A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Those of you who have sat through years of my hot air probably already know my shortlist of preferred Christmas songs: Slade’s rumbustious shout-along “Merry Xmas Everybody,” Elvis’s smoky after-hours version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” and the entirety of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
(Honorable mentions go to the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” which, while not my favorite song ever, is perky and spiky and spirited and different; Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” which is slyly funny and has a nice Sixties-derived bounce; and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which is gorgeous but not really a Christmas song no matter how much it gets co-opted into one.)
And then there’s Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” which I initially liked as a joke for its sonic cheesiness, but have since come to genuinely enjoy as one of the best holiday songs going.
Why do I think that? Let me count five ways:
1. Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy. I suppose this is a matter of personal interpretation, but it sure sounds to me like McCartney enjoyed writing and recording “Wonderful Christmastime.” He played all the instruments, and one imagines him banging it out in an inspired afternoon or two in the studio.
A Twitter mini-conversation with the oft-cited Jim Bartlett got me thinking: How many Christmas records actually sound like the performer is having a good time?
Many holiday recordings, and in particular the spate from the past 25 years or so, tend to sound to me as if the performer has had 12 Christmas songs thrust upon them in a bald-faced attempt to break into regular December rotation. They never sound particularly spirited; they sound like they’re checking boxes. If St. Patrick’s Day Radio becomes a big thing in five years, they’ll go through the exact same process, only they’ll hire a bodhran player.
Macca, on the other hand, sounds entirely as if he woke up in a jolly mood and saw fit to translate that mood onto tape.
2. Silly Christmas songs. “Silly Love Songs” takes the simplest, most down-to-earth attitude toward love songs (what’s wrong with them?) and runs with it in tuneful and superbly sunny fashion. “Wonderful Christmastime” does more or less the same thing for Christmas — a little less tuneful, sure, but still catchy.
Unlike Paul’s old mate Lennon, there’s no heavy thinking about wars being over and man being inhuman to man. The narrator and his listeners are fortunate to be in a place where the moon is out and the spirit’s up, and they’re enjoying their blessings by simply having a wonderful Christmastime. Sometimes things don’t need to be any more complicated than that.
(Why am I not surprised to learn that McCartney’s production company held — and perhaps still holds — its own December holiday luncheon?)
3. The choir of children. McCartney is not long on specifics in his holiday song, perhaps because he recognizes that different people in different places will celebrate in different ways.
There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, no turkey or mistletoe. His brushstrokes are much broader for the most part — a moon, a party, a raised glass. (He doesn’t even specify what’s in the glass.)
The one specific holiday trapping he mentions is a children’s choir, which has practiced all year for the big moment.
I think the children’s choir is a wonderful, charming image. I like the thematic idea that Paul McCartney, who has music coursing through his veins, would specifically make sure to include music in his portrait of a warm and ideal Christmas.
And, as a person who thinks children’s choruses in pop music are invariably cloying, I give Macca huge props for avoiding the obvious and not actually putting a real choir of children on his recording.
(Both “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Another Brick In The Wall” were released as singles in November 1979, which means U.K. radio audiences got to hear two entirely different choirs of children singing their songs, perhaps even in the same block of airplay.)
4. The sonics. How many Christmas songs sound like “Wonderful Christmastime”?
Sure, it’s got that late-’70s/early-’80s synth cheesiness going on; it sounds distinctly of its time.
But, amid an ever-expanding realm of Christmas music, it cuts through. It doesn’t sound like those smooth ’40s and ’50s Christmas songs with crooners and full orchestras, or like a hushed piano-and-vocal ballad, or like your average famous rock band bashing it out with guitars and drums. When you hear the first five seconds, you know instantly what’s playing.
There’s an art to memorable pop production — to making a record stand out. And whether McCartney did it intentionally or accidentally (i.e., just by bashing around on a new keyboard), he certainly pulled it off here.
5. Nobody does it better. There’s a famous financial figure that circulates, courtesy of Forbes magazine, that you’ve probably seen online:
Paul McCartney allegedly stands to receive upwards of $400,000 in royalties on “Wonderful Christmastime” every year, by dint of the song’s huge seasonal popularity and his status as its songwriter, sole musical performer, producer and rights-holder.
I have no idea how accurate this is — I tend to be a bit suspicious, me.
But if it’s anywhere close to true, it’s just additional proof that Paul McCartney was pretty much the king of 20th-century popular music, and there seems little else to do but tip one’s scally-cap to him.
Dude sat down at his keyboard with a headful of happy … overdubbed some sleigh bells and some goofy vocals … and he could live comfortably for the rest of his life just off the income from that single light-hearted song.
(Never mind what he also makes from – oh, let’s pick a few — “Penny Lane” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Silly Love Songs” and “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” and “Mull of Kintyre” and “Ebony and Ivory” and, and, and.)
It’s Paul’s world. We all just live in it. The good news is, Christmases here are really warm and festive. Have you heard?