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The Darkness, Shakin Stevens and more on creating a classic Christmas song: “It’s kept me in sports cars”

As Christmas looms, artists behind some of the biggest hits – as well as those hoping to secure their own festive staple – tell Rolling Stone how they did it

By Mark Sutherland

Shakin Stevens in the Merry Christmas Everyone video
Shakin Stevens and old St Nick (Picture: YouTube)

Back in 1973, glam rock titans Wizzard sang the immortal words, “I wish it could be Christmas every day” on their Christmas classic of the same name. Now, nearly 50 years later, Roy Wood’s fantasy of a perpetual festive season is closer to reality than ever – at least on the UK charts.

Because, in 2021, streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon start pushing their Christmas playlists in October. It’s no different on the airwaves either – Heart launched its Christmas music-only pop-up station on October 17th (i.e. two whole weeks before anyone had sorted their Squid Game outfits for Halloween). And a staggering array of artists from almost every genre on earth begin promoting (or re-promoting) their festive offerings before the last Bonfire Night fireworks had faded from the night sky.

It’s with good reason that the first sound you hear on that Wizzard hit is the “Kerching!” of a cash register. Just as Christmas itself has become commercialised, so its soundtrack has turned into ever bigger business for the music industry.

On Christmas Eve last year, Mariah Carey shattered Spotify’s single day streaming record, when ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ racked up 17,223,237 streams, with Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ ranked number two with 15,813,799 (they’ve both since been overtaken by Adele’s ‘Easy on Me’, though don’t bet against Mariah taking her crown back this year).

Last year’s Christmas Day Top 40 featured no fewer than 27 Christmas songs while, according to the Official Charts Company (OCC), 2020 sales and streams of festive tunes were up over 50% on 2019.

And yet, as recently as the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Christmas songs were seriously out of fashion. Most mainstream radio play had shrunk to the days around December 25th, while few contemporary artists seemed motivated to try and add to the long list of festive standards generated in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

What changed? Well, crucially, the physical music era ended. As the chart moved first to downloads and then, more significantly, to streaming, festive classics started reappearing each year. A festive hit is now for life, not just for Christmas.

“Streaming is really critical to this,” says Martin Talbot, CEO of the Official Charts Company. “It has had a massive impact on the growth of Christmas songs.

“It’s become the standard thing to crank up your Spotify, turn on a Christmas playlist and just play away,” he notes. “And clearly the artists themselves now realise there’s a living to be made out of recording Christmas songs, which was not the case for a long, long time.”

“Let’s just say it’s kept me in sports cars,” chortles Justin Hawkins of The Darkness, who played a key role in putting the sparkle back into Santa song season with their 2003 double entendre-strewn anthem, ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)’. “It hasn’t bought me a house, but it has kept me in cars. I would give my right nut – and the left one actually – for another one like that.”

On its original release, ‘Christmas Time’ was pipped at the festive number one post by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ distinctly Scrooge-like ‘Mad World’. But it’s Justin and co who have enjoyed the last Christmas chuckle by racking up millions of festive streams year-in, year-out, with 22.3 million on Spotify alone.

The Darkness head a select band of relatively modern festive anthems to have muscled their way alongside the likes of Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ and The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fairytale Of New York’ on the A-list canon.

But just because you probably can’t beat them, doesn’t mean today’s artists don’t want to join them. Every year, scores of artists release Christmas songs – both originals and covers – and, while few go on to become classics, industry insiders note they play a crucial role in keeping an artist’s monthly streaming numbers up at a time when non-seasonal music struggles to find an audience.

Remember, there were just 13 slots for non-Xmas songs last year, so if you’re not Ed Sheeran, you might as well forget it. Indeed, this year, even Sheeran is joining the fray via a duet with Elton John, Merry Christmas, with others from ABBA to Ashnikko also releasing seasonal offerings.

So no wonder even more alternative acts are trying their luck. Look at The Lathums, who scored their first number one album earlier this year with ‘How Beautiful Life Can Be’ and have now released sprightly anti-Christmas song ‘Krampus’ – an ode to the mythological horned beast that, according to Scandi folklore, is said to visit naughty children over the festive period.

Or Norwegian queen of the alt-pop banger Sigrid, who has given her beautifully emotive ballad Home To You – first released in 2019 – a festive makeover and transformed it into Home To You (This Christmas).

“I’m not really a fan of Christmas music,” shrugs Lathums frontman Alex Moore. “I’m a bit of a Scrooge. I wasn’t even intending to write a Christmas song. I don’t worry about Spotify numbers, I just worry about writing tunes people care about.”

Sigrid, meanwhile, hopes that the festive version of Home to You – a song so versatile it has already won fans by appearing everywhere from a BBC Olympics montage to her main stage set at Reading rock festival – will lead more people to her music.

“It’s a song that’s travelled in different directions,” she says. “It’s ended up in other media and other people’s projects. I don’t wake up every day thinking, ‘I really hope Home to You (This Christmas) takes off’. But I have a lot of love for this song so, if it did become part of this Christmas thing where people bring it back next year and in five years, that would be incredible.”

Sigrid grew up listening to Michael Bublé’s 2011 Sinatra-meets-Santa Christmas album, which – with over 12 million copies sold worldwide – has become one of the 21st century’s most successful records. Its popularity has also led to the reinvention of the full Christmas album. Once a staple for the likes of Elvis Presley, Phil Spector and James Brown, nowadays the likes of Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and Kylie Minogue all happily dine at Bublé’s Christmas cheese board.

It’s highly respected singer-songwriter Norah Jones’ turn this season with her beautifully warm, jazz-tinged ‘I Dream of Christmas’ album, featuring original songs and fresh takes on standards. But while she acknowledges the commercial potential of festive records, she insists her inspiration – which came when she found herself listening to Christmas songs out of season to find comfort during the dark days of the pandemic – was purely creative.

“My label’s been asking me to do this for 20 years,” she smiles. “I’m sure *all* record labels ask *all* their artists to do it, it’s a money-maker. But I don’t do things unless I’m inspired to do them. I think the record’s very beautiful, we put a lot of love into it and had a blast.”

Leona Lewis, meanwhile, put out her Yuletide long-player – ‘Christmas, With Love’ – back in 2013, to limited initial success. But as the single ‘One More Sleep’ became a perennial playlist favourite, so the album has grown – and this year Lewis has revamped it with additional tracks as ‘Christmas, With Love Always’.

“I definitely think I was ahead of my time,” Lewis laughs. “I hadn’t heard a Christmas album from a contemporary artist for a while, it wasn’t really the done thing. But I grew up listening to Motown artists that had Christmas albums, so I always knew it was something I’d want to do at some point. Christmas songs can come back year after year and really become part of people’s Christmases so, when you get a good one, it’s really special.”

‘One More Sleep’ has certainly made the nice list, and last year enjoyed its most successful Christmas since its original release. It now boasts 114.7m streams on Spotify. But even that has a long way to go until it can rival an all-time classic like Shakin’ Stevens 1985 Christmas number one, ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, which has 213.8m streams on the platform.

When he first heard the song, written by Bob Heatlie, Stevens was so convinced it would top the charts that he held its release back a year so it didn’t have to go up against Band Aid. Shaky’s song has returned to the chart every year since 2007, hitting number six last year.

“It’s just got the full package,” says Shaky. “It’s uplifting and people love it. There’s nothing to dislike about it, unless you’re a classified humbug. And the proof is in the pudding – it’s still ticking over. It’ll still be ticking over after I’m gone, I think!”

And a recurring Christmas hit is one of the few sure-fire bankers left for artists in an age when streaming has squeezed royalties for many. Shane MacGowan reportedly earns over £400,000 every year from Fairytale of New York, while Mariah Carey has apparently made more than £45m from All I Want for Christmas Is You since its release in 1994.

“My favourite thing is walking around a supermarket and hearing it,” says Justin Hawkins of ‘Christmas Time’. “It’s a great feeling, standing in the cheese aisle having a little groove to it. I just hear the sound of a pound coin hitting my piggy bank. Or, if it’s streaming, it’s more like the sound of one of those tickets printing out at the arcade, when you have to get four billion of them to be able to afford a small ceramic figurine.”

But if it’s tougher than it used to be for the writers and performers of Christmas classics, where does that leave the acts hoping to break through with non-festive sounds? Is it fair that they have to either jump on the Christmas bandwagon, or hold their new releases for the New Year?

Martin Talbot agrees the Yuletide logjam is difficult for breaking new artists, but notes: “The chart, as always, reflects the culture. If people are listening to Christmas songs, they’ll appear in the chart. If you’re an up-and-coming act, it probably doesn’t make sense to be throwing stuff in at that time.”

Consequently, the OCC has no plans to separate festive songs into their own chart or to weight streaming ratios to downplay their presence. Until fashion moves on, it looks like Christmas’ chart dominance is here to stay. And, as long as the public is happy, most artists seem content to go along with it too.

“I don’t really see it as a competition,” shrugs The Lathums’ Alex Moore. “As long as we’re making music that connects and makes a difference, it doesn’t matter what form it’s in.

“And anyway,” he adds. “When you’re in a band, every day is Christmas.”

Wizzard, you suspect, would be proud. So let the bells ring out for Christmas music…