The Phil Spector Christmas album is the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Not for me the party songs. Come, listen to the clanging chimes of doom!

Is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”?

The true reward of making a Christmas album lies in becoming part of people’s annual traditions. I released Tinsel and Lights in 2012, so this will be its third outing on the festive turntable, and I am already getting tweets telling me that it has been fetched out of the box in the loft, along with the actual tinsel – all scruffy with bits of Sellotape that fixed it to someone’s bedroom wall last year. It’s a time when many of us like everything to be unchanging; we play the same records to accompany the same moments, and their resonance deepens with each passing year. After we’d emptied our stockings, my mum would faithfully stick on her green vinyl seven-inch of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, and we’d all groan, the groaning being half the fun. Later, I discovered the Phil Spector Christmas album and it provided the soundtrack to my present-wrapping, the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Audible glitter.

Actually making a Christmas record is an odd business, in that you have to start in the spring. So as one new year got under way, I compiled a tracklist of not strictly Christmas songs, but any that referenced winter, or ice, or just cold weather. The lovely melancholy of Harry Nilsson’s “Snow” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” encapsulated the mood I wanted to strike. Not for me a compilation of party bangers, but a collection of seasonally appropriate gloom. During the recording, the producer Ewan Pearson and I cheerfully gave it the working title The Clanging Chimes of Doom, though one or two songs proved too miserable even for me. For instance, Janis Ian’s “In the Winter”, where a lyric about freezing with a broken heater – being so lonely you call Dial-a-Prayer just to hear a voice, and bumping into your ex’s new “friend” – ends with the punchline, “I’ll live alone forever!” Wonderful stuff, properly festive.

Talking of the Clanging Chimes of Doom, is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s? It seems to get more and more stick every time it’s released, poor song, particularly the line that was originally roared by Bono, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” which I saw recently described as the worst line ever written.

I’ll come clean – I think it’s a good line. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a nice line, or a nice thought. It doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t make the singer look good, which is perhaps why Bono was apparently reluctant to sing it. We always assume that singers believe every word they sing: he might have worried that people would for ever identify him with this ignoble sentiment. But it seems to me to contain a kernel of horrible truth, which we’d rather deny – that if something awful has to happen, if someone has to get it in the neck, we’d rather it wasn’t us, fearful, flawed creatures that we are.

It has always reminded me of the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Winston Smith is finally broken, by the imminent threat of his worst nightmare being visited upon him, he pleads not just for mercy, but for it to be done to Julia instead – “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me!” We seem to take for granted that someone has to suffer; we just plead for it to be someone else. In that howl of Bono’s, the Band Aid song deliberately undermines all its good cheer, letting in the shade and banishing light. Lovely and Christmassy.

We can’t take too much of it, though. Indeed, it seems we can’t take that line at all any more – it has been edited out from this year’s version of the song. A little reality at Christmas goes a long way; we need to temper it with hope, dreams, fantasy. Everyone knows that I love sad songs, but only Ben knows me well enough to have stuffed the Michael Bublé Christmas album into my stocking a couple of years ago, leading to a new tradition now where I happily potter around the kitchen on Christmas morning, cooking and singing, in a glow of bubbly and Bublé, while everyone else groans, the groaning being half the fun.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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