The English just do Christmas differently than Americans, and that distinction is perhaps sharpest where pop music is concerned. For the most part, the American holiday music which has been woven into the national fabric is postwar light pop and balladry, with some Phil Spector, Vince Guaraldi, and Mariah Carey sprinkled in. Most people here complain about it (especially, and justifiably, retail workers), but like most things in America, they’d rather complain than do anything to change it.
The UK, conversely, seems to take pride in their Christmas pop music (I’m painting with a broad brush—some English friends in the past have expressed antipathy for anything we Yanks view as quintessentially British, and I’m sure that those people will loathe almost every song here). Honestly, I can’t blame ’em: it’s the good stuff! For some reason, the 1970s saw a big renaissance in Christmas songs on that side of the pond, most especially among bands who met at the cross-section of glam rock and bubblegum. Nearly every song on this list is culled from that era, and they’re stompers all! Indeed, this was the era that gave rise to the British tradition of paying attention to what song reaches #1 on Christmas Day, an oddball tradition that has absolutely not taken root in America (but then, maybe we just don’t have the right songs to inspire such traditions).
What follows is a handy starter pack to have yourself a glammy little Christmas. If this doesn’t get your UK-themed holiday party going… well, it’s just as well, honestly. What are you doing having a party during a fucking pandemic, anyway?
10. Wombles, “Wombling Merry Christmas”
Americans love their children’s entertainment, and have surely embraced musical spinoffs at times (remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Our Shells tour? Sure you do). Still, The Archies notwithstanding, it’s rare for a mock band made up of children’s characters to actually top the charts here. They love that shit in the UK, though, and that was certainly the case with The Wombles.
The Wombles started as a book series by Elisabeth Beresford about a group of ratlike creatures that sneak around collecting trash to repurpose it, which then became a popular (and extremely adorable) stop-motion animated TV series in the early 70s. Mike Batt, the musician and producer who composed the show’s theme song, used a unique stipulation in his contract to cash in on the show’s success by creating a series of bubblegum pop records under the Wombles name. Said records were HUGE, and received extensive radio play; the “band,” which at times included legendary UK guitarist Chris Spedding (who, incidentally, would go on to produce the Sex Pistols’ first demos), performed live in big, furry Womble suits. They made multiple appearances on Top of the Pops, from whence this particular clip was culled, during their mid-70s run. You’d think that this would be a fad drifted away by the sands of time, but this footage from a reunion appearance at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival tells another story.
Anyway, of course a chart-topping cartoon band would have a hit Christmas song, but it’s less of a foregone conclusion that it’s a bubbleglam banger. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, though, the proof is here in living color.
9. Jona Lewie, “Stop The Cavalry”
Jona Lewie has claimed that this synthpop antiwar plaint was never intended to be a Christmas song, but between the jingle bells, the December release date, and the lyrics that mention… um, Christmas, I’m a little skeptical. Whatever the case, it was a big hit around Christmas 1978, and has been revered as a holiday classic since. It’s admittedly less bubblegum/glam than anything else here, but when we’re talking 70s UK Christmas hits, it was either this, or this.
8. The Goodies, “Make a Daft Noise For Christmas”
More television personalities! The Goodies were peers of Monty Python, and operated in a similarly absurdist vein through their 1970s/80s BBC run. They had a penchant for musical comedy, so again, it’s no big surprise that they had a Christmas jawn in them. It’s one of their more charming musical outings, too, its goof-ass groove calling to mind nothing so much as vintage Ween. Unlike some of the songs on this list, this is not the ideal joint for soothing a savage Scrooge, but it’s a fun one if you’re already in the spirit.
7. Sparks, “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”
Speaking of Scrooges, it seems our dear brothers Mael were not huge on yuletide cheer, as evidenced by this dank nug from their mid-70s triumph Kimono My House. Yet the song’s dour, pompous lyric is set against such a party-friendly instrumental—the intro build would fit handily into an Andrew W.K. anthem—you’d be forgiven for not noticing the daggers Russell Mael is spitting throughout. Sparks are Yanks, of course, but with their acidic wit and penchant for camp, they’ve been honorary Brits from the word ‘go,’ so I think they fit just fine here.
6. Roxy Music (as The Dumbells), “Giddy Up (Sleighride)”
This one’s shrouded in mystery, and that may be on purpose: after all, Roxy Music’s hipster fanbase surely would have considered the release of a Christmas single to be, well, a bit gauche. Still, at least some of the members (definitely including guitarist Phil Manzanera; the jury’s out on Bryan Ferry’s involvement) slipped this single out under an assumed name in 1980, a synth reworking of “Sleighride” that vibes somewhere between Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the Main Street Electrical Parade. The flip, “A Christmas Dream,” has more replay value for fans of vintage Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre, but not nearly as much wacky holiday spirit.
5. Mud, “Lonely This Christmas”
Mud were a group of shameless, but undeniably charming, glam opportunists who came complete with synchronized dance moves. Like their contemporaries in Sweet (who I was shocked to learn didn’t have a Christmas song!), they were at their most successful when under the direction of bubbleglam svengalis Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.
As with so many of their peers, Mud had a deep, if somewhat sarcastic, love of 1950s American rock ‘n’ roll and teen balladry, and they went heavy into the latter for this holiday single. This is an unabashed Elvis pastiche if ever there was one; still, and even if he could barely keep a straight face for it, singer Les Gray certainly pulls off the soaring style the King brought to his Christmas singles.
4. Marc Bolan & T. Rex, “Christmas Bop”
Marc Bolan’s tortured push-and-pull between commercialism and pretense—a big key, as far as I’m concerned, to T. Rex’s charm—might explain why this song got recorded, but also why it was effectively buried until 1994, nearly two decades after Bolan’s death. It’s classic T. Rex, though, meaning it’s maybe the most fey Christmas song ever recorded, and even if it lifts most of its hook from Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” it gives you exactly what you’d want out of a T. Rex holiday single.
3. Showaddywaddy, “Hey Mr. Christmas”
This is one that flew under my radar until recently, but it gets high ranking because it pointed me towards this great band whom I’d heretofore ignored. Showaddywaddy has the juice! I’m kinda mad I didn’t know this when I was DJing parties at the height of the “dudes in white belts and girls in 60s dresses hanging out at dance parties and having strong opinions about The Shangri-Las’ period of the 2000s, but so it goes.
Anyway, this song is a great glam Christmas party anthem. Vocalist Dave Bartram provides a clear bridge between Ray Davies and Joey Ramone and, at least in this video, is clearly having a good time (and lookin’ fuckin’ great) doing it. I just can’t trust anyone who can’t appreciate an earworm like this, no matter how much they’re humbuggin’.
2. Slade, “Merry XMas Everybody”
That aforementioned tradition of giving a shit about which song is #1 on the charts on Christmas day starts here. In 1973, unbeknownst to either of them, two UK bands decided they were on a holy mission to bring Christmas songs back into fashion, a mission which would have surely been doomed to failure if both of them hadn’t turned out eternal yuletide rippers.
Slade (of “Cum on Feel the Noize” fame) and Wizzard (fronted by the eccentric Move/Electric Light Orchestra cofounder Roy Wood) were both huge in 1973, popular pillars of the glam explosion that had overtaken the UK charts. That summer, they both independently came to the conclusion that, with the UK in the middle of an economic downturn, major strikes and all, the country could use some holiday cheer. So, both recorded big, buoyant Christmas anthems in the sweltering summer heat, and didn’t find out that the other had done the same until both were released. The two bands duked it out for the Christmas #1 slot that year, with Slade pulling out a narrow win. Both, though, have become Christmas radio staples ever since, and often shimmy back into the charts around this time of year.
Picking which of these songs belongs in the top slot is a fool’s errand, and my personal opinion changes depending on the day. I just watched Slade’s excellent film Flame twice in the last couple months, though, so I might be a little Sladed out for the moment. Whatever the case, this is UK Christmas pop at its most indispensable.
1. Wizzard, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”
…And so is this, but it has better video to go with it, so it wins for now. Thank Santa we don’t have to choose which of these glorious presents to open!