Monday, 5 November 2012

25 days, 25 songs (December 1st - 25th 2010)

This was the fourth Billy Blagg Advent Calendar, run on my old football home site of and a blog at Soccernet before it became ESPN FC. I had no idea the idea would prove so popular and I have saved the original posts here, both for posterity and to enable those who like to join in the still-running Calendar, to see what has appeared previously and make suggestions for new songs.

In the early days of the Calendar, the general WWW usage for music was MySpace and there wasn't a lot of opportunity to actually hear old tunes. Consequently, some of the text here explains what I was listening too and I've left that alone in order not to change the tone of the blog. For the most part - although not all - this changed with the rise of YouTube. 

This was the first calendar to fully utilise YouTube links and I return periodically during the following festive season to check and update the links (but you'll understand it's not something I'm not keen to do it in April or July!). As of November 2017, this blog was up to date.

Photo: B.Blagg

Regulars know the drill by now. 25 days, 25 songs; some chestnuts, the occasional cracker and a few turkeys. If you have anything you think I should hear then mail the blog or send me a link to

This year's selection is dedicated to the Soccernet regular who started sending me songs in FEBRUARY, a dedication to the cause even I can't match.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Just a quick thanks to everyone who has mailed me songs or song suggestions throughout the YEAR (Can we just leave it till November in 2011...please...?) or just taken part in the whole fiasco. As a couple of you have found out this time, I do read all the emails and listen to all the stuff you send me - can you see the glazed look in my eye? - and the songs do sometimes find their way onto the calendar even if its a year or so later.

God willing I hope to be back next December. Till then Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Day 25: 'Driving Home For Christmas' - Chris Rea
Every year, I insist this isn't a 'best of' chart or countdown and day 25 shouldn't be regarded as any different from day one but I'll admit the final window has usually come to be a bit personal and that's the case this time too.

There was a bit of a mini-debate on 6Music last week, as to whether Chris Rea had managed to encapsulate an iconic English Christmas driving song into just four minutes or if it was simply a load of pap. I think the former argument is more sound and the second doesn't apply anyway because it's Christmas and you can listen to stuff you wouldn't touch with a barge-pole the rest of the year.

In days of old, when contracts were contracts and I had 'em, I'd often end up driving home in the last days before the festivities and playing this and it never failed to raise a smile. Now? Well, I actually drove home for Christmas in the second week of November. This makes me hope for happier times of fuller employment for me and for everyone else.

Merry Christmas!

Day 24: 'Christmas Eve Can Kill You ' - The Everly Brothers
A heart-breaking tale of failing to get a lift when hitchhiking on Christmas Eve; I first heard this on a box set sung by a duo called Suzie Adams and Helen Watson - who they? - and it was a heartbreaking version that, sadly, I can't find anywhere on the web. 

Realising that, even by my standards that's pretty obscure, I searched around and found a 1972 version by the Everly Brothers which was as equally touching. That was some time last year though, during which time the song seems to have been pulled by YouTube and, although there is another version available, it seems to be a different recording from the poignant original. Frankly, it sounds as if it's been recorded via mic to an old reel to reel recorder that's running at slightly the wrong speed. It's still enough of a warning though, so make sure you get the last No: 15 bus from Oxford Street this most magical of nights...Oh! - and be assured if I see you stumbling along in the snow I won't drive on by.....

2016 Update: Apparently this has been sitting around on YouTube since 2011. It's the Suzie Adams and Helen Watson version that I said I couldn't find, but it's here and it's wonderful. You can have a Two for One deal for free. Thank me later.

Day 23: 'Christmas 1914 ' - Mike Harding
Some may know Mike Harding as a stand-up comedian, others as owner of a one-off novelty hit (Rochdale Cowboy), more still as the front man for Radio 2's Folk, Roots and Acoustic Show but Harding is actually, first and foremost, a fine singer / songwriter in the folk idiom as this beautiful song shows.

Quite ethereal and haunting, the song tells the tale of the famous truce between English and German troops during the First World War and manages to capture the essence of what must have been a moving and poignant moment.

The incident lead to many poems, songs and stories, perhaps the most famous being the following exchange:

Lieutenant George: "...I'd just arrived and we had that wonderful Christmas truce. Do you remember? We could hear 'Silent Night' drifting across the still, clear air of No Man's Land. And then they came, the Germans, emerging out of the freezing night mist, calling to us, and we clambered up over the top and went to meet them."
Captain Blackadder: "Yes, Both sides advanced more during one Christmas piss-up than they managed in the next two-and-a-half-years of war."

A slightly too echo-y version of the song can be found below
but I urge you to seek out the recorded version.

Day 22: 'All I Want for Christmas is New Year's Day ' - Hurts
Here's a shocker in all senses of the word. Indie darlings Hurts - they were named by NME in 2009's year end review as one of the 'bands to watch' - decide to abandon 21st century modernity and return to heartbreaking, over-wrought pop more in keeping with East 17's 'Stay Another Day'.

It's got more bells than a one-horse open sleigh with a back-beat that put me in mind of Sir Cliff's 'Saviour's Day' and comes complete with a bizarre video set around a grave. 

It's garnering a lot of air-play but I remain strangely unmoved even though I am usually a sucker for a Christmas heartbreaker. It has put me in the mood for a spot of 'Stay Another Day' though. Now that WAS a choooon...

Day 21: 'Christmas is a' comin' ' - Leadbelly
Those of you who quickly jumped to the defence of the original Blues musicians when I run a thread about Led Zeppelin the other week on the West Ham Online page, will be pleased to see this bit of authentic American folk / blues courtesy of Mr Huddie Ledbetter himself. 

Recorded in 1942 - And No Smartarse I didn't buy it when it first came out! - it features one of the great blues voices and his distinctive 12-string guitar. It's here and it's great.

Day 20: 'Christmas Time is Here' - The Flirtations
'Nothing but a Heartache' is rightly cited as an R'n'B, Northern Soul classic but flip over the 1968 version - see Day 18 for defining 'flip over' - and there is this gem on the other side. Not to be missed.

Day 19: 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman' - Annie Lennox
To be honest, nothing of the output of La Lennox has interested me much since The Tourists broke up, but I'm including this on the Sunday Carol section this week for three reasons.

One: it's from a new album called 'Christmas Cornucopia' that may interest some. Two: the extraordinary video that accompanies the song has deeply disturbed me for reasons I'm not entirely sure of and three - and most importantly - I normally accompany my Mum to church on the last Sunday before Christmas for the Candlelit Christmas Carol Service at St. Paul's in East Ham and I won't be able to do that this year.

It's nothing to do with the snow or my tardiness either but Mum is in Newham General this Sunday battling Lymphoma and the associated 'cure' that sometimes appears worse than the disease. This is for her as I think she'd like it.

Day 18: 'Feed the World' - Band Aid
"Blimey Blagg - running out of songs are we? Surely a bit populistic for you...?"
..but wait.. this isn't the hardy perennial that is 'Do They Know it's Christmas' - a record even Saint Bob wants rid of even though it must still feed thousands every year - but something ever so slightly different.

You see, long, long ago, way before you used to steal music for free, beyond those strange shiny CD's your Dad has and even before those plastic cassette things you find in drawers at home, there was something called VINYL. And music released on vinyl had to have two sides and, no matter what you put on what was known as the A side, you had to put something on the B side - even when you have recorded a song in one night as Geldof did on 25th November 1984 and really have nothing else to give.

So, short of other ideas, 'Feed the World' consists of the 'DTKIC' backing track with a number of the Artistes speaking over the top and wishing everyone a Happy Christmas. This has some curiosity value certainly, as you hear the likes of Big Country, Holly Johnson, Bananarama and Johnny Fingers wishing you well while Paul McCartney excuses himself for famously not being there. There is even a smile moment as Bono introduces himself as 'the singer with U2' because, until he sung the line 'Tonight thank God it's them instead of you' U2 were not much more than a run-of-the-mill Division II outfit, but otherwise it's so far, so mundane.

Then two minutes in, the backing track stops and the stentorian voice of David Bowie intones "It's Christmas 1984 / And there are more starving folk on the planet than ever before / Please give a thought for them this season and do whatever you can - however small - to help them live" before the whole crew drop into the 'Feed the World' chorus.

It is genuinely chilling and one of the reasons I'll often play the long-forgotten B-side over the other track.

Day 17: 'Poundland Christmas' - Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire
Well, this is gonna strike a few chords this Christmas and as a double bonus the track will go down a bomb at your Christmas party too. This is a track from the 'Christmas 1979' LP released in 2007 and even though I've never quite warmed to the Childish oeuvre, it's an album worth hearing.

How would you like an indoor aerial? / Everything's for sale for a quid / Bring a smile to your family's Christmas / Made out of plastic by an Asian kid

Day 16: 'Christmas A Come' - Eek a Mouse
A Blagg first: A Calendar entry just 17 minutes after midnight, written in a West London hotel by a bloke pissed out of his skull on JD and coke (that's Cola btw) with a comatose secretary lying next to me (don't worry she's also my wife so it's OK). I'm pretty sure this day's entry is a hot slice of dub reggae but, frankly, who cares?

Day 15: 'Christmas Dragnet' - Stan Freberg
Christmas party tonight for Blagg IT Ltd so - as tradition dictates - it's novelty record time. And you can keep your 'Ernie', 'Grandma' and 'Granddad' - even yer 'Blobby' and 'Bob the Builder' - here's one from 1953 that is going to mean nothing to most of you but, to the cognoscenti, is pure comedy gold. Fortunately, I know two kids who post-date this by some 30 odd years and they love it so don't let the 78rpm label put you off.

Day 14: 'The Christmas Song' - The Raveonettes
This rather gorgeous offering from the Danish alternative rock duo is becoming something of a staple on the Blagg phonograph. There's a kinda early '60's re-verb on it and at 2:16 it doesn't outstay it's welcome either.

'Santa's coming to town / with sequins in his hair'...things have changed a lot since I was a kid..

Day 13: 'Christmas in Vietnam' - Private Charles Bowens and the Gentleman from Tigerland
Regulars may recall the 'so awfully horrendous, it's almost good' vibe from a track called 'Christmas in the Jungle' that found its way onto the Calendar a few years back, and I expected a similar experience when someone sent me a link to this 1967 record.

In fact, after the solitary trumpet fades from the beginning, it's something of a slow soul groove thang as Bowens reveals it's gonna be a 'dark, dark Christmas' over there in his foxhole. Sadly, the bloke is under the misapprehension that he's 'fighting for liberty / so this world can stay free' but that aside it's pretty good. A Google search doesn't reveal if Private Bowens made it home but I hope he did.

Worth remembering there are others fighting the same battles some forty-five years later.

Day 12: 'The Coventry Carol' - Alison Moyet
It's the Sunday Carol and this dark and depressing example has even gloomier undertones for me, as I shudder at the memory of having to sing this twice a week from September to December when I was press-ganged into the school choir at Thomas Lethaby Secondary School for Young Offenders. Fortunately, by Christmas the following year, my voice had broken and I was spared further torture..

Alf sings this in her customary fashion and it has merits I guess, but for me, the pervading smell of stale cabbage, chalk and sweaty youth hangs over it and I have to use the skip button.

Day 11: 'Christmas' - Teddy Thompson
Been meaning to fit this in for a couple of years now. It's Richard and Linda's little lad on a reggae-tinged ditty that has a vaguely '50's country feel to it. Not quite of the quality of his superb '09 'In my Arms' but still better than a lot of pap lying around at this time of year. 

Day 10: 'Merry Twist-mas' - The Marcels
It's Christmas Party night hepcats - Let's Doo-wop the night away!

You'll love the video too!

Day 9: '2000 Miles' (Live from the Isle of View) - The Pretenders
Nothing wrong with the original hit from 1983 but the 1995 version on the 'Isle of View' CD features the Duke string quartet and is rather lovely. It was on YouTube but has been removed due to copyright infringement although the sound quality was poor anyway it and sounds much better as I play it here on CD. Feel free to pop round and hear it. You bring the eggnog and mince pies this time though, eh?

(2012 update: Hey! I see the 'Isle of View' version is  back - catch it here before it's too late! )

Day 8: 'Last Christmas' - Manic Street Preachers
In honour of this week's culture clash that saw the Manics appear on 'Strictly' - WTF was that about?! - comes what is really James Dean Bradfield doing a live acoustic cover of Wham's! opus. As far as I know this only ever saw the light of day on an old TFI Friday show and can be found here. As you'd expect from anything to do with the Manics, It's actually bloody good!

Day 7: 'White Christmas' - Iggy Pop
From the sublime to the faintly ridiculous.
I always like to get at least one version of 'White Christmas' into the calendar every year and this December's comes courtesy of James Osterberg who manages to croak and groan his way through Bing's classic like a demented Santa who's just been let out of lobotomy class.

Miss it at your peril

Day 6: 'White Wine in the Sun' - Tim Minchin
Proof that I do listen to all the songs and links you send me comes with this choice which arrives courtesy of Fred Flintstone - one of the Internet posters not the Hanna Barbera cartoon character (at least, I assume not....) - who suggested this last year.

Minchin is a top comedian but manages to perform an extraordinary feat on this making it funny, sad, poignant, uplifting, relevant, smart and achingly beautiful all at the same time.
In fact, Minchin manages to sum up my feeling about the season too:
I really like Christmas ... And yes I have all of the usual objections to consumerism / The commercialisation of ancient religions / And the westernisation of a dead Palestinian / Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer / But I still really like it

It's probably a work of genius.

There are numerous places to see it but you may want to check this one out first:

Day 5: 'The Birth of Christ' - BoyzIIMen
In the barmy place that is the Advent Calendar, I always leave Sunday's free for a Carol. Up first this year is this gorgeous acapella offering - check out the bloke doing the bass part - which was first found on the 'Very Special Christmas II' CD.

You should try and find that one for the crystal clear harmonies and the atmospheric howling wind noises but the live version on YouTube is worth checking on too.

Day 4: 'Christmas in Heaven' - James Brown
Well, I guess he'll know...

Ironic that the Godfather of Soul shuffled off this Mortal Coil on Christmas Day 2006 bearing in mind the number of Christmas tracks he recorded. 

This is a string-laden slow ballad, quite gorgeous and ideal for that dance at the end of the Christmas party. It was at such an event that I first ...errr....'got together' with the Good Lady B so let that be a lesson to you. Be careful out there!

Day 3: 'Happy Christmas' - Toots and the Maytals
From the same men that made the astonishing 'Pressure Drop' the track it undoubtedly was, comes this great slice of festive Reggae. Great clunking guitars, searing horns and wonderful vocals; this is simply great.

Day 2: 'Christmas Lights' - Coldplay
I always like to drop a few unsavoury objects into the Christmas pud mix and, suddenly, while I'm still looking around for a suitable ingredient, along come the Marmite of the pop world.

If you love Coldplay then you'll adore this; if you hate them then I've bad news for you this Christmas 'cos you'll be screaming for a real Johnny Seven (ask yer Dad) by the 25th.
Chris Martin's voice virtually gives up on this gloriously over-wrought paean (see what I did there?) to the season. 'Christmas Night / Another fight' / 'Took my feet / To Oxford Street' indeed. There's even an 'Oh-oh-oh-oh' to sing on the train back from Liverpool Street.

Still, you can't accuse this thread of not being bang up to date as this track's not been heard anywhere prior to tonight and, to be fair, the money from the record is going to charity. The video is worth watching even if only for the fact it must have cost a shed-load and you get to see what a really odd looking band Coldplay are.

Catch it here - but don't shoot the messenger ok?

Day 1: 'Must be Santa' - Bob Dylan
It's been a full year since Dylan released the 'Christmas in the Heart' album to an astonished and unsuspecting world and some still can't make out if the old curmudgeon is taking the piss or not. But anyone who's listened to Dylan's 'Theme Time Radio Hour' will know the man's got a dry and perverted sense of humour and I reckon he had a good laugh making the album.

This is probably the most accessible track - rocking accordion  jug band feel and all - it's one of those songs where each verse adds a line to the previous and it's a lot of fun. An equally potty video can be found here as well:

I've got no car and now, it seems, no job either, but it fair put me in a Christmas mood.


 Photo: B.Blagg