It’s a Wonderful Christmastime

Posted December 23, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The real story behind the knighted Beatle’s ode to the holidays

Within the entire body of work of the Beatles, not one decent Christmas carol was recorded, unless you want to consider their oddball end-of-the-year fan club memorabilia recorded from 1963 to 1970. Not the kind of stuff you want to hear on Muzak. The whole purpose of those seven-inch records were to simply thank fans while they read handwritten memos and dissected holiday favorites with a bit of bad-boy moxie (see “Good King Wenceslas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo” on the 1963 record and “Auld Lang Syne” on the 1965 record). Ten years after the Beatles dissolved, McCartney would take on the challenge of developing something a bit more serious for the holiday season, something that would rival the success of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” a moving 1971 sociopolitical hymn barking at the unpopular Vietnam war. But the road to creating the well-known and well-hated “Wonderful Christmastime” – a song that comes with its own legend and irony – wasn’t something meteorologists ever thought of forecasting.

In 1968, Paul McCartney whipped out his first little holiday ditty, the brief “Happy Christmas, Happy New Year.”  But nothing within the sixty seconds of that song merited any serious attention. By this time, McCartney and his fellow bandmates – John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were about to go their separate ways. It was only when he decided to put his work on hold with his band Wings to work on yet another solo album that he would strike gold. McCartney II, released in May 1980, dropped ten years after his first solo album (McCartney) and represented yet another level of growth for the famed Beatle. This time around, he incorporated a heavy use of synthesizers and lots of experimentation into the record. The album was met with mixed reception from critics. To this day, it is still frowned upon for being rebelliously experimental and tried too hard to warm up his ego. (He writes all and performs all the instruments on the entire record.)

Part of the mystery behind McCartney II is the world of escapism that floods the music. Think of these moments as an Eighties update of the Beatles’ psychedelic rock expedition minus Lennon. Luckily, McCartney composed something dissonant from the Wings songbook, something off the wall-ish. “Wonderful Christmastime,” a Christmas original recorded sometime in the summer of 1979, became a relic of Eighties synthpop. Other than the lightly-sprinkled jingles decorating the entirety of the song and the caroling of McCartney’s double-stacked background vocals, nothing aboard the song resembled anything in the world of conceived holiday music. Using Brian Eno-esque sentimentality, the song sounded like something that came out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By and large, this was not your ordinary traditional carol.

For some strange reason, the song seems to grow increasingly popular with each passing year. Part of the reason behind the surge is because it’s almost impossible to believe that the song is actually over thirty years old. Lots of ‘80’s synthpop sounds like a product of its time, while “Wonderful Christmastime” transcends the familiarity of the decade. Must I remind you again that this is a Christmas song.

There are a host of critics, even McCartney fans, who eek at the very mention of the song. They just don’t understand its enigma and why it continues to run a gamut on Muzak around the holiday season. “I can[‘t] think of no song more wretched than Paul McCartney’s 1979 holiday themed seizure, “Wonderful Christmas Time,” RetroCrush wrote in their op-ed on the worst Christmas song of all time. “I love how the video shows 15 different musicians, but all we hear is that shitty keyboard music and Linda McCartney shaking sleigh bells.” And there are a myriad of pop-up blogs and web sites devoted to tossing “Wonderful Christmastime” out with yesterday’s garbage. But there are a few things you might need to know about the McCartney carol before dashing it through the snow.

On the financial side of things, Sir Paul is racking in the millions on the 1979 holiday track for the mere fact that he performed the song entirely by himself and had no aid in songwriting. The music video may have been giving off the allusion that Wings was still on deck when the song was crafted, but everything heard on “Wonderful Christmastime” was constructed by McCartney’s own hand. This may have been a premeditated move from the knighted Beatle since the very first Beatles’ record deal paid out one penny for each record sold. Although the group wound up selling millions of records internationally and transformed into the biggest superstars of the 20th century, the deal still left a nasty aftertaste in each of the Beatles’ mouths. A suit against EMI for $60 million in unpaid royalties was finally settled years ago, right before the label went up for sale to the highest bidder.

Also it’s important to realize that the song’s oddness is its own reward. The holiday music of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams are eternally engraved into the Christmas brand, while McCartney’s annual tune sounds peculiarly stand-offish. It is that bit of candor that gives “Wonderful Christmastime” its own platform, as if the Beatle demands a different kind of attention.

Also factor in just how often the song has been re-recorded by a trove of other artists. It’s been sampled (De La Soul) and even sung by gospel acts (Jars of Clay, Amy Grant). And the growing list of renditions continues with names like Rahsaan Patterson, Kelly Rowland, Chicago & Dolly Parton, Demi Lovato and Barenaked Ladies. Just recently, the Shins wrapped their fingers around it. Via SPIN Magazine: “Cue the Shins, whose jubilant, psych-pop take on the recently conciliatory Paul McCartney’s 1979 synth-workout chestnut “Wonderful Christmastime” surfaced today via [website] Stereogum.”

So with Muzak and music compilations keeping “Wonderful Christmastime” all fresh in their annual playlists, folks only wonder just how much dough McCartney’s racking in.

“The song is what we in the industry call an evergreen, because it gets played all the time,” explains entertainment attorney Bernie Resnick “[McCartney’s] publishing royalty check every fourth quarter probably has a lot of zeros on the end.” According to an unmentioned source who spoke with, they estimate that McCartney’s holiday jingle is earning something in the $400,000-$600,000 range annually. That means McCartney has seen about $15 million from the song since its release.

Also, despite its abuse of super-sized synth erections, “Wonderful Christmastime” is slowly becoming more and more enticing to the ears of music critics despite the fact that the plethora of holiday music usually gets a bad rap anyway. One writer, Ashley Spurgeon for the Nashville Scene, wrote: “What exactly is everyone’s problem with this song? I know the holidays can be stressful, and I know it’s cool to hate everything, but “Wonderful Christmastime” gets way more crap than it’s ever deserved.” Her greatest rebuttal comes when she deals with the criticisms of the song being too corny. Here she goes off on a rant that simply makes sense: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that a holiday whose popular mythology includes snowbound elves building toys for children wasn’t supposed to be corny. Even the religious version of Christmas features a happy family hanging out with a donkey. Christmas is a cheese-ball holiday, and you’re allowed — no, encouraged — to enjoy corny, trite good-time smile-givers. Paul McCartney included.”

“If you listen to ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ it sounds like it’s from another century,” Resnick said. “‘Wonderful Christmastime’ doesn’t sound dated, and it’s more than 30 years old. McCartney was smart because not only did he write and record the song himself, but he created a song that will stand the test of time.”

And this is probably true. Break it down piece by piece and “Wonderful Christmastime” plays like something entirely futuristic and nothing humanely possibly if constructed within the Beatles’ song kit. And there’s good reason why the court jesters in the wonderful world of Beatlemania are most certain to shun the song from their memory banks. It simply isn’t a Beatles’ song, nor is it something that sounds befitting on a McCartney “greatest hits” disc. But it has a life of its own. Despite the gargantuan hater who consistently clobbers the song into a bloody pulp, the song – like Jesus on every Easter weekend – continues to resurrect itself with enough cocky machismo to put the devil to shame. Not sure if Jesus seriously wanted to, but pop culture usually allows the victor to get the last laugh. In this instance, McCartney is laughing all the way to the bank. Ho ho ho.



This promo video features the members of McCartney’s band Wings and was filmed at the Fountain Inn in Ashurst, West Sussex.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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