Brash, colourful, over the top, glittery – 1970s glam rock and Christmas seemed made for each other. Yet glam had been in ascendancy for some two years before anyone contemplated putting the two together. And more than anyone else, we can thank Slade for that. From the familiar pounding on the harmonium in the opening bars to the final “It’s Christmaaaas!” Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody remains one of the most well-known and most popular Christmas records of all time. The Performing Rights Society calculate that it is the world’s most listened to song, heard by an estimated 42% of the global population.
Recorded in New York in the summer of 1973, Noddy Holder told Uncut magazine recently that he wanted the lyrics to convey a mood of optimism. The song certainly does that. But at the time of recording it, the band would have little clue as to how grim things were going to get in Britain that particular winter. Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath’s increasingly fractious battle with the miners took a dramatic turn. Mineworkers, like all public employees at the time were suffering the effects of below-inflation pay increases at a time of hyper inflation, and were pursuing industrial action for higher pay. Regular domestic power cuts became a fact of life.
Merry Xmas Everybody was released on 7th December 1973. On 12th December Heath announced that in order to conserve coal stocks, as from midnight on 31st December the Government would be enforcing a three-day week. Companies were to be permitted to consume electricity only on three consecutive days per week, additional working hours were to be banned and TV companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10.30pm each night. This was the Christmas in which Slade’s Merry Christmas was first unleashed on to the public.
It’s a groundbreaking Christmas song in a number of ways. Unlike the treacly nostalgia of previous Christmas classics, Holder and Lea managed to capture the essence of a working class family Christmas:
Are you waiting for the family to arrive
Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside
Does your granny always tell you
That the old songs are the best
Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest
That was combined with a genuine spirit of bright, breezy optimism:
So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun
Look to the future now, it’s only just begun
There is a freshness about the way that hookline is delivered that still sounds fresh even today. “In terms of comfort we shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war,” Heath declared ominously. But while it might be argued that anything Slade recorded at that particular time in pop history was destined for the Number 1 slot anyway, there was something marvellously subversive about Slade’s Christmas single being the best selling record at the time. People singing along to a chorus that celebrates having fun and looking to the future during the middle of a heated political stand-off, a major breakdown in industrial relations, a draconian response from government and a very bleak-looking New Year indeed.
The three-day week came into force on New Years Day 1974. The Christmas song that was the antidote to it remained at Number 1 until well into the middle of January. In fact, it was February before it dropped out of the charts. As the chorus makes clear, the song is very much a song for the New Year – looking ahead to the future – and not simply one about Christmas.
The Government’s battle with the miners continued to intensify and, refusing to back down, Heath called an election in February 1974. “Who governs Britain?” demanded Heath. “Not you!” the voters told him. He lost the election and embarked on what became known as the longest sulk in British political history. The National Union of Mineworkers secured their pay rise, returned to work and lived to fight another day. But they would be brutally smashed by the Thatcher Government a decade later and Britain’s pit communities decimated. Whatever the battles of the past, the challenge of climate change, of course, means that the only sensible coal policy today is to leave the rest of it in the ground.
Yet Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody lives on, outliving the three-day week, Ted Heath, the miners and (in its original formation) even the band itself. That celebration of working class life in the festive season and the bright sunny optimism for a better future ahead still makes it the greatest Christmas song ever recorded.
Previous live review: Slade at Minehead