The Making Of… Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody
From Uncut’s January 2013 issue (Take 188)… A 20-minute shower and a few drinks down the pub produce a deathless seasonal smash. “Each year it gathers new momentum,” says Dave Hill. “Talk about a pension…” Words: Peter Watts
Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” might not be the first Christmas song, it might not even be the best Christmas song, but it’s surely one of the most important, the most memorable, the most successful and the most, well, Christmas-y. It was released in December 1973 – as were Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” and Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” – and sold half a million in pre-orders alone as it surged to the top of the chart. It was still No 1 in the middle of January. Not bad for a song that was written in the shower and recorded in a sweltering New York studio with John Lennon’s harmonium while the band’s drummer – recovering from a serious car accident – could barely remember how to keep time.
In the early ’70s, Slade were untouchable. This was their third No 1 in 1973 alone, and their sixth overall. Years of graft had helped the band develop a serious work ethic, but they also retained a gift for the common touch thanks to their decision to never stray far from their Black Country roots. This was reflected in “Merry Xmas Everybody”. The bovver boy choruses and wacky image might have pigeonholed them as a novelty act – and a Christmas song doesn’t exactly help in that regard – but Jim Lea’s simple melody, Dave Hill’s chunky chords and Noddy Holder’s lyrics contain the perfect blend of nostalgia and optimism that help define the Christmas experience for many. “Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?/Are you hoping that the snow will start to fall?” bellows old mutton-chops, “Look to the future, it’s only just begun.”
“It was a miserable time, 1973,” says Holder, who wrote the words after an evening in a Black Country pub. “I was trying to cheer people up.” What sort of curmudgeon wouldn’t get a Christmas tingle at that? PETER WATTS
Jim Lea, bass and harmonium: We’d had this string of hits and I was worried about getting the next No 1. I was in the shower trying to think of a song. My mother-in-law the year before had said why don’t we write a song like “White Christmas”, something that can be played every year.
Noddy Holder, vocals and guitar: It came out because Jim’s mother-in-law had said why have you never brought out a record that can come out every year like a birthday song or a Christmas song.
Lea: I was furious, I thought it was a stupid idea. But then I decided to do it. I started thinking of words and wrote the verse and was trying to find a chorus. This took about 20 minutes while I was in the shower.
Holder: I was in a writing session with Jim and he remembered a song I’d written back in 1967. It was the first song I’d ever written. It was a hippy dippy flower power song called “Buy Me A Rocking Chair” and the original chorus had gone [to the tune of “Merry Xmas Everybody”] “So won’t you buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by, buy me a looking glass to look me in the eye-ee-ee.” The band hated it, so it was binned. But Jim remembered it and had added this new melody for the verse. He said why don’t we make it a Christmas song?
Lea: I’ve a good memory and recalled that Nod had played me this scrap of a song five years before about a rocking chair and I put that in. I don’t think Nod was too pleased, he wanted to do something with the chorus himself some time.
Holder: So I went away and wrote some Christmas lyrics. I went to the pub, got a bit pissed then went back to my mum and dad’s place and wrote the lyrics. I played it the next day to Jim and he said, “That’ll work.”
Dave Hill, guitar: Nod had a few beers and wrote the lyrics one night in his mum’s front room and his capture of humour on that song is so typical of what Christmas is like in this country.
Holder: We took it to the band and rehearsed it, but they weren’t sure. Nobody really did Christmas songs then. Lennon had done one the year before, but he was Lennon. Little did we know that that year Wizzard were doing one and so was Elton John. But we played it to Chas Chandler [manager and producer] and he loved it. He said Polydor will be over the moon, but we won’t tell them we’re doing it until we’ve finished it, we’ll just tell them we’ve got a new record. At this point, July ’73, Don [Powell] had his bad car crash and was in hospital for six weeks.
Don Powell, drums: We were No 1 with “Skweeze Me Pleeze Me” and I had the crash. I don’t remember what happened at all. In 1974, I went to see a brain specialist and he said I’ll never remember what happened, the brain had just switched off before the accident. He said “What do you want to remember for, anyway?”
Holder: Don couldn’t play and his memory was shot so we took him to America to teach him to play again – people thought he’d never play drums again. It was very difficult for the next few years with Don.
Powell: I could still play the drums, but I couldn’t remember any of the songs. On our first rehearsal back we played “Cum On Feel The Noize” and I had to ask how the song went. I remember once playing “Merry Xmas…” as an encore and I had to ask the others to sing it to me so I could remember how it went. It was very strange at the time, with the amnesia. But they didn’t treat me that different, I had to fend for myself which was better than having everything done for me.
Holder: We went to record it in America. We put it down, and we had to record it in a way we’d never recorded before. We’d always gone in the studio and played a song straight through. We’d then do a bit of overdubbing at the end, but it was essentially a live take and usually the vocals were live as well. But with “Merry Xmas…”, because of Don’s memory, he couldn’t get through a whole take, he’d forget what he was playing halfway through. So for the first time we had to record in layers, like other bands did. We put a basic take down but the only thing I think that is live from the original take is the bass drum. We then overdubbed everything bit by bit. Fuck, it took a long time! We had to get the feel of it, it wasn’t a typical Slade song, but it took shape.
Powell: We were in America and had a week free so Chas sent us into the studio and “Merry Xmas Everybody” was one of the songs. I was struggling to remember things and at the time Nod would sing vocals over a live backing track, but this time Nod had to show cues to me while he was singing so I knew what was happening. If you listen to it very closely there’s one drumbeat at the very end where I just forget to stop. You can hear it right at the end, one extra faint drumbeat.
Lea: It was the first song we ever multilayered. Normally Chas would book two weeks in the studio and we’d just go in without rehearsing and teach ourselves. But Don had his accident and was looking round bewildered, and there was something about the ragtag sound of it that was really good.
Holder: Chas loved singers and if you listen to the recording it was all about the singer. When he recorded, he built everything around the singer. A lot of producers didn’t think that way and it led to a few barneys in the studio. Chas was bombastic and ruled with a rod of iron, but he was open to suggestions and always willing to have a listen. He was music mad, he wasn’t just a money man. He’d been in a band and then managed and produced Hendrix, and we got the benefit of all that experience. He knew what he was doing and we learnt a lot from him.
Powell: We recorded it at the Record Plant in New York where Lennon was always recording. There was a heatwave outside and we were singing about Christmas – we got some strange looks on the American engineers’ faces, I can tell you.
Hill: We went out in the corridor to get the echo and give the impression of a singalong, and all these Americans were walking past in their suits thinking we were off our rockers singing about Christmas in the summer.
Holder: Lennon was in the next studio and we actually borrowed his harmonium to play the opening chords. Those first notes are on Lennon’s harmonium.
Powell: It must be the same with many artists, ’cos we finished recording it but were a bit unsure about releasing it. But Chas said I don’t care what you think, this is coming out this Christmas and it will be No 1. We thought it was a bit namby-pamby, we just weren’t sure at all. But we were proved wrong by Chas.
Holder: Chas loved it and took it back to the UK while we went on tour. He didn’t warn them but just played it in the office in front of the marketing men and they loved it, they flipped. They had no idea we were going to bring them a Christmas record and they were over the moon, cock a hoop. We’d already had “Cum On Feel The Noize” go straight to No 1 on the first day of release, same with “Skweeze Me Pleeze Me”. “My Friend Stan” was meant to be a stopgap but had done well and then we gave them this.
Hill: I wasn’t sure about it at first. It was being recorded in summer and we weren’t thinking about Christmas. So we put it to one side and then in November it suddenly sounded different. The weather was changing, it just sounded different. I was in Belgium with Jim and our wives and we had a drink with a guy from the record company and he said he thought it was terrific, he really had a feeling about it. And you’re sitting there and you could hear what he meant. I started to get a tingle down my back. It suddenly made sense. The atmosphere was gelling around it.
Holder: We knew it was going to be a hit, but we never guessed it would be as big as it was. It had a life of its own. We went straight to No 1. We sold more than 500,000 on pre-orders, on the first day of re-orders we sold another 400,000 and it went on to do a million over two weeks. It was No 1 until the end of January.
Hill: My strong memory is Chas rang me and his first words were, “Are you sitting down, man?” Then he told me how many it had sold in one day. It was phenomenal. They had to press records in Germany because they couldn’t do enough in England. You’ll never see those sorts of figures now for a single. It was just everywhere. There’s nothing more powerful than a great idea when it’s time had arrived. And we were a band with a great idea and its time had arrived.
Powell: No matter where you went, you heard it. You’d be in the supermarket paying for groceries and the girl would be singing it as you handed over the money, or you’d be in a lift and it would come on and everybody in the elevator would start humming. It’s still like that! It’s not quite a rod for our own back, I’m proud of these records, but I’m amazed it’s still being played.
Hill: Each year it gathers new momentum. I’m always being approached by kids asking for my autograph saying I’m that “Merry Xmas bloke”. We had some great songs, some amazing No 1s, but that song will always be the one people remember.
Holder: Now it’s the only song people think we ever did. It’s had a life of its own and it helps sustain the band’s product and back catalogue. It’s kept us afloat in many ways.
Lea: Talk about a pension…
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