If you thought Mark E. Smith would be some sort of Salford scrooge, cursing the campness and nicking dolls off toddlers like the post-punk Grinch in a slabbering rant against commercialism, then think again. However, he wasn’t quite a Christmasphile either, he was just about on the jangly side of ambivalent about it.
In fact, the iconoclastic M.E.S. pretty much hit the nail on the head when it comes to the festivities. “I must admit I don’t like Christmas in England because everywhere closes down for three weeks. It’s disgusting,” he bemoaned, “You can’t get any bread or milk and that’s what the song’s about. Christmas is more of a family time…where families can beat each other up.”
While he put it rather succinctly there, he mused on the subject in a range of ways over the years, sometimes in short stories, often in songs. As the only artist in music history who truly didn’t give a damn, he bravely entered the potentially kitsch world of the Christmas song that so many others have avoided and crafted a couple of alternative crackers. We’ve collated the best of them below.
The Fall’s five best Christmas songs:
Happy Holidays might be a wry take on the Americanism of Merry Christmas, that actually skirts around festivities and shoots off to some Grecian Isle in the summer but seeing as though at a boozed-up party the only words you’ll be able to make out is the catchy chorus then the whole thing swings full circle after all.
It’s The Fall on their lighter side, with the figurative sun on their back. And once again, the summery feel oddly couples well with festivities, perhaps it’s merely the skewing effect on the psyche that Smith slurring “Happy Holidays” over and over again has.
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’
The Fall were a band deeply entwined with John Peel, so much so that when the iconic DJ passed away Mark E. Smith appeared on the BBC News and declared, “We were never friends, but he was always objective, people forget that.” Not quite glowing praise but it’s as good as a figurative kiss on the lips from the late Smith.
Taken from a session in 1994, Smith snarls his way through the classic folk song like a man who has just been splashed by a white van as he walked by a big puddle on a cold day. With jangly pop guitars and a few manic production touches, this is the 2 AM version of Christmas, when the wheels have fallen off festivities and you’ve entered a comatose food and drink stupor.
‘No XMAS for John Quays’
Live At The Witch Trials was the record that catapulted The Fall, to… well, certainly not to stardom, but to the mid-latitude heights of purgatory, too original to be permitted entry to the commercial stratosphere and too big for the leaden boots of the doldrums of ‘cult’. They have resided there ever since.
“There is no Christmas for John Quays,” Smith announces in what is the perfect anti-Christmas anthem. When all the endlessly repeated songs have started to twist your melon, you don’t just want to hide from fairy lights under a blitz of Black Sabbath, you want retribution. In fact, you want the sorted of poetic maelstrom that Smith delivers in this manic exploration of the put man’s tired headbang.
‘We Wish You a Protein Christmas’
You mightn’t like The Fall, although if that is the case I’d question why you made it to this stage of the article, but one thing even those yet to succumb to the glory of the group couldn’t begrudge is how great Smith was at crafting song titles. What exactly is ‘a protein Christmas?’ springs to mind immediately, followed by ‘and why is he wishing me one?’ and the song remains as evocative throughout.
With an opening synth scape that sounds like the work of a lobotomised Vangelis, the song gets off to an ominous start. Angel voices are then subverted into an equally harrowing Noel gone awry, and soon after quite a pleasant guitar melody joins the fore. All in all, everything is joyously beyond the reach of syncopation as Smith is bitter about being locked inside by a family celebrating commercialism.
‘Jingle Bell Rock’
It’s the Christmas song that Mark E. Smith was born to sing! Sadly, you have to savour it because he ensures he fulfilled his fated duties in a little over a minute, in order to get on with stuff that nobody asked him to do.
The 1957 Bobby Helms hit is given the old one-two dose of Fall realism as it turns the candy-cane Americana bop of the original into a proto-punk rock present from Manchester. The band do their edgy and exuberant best to change the pace of the song into a shot smashing storm, where Smith just about sequesters his apathy to a touch of rapping bravura.
Pop this one while wrapping presents and you’ll end up just handing over the box and thrusting the paper in the bin to head down the pub — but put this song on once in said pub and it’ll be on rowdy repeat all night as the true meaning of Christmas is exposed in a clamour of staggering sweater-clad hugs with half-strangers, friends and family alike. ‘Tis the season to get jolly.