curve: you see precisely when certain elements and ideas were introduced, abandoned and/or reconfigured. You also see how exactly Chevy Chase fucked up his back, and which weeks he was in hospital. For me, after years of sighing through very ‘meh’ greatest hits selections, the mists have cleared and the show finally makes sense. I see a young comedy team learning on the job, and it’s fascinating. As ever, the moronic and philistine question ‘Does it stand the test of time?’ becomes irrelevant.

Let’s remind ourselves of the original team in that opening season: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris and Jane Curtin – the so-called ‘Not Ready For Prime Time Players’. They’re all great, notably Chase and Curtin, but it’s Radner who really jumps out for me – someone who can create comedy fireworks even when the script’s somewhat drizzly. She’s extraordinary, and it breaks my heart that she’s no longer with us.

But who were these people, and what was their comedy status exactly? As a Brit watching them from a distance of 40 years, this remains a disorientating question. Not least because the show became a hit incredibly quickly, meaning the tone of that ‘primetime’ gag changed with it. What, after all, would have been the equivalent of such a show/team in the UK? There arguably wasn’t one. The Pythons is the obvious suggestion – SNL certainly sets its heights high with some unapolgetically esoteric references (one of my favourites being a prisoner convicted of ‘setting fire to the only surviving answer print of To Sir With Love’), but SNL clearly comes from a very different TV world, one so alien to the UK that the comparison is meaningless. The Pythons might have been on BBC1 in 1969, but there was no danger of their second-ever programme being a Simon and Garfunkel special.

This is the interesting thing, though. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is often cited as an influence on early SNL, but what struck me was how the show seemed influenced very specifically by first-series Python, the episodes of which had yet to be networked in the USA. The killer bees, always played with a  sort of knowing weariness, reminded me of the knight who periodically hit characters with a rubber chicken – a lacklustre running joke that’s abandoned almost as soon as it’s established. The  interview sketches have a very Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson feel to them. Jim Henson’s superb (but short-lived) Land of Gorch gives the show a woozily Gilliam-style texture, as do the weekly films by Gary Weiss. And what are Chevy Chase’s ‘Live from New York…’ cold openers if not Michael Palin’s It’s Man?

So far, there’s no indication that the DVD releases will venture beyond 1980. Season six saw creator-producer Lorne Michaels leave and the cast change completely, meaning it effectively became a different show. I’ve heard it’s terrible, but I’d still be curious to see it. I’m curious to see the whole lot, to be honest. In full. And in order. With all the ad breaks.

For now, though, I have more than enough early editions to unwrap, and I eagerly look forward to those very pleasant tomorrows.