Monday, December 20, 2010

Guest Blogger: The Ghost of Christmas Pop...

Hold onto your Santa hats pop-pickers as Terry of the spectacular TOTP The Definitive Website , delivers a hamper of Hallmark's holiday hits. Vol 42 listed today, was my very first TOTP album - even now seeing the cover, takes me back to sitting in mum and dad's rocking chair, eating endless helpings of marmite on toast by our 3 bar electric fire, which incidentally, caught the cat's tail aflame once. But that's another tale for another time (come on, it is Panto season) for now it's over to Terry and his grotto of goodies...

One of the most astute marketing decisions in pop was taken by the tiny Hallmark label in 1968, when they launched their “Top of the Pops” albums – a series of LPs packed with cheaply made, but passable cover versions of current pop hits. The masterstroke was realising the BBC had failed to trademark the title – and so by purloining it, Hallmark could cash in on unwitting punters thinking they were getting the real soundtrack to the TV programme. Come Christmas, untold numbers of unsuspecting parents and grandparents must have found these LPs in the shops and picked them up at seemingly bargain prices for the kids.

It’s Christmas Day, 1971, and on this morning, the new national album charts are published. And at number 13, it’s “Top of the Pops volume 20” [one of my favourite covers - Mond]outselling current classics by Carol King, Rod Stewart and James Taylor, among others. That same Christmas morning, “Hot Hits 8” was at a lofty number 2, while “Pye Chartbusters 2” was also in the top 30 – proof that Christmas was the ideal time for budget albums like these to fly off the shelves. And so it seems appropriate at this time of year to pay tribute to the “Top of the Pops” phenomenon, by rounding up some of their finest seasonal offerings – cover versions all, but which perfectly capture the moment......

We start our review with something of a Christmas pudding from our Elton. In his prime and scoring top 10 hits for fun, it was a major eyebrow-raiser when the custom-made “Step Into Christmas” struggled to a Scrooge-like 24 on the singles charts. “Top of the Pops” captured a version for volume 35, Elton himself no stranger to the budget covers scene of course, having recorded a good number of vocals for LPs such as this before he was famous. (In fact he can be heard singing on “Top of the Pops” volume 5, but that’s another story.) This rendition doesn’t sound too much like Elton, but to be fair, sounds every bit a Christmas hit.

Step Into Christmas  - Vol 35 (1973)

One of the strangest pop phenomena of the 1970s (and that’s saying something!) was that of the Wombles. This bizarre novelty act, brainchild of Mike Batt, somehow managed to rack up four top 10 hits in 1974 alone, the best of the lot, “Wombling Merry Christmas” which was held off the top of the hit parade only by Mud’s rival offering, “Lonely This Christmas”. The Poppers plumped for the Wombles and covered them in style; in this instance, it hardly mattered that this was not the original version. Rumour has it the Wombles didn’t play on their own singles anyway… It’s easy to dismiss this track as just kids’ stuff, but use your imagination. Change the words “Wombling Merry Christmas” for “rollicking Merry Christmas” and you have a hit which could give Wizzard’s concurrent Xmas anthem a run for its money.

Wombling Merry Christmas - Vol 42 (1974)

In the years before Simon Cowell got to decide what would be Christmas number 1 sometime over the summer, the coveted top slot was much more of a lottery than today. It is a curious fact that until 1973, only one Christmas song managed it – “Mary’s Boy Child” by Harry Belafonte, way back in December 1957. All that changed in the 70s, with Christmas-themed number 1s becoming the norm on the 25th, and “Top of the Pops” couldn’t have been better timed to celebrate the fact. Come 1978, it was a return to Christmas of yore, with “Mary’s Boy Child” top of the Christmas tree once again, courtesy of a dramatically updated version by Boney M. “Top of the Pops” do their best with this awkward fusion of seasonal worship and hedonist discotheque, as heard on volume 77, but it was never going to be an easy job. For some reason they released it a year late, in December 1979. Work that one out?!

Mary's Boy Child - Vol 77 (1979)

Back in the early 1970s, when John Lennon really believed he could change the world for the better, he set about creating what he reckoned would replace “White Christmas” as the definitive seasonal song. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” may not have quite managed that, but one wonders if Macca was just a tad jealous anyway? No sooner had Wings flown the nest than Sir Paul rushed out his first solo offering in almost a decade. “Wonderful Christmastime” is pure McCartney, bouncy, catchy, commercial and completely bereft of substance. “Top of the Pops” couldn’t resist a crack at Macca’s hit single, which can be heard on the same volume 77 with “Mary’s Boy Child”.

Wonderful Christmastime - Vol 77 (1979)

Fast forward one year, and Christmas will never be the same for Beatles fans. Lennon’s murder in early December cast a shadow over the festive season, the pop charts of Christmas 1980 commemorating his passing with a slew of his singles piling up in the top end of the listings. “Happy Xmas” was among them, appropriately entering the charts in Christmas week, but too late for the December “Top of the Pops” (and completely unsuitable for the January LP). Christmas number 1 that year was Lennon’s would-be comeback single, “(Just Like) Starting Over”, redolent of its time and place, and worthy of another listen through the Poppers’ prism. (Was it really thirty years ago?)

(Just Like) Starting Over - Vol 83 (1980)

We open our last “Top of the Pops” present, as the LP series was itself coming to a conclusion, in 1981. Number 1 on Christmas day are the distinctly uncelebratory Human League, but we have our eternal saviour at number 2, in the form of Clifford Richard. For a month, his schmaltzy “Daddy’s Home” was poised to capture top spot, but somehow never did, divine intervention apparently not forthcoming. Perfect for a festive “Top of the Pops” album, this lullaby track sees out our Yuletide survey with all the ghastly bad taste we associate with the season, and indeed with Cliff. Merry Christmas – and go easy on the cheese.

Daddy’s Home - Vol 89 (1981)


lil said...

Thanks for posting Terry, takes me right back to the Xmas’s of my childhood
(It’s been like a shot of Christmas spirit, before the show starts!)
Thoroughly enjoyed reading & listening...

Mondo said...

Great post isn't it Lil and refreshing to hear some refitted takes of the usual tinsel tunes (Elton, Macca)..

Piley said...

love that top cover... the classic they used to do with all the comics back in the day, snow topped title (in fact, the latest issue of the Dandy has gone for it again!).

Thinking about it, I'm surprised they didn't cash in on a Christmas special at some point themselves. Bar the odd K-Tel\\Ronco release, the 'compilation album' didn't really exist back then, so you'd have to buy all those Christmas singles as 7 inchers.

Great stuff.


Mondo said...

Nice spot P - the snow-capped header..textbook

Good point about the Christmas comp. I only remember dreary ol' singalongs or artist only comps of trad songs - until Now That's What I Call Music - The Christmas Album