There are people who don’t believe what Andy Warhol did was art. There are people who think all of Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else. There are skeptics who don’t buy that we ever put a man on the moon, or that the ancient Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain. And there are even some seriously misguided folks who claim our library’s music collection is horrid. There are always gonna be doubters. And haters. And people who choose to live their lives in misery, refusing to open their eyes and embrace the beauty around them. And just as it’s true with many other things, so are there detractors of this song. It’s true. Search the Internet, or take a poll, and you’ll find them. Ask these people to explain what it is about Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” that makes them cringe, and they’ll tell you. They’ll say it’s slight. They’ll say it’s silly. They’ll say it’s just plain stupid. And while I wouldn’t necessarily argue with any of those observations, I would argue with their conclusions. “Wonderful Christmastime” should be embraced as pure genius. Quite simply, it’s golden.
I’m sure this song has a wonderful history. I don’t know what that history is, but I’m sure it would knock you flat. Paul was probably playing around with a “pretty” chord, or he was oohing and aahing to himself in front of the mirror while brushing his teeth, and the melody came to him in a flash. He may have even been smoking some ganja and having a laugh. “Christmastime’s” B-side, after all, is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae.” If Paul had a guitar or a keyboard lying about, which he likely did, and a tape recorder nearby, he may have pounded out the song’s framework in minutes. It sounds like he did. The tune is just not that complicated. And for a few minutes of work, he did pretty well for himself. Some have estimated that this song alone nets Paul about $500,000 per year. Wouldn’t you like to make a cool half million annually, for the rest of your life, for something you cranked out in one single afternoon?? While “Christmastime” was but a blip on the radar screen when it first came out in ’79, it has increasingly grown into the holiday standard we know it as today. And rightfully so. Hands down, it’s the only original Christmas composition written in the last 30 years or so that has any lasting appeal. And if it’s that bad, why do they keep playing it year after year??
But, yeah, I digress. While the tune isn’t that complicated, it is deceptively complex.
The first thing you hear in “Christmastime” are those wonky, overblown synthesizers. They get pretty crazy at times, practically tripping over themselves while carpet bombing the entire tune. Today they sound as dated as “Pac Man Fever” and “Do the Donkey Kong” (Buckner & Garcia, anyone?), but in an endearing rather than annoying way. You just can’t escape as they drop and twist and loop and cast their spell from beginning to end. At the time this was recorded, Paul was also working on his techno, electro-pop masterpiece, McCartney II, so he was very much immersed in the power of the synth.
Paul also has a knack for sing-song melodies – he has always been a Tin Pan Alley songsmith at heart – and that talent is on fabulous, full-blown display here. “Christmastime” is just so darn infectious. The choir of children, as obnoxious as their “songs” may be, are a solemn and mesmerizing foil to the rest of the tune. Their beautiful ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh harmonies lift “Christmastime” to a nearly spiritual level. Guitar in this song is sparse, and plays off of those harmonies in a brief, repetitive, almost-mechanical progression of chords, rather than featuring any flashy soloing or riffs. Paul has always been a minimalist, and this gives the song exactly what it needs, tidying it up and pulling together any loose threads in the composition. Nothing less and nothing more.
But wait! “How could you ever embrace a song whose main lyric, repeated over and over again, is ‘ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong’?,” you might ask. Well, what about those opening phrases?
The mood is right/the spirit’s up/we’re here tonight/and that’s enough
You may say even those words are slight, but look at them a second time. When Paul sings, “and that’s enough,” is he merely saying it’s enough that we’re here tonight, or is he being much more clever? He might be saying, with a nod and a wink, that he doesn’t have to write any more than this. “That’s enough.” He doesn’t have to be any more descriptive or deliver some sort of heavy message. “This is an easy-breezy song, a hit record, and I don’t have to lift another finger.” There are no accidents. You can think what you like, but I prefer to believe the latter.
And give Paul a break about that choir of children. The words they sing are meant to be a pastiche, a brush stroke, a simplistic representation of kids singing carols within the framework of a larger song. The man knows exactly what he’s doing, so kick back and enjoy the ride.
The Beatles never wrote a Christmas carol while they were together, and after their break up Paul and John were the only ones to attempt such a thing on their own. John’s song – “Happy X-Mas (War is Over if You Want It)” – is beautiful in its own right, but is much more somber and contains some unfortunate lyrics that haven’t aged all that well. He meant well, of course, and that was a different era, but whenever you listen “Happy X-Mas” today, you find yourself confronting an elephant in the room. Mentions of “the yellow and red ones” might still fly at a Redskins game or a Donald Trump rally, but thankfully nowhere else.
So lift a glass, and don’t look down. Love it or leave it, of the Fab Four it was only Sir Paul who rose to this festive occasion and delivered us this silly and simple, wacky and wonderful, enduring Christmas classic.