My Bid For
The Christmas Charts
It was a humid noon at the headachey end of July, when Captain Sensible rang to ask me whether I thought I could put some lyrics to the Christmas tune he'd written. As a jobbing wordsmith I didn't consider this request to be strange in any way. Summer, for music biz creatives, is traditionally the season to be jolly. Tales of the great Christmas singles such as Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody, being recorded in the heat of high summer are famous. In fact, my only previous foray into Christmas songs –which I'll have readers know became something of a cult item on a gay New York radio station in late 1993 –was recorded in Andy Partridge's Swindon shed, on a stifling day in June.
Quite apart from this, if the Captain, a noted eccentric, had appeared at my door dressed as a chef –or a even in a gymslip, to ask me the same question, I wouldn't have thought it odd. Years of working with him and years spent as lyricist for his Eighties solo stuff had innured me to any surprises. As guitarist for Punk originators The Damned he was the nearest thing the genre possessed to a Hendrix. As a solo star however, he might come up with anything from psychedelia through Euro-disco to Ambient House. Whatever he had in mind was unlikely to be conventional..
As is the way of all my dealings in pop, I was told to ring a man in London for further information. Tim Vs, the man concerned, explained to me that an organisation called Punk Aid, wanted to have a serious crack at the Christmas charts. The idea, run roughly along the Live Aid principle was to invade the charts, raising money as we did so for children with cerebal palsy and learning difficulties.
Did I think I could do it? I rapidly warmed to the idea. Tim's enthusiasm was infectious, Sensible and one or two other punk stalwarts were involved and hell, if we didn't have a go at it, the Christmas charts would only be full of the usual pap.
"Right then," he growled down the phone at me. " We want at least 50 percent of the lyrics to have a right go at these manufactured pop bands. Point out that there's plenty of people not having a great time this Christmas –oh and see if you can get something in about Chechnya and Iraq."
So far, so festive. I thought. I asked Tim if there would be anything else.
" Yeah. We wanna a nice cheerful, singalong chorus, so people can sing it down the boozer."
I received the Captain's demo cassette shortly afterwards and was mildly surprised to find, not the punk anthem I'd been expecting but a well-crafted pop tune with a spine-shivering organ-break as quite as good as anything he'd ever written. Two days of sweaty etymological blacksmithery later, I finished the job, sent it in, had it sent back, tweaked it and finally had it passed by the board of inspectors.
But hang on a minute here: This is two old geezers, closer to fifty than forty, penning a rather bleak anti-Christmas message –albeit with a good tune– in a world which now worships instant pop celebrities, apparently recruited from call-centres. How did Punk Aid plan to get " Ere's Your Christmas " our song, even released , let alone into the charts –all of this, 25 years or so after the death of the DIY punk ethic? Tim assured me that it would be sorted..
Three months on, late into the autumn, I find myself in a north London photo studio. Sensible and I are wearing very silly clothes indeed and are accompanied by half a dozen topless Page 3 models, three decades younger than we are. I begin to wonder what I am letting myself in for. I feel hot, ill and faintly bored. Having said that, I know men in north Essex pubs who would pay good money for this type of boredom.
" Why are we doing this?" I ask James, the photographer.
" It's for The Sundays, Martin."
" Oh. Alright then."
I am introduced to Jo, who will play the 'punk fairy' when we come to make the video. She is a pleasant and quietly-spoken woman in her twenties who underneath her heavy punk make-up, possesses a simple beauty, redolent of a Forties film star. She turns out to be Jo Guest, former Page 3 star and modern Forces Sweetheart to Our Boys stationed in global hotspots.
"She's most famous person in this room." Tim assures me, in slightly awed tones.
The young models regard Sensible and I with only mild curiosity. One, who is all of nineteen, is on the phone trying to sell her house in Essex. She doesn't look old enough to rent a house. She obviously fell through Mr Blair's education net, poor girl. Just think, if she'd been smart enough, she could have been attending Uni, racking up huge debts by this time. Everyone here though, seems happy in their jobs: the photographer, his assistants, the models –even the studio receptionist. .
The single? Well, it's finished and even as I write is being mastered, ready for release, If it sounds good, it should do. It's had enough talent poured into it. In the first two weeks of September, The Captain, producer Stuart, and drummer Chris Bashford, worked like trojans on it. Lead vocals were shared by Finlay Quaye, Captain and Charlie Harper. Backing vocals were poured on and stacked up by Pop Stars renegades, Rik Waller and Carla Winters, by Mark Perry and by me. Marky Ramone of the Ramones is on it. The Captain even rounded up two former members of American pyschedelic legends, The Electric Prunes, whom he happened to find in town. Appropriately enough, they added backward-guitar loops and bells. The track, by all rights, should sound a mess and yet everyone seems to love it. When the thing was mixed Tim Vs had the workers from a nearby building-site pulled in to the studio, in order to subject the disc to 'the punter test'. Even they loved it.
Punk Aid don't just want a hit, they want that top brick off the chimney: The No.1.
At any given point in time, the charts are usually a tightly-controlled thing –much more so than the average person realises. Payola, as such doesn't exist. I am obliged to say that. And yet, if you want to get a record in the charts, the rules of Knowing The Right People and going through the correct channels are so stringent, so arcane, as to verge on the Masonic. You can make a single as catchy and as 'banging' as you wish. You may discover the Lost Chord and create music so brilliant that the very creatures of the forest will run around intoxicated and know not why. But if you don't get it into the right hands at the right time, no-one will review it, it will not be given airplay and you will effectively, be an un-person. Trust me on this.
Christmas however, is the Achilles heel of Chart Control Central –a type of free-for-all where traditionally, anyone from Rolf Harris, through childrens' choirs, right down to singing cartoon frogs may gain top position. So Punk Aid has as good a chance as any. This is attested to by recent odds of 50/1 from Williams Hills on our success. On the other hand we're up against some stiff competition. East Anglia's –and everybody else's darlings, The Darkness have a contender. There are all the Pop Academy androids. And of course Tim and the team must never underestimate Sir Cliff. Can the spiky lyrics and beery chorus of our own Ere's Your Christmas go head-to-head with The Big Fella's favourite boy and whatever he comes up with this year? One of Tim's bulletins is hopeful. It says that Total Rock Radio, who have pledged airplay commented: " It looks as if Captain and all will be representing everyone who's different." Well yes, that about sums it up I suppose.
What will happen when the record is out? From what I know, the Captain, Tim, Finlay, Charlie and I may have our hands full. All hands on deck please for regional radio interviews, early morning phone calls and garbled explanations in London boozers to hardened and cynical journos. We may on the other hand just be ignored. Morale is high, though.. For a such a disparate crew there's a growing sense of mission. Lob this punk grenade into the comfy lounge of the charts and raise some money in the process and it'll be the best Christmas ever. Fail to do it and what have we lost? A few working days and a bit of pride, that's all. Nothing really, for such strange fun.
The business is not without its comic turns either. Tim Vs rings me up, exasperated:
" It's Captain." he says. " I've been e-mailing hourly to tell him what's going on –that we're cutting the record today– and now he wants to do a bloody re-mix!" I laugh. Years of knowing Captain the Perfectionist, Captain, Prince of The Last-Minute Change Of Mind have taught me wisdom.
I reply. " Well he can't. It's too late now. Tell him he's not the pop messiah –he's a naughty boy." Captain wants the organ up louder. So do I but it really should have been done earlier. Tim now signs all his e-mails: " Tim the bastard."
Now what of the video? I don't like filming. I like writing poems and doing radio. It suits me. At my age, I have the face and fashion sense for that sort of stuff. Robin Bextor –whom younger readers may know as Sophie (Ellis)'s dad–is directing the video. The storyboard is wild. It's being done on a shoestring. 'Nasty' Nick Bateman and Peter Wyngarde are in it. And so am I. Crew and director, like all of us, are giving their time and talent for free.
I may never do anything like this again. It's in a good cause, it's for Christmas and it is kind of fun. As sage old Captain Sensible says: " Dignity? Mine went out the window years ago." What happens if we do have a hit? Reader, I haven't the foggiest.
I suppose we'll amuse many, annoy a few and raise a bit of wonga for those kids.
I have rifled my wardrobe for my
old pop singer clothes. Amazingly, most of them still fit. The thinning
grey locks though…It's going to have to be the Tina Turner wig and the battered top hat, I'm afraid.
And so should you be.
"Ere's Your Christmas" by Punk Aid is out on Shellshock Records on December 8 th .