341. Slade – Merry Xmaƨ Everybody (1973)

‘IT’S CHRISTMAAAASSSSSSS!’. It’s not. It’s currently mid-August 2020 and we’re coming to the end of a blistering heatwave, which, if you know the story behind Slade’s final number 1, you’ll know is how the song was recorded. Little did they know it would become not only the most famous of their six number 1s, it would become perhaps pop’s greatest festive staple.

And yet, in summer 1973, the future of the band looked in doubt. While Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me was at number 1, drummer Don Powell was in a car crash that killed his girlfriend Angela Morris and left him in a coma for nearly a week. Luckily he successfully recovered, although he still suffers acute short-term memory loss and sensory problems.

Back in 1967 when Slade were The ‘N Betweens, Noddy Holder had written a song called Buy Me a Rocking Chair, with the very psychedelic chorus ‘Buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by/Buy me a looking glass, I’ll look you in the eye’. Despite liking the chorus, the verse needed work, so they scrapped it. Speaking to the Record Mirror in 1984, bassist Jim Lea recalled he was taking a shower in New York in 1973 when he came up with ‘Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall?’. Lea remembered Holder’s chorus and thought the two could fit together well, and producer and manager Chas Chandler had been nagging them to write a Christmas song. Holder thought the idea had legs, and penned the lyrics at his mother’s house in Walsall in one draft. They played the finished song to Chandler on acoustic guitars.

As hinted at earlier, Slade recorded Merry Xmaƨ Everybody in the middle of a September heatwave in New York while on tour there. Powell had returned to the fray at the Power Plant, where John Lennon had just finished recording his album Mind Games. Lea didn’t look back on the recording fondly, claiming the others weren’t as interested in him at rehearsing, though he did acknowledge Powell was still recovering and his memory was shot. Lea put in the most work, laying down the bass, piano and harmonium (the latter on loan from Lennon). They weren’t happy with the first completed mix as they wanted a bigger sound for the chorus, so they re-recorded it down a corridor, getting baffled looks from passers-by (Slade were virtually unknown in the US). After five days, the song was complete.

With several months to go until they could release their hopeful festive number 1, Slade released a compilation, Sladest, and new single MY FRIEИD STAИ (which looks slightly satanic). For the first time since Christmas 1972, they didn’t get to number 1. It was a departure from the usual Slade formula, but they had to change tack at some point, and it’s a nice little song. So, were they going to miss out on the Christmas top spot for the second year in a row?

Of course not. Merry Xmaƨ Everybody became the first Christmas-themed Christmas number 1 since Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957, and couldn’t have come at a better time. As everyone knows, the UK was going through a particularly grim time in late-1973. You’ve only got to look down at the ‘Meanwhile…’ section to see the Three-Day Week was about to begin, and the first post-war recession had started. Plus there was the OPEC oil crisis, and the IRA could strike at any moment. Glam acts like Slade and Wizzard were sorely needed to keep spirits up, and they did the job then and still do close to 50 years later. ‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’. How we could do with some of that optimism in winter 2020.

One of the most important factors that explains the magic of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is its inclusivity. It’s less rocking and more poppy than previous material. It’s aimed at all the family, with mentions of Granny ‘up and rock and rolling with the rest’. ‘ In 1971 Lennon asked ‘So this is Christmas, and what have you done’, in 1973 Slade said ‘everybody’s having fun’. There’s a nod (pardon the pun) to Christmas songs of old with the reference to ‘momma kissing Santa Claus’.

In 2017 I listened to every Christmas number 1 in one sitting and wrote about it here, and came to the conclusion Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is the best festive chart-topper of all time. I pointed out the production is lacking all the trimmings such as sleigh bells etc, and I think that’s another reason it’s stood the test of time so well. It doesn’t need them, as Holder’s ‘IIIIIITTTTT’S CHRIIIISSSTTTMMMMMASSSS!’ at the song’s conclusion gets the childhood joy of Christmas Day across like nobody has before or since.

Slade won the chart battle with Wizzard, who actually only reached number four in Christmas week, but nevertheless the sense of competition between the two glam rock outfits helped to create the battle for christmas number 1 that the media have latched on to ever since. The singles chart for Christmas week was now an event, and that’s thanks to Slade. Which is entirely appropriate, when you consider how glam’s low-budget sense of fun, bordering on the tacky, is Christmassy like no other genre.

Slade’s biggest seller was also a great way for the band to finish their run of number 1s. Six within just over two years is pretty impressive and puts them up there with some of the biggest acts of all time. Their fall was slow and steady, but there were also unexpected twists and turns.

1974 began with the release of the LP Old New Borrowed and Blue, which showcased a more piano-led sound and even a ballad as a single, Everyday, which went to number three. Much of the year was spent filming their film Slade In Flame, a surprisingly gritty drama about the rise and fall of a fictional group called Flame, played by the members of Slade. It was released in November, and although it was critically acclaimed (it has gained somewhat of a cult following in recent years), and the first single from the soundtrack Far Far Away reached number two, the theme song How Does It Feel only made it to number 15. Thanks for the Memory (Wham Bam Thank You Mam), in 1975, was their last top 10 hit of the 70s.

Understandably feeling they had peaked in the UK, in 1975 Slade decided to move to the US and try and hit the big time there. They toured with rock acts like Aerosmith and ZZ Top, and released an eclectic album. Nobody’s Fool, but not only did they fail to make much of an impact, their UK fans accused them of selling out.

By the time they returned to the UK in 1977, punk and the subsequent new wave rendered Slade very unfashionable. Their contract with major label Polydor had ran out and instead they signed with Chandler’s Barn Records. They performed single Gypsy Roadhog on Blue Peter and found themselves banned by the BBC due to its drug references, but the notoriety couldn’t help them up the charts. The next album, Whatever Happened to Slade, was an all too appropriate name.

As the band slid into irrelevance they would release singles based on football chants (1978’s Give Us a Goal) and covers of cheesy party classics (Okey Cokey in 1979) and some material failed to even reach the top 200. Disagreements between Lea and Chandler resulted in the former and Holder producing their back to basics album Return to Base in 1979. It was another failure, and the band briefly went their separate ways. Lea formed a new group, The Dummies, with his brother Frank, poor Hill resorted to driving couples to their weddings in his own Rolls-Royce to make money (it didn’t work), and Holder was briefly considered as AC/DC’s new singer following the death of Bon Scott, but he still thought Slade may have a future and reportedly turned the Australian rockers down.

In 1980, Slade had some luck at last when Ozzy Osbourne cancelled his headlining appearance at Reading Festival late in the day. Organisers rushed around looking for a last-minute replacement, and asked Slade. All but Hill were keen, but the only way he could be persuaded was when Chandler visited him at home and pointed out it could be their big farewell gig. To Hill’s surprise, they went down a storm. The split was forgotten about, and they acted fast to keep the momentum going. Showcasing a sound more in keeping with heavy metal, therefore pleasing the Reading Festival crowd, 1981’s We’ll Bring the House Down (title track to their next album) became their first top 10 hit in six years, and they returned to larger venues after years of touring small clubs and universities.

Slade and Chandler finally parted ways and they signed with RCA Records, who released their heaviest material yet, Till Deaf Us Do Part. That Christmas saw the first of many re-releases of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody, which reached 32. RCA began to demand hits from the band, and set them to work with producer John Punter. The resulting album, The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome, was released in December 1983, and featured two decent tracks. Power ballad My Oh My very nearly gave them their second festive chart-topper, but was held at bay by The Flying Pickets’ version of Only You. It was followed by Run Runaway, a fair stab at a Celtic-flavoured, Big Country-style sound.

Unfortunately, Holder wasn’t keen on Punter, and troubles in his private life resulted in a cancelled tour. They tried again for another Christmas single, All Join Hands (an inferior retread of My Oh My), but it couldn’t crack the top 10. And the final decline began, with a mainly synth-led album in 1985, Rogues Gallery, followed by a cheap Christmas cash-in LP, Crackers – The Christmas Party Album, along with the umpteenth release of their final number 1. It would take more than returning to deliberately mis-spelling their material to return Slade to form, and You Boyz Make Big Noize, released in 1987, was their final album. They did (sort-of) return to number 1 with Wizzard and lots of other festive hits, courtesy of Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ sampling them on Let’s Party in 1989.

In 1991 the Slade fan club organised a 25th anniversary show, and it was the last time they played live. Radio Wall of Sound, recorded for a compilation, was their final chart hit. In March 1992, Holder finally called it a day, and Lea, his much underrated songwriting partner, couldn’t see a future for Slade without their singer. He retired too, leaving Hill and Powell to form Slade II.

Slade II have continued since with various other members, and made the news in 2003 when convicted serial killer Rosemary West announced her engagement to bassist Dave Glover. Glover claimed this was a misunderstanding and he had only written to her about her case, but Hill of course sacked him. In February 2020 Powell claimed he had been sacked by Hill via a rather cold email, which Hill denied. He was all set to start Don Powell’s Slade but suffered a stroke, and with live music practically comatose post-lockdown, it remains to be seen if we end up with two separate Slades on the road.

Lea has largely remained out of the public eye, other than making solo album Therapy in 2007, and revealing he had been treated for prostate cancer.

Holder became a national treasure following Slade’s demise, taking up acting and making a decent job of it in ITV comedy drama The Grimleys. He has presented radio shows, documentaries, and made numerous cameos on TV. He reportedly loved Vic Reeves’ portrayal of him in the Slade at Home sketches on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer in the early-90s, but Hill wasn’t so fond of Bob Mortimer’s portrayal of him as a disapproving mother figure.

All four members of Slade attended Chandler’s funeral in 1996, and in 2010 had a group meeting to consider a farewell tour, but nothing came of it. It’s unlikely they will ever play together.

Slade deserve more credit. Yes, this final number 1 is the best Christmas chart-topper of all time, but before then they released some excellent singles too. Holder had one of the best rock voices of all time, and together with Lea, they wrote several classics. The flamboyant Hill was mainly responsible for their showmanship, and Powell fought back from a near-death experience and continued to belt out the beat. They may have lacked in innovation, but like all the best glam acts, they sparkled and rocked the nation during stormy years.

1973 was by and large very similar to 1972 for number 1s, but better. There was still some old-fashioned pop doing very well, and Donny Osmond and David Cassidy catering for the teens, but there were also glam classics that have stood the test of time.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 5 (15 December 1973-18 January 1974)

Births:

Historian Lucy Worsley – 18 December
Comedian Paul Foot – 24 December
Matt Tebbutt – 24 December 1973
Spice Girl Melanie C – 12 January 1974
Radio DJ Edith Bowman – 15 January
Model Kate Moss – 16 January

Deaths:

Princess Patricia of Connaught – 12 January 1974

Meanwhile…

19 December: The 17.18 Paddington to Oxford express train was derailed between Ealing Broadway and West Ealing. 10 died and 94 were injured.

31 December 1973: As a result of coal shortages caused by industrial action by the miners, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s energy-saving measures, the Three-Day Work Order, came into effect at midnight, making for the darkest New Year celebrations for decades. Commercial consumption of electricity would be limited to three consecutive days, TV broadcasts would end at 10.30pm on alternate nights for BBC and ITV, and most pubs were closed.

1 January 1974: But it wasn’t all bad news, as New Year’s Day was celebrated as a public holiday for the first time.
Also that day, the Northern Ireland Power-sharing Executive is set up in Belfast.

228. The Monkees – I’m a Believer (1967)

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1967! The Summer of Love! Hippies! And Milton Keynes (see below)! Enjoying a deservedly lengthy month-long stint at the top of the charts were The Monkees with I’m a Believer.

Although I’m a snob when it comes to music, and think the entertainment industry took over the music business to such an extent it stifled creativity and nearly brought about its demise, I have a massive soft spot for The Monkees. In fact it’s not a soft spot – they’re easily one of my favourite groups of the 60s. And their rise and fall is a fascinating subject.

It’s widely acknowledged that The Monkees were an American attempt at apeing (ho ho) The Beatles, but in fact aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson first came up with it back in 1962. I wonder how that would have ended up? In 1964 he was working for the film company Screen Gems and had teamed up with Bert Schneider. They had just formed Raybert Productions when they saw A Hard Day’s Night, and Schneider thought the time might be right to revive his idea. He was right, and Screen Gems snapped up the idea.

Fast forward to May 1965, and Raybert Productions wanted folk-rockers The Lovin’ Spoonful to be their band, but as singer John Sebastian had already signed to make recordings, they had to look elsewhere. And as the plan was for the TV show to feature a pretend band, why limit themselves to just musicians?

Mancunian actor Davy Jones was chosen first. He had appeared in Coronation Street and made waves as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! He just needed a big break, was already signed to Screen Gems, and with his baby-face and sweet demeanour, could easily pass for a Paul McCartney-type. One down.

The other three members were all from the US and came from auditions held later that year. Micky Dolenz, from Los Angeles, California, was also an actor, having appeared as a child in the TV series Circus Boy. He did have some experience of being in a band though, and, importantly, he had a great voice.

Mike Nesmith, from Houston Texas, had been working as a musician since 1963, and had featured in a few bands, as well as performing on his own. His audition showcased a laconic humour and bullish personality, so they now had their John Lennon. Maybe they’d even let him write some tunes?

Last to be chosen was fellow musician Peter Tork, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Stephen Stills suggested he try out after being rejected himself. Poor Tork, despite being gifted and bright, was soon portraying a bumbling but lovable fool – basically, Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night.

While the auditions went on, Don Krishner was hired to sort out the music for the pilot episode. Kirshner had been instrumental in making Bobby Darin famous, and knew the Brill Building team of songwriters, so seemed like a great choice. But he couldn’t get any interest, so he tried Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart instead. They wrote the theme to the series, and offered up another three songs, so things were looking good, apart from the fact The Monkees couldn’t play anything together, and the plan was to release an album to cash in on the series.

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in June 1966, and by and large the formula was to have one Monkee singing per track, with everything else supplied by session musicians The Wrecking Crew. Debut single Last Train to Clarksville, sounding not dissimilar to Paperback Writer, was released before the show had been aired, and still did pretty well. However, Nesmith wasn’t happy that the actual musicians received no credit on the LP.

The series was a smash as soon as it began in the US that September, and a month later the follow-up was recorded. I’m a Believer had been written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond, then still a struggling Brill Building songwriter. The Monkees version featured Dolenz on vocals, along with, among others, Al Gorgoni on guitar (he had played on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence), Buddy Salzman on drums, and that chirpy organ hook at the start and through the choruses came from Stan Free on a Vox Continental.

Nesmith certainly had a point in wanting The Monkees to be responsible for ‘real music’, but all these years later, people still go mad to I’m a Believer, and they don’t care who did what. It’s such a lovely, warm track, that captures how the joy of love at first sight can melt the hardest of hearts. The success of the TV series was in a large part due to the charm of the group, and somehow, no matter who appeared on their recorded output, that charm shone through too, whether by luck or design, or both, I can’t say. The Monkees at their best put their name to 60s pop at its best, and I’m a Believer is among their finest singles. That’s partly down to producer Jeff Barry, who had written many hit singles before then, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy.

The TV series began in the UK on New Year’s Eve 1966, and Monkeemania began soon after when this single climbed the charts. Tensions soon rose though when the band discovered it had been included on their second album, More of the Monkees. They didn’t even know the album existed until it was too late, and were horrified at the track listing and cover image. Nesmith told Melody Maker it was ‘probably the worst album in the history of the world’. Matters came to a head in an argument with Kirshner that resulted in Nesmith threatening to quit before punching a hole in a wall and shouting ‘that could have been your face!’ to a lawyer. Soon after, Kirshner was let go.

And then things got really interesting. The Monkees wrested control of their output, and in February 1967 they began recording their third album Headquarters. For the first and only time of their original run as a band, they performed the tracks pretty much on their own, and had more of a hand in the songwriting, with Chip Douglas from the Turtles on bass and production duties. Largely country-rock-flavoured, Headquarters is a great achievement for a ‘manufactured’ band. It may not be up there with the classic albums of 1967, but it’s a giant leap forward for the foursome. Highlight for me is Micky Dolenz’s noise-fest closer Randy Scouse Git, named after one of Alf Garnett’s favourite outbursts at his son-in-law (played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth) on BBC One sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. It nearly became their second number 1 too, but stalled at number two against All You Need Is Love.

It’s a shame The Monkees then chose to rely on session musicians again, as I think it sped up their demise. Having said that, they still had more authority over who they worked with, and fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, released that November, is just as good, if not better than its predecessor. It featured Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wonderful and blissful Pleasant Valley Sunday, which had been a single during the Summer of Love. The album featured a Moog synthesizer – Dolenz was one of the first owners of the instrument. Another classic hit single was released as 1967 drew to a close – Daydream Believer, Davy Jones’s finest hour as a singer.

The TV show had been getting weirder, the band were touring as a real unit, alongside The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they were hanging out with The Beatles. Amazing times for a group who weren’t supposed to be able to play.

1968 wasn’t such a great year, but at least it was interesting. NBC announced they wouldn’t renew the show for a third season in February, and shortly afterwards they released The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. The band mostly worked alone, with their own team of musicians, making for an eclectic sound. Nesmith fares the best with the low-key psychedelic strum of Tapioca Tundra.

Rafelson and Schneider had it in mind to create a feature film for The Monkees. What the group didn’t know at the start was that their plan was a work of cynical avant-garde genius that would cynically tear apart at the notion of the group. Written by then-unknown actor Jack Nicholson with Rafelson, Head set out to prove that no matter what the band members did to try and break free of their public image, they would always be considered nothing more than a cartoon band, no more real than the Archies, also created in 1968. Head is one of the greatest music films of all time, a technicolour masterpiece with a dark heart. And the soundtrack is just as great. There aren’t many actual songs, but they’re all excellent, especially Goffin and King’s spaced-out Porpoise Song and sweet love song As We Go Along, plus Tork finally gets the spotlight with the fuzzy blast of the marvellously named Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Nesmith always contributed great songs to their albums, but Circle Sky, an impressive blast of acid-country-rock, is one of his best.

In 1969, not long after their disappointing TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, Tork left, and the downhill slide truly began. There were still some great songs, including both tracks on the single Someday Man/Listen to the Band, but things were never the same again. The Monkees Present, released in October, was the last to feature Nesmith. Dolenz and Jones soldiered on with one more album, Changes, released in 1970. It was a new decade, and time to move on.

In the meantime each member had varying degrees of success. Nesmith became a country-rock pioneer and helped invent MTV.  Dolenz moved into acting and directing, and along the way he made UK children’s series Metal Mickey in the 80s. Incidentally, both he and Nesmith auditioned to be the Fonz in Happy Days. Jones went back to mostly acting, and became a popular choice for cameos in US sitcoms. He also became a jockey. Tork was in the public eye the least, but I get the feeling he liked it that way.

There have been a number of reunions, most notably in 1986 when repeats of the series prompted a revival and new 20th anniversary album, minus Nesmith, called Pool It! It’s shockingly bad. A large factor in Nesmith’s reluctance to tour was money. He inherited $25 million when his mother, the inventor of liquid paper, passed away. This meant there was no financial incentive to reunite, so over the years he only got involved again when he really felt like it.

He returned in 1996 when they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Justus, an album featuring the band writing, performing and producing every song. Another poor collection, bar the Circle Sky remake, but not as bad as Pool It! They also reunited for another TV special, but it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Following a tour of the UK, Nesmith left again and relations became strained. In 2010 they reformed for the final time as a quartet, as Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.

In 2015, Dolenz and Tork toured together, and the following year they released a new album, Good Times!, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Nesmith joined in, and Jones appeared too posthumously. With songs by musicians including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Good Times! was, against all odds, a great listen. Highlight for me was Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s Birth of an Accidental Hipster.

This would have been the perfect way to end the Monkees, but, buoyed by the reception to Good Times!, they released an album this past Christmas. Christmas Party features a similar line-up of songwriters, and once again, Jones is exhumed, but its mostly cheesy and Dolenz’s vocals really grate on me. Tork’s contribution was minimal due to illness, with him contributing only a sweet banjo-led version of the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High. Perhaps he knew he hadn’t long, for this was his final contribution to the Monkees. Tork sadly died aged 77 only last week.

The Monkees were certainly not perfect. They could be corny, and recorded some terrible songs at times, particularly those godawful mawkish ballads sung by Jones on the first two albums. But how many groups, put together by the industry, have been able to do what they did, to take over and create better results? They may have been manufactured, but they can’t be compared to, say, the boy bands of the 90s. My issue with Westlife et al isn’t that somebody is telling them what to do, it’s the quality of the material, the cynicism, and the lack of effort. The people behind The Monkees were often craftsmen, and as I said before, in their best material, the charm of Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter shines through, and they could experiment, be far-out, and savage at times (the Sex Pistols even covered (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone). I’m a Believer is one of their best. I love The Monkees, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

28 years after it reached number 1, I’m a Believer was nearly a chart-topper for my favourite comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Attempting to repeat the success of Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, they teamed up with indie rockers EMF for a great, beefed-up version, and you can see the video here.

Written by: Neil Diamond

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 January-15 February) 

Births:

Field hockey player Kathryn Johnson – 21 January 
Swimmer Nick Gillingham – 22 January
Actress Olivia d’Abo – 22 January

Deaths:

Producer Joe Meek – 3 February (read more here)
Publisher Victor Gollancz – 8 February

Meanwhile…

23 January: The village Milton Keynes in northern Buckinghamshire was formally designated as a new town. Over the next few decades it became Britain’s largest of its kind.

26 January: Parliament amounted it would nationalise 90% of the British steel industry.

3 February: Eccentric genius producer Joe Meek killed himself – you can read more about that whole sorry tale here.

6 February: Soviet Union Premier Alexei Kosygin arrived in the UK for an eight-day visit, with a visit the Queen thrown in too.

7 February: The British National Front was founded by South African AK Chesterton.

12 February: 1967 was a turbulent year for The Rolling Stones, with their troubles beginning when police raided the home of Keith Richards. He, Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with possession of drugs.