It was twenty years ago today… well, it would have been if an old friend had not persuaded me to write this. The piece I wrote about the guy with the mordant but original sense of humour, Vinnie Spit, prompted him to correspond with me, sending me a box full of his music, and then silence (my fault, not his, I hasten to add).
Until this week. Shining out of the coronaviral gloom of a blank year, Vinnie is treating us to a live concert of his music, which, as John said about another band of worthies, “every song title a potential T-shirt.” Tune in this weekend and be entertained like never before…if you’re still up at 2 a.m. in the UK. Vinnie recommends his website for the best view. Thanks for the heads up, guy and here’s a reminder of how it all started: Gourmet Dinner and Spit And Polish.
Merry Christmas folks, and you could do worse after the blowout at lunch than listen to what I’ve got for you today. The ‘pretty’ Festive 31 of 1997 is a bizarre anomaly in the history of the chart. For a start, it’s only got 31 places (ah, you got there before me). Secondly, it only took place pretty late in the day: John had had such a crap year he originally wasn’t going to have one at all, but gave in to people power. Thirdly, he did the whole thing in one take, just the same as the 1993 chart. Fourthly, he could have had 50 places: instead, we had a load of records picked by his family and some listeners, plus a Pavement session repeat. Finally, he actually used the words ‘Festive 51’ at the beginning of the show. Coincidence or not?
Well, you can make up your own minds on this one. Personally, I don’t hold with the conspiracy theorists and think he just couldn’t face what had probably become a chore, and by the time he relented, the amount of votes that came in would most likely have meant a bunch of tracks with just one or a couple of votes charting. I’m not talking out my arse here: votes for my Peel Sessions chart (remember that?) were so thin on the ground after about number 35 that I was having to judge the chart positions based on criteria such as who got their vote in first (which, to be fair, I did make clear beforehand).
There’s little to surprise anybody who was committed to his shows over the year: he was chuffed by Cornershop getting the recognition they deserved after he’d plugged their stuff relentlessly for four years. ‘Brimful Of Asha’ made number 1 before a certain ex-Housemartin got his grubby mitts on it.
Football records rarely made the chart, but this one did. A record by an Irish band about a Leeds United player? Must be unique.
Just for once, I can’t claim the credit for the download: a fellow enthusiast called Jake isolated the chart section (all two and a quarter hours of it) and remastered it, doing a bloody good job in the process. Hope you all got what you wanted from Santa….
This is a new idea, inspired by something I knocked up for a friend. For those of you who want just the Festive Fifty chart records and Peel links alone, I have the answer: it’s all here in one handy file, edited together by me from the available recordings. The 1995 chart knocked Peel sideways and he declared it to be “an especially good one.” The following year was not quite so spectacular, although it had its moments. Half Man Half Biscuit in particular made a splash by returning to the chart for the first time since 1986 (although they broke up that year, they had reformed in 1990). Their number 43 entry proved to be the one and only time that Peel had no idea what he was supposed to be playing, since it was from a session they put down for Mark Goodier’s show when John was sitting in.
Other notable facts about this chart, which was broadcast between 21-29 December 1996: Dick Dale became, at the age of 59, the oldest act to enter (beating the record he established the year before). Kenickie’s number one is the shortest FF chart-topper ever (just two minutes long).
Once again, the Fall had the most entries with three (although they registered a whopping 10 in 1993). So sit back, get some mulled wine on the go and enjoy the fruits of my labours. If I get a good reaction to this, I may well do another. Or not.
I think Andy Kershaw would be the first to agree that his time management skills leave something to be desired, as his frequently hurried links to Peel’s programmes testified. However, on this occasion it worked to advantage: his one-man show (for want of a better expression) was meant to last for 105 minutes, two hours tops. It actually clocked in about ten minutes short of three hours (with no interval, since he felt this slowed things down). And he still didn’t get all his material in!
Nevertheless, what we were treated to was a demonstration of his abilities as a raconteur and lecturer, in an atmosphere whose informality was stressed by the chairs being arranged cabaret-wise around tables to which the audience were not only allowed to bring their drinks but also to refresh themselves at will. I stayed rooted to my ringside seat for the duration, and can honestly say it was an evening (and money) well spent. What we got was the impression that his exciting and well-lived life necessitated ten times more airspace than a few hours on a very wet Thursday evening. His private turmoil of the last few years remained unmentioned, save a whimsical aside that some of his more esoteric tastes were probably the reason for him no longer having a national radio programme.
Things I never knew were casually tossed into the mix alongside familiar (yet pungent) slices of life. He suggested that a sizable chunk of his appearance on Desert Island Discs had ended up on the cutting room floor, including the part where he refused to accept the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare and in fact resented having them foisted on him. There were the stories about the records he never chose for his list of eight: Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air (which he mentioned in the book) and Chuck Berry’s Promised Land (which he didn’t). In a passing nod to his radio career, extracts from these were played live, along with his beloved Bhundu Boys. (He also had to blow his nose constantly using the luxury he proclaimed to Radio 4 in 2007: “a mountain of bog roll.”)
Kershaw prowled the stage like a preacher possessed, taking time in the musical interludes to gulp down some Diet Coke, occasionally resting against the wings and trying manfully to avoid standing in front of the prepared projector slides. He loves the sound of his own voice (one thing he accused the late John Walters of), and thankfully so did we, as the boredom factor was non-existent (although the couple behind me obviously thought that their comments on his material were more important than what he was saying). Predictably, I was eager to hear what he had to say about his relationship with Peel, but he did not dwell on this, beyond acknowledging John’s influence and spending more time eulogising Walters, as in the book proclaiming him to be the real genius behind their programmes.
The show ended with Andy reading out a list of wacky titles of North Korean songs (and showing puzzlement when I laughed out loud at I’m In Love With A Married Disabled Soldier) and, following a hasty fag out in the back garden, returning to sign books for anybody that was left. Hardback copies of No Off Switch were waiting in the foyer for £15 a throw. I presented him with my old paperback copy which he happily wrote in, and took the opportunity to ask him if we were going to get a book devoted to his programmes in the vein of The Peel Sessions. Andy replied that he had already suggested an updated version, since a list of his sessions up to the beginning of 1992 had already appeared in In Sessions Tonight. We shook hands, expressing mutual pleasure at having met, and I went home. If I could follow up his suggestion of turning up to see him in Ireland to hear the update of his story, I would.
For those who have been following my mini journey through Yule, a merry Christmas to you all. My final share before I have time off to digest seasonal fare tomorrow is the companion piece to the Fall’s 19th session (look for it in the Sessions At A Glance panel), Elastica’s 3rd, first broadcast in the same show (17 December 1994). They can’t really be counted as a Peel band, since it was Steve Lamacq who discovered them, and Peel was somewhat embarrassed by the fact that he actually liked a band who were commercially successful. In any event, he adjudged this collection of tracks a masterpiece, and listening to them, it’s hard to disagree. All For Gloria and I Wanna Be A King Of Orient Aah add their own indelible stamp to the Christmas canon by reworking the melodies to Ding Dong Merrily On High and We Three Kings with panache and brio: Father Christmas muses on how great a guy Santa is for bringing us presents, and Blue is a full-on rocker that wraps up the party nicely (no pun intended).
Have a wonderful Christmas, and I’ll see you all on the other side.
1. Making a festive film for showing on Channel 5 in the month leading up to Christmas follows a logical process:
Choose Hallmark as your production company.
Make it in Canada.
Hire washed-up actors who were famous. Once. A very long time ago (step forward Steve Guttenberg and Andrew McCarthy).
Make sure the story has a really soupy ending where some grumpy old bastard gets the festive spirit.
or get married (on Christmas Eve).
Try and remake A Christmas Carol (for the 3,000,000th time).
Include the following characters if you can: frumpy old maid who always has a smart one-liner ready / smart-ass kid who is supposed to make us all cry with an ingenuous question / old man who seems to be the only one who still believes in Christmas (until the last five minutes of the film) / lead’s exasperating best friend (normally someone you would emigrate to avoid) / neglected parent.
Do not, repeat NOT, watch Secret Santa. Now I’ve said that, you’ll all look in TV Choice to see when it’s on next and find out why I said that. Don’t say you weren’t warned. I would say it’s because it’s fucking crap, except that would be an insult to fucking crap.
Finally, make sure you’ve got a clip of somebody watching an infinitely superior product such as Miracle On 34th Street or Scrooge, just as if to underline how it should be done.
2. Now I’ve got that off my chest, go to this page and choose a Peel Christmas programme to listen to, or this page to find links to videos of (most of) the Christmas songs John played, or this page to find out more about what the subject of this blog is supposed to be. I wrote them all and one of them was based on an article from here. Well, if I don’t blow my own trumpet, who else is going to.
That champion of diatonic melody, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), wasn’t a particularly festive kind of a chap. In fact, I can find only one example of music that he wrote which is even remotely related to Christmas. The St. Nicholas Mass, his 6th, premiered on December 6 1772 (the name day of Haydn’s patron Prince Esterhazy, and of St. Nicholas), and was written to short order for Advent (note that the Dona Nobis Pacem and Kyrie sections share the same melody). It has a pastoral feel, as most Christmas works of the time exhibited as a nod to the shepherds in the Nativity story. The performance, by the Trinity Choir and REBEL Orchestra conducted by James Burdick, is paired with the Nelson Mass on this CD.
Back in days of old, I had a blog called I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (hence the temporary title change for TK this month: clever stuff, eh?) In a fit of nihilism, I deleted the whole thing, and now Blogger tells me I can only view it if I have an invitation from the author….errr…me. While I ponder the wisdom (or lack of it) displayed by this, I am reposting what I’ve always regarded as the best feature of it: every UK Christmas number one from the years above. I stopped featuring the years separately when the whole thing became a bit of an irrelevance. In the last three years, the domination of the chart by X Factor has been replaced by something even worse: smashing that programme’s stranglehold on the top spot by championing downloads of songs that seem to be even further removed from the spirit of the season than Simes’ brigade of forgettable wannabes. The intention was laudable, but the execution miserable, and as a result I’ve stopped giving a flying fuck about what’s at the top this year. So, for the last time, here are all the songs you, the great British public, bought the most of at Christmas.
All The UK Christmas Number 1s 1952-1980
1952: Al Martino, Here In My Heart
1953: Frankie Laine, Answer Me
1954: Winifred Atwell, Let’s Have Another Party (both sides of the single included here, thereby making it longer than Bohemian Rhapsody!)
1955: Dickie Valentine, Christmas Alphabet
1956: Johnnie Ray, Just Walkin’ In the Rain
1957: Harry Belafonte, Mary’s Boy Child
1958: Conway Twitty, It’s Only Make Believe
1959: Emile Ford & The Checkmates, What Do Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For
1960: Cliff Richard & The Shadows, I Love You
1961: Danny Williams, Moon River
1962: Elvis Presley, Return To Sender
1963: Beatles, I Want To Hold Your Hand
1964: Beatles, I Feel Fine
1965: Beatles, Day Tripper
1966: Tom Jones, Green Green Grass Of Home
1967: Beatles, Hello Goodbye
1968: Scaffold, Lily The Pink
1969: Rolf Harris, Two Little Boys
1970: Dave Edmunds, I Hear You Knocking
1971: Benny Hill, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)
1972: Little Jimmy Osmond, Long Haired Lover From Liverpool (still to my ears the worst of all)
1973: Slade, Merry Xmas Everybody
1974: Mud, Lonely This Christmas (the only cross-reference between this and my Peel’s Christmas Faves section, since he played it at the top of his 2001 festive show)
1975 and 1991: Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
1976: Johnny Mathis, When A Child Is Born (Soleado)
1977: Wings, Mull Of Kintyre
1978: Boney M, Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord
1979: Pink Floyd, Another Brick In The Wall Part 2
1980: St. Winifred’s School Choir, There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma
1981: Human League, Don’t You Want Me
1982: Renee & Renato, Save Your Love (greasy lardy and ugly bird buck the trend. Where are they now? Who gives a shit?)
1983: Flying Pickets, Only You
1984: Band Aid, Do They Know It’s Christmas?
1985: Shakin’ Stevens, Merry Christmas Everyone
1986: Jackie Wilson, Reet Petite
1987: Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind
1988: Cliff Richard, Mistletoe And Wine
1989: Band Aid II, Do They Know It’s Christmas?
1990: Cliff Richard, Saviour’s Day (this brings the Cliffster’s tally of Christmas number 1s to four in total, two as a solo performer, one with the Shadows and one other as part of Band Aid II)
1991: Queen, These Are The Days Of Our Lives (since we already have Bohemian Rhapsody, this was the double A-side. The only song to be Christmas number 1 more than once in exactly the same version)
1992: Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
1993: Mr. Blobby, Mr. Blobby (the only eponymous Christmas Number 1. Big deal. It’s still shite)
1994: East 17, Stay Another Day
1995: Michael Jackson, Earth Song
1996: Spice Girls, 2 Become 1
1997: Spice Girls, Too Much
1998: Spice Girls, Goodbye (they now tie with the Beatles for the longest uninterrupted stretch at Christmas Number 1, although the Fab 4 had more in total. Bet Paul and Ringo still ritually burn Tom Jones albums at New Year)
1999: Westlife, I Have A Dream (Seasons In The Sun was the double A-side, but hey, when you’re faced with two lumps of crap, they both smell and taste the same)
2000: Bob The Builder, Can We Fix It?
2001: Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman, Somethin’ Stupid
2002: Girls Aloud, Sound Of The Underground (Pop Idol winners, and the beginning of the end for the Xmas no. 1 as we know it)
2003: Gary Jules, Mad World
2004: Band Aid 20, Do They Know It’s Christmas? (two things to note here. The first time the same song had been number 1 three times at Christmas, and Sir Paul’s record-breaking six appearances as performer, with the Beatles, Wings and this. I don’t count his spoken message on the 1984 Band Aid track, as it was only featured on the 12 inch.)
2005: Shayne Ward, That’s My Goal (X Factor nemesis begins)
2006: Leona Lewis. A Moment Like This
2007: Leon Jackson, When You Believe
2008: Alexandra Burke, Hallelujah
2009: Rage Against The Machine, Killing In The Name Of
2010: Matt Cardle, When We Collide
2011: Military Wives with Gareth Malone, Wherever You Are
I met Witold Lutoslawski in London in 1987 when he came to the Proms to conduct his Thrid Symphony. I asked him whether he had plans for another: he smiled and replied that he was so busy he couldn’t plan that far ahead. However, he did indeed start work on his Fourth (and last) the following year, and it premiered in 1992. He died the following year, and Radio 3 predictably gave a great deal of airplay to his music, including a work that I had never heard, his Twenty Christmas Carols (begun in 1946 and originally written for soprano and piano).
I was used to the avant-garde leanings of such pieces as Jeux Venitiens, which gave the conductor freedom to stop the player from continuing at any given point, but this was another world, and one that immediately captivated me. In the aftermath of a war that had ravaged his country and killed 6 million of his compatriots, Lutoslawski, at the behest of the Ministry Of Culture, began collecting texts of traditional carols, very much in the manner of Vaughan Williams before him, and organising them into a cycle. The charm of the pieces is heightened by magical orchestration, completed towards the end of the composer’s life. I immediately bought this Naxos CD when it first appeared, and it has become a part of the season for me ever since. The texts (which I have included in English and Polish) give the secondary characters Polish names and embellish the Nativity story in a childlike, timeless way: it would have been balm for Poland’s ravaged soul after the war and again during the upheaval of the 1980s and the victory of Solidarity (which Lutoslawski supported vigorously). The performance is by the Polish Radio Choir and Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, and the full CD or download is available here.
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was actually born Michael Schultze, but took Pratorius (meaning ‘mayor’) as a Latinisation of his name. He was the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor, and used Protestant hymns to shape his music. Since he had the advantage of steady employment first as an organist and then as a court composer, he was able to indulge his knowledge of the ‘new’ composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli. He is best known for the secular dances, of which there are several versions, but the issue of the CD this comes from helped to re-establish the reputation of his church music too.
Paul McCreesh’s version of the Lutheran Divine Service, played by the Gabrieli Consort and Players, is a stunning recreation of how the celebrations on Christmas morning might have sounded to early 17th century ears. Most of the plaudits tend to focus on the sonic explosion of the recessional at the end, In Dulci Jubilo, which presages the coming of baroque music in its aural wipeout of voices, trumpets and drums, but the whole magical tapestry deserves your attention. Not all the pieces on here are by him, but it would have been unlikely that one composer would have written all the music for the Mass, even then.