How to write a Christmas hit and get rich (fingers crossed)
Can just anyone write a Christmas hit and essentially ‘win the lottery’ by coining it on royalties every December? Patrick Freyne and Anna Carey certainly hope so. Here's the story of their entry in the Christmas FM song contest
[Listen to all the entrants in the Christmas FM Festive song competition and vote for your favourite here]
In July my colleague Ronan McGreevy suggested that I write a Christmas song. “A Christmas song?” I said. “Is there money in that?”
Apparently there’s a lot of money in that. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is the best-selling record of all time. Fairytale of New York reportedly earns Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer about €600,000 annually. Noddy Holder, who cowrote Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, once said that having a Christmas hit is “like winning the lottery every December 25th for the rest of your life”.
I want to find out how to write a Christmas hit. When I approached Noddy Holder for songwriting tips, his manager said, “Sorry, but Noddy will not divulge how to write a Christmas hit. It is a secret recipe.”
Irving Berlin died in 1989, at the age of 101. He’s not talking. Shane MacGowan was a little more forthcoming (see below) but his advice ultimately amounted to “be true to yourself”, which just doesn’t work for me.
So I decided to listen to loads of Christmas hits. Yuletide songs have been a folk culture staple since the days of Francis of Assisi. The sparrow-loving hippy encouraged peasants to repurpose pagan drinking songs with Christmassy lyrics. In the English-speaking world, seasonal good cheer was stamped out by puritans, but then the Victorians went Christmas crazy, inventing loads of our Christmas traditions and carols.
By the mid-20th century Christmas songs had become distinctly secular. Indeed, the first rule of having a Christmas hit nowadays seems to be: keep religion out of it. Unless, of course, you’re going to suggest that Jesus was “a spaceman” (Chris De Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling) or that the nativity is all a “fairy story” (Greg Lake’s surprisingly bleak I Believe in Father Christmas) or you happen to be Cliff Richards.
The standard formula for late-20th- century Christmas tunes was to sing a rhyming list. In Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens, and Mistletoe and Wine by Cliff Richard, the singers just rattle off loads of Christmassy things.
Sexy Christmas songs
There are also “sexy” Christmas songs. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is the story of a child voyeur’s prurient surveillance of mommy’s extramarital trysts. In Santa Baby Eartha Kitt deploys what postfeminists call “sexual capital” in the direction of a jolly fat patriarch in return for goods and services. At least in All I Want for Christmas Is You, Mariah Carey forgoes acquisitiveness in return for a single human soul on which she will presumably feed for the rest of the Christmas season.
Then there are the Christmas staples that don’t mention Christmas at all. Stay Another Day by East 17 is just a song about someone whose girlfriend has dumped him, but its video features snow and the band members looking moody in the type of padded snowsuits toddlers wear. The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood contains lyrics about a cartoon baddie (the Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop), but nothing specifically Christmassy apart from its nativity-themed video.
Other classics just so happen to take place at Christmas. Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea is a three-verse description of being stuck in heavy traffic saved from grumpiness by seasonal good timing. David Essex’s A Winter’s Tale is largely a meditation on weather systems. Wham’s Last Christmas (one of my favourites) is a mournful meditation on lost love, the video of which gave me a very mistaken idea of what adulthood would be like (I assumed it would involve a lot more hanging around ski lodges with my attractive friends Andrew Ridgeley, Pepsi and Shirlie while glaring resentfully at my estranged lover over a goblet of wine).
Touch of sadness
The best yuletide songs have a touch of sadness at their core. Christmas cheer is most vivid against a backdrop of Christmas heartache. Fairytale of New York blends optimism and defeat in its grand depiction of drunks squabbling. White Christmas sees Bing Crosby reminisce about times past in the midst of war (it was first recorded in 1942).
Of course, that wistful sadness has to be balanced with hope. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a brilliant ballad of wartime separation written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the movie Meet me in St Louis, was even darker before Judy Garland vetoed lines such as, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, next year we may all be living in the past.”
A disturbing sexiness
Anyway, I decide my Christmas song should evoke bitter-sweet melancholy, partly in tribute to the teacher who told me my voice made her sad. I decide not to do a “list” song because, after the aforementioned classics, such lists quickly devolve into obscurity and kitsch.
I’ve been told, after one attempt, that the sound of me singing a “sexy” Christmas song is “disturbing”. So we don’t do that. As for tossing some sleigh bells on a song that isn’t really about Christmas at all, that defeats the purpose of this article.
After listening to me play “sad” sequences on the piano for a long time, my wife and cowriter, Anna Carey, suggests a chord sequence I had previously created and a melody she had written to accompany it.
“Do not tell people that this was originally a song about our cat,” she says. “They’ll think we’re creepy and mad.”
“I promise, I won’t,” I say, thus adding the sweet energy of betrayal to our yuletide tune.
Anna suggests a first verse about someone who just doesn’t feel very Christmassy and a chorus about oncoming sleigh bells. In earlier iterations of the song the implication of this felt more ominous than hopeful. Let me stress, lest you’re in doubt: the sleigh bells are on Santa’s sleigh.
I add a second verse and we play it on ukulele and piano, which are the third and fourth most Christmassy instruments we can think of (the first and second are sleigh bells and chimes). “Hmm,” says editor and Christmas consultant Róisín Ingle on hearing our rough recording. “Needs to be a bit more upbeat.”
Listen to the song
Anna writes a tune for the middle eight, and I add lyrics about a Christmassy feeling rising in the singer’s heart. Anna writes lyrics for the last verse, in which the person has totally succumbed to Christmas because, well, people connecting is lovely and Christmas is brilliant.
“How about adding something like, ‘Christmas is here to stay,’ ” sings our talented friend Mark Palmer casually, thus adding our final refrain and also an allusion to Wizzard’s classic, I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day.
Mark is now officially a cowriter. “You’ll remember this as the easiest million euro you ever made,” I tell him.
I sing the finished song for Róisín. She is pleased and immediately begins planning a music video that will certainly bankrupt the Irish Times features department.
I ring my long-suffering music producer friend Les Keye, whom I have roped into previous journalistic experiments writing pop and Eurovision songs, and ask if we can record at his excellent Arad Studios.
“Is it a good song this time?” sighs Les, who is very busy.
In his studio we play our song on ukulele and piano. Anna sings it in one take because she’s a very good singer. I do my backing vocals. Les adds bass. He likes the song so gets a bit carried away with the arrangement (he later gets the great cello player Jane Hughes to add some lovely lines). “We didn’t do Christmas in my family,” says Les, who is Jewish, like Irving Berlin, who wrote White Christmas.
We all listen to the arrangement. “Is it Christmassy enough?” Anna asks.
We record some sleigh bells, add loads and loads of backing vocals for a choral effect, and Anna plays a little outro motif on chimes and glockenspiel.
“If anything, it’s too Christmassy now,” says Anna. We turn down the sleigh bells.
“Now it’s exactly the right amount of Christmassy,” says Anna.
Everyone high-fives one another and resigns from their day jobs.
‘IT’S MUSICAL WALLPAPER NOW’: SHANE MacGOWAN ON FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK
What were the origins of Fairytale of New York?
“Elvis Costello challenged me and Jem [Finer] to write a Christmas song which was a duet. He was producing us at the time. He challenged us to do it – a sportsman’s bet because he was too tight to put money on it.”
Why did he do that?
“It was one of his ego games. Maybe because he couldn’t do it himself [laughs].”
What did you start with?
“Jem had a fast tune and I had a slow tune and we just put them together and I wrote the lyrics. It’s about two ex-Broadway performers who came over from Ireland and had their day in the sun and then it went downhill.”
How did you make it Christmassy?
“We just set it at Christmas. Apart from that it was Pogues subject matter: a couple fighting . . . We didn’t look to any other Christmas songs; we just did our own one. It wasn’t calculated. I wasn’t interested in writing Christmas songs. We just wrote a good song that happens to be at Christmas. [We wrote it] on and off for two years because we had to get the right lyrics. Some songs come in one rush; others you tinker with.”
Why did it resonate with people?
“It was a no-nonsense, no-bullshit song about a fighting couple, but it was open-ended. They could have got back together at the end or maybe not. And it’s quite a common thing to end up spending Christmas Eve in the drunk tank [he laughs]. When I got that first line [‘It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank’] that was the lynchpin to the lyrics. I felt like I had a story.”
That was nearly the title . . .
“Elvis Costello suggested calling it [Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank] when he heard that line. We said ‘You must be mad’. It would never have got to the charts [MacGowan instead borrowed a title from JP Donleavy].”
Did you expect it to be so successful?
“No. You could have knocked me down with a feather. It was a challenge Elvis Costello set us and it ended up being our greatest hit.”
Do you still like it?
“It’s just musical wallpaper now, but yes, I hear it and it doesn’t make me sick. It’s pretty good. I hardly ever sing it, unless it’s a request from someone I really like . . . because Kirsty [MacColl, above with MacGowan] is gone. Basically I stopped singing it when Kirsty went. Kirsty put in a great performance.”
It was originally to be sung by former Pogues bass player Cait O’Riordan, right?
“Cait was very good at it as well, but she’d left the group by the time we’d actually recorded it. Kirsty was managed by Frank [Murray], our manager, and we were friends, and she was in the studio anyway, and we were having a chat and she said, ‘Give me a go.’ ”
Which Christmas songs do you like?
“The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole and I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake. And Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I was going to put a bit of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in the arrangement [of Fairytale of New York] but that would have complicated it even more.”
So what rules are there for writing a Christmas hit?
“We didn’t follow any rules.”
Any tips for writing a good song?
“Just be true to yourself.”
[Listen to all the entrants in the Christmas FM Festive song competition and vote for your favourite here]