Do you hear what I hear? Christmas songs, 24-7 on the airwaves. Even classic rock stations have been hijacked by Jingle Bells and Rudolph. And they seem to start earlier each year. Halloween decorations hadn’t even been put away when Bing Crosby started crooning White Christmas. On the radio, in malls, grocery stores, cafes, and coffee shops, we’re accosted by an endless barrage of festive tunes. There are good ones among them, of course … I’m not a complete Grinch. The classics can be moving and there are a handful of modern gems. But hearing some holiday jingles once per season is quite enough. So for a change, here’s a list of great Christmas songs with a different twist. Sorry, there will be no mention of Rudolph, sleigh bells, silver bells, or jingle bells. Nor will there be any figgy pudding, holly jollies, or gay apparel. You might, however, hear the words Africa, war, bum, scumbag, punk, and collard greens. Here are 5 popular Christmas songs with an unusual twist.
5. Christmas in Hollis, Run DMC (1987)
“It’s Christmas time in Hollis Queens, Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens…” You can’t help but love Run DMC’s holiday homage to their Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Hollis. The rap pioneers originally wrote and recorded the song for charity and it was included on two 1987 Christmas compilation albums, A Very Special Christmas (benefiting the Special Olympics), and Christmas Rap. A&M records also released the song as a single in 1987. The video, which is hilarious, was popular on MTV in the late 1980s and ’90s. Here’s another lyric: “My name’s D.M.C. with the mike in my hand and I’m chilling and cooling just like a snowman.” A fun song and a welcome change from the norm, earning it our No. 5 spot.
4. Happy Xmas (War is Over), John Lennon (1971)
Most people are familiar with this beautiful song and it’s played often during the Christmas season, but how many know about its background? John Lennon and Yoko Ono originally wrote Happy Xmas (War is Over) as a protest song against the Vietnam War in 1971. In the late 1960s, John and Yoko worked hard to promote peace, and in 1969 they put up billboard ads in major cities around the world stating, “War is Over! (If you want it.)” The slogan became the basis of this anti-war Christmas song two years later. Interestingly enough, the song did not make the charts in the U.S., but reached No. 4 when it was released in the UK in 1972. There is a very disturbing video for the song, showing the devastatingly real effects of war on civilians, including images of injured and dead children. This was no lukewarm protest by celebrities seeking attention. They really meant it. The song was re-released shortly after John Lennon’s murder in 1980, once again hitting the charts. Lennon is one of the best musicians of all time and this is a great song with a simple message that obviously hasn’t been heeded … yet. Maybe your wish for peace will come true one day, John Lennon.
3. Do They Know It’s Christmas?/Feed the World, Band Aid (1984)
In 1984, Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure (Ultravox) got together to write Do They Know It’s Christmas? They rounded up famous pop stars and musicians to sing the song with the intention of raising funds for famine-stricken Ethiopia. They named this new supergroup Band Aid, and at the time had no idea just how phenomenal their venture would turn out to be. Sung by stars such as Paul Young, Sting, George Michael, Boy George, Simon Le Bon, and Bono, it went straight to No. 1 on the UK charts. It became the fastest-selling single of all time in the UK, and remained the best-selling single in the UK until being topped by Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997. The song made the ASCAP top 25 list in 2010, and to this day evokes many emotions in people who hear it. Band Aid’s success led to the Live Aid event the following year, which was held simultaneously in venues in London and Philadelphia. Televised globally, it attracted an estimated worldwide audience of 1.9 billion people. Creating a group of famous singers to raise money for charity was a novel idea, making Band Aid the first of its kind. It’s likely no Christmas song before or since has had such a huge social impact.
2. Stop the Cavalry, Jona Lewie (1980)
Americans may not be familiar with Stop the Cavalry, written and performed by Jona Lewie, but I urge everyone to check this song out. It reached No. 3 on the UK charts in December 1980, only being kept from the top spot by two reissued songs by John Lennon, who was killed on Dec. 8 that year — one of the reissued songs was Happy Xmas (War is Over). Lewie claimed Stop the Cavalry was never meant as a Christmas hit but rather as a protest song. However the line “Wish I could be home for Christmas” and the brass band arrangement made it marketable for the season of goodwill. The video is set in the World War I trenches, but is obviously a message about all wars, as it mentions Churchill and a “nuclear fallout zone.” And the song’s soldier speaks for all soldiers when he states, “I have had to fight, almost every night, down throughout these centuries.” In an interview, Lewie described him as “the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.” A great song, very different from the routine, with a timeless and pertinent message.
1. Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl (1987)
This Christmas song by Irish rock group The Pogues features British singer Kirsty MacColl and was released in 1987, topping the Irish charts and reaching No. 2 in the UK. An antidote to the simpering, gushing tunes of idealized Christmases, this one deals with hard-core reality, reminding us that for some, the season of goodwill is far from jolly. The song begins as an Irish immigrant, after being locked up in a drunk tank, reminisces about his past Christmases. MacColl joins in for a duet, and the dialogue regresses from reminiscences over their first kiss to insult slinging. For example: “You’re a bum you’re a punk/You’re an old slut on junk.” And then, “You scumbag, you maggot, You cheap lousy faggot.” In 2007 the BBC tried to censor the words “slut” and “faggot” but got so many complaints that they reinstated the “bad” words after just a few hours. It was re-released in the UK in 1991 and again in the UK and Ireland for Christmas 2005. Fairytale of New York has been voted the top Christmas song of all time in several different VH1 polls. Certainly the most “different” Christmas tune on this list. Kirsty MacColl, a great singer and performer, is sorely missed.