Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire

Christmas is the time of year when the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes. The other side gets some of them too.

I love Christmas songs. Not all of them. of course, but many. And that includes some of the Christmas carols. A full choir singing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ or ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’? I’m there.

The best Christmas songs, though, do belong to the — let’s say — secular side of things. I have a hierarchy of my personal favourites. Things move around a bit, and very occasionally new ones arrive; and you won’t be surprised to learn that ‘Fairytale of New York’ remains unassailable in the top spot.

One of my other favourites is Greg Lake’s 1975 hit, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas.’ Now, if you haven’t listened to the words too closely — written, I’m surprised to discover, by Peter Sinfield, of whom I had barely heard before researching this — you might think it’s a simple celebration of Christmas, set to a jaunty tune, much like Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody,’ from a couple of years earlier (and every year since). It’s not, though. It’s much darker and more interesting than that:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
They told me a fairy story
Till I believed in the Israelite

And that closing couplet:

Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

Lake and Sinfield have argued that it’s not anti-religious or atheistic. Well, you can have your interpretation, guys. I know what I think.

I mainly wrote this because I’ve wanted to use the line I’ve stolen as a title for years. And I’ll leave you with the wishes the song provides:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year

I think we’re all going to need some hope and some bravery in 2020.

Calling From London

Forgetting for a minute the slightly-disappointing conclusion of a 42-year-old story that we spoke about the other day, this month gives us the 40th anniversary of an even more significant creation, for me at least.

The Clash released London Calling in December 1979. Rolling Stone went on to call it the best album of the 80s, but it got a later release in America. And in any case, many wouldn’t have heard it until 1980. 1

Including me. I remember being at school, at the start of a term, so it must have been January, and Watty saying, “I envy you: you haven’t heard London Calling yet.” That idea of how important the first listen is. I’ve said similar things myself over the years, about various things.

But honestly, I couldn’t tell you anything about my first hearing. I had probably heard the title track — it was a single, after all — and I went and bought the album, most likely at John Menzies in Dumbarton (though maybe at Hall Audio, the nearby hi-fi shop, or Woolies, or Boots, who used to sell records in those days). I do know it cost £3.99, because the band took a reduction in their royalties so it — a double album — could be sold at the same price as a single album. Excellent value, for one of the greatest records ever made.

Though I paid for it a couple more times over the years. Someone walked off with my copy during a party at my student flat in Edinburgh. I replaced it with a second-hand copy, probably from Record Shak (sic) on Clerk Street. Though possibly that was much later and in London. I had a tape of it to tide me over. I do know that the replacement cost the same: £3.99.

The CD must have cost me a bit more, but I didn’t get that until the 25th-anniversary version, with The Vanilla Tapes, the rehearsal-room recordings of early versions of several of the songs.

I could probably tell you a few things about the 7852 2 times I’ve heard it subsequently, though. But it would be better for you to listen to it yourself.

And lastly, just a reminder that tomorrow is the 17th anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death.


  1. Or at any time in the intervening 40 years, to be fair. 
  2. Approximately. 

You Gev It Away

I got Whammed1 in the bakery this afternoon. Walked in, took my earphones out, and, Wham! there it was. George Michael geving his heart to someone. Ever noticed that? He doesn’t say “gave,” he says “gev.” My daughter pointed this out a couple of years back, and now I can’t unhear it.

Oh well, there was never a chance of not hearing it, and to be honest, I don’t hate it like I used to. Remember back when we thought that bands like Wham! or Duran Duran were somehow “the enemy”? Those were stupid ideas. Music is music, and people have different tastes. Let’s let everyone enjoy what they like without judging them.

The most amusing part was that I heard a little girl in the queue behind me saying to her mum, “I just got Whammed.”

Also it’s odd that I haven’t heard ‘Fairytale of New York’ yet this year, except as a weird brass band version that was on the telly advertising some programme.


  1. Sense 2 at the time of writing. There doesn’t seem to be a way to link to a specific definition, which is surprising. 

Jason & Dan

If you saw my post the other day complaining about typography, you might have been confused. I went to see Jason & The Scorchers last Friday. They were playing in a co-headline tour with the Kentucky Headhunters and Dan Baird & Homemade Sin.

On the night we saw them, the order they took the stage was: Headhunters, Scorchers, Homemade Sin.

That was completely the wrong order, at least for the audience at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on that night. The energy and connection of the Scorchers meant that the peak for the whole event came as they finished their set — in the middle of the evening.

No doubt you think I just think that because I’m a fan of the Scorchers, and not particularly of Dan Baird. And there is some truth to that. But I watched the last twenty minutes or so from off to one side — OK, I was standing at the bar — so I had a good view of the front of the crowd; and it was clear that they weren’t as excited, as into it, as involved, as they had been an hour before.

No matter, it was still a great night, and I’m sure some people were happy that the running order was that way round. What drove me to post that picture, though, was the distraction that backdrop caused me. I couldn’t really appreciate the music for staring at it.

In case it’s not obvious to you, take a look at the ampersand, and tell me how there’s any possible way it can make sense in that orientation.

The Beats: a Very Short Introduction (Books 2019, 4)

The Beats: a Very Short Introduction (Books 2019, 4)
The Beats VSI alongside a heart-shaped pottery gift
The Beats VSI alongside a heart-shaped pottery gift

Since I announced back in October that I’m writing a novel called Delta Blues: Beat Poet of the Spaceways, I thought I should learn a bit more about the Beats. Not that my character is necessarily going to be very like the actual Beats, and maybe her poetry won’t be like theirs either, but you need to know about what you’re using for inspiration, right?

Books in the “Very Short Introduction” series do exactly what their shared subtitle suggests, and this is no exception. You get a brief prehistory and history of the movement, then a look at the major novelists, another at the major poets, and then a piece on their influence.

In common with the last two books I read, The Clash get a mention, because Allen Ginsberg worked with them, adding spoken-word part to “Ghetto Defendant,” on the Combat Rock album.

I know more about the Beats now than when I started, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of this book.

England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, by Jon Savage (Books 2019, 3)

England’s Dreaming alongside a shaving brush

I didn’t start reading this just because I read a book about The Clash recently. In fact I started it sometime last year. But reading the Clash book did make me want to get back to this, and refresh my memories of the early days of punk.

Reading a history of a time you lived through is interesting. Not that I was involved in the events, but I was distantly aware of at least some of them. In the years the book covers I was between 12 and 15. Or maybe just 14, as it only gets as far as early 79. It’s a short period of time, looking back, and they — the Pistols, and most of the other bands too — were incredibly young. They were just 20 and 21 when they signed their first deal. And their second. And their third.

At times Savage appears to think that punk was over when the pistols split, if not before. And generally to have quite negative thoughts about it as it developed Though he undercuts that contempt later, in the appendices and in the notes scattered through the huge discography at the end. He acknowledges the influence of punk, though considers it just to be one of a range of genres or forms that influences popular music. Which is fair enough, though there are still, even today, bands that consider themselves to be punk. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.

Something that came out of it that surprised me — though doesn’t, now that I know the facts — is that you can no longer get the film of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in any form (though you can still get the soundtrack album). That’s because it was McLaren’s project, it sets him up as hero, and makes Lydon the almost-unseen villain. Lydon hated McLaren by the end, and eventually won control of the Sex Pistols name and assets in a series of court cases. Presumably he controls whether it will ever be released.

I find this mildly annoying, because I saw it couple of times when I was a student, and enjoyed it, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Second-hand DVD copies are available, but they’re mostly pricey and/or being shipped from the States.

I suppose the more recent, documentary film, The Filth and the Fury, might be worth seeing. I see that, like The Swindle, it is directed by Julien Temple. Clearly Lydon didn’t mind his work on McLaren’s film.

What doesn’t come through very much is any sense of Jon Savage himself. What was he doing, and how did he get involved in all this? I gather he wrote a fanzine, London’s Outrage, and he became a journalist writing for Sounds, according to his Wikipedia entry. While he has done extensive research, and interviewed many of the participants, some of the story clearly comes from his being there at the time.

But the only real sense of that we get is that, towards the last third or so of the book, a series of dated, italicised entries appear. They clearly are — or are meant to be — diary entries from the time. Or notes for articles he wrote at the time, perhaps, giving us something of a first-person view of some to the gigs and so on. I would have liked to see more made of these, or more generally about his experience and from his point of view. A book about punk ought to be a bit more gonzo, I think.

But on the whole it’s a great read.

We Are The Clash by Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki (Books 2019, 2)

The book "We Are The Clash" with The Clash's "Cut the Crap" album on CD
We Are The Clash with the Cut the Crap CD

This is the book that I mentioned before Christmas. The subtitle is “Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of A Band That Mattered,”1 which captures well its structure. It interleaves the politics of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic — the miners’ strike, Reagan’s nuclear brinksmanship, the Iran/Contra scandal — with what was happening with the most political of the original punk bands.

It’s interesting to read a history of a time you lived through and were, however tangentially, involved in. Andersen and Heibutzki more than do justice to their material. The research they must have done is impressive. I know personally that Andersen came to the UK on a research trip, but aside from that they have interviewed the three non-original members of The Clash, Kosmo Vinyl, and various other people who were involved or just had something useful to say.

And they must have spent a lot of time listening to concert tapes and studying set lists — which doesn’t sound like a chore to me, it’s fair to say.

I learned two major things: first, I’d forgotten how good Cut the Crap is. I haven’t listened to it in ages, and when I went to do so on Apple Music, I found it isn’t there. Nor is it on Spotify. I have it on vinyl, but I don’t currently have access to a record player.

Luckily Amazon and CDs both still exist, so I put some more money the way of… Bernie Rhodes, as it turns out.

That’s the other big thing I found out: how — difficult, let’s say — Rhodes was. Not least since he signed the band — well, Joe and Paul: the others were effectively employees — into a contract that gave him, Rhodes, control over the album, as well as the name “The Clash.”

But worse was the way he treated the new members while they were with the band. Constantly haranguing them, telling them they weren’t up to scratch, shouting at them… it’s a wonder they stayed. It sounds like an abusive environment.

Joe could and should have stopped it, but it seems like he was still to some extent in Rhodes’s thrall — Bernie did bring the band together, after all — and possible suffering from depression. Certainly he was drinking heavily, and during that time his dad died and his mum got ill, and he became a father himself. It was a difficult time for him.

I have more to say about the album, but I think that’s for a separate post. For now, this is a great rock book about a little-discussed time in the history of my favourite band.


  1. Good to see the proper use of the Oxford comma there. 

Bragging

Went to see Billy Bragg in Islington on Friday. A benefit for Hope Not Hate, the anti-fascist organisation, it was the most mainly-political gig I’ve seen from Billy in — well, maybe ever. By which I mean, ‘Sexuality‘ and ‘Upfield‘ were the only non-political songs he did. And at least the latter of those actually is political (“I’ve got a socialism of the heart,” after all), despite being about meeting angels.

He was on great form. He’s turned sixty now, and was joking about having a bus pass.

Support were The Wakes, a Glasgow band with obvious Irish connections. Very much in a Pogues mould. I only heard the tail end of their set, but thoroughly enjoyed it.

Oh yes: and I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen Billy when he didn’t do ‘A New England.’