Does the devil really have all the best tunes?

(December 03, 2014)

Christmas is for many of us one of those magical times when the world takes a little more time to care. A time when caring exclusively for ‘self’ gives way to sparing a thought for ‘others’. A time for family and friends to take time with each other. It’s also a time when a certain brand of music proliferates. This does not mean the regurgitated musical drivel that pours out of shop sound systems polluting both their interiors and usually the adjacent footpath, nor is it the inane repetition of Christmas pop songs emanating from the radio. It’s the arrival of Christmas carols and Christmas songs, which give the lie to the saying that ‘the devil has all the best tunes’. At this point I will stress that I am not writing from any secular, scared or religious viewpoint whatsoever, I’m writing as someone that loves good music, be it from Heaven or Hell.

There are one or two good contemporary  tunes at Christmas that are not carols or Christmas classics but they are few and far between: ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues always hits the spot, as does Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’ although never intended as a Christmas song, more a protest-song. Beyond that you really have to admit that Christmas carols have pretty much cornered the good tunes. There are of course ‘modernised carols’ with edited tunes and arrangements, including Annie Lennox’s version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, with more pagan overtones than anything religious, and latterly ‘I Saw Three Ships’ by Vicki Swann and Jonny Dyer. Among the ‘traditional offerings’ there are the standard carols that everyone would know, such as: ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ and possibly ‘See Amid The Winter Snow’ the ‘not so easy to name’ but still readily-recognised carols like ‘Coventry Carol’ and ‘Past Three O’Clock’.

These Christmas tunes and most of the lyrics survive simply because they are pretty much ‘hear once and remember’ tunes – aside from the fact they are regularly sung, they are also damn fine tunes. Of course, there’s always the ‘winning song’ from The X Factor Final (yes, that suppurating serving of porcine scrofula) as a fine example that not only do carols have the best tunes, the devil really is alive and well, and continuing to market crap. The only redeeming factor being that ten minutes after it’s released this year’s dose of dross will be consigned to memory’s dustbin. Naturally, there will also be a plethora of ‘compilation albums’ with advertisements cramming the airwaves in between the 23rd replay of ‘King Kong’ and the 2,023rd replay of ‘White Christmas’. These advertisements will promote such forgettable Christmas albums as vomited up versions of ‘My All Time Christmas Favourites’ to something bearing a title similar to ‘Now That’s What I Call Commercialism 135’.

The regularity with which carols and Christmas songs are sung is not really a factor in their longevity. After all, outside of a few days each year, when do we hear carols or festive songs? Focusing on the subject of traditional songs for a while, one asks, how many ‘seasonal or event’ tunes other than Christmas songs and carols, offer almost total recall? Are there Easter songs, New Year songs (apart from that one) summer holiday songs (possibly ‘Summer Holiday’ or ‘School’s Out’ depending on your passing years) wedding songs, birthday songs (apart from 'Happy Birthday', possibly the worst-sung song in the world) or ‘anything else songs’ that are imprinted at a ‘fundamental memory’ level? The answer, apart from a few folk songs, is a resounding ‘no’. So why do songs that herald (pun intended) a certain time of year have all the good tunes?

It has much to do with when they’re heard. Many folk songs have the same endurance because they’re good tunes, easy to recall and easy to sing. Many carols offer the same and they’re always heard at ‘good times’. Many of us learn Christmas songs and carols off by heart as children and they stick in our minds. They attach themselves to a mystical time when everything seemed better. They belong to an association with a time of hope. They are also good tunes, otherwise why are they used and re-invented time and again?

So when you’re slumped on the sofa, stuffed to the brim with food you don’t really need to eat, and ready to fall asleep in front of another 1960’s Bond film, remember, when you want to get into the festive spirit a good blast of carols and Christmas songs will do the job. And if the television remote is nearby, you could do worse than click on whichever channel is running ‘Carols from Kings’ or similar and listen instead to some of the best tunes around.

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