Christmas. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!

I get grumpy at this time of year.

Before you say “Bah, humbug”, let me tell you a story.

When The Wombles were at their height, Mike Batt came into my office and flopped down on my couch.

He looked exhausted.

“I’m exhausted,” he said.

He was. Exhausted. And he and I were about to get a lesson in the demands of the market over the welfare of the humans.

Mike Batt

Mike Batt

A Womble

A Womble

Mike Batt, lest it be forgot, did almost everything on the Wombles records apart from playing the violins.

He wrote the songs. And that was pressure, right there. Each song was under intense scrutiny from Elisabeth Beresford, who wrote the books. Elisabeth was not about to allow her creations to be involved in anything less than her own moral universe would allow.

Having finished the songs to Elisabeth’s satisfaction (and they weren’t always, and out would go the song), Mike would then write the arrangements.

If you listen to those records now, without your child’s ear, you will marvel at their cleverness. There was no era, no genre, no style, that Mike Batt could not recreate and incorporate.

Mozart? Check. The Beach Boys? Check. Thirties dance band? Check.

Having written these brilliant arrangements he would then produce the recording sessions with big orchestras under intense time pressure.

And then he would do the vocals, including most of the harmony voices. If you want to get a flavour of what that entailed, have a listen to Down At The Barbershop.  The only voice I doubt is Mike’s is the bass.

And when he had done all that, he would don the Womble suit, visit hospitals and schools, pop up around the streets of London for a photo opp, and sweat off pounds on Top Of The Pops.

Exhausted? Barely covers it really.

So, here we are in my office. He’s already gone through this process twice in eight months. Now he’s telling me CBS is going to want a Christmas album. It’s September already.

“Well, let’s go and tell them you can’t do it,” say I.

He smiles, but his eyes tell the story. ‘They’ are not going to want to hear that.

And here’s where we get the lesson. Or, more to the point, I get the lesson. We go up to see Dick Asher, the head honcho sent from New York to make some money.

“I’m exhausted, Dick,” says Mike.

“Dick,” I say. “Mike’s exhausted.”

Dick looks at me. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, “I’ll deal with you later.”

Then he turns his charm on Mike. Dick Asher being charming was like that moment when you look at the shark’s smile and think, “Oh, maybe he’s not going to bite my leg off”. And then he bites your leg off.

“We need a Christmas album, Mike. I know you’re tired, and we really appreciate all the work you’ve done. But there’s no way around it. This Christmas has to be a Wombling Christmas.”

And so it transpired that Mike Batt delivered his third Wombles album and seventh single in less than 15 months. And not just any old single, but a Christmas record that was held off the Number One slot only by Mud’s Lonely This Christmas.

The Christmas Number One. What a palaver.

I blame John Lennon. I don’t remember the Christmas record being ‘a thing’ until Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Readers will correct me, I’m sure.

There are obvious songs we associate with Christmas. Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte was the first in my memory. Little Donkey by Nina & Frederik came  four or five years later. In between there was Little Drummer Boy. The version I preferred was by Michael Flanders of Flanders & Swann fame.

But the specially designed Christmas single didn’t really get going until Lennon showed the way, more or less telling the world, ‘it’s ok to be sentimental – it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake’. War Is Over didn’t make Number One, but it did open the floodgates. So, thanks for that, John.

Yet I can’t find more than 12 songs that are about Christmas (or religion) that have been Number One since charts began 60-odd years ago. And three of those are Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Which kind of makes my point, really. That Christmas is about money and consumption. And Mike Batt’s exhaustion. And Dick Asher’s crass commercial imperative.

And that’s why I get grumpy at this time of year.

I’ve experienced Christmas in at least eight different ways. As a young child – Irish Catholic – it was a religious celebration. The music was fabulous, the feeling was profound and the sense of community was palpable.

Presents? What presents? That’s not what it was about. There was no sleepless Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa. We were poor, working class and it was about the baby Jesus, not some pagan ritual.

When I was eight, everything changed. My mother (divorced since I was two) remarried. My protestant step-father was lower middle-class, an only child, and Christmas for him was about spoiling everyone. It certainly wasn’t about Jesus (of whom he disapproved) or Church (which he tried to forbid).

This was the version of Christmas I carried forward to my own children. Having long abandoned religion, family and celebration seemed the right focus. The music, of course, was still fabulous (I’m talking about Carols, not Slade – although I might just mention Phil Spector’s Christmas Album).

But as my kids got older, I noticed the piles of presents getting bigger, until one year I couldn’t open the living room door because the boxes had collapsed in the night, blocking the room up.

That is the exact moment my seasonal grumpiness began.

Later, I discovered a different Christmas – divorced, my children with their mother and other family (quite right), I would leave the country and ignore the whole damn thing. Suited me fine.

Then I started another family. Went through the whole process again. Except this time, the excess was there from the start. Presents for my kids from people I didn’t know, friends of their grandmother, people I had never clapped eyes on. Rooms set aside for presents, there were so many of them.

At this point, I started to pine for the simplicity of my Irish roots and the Catholic celebration. Without Jesus, what was the point? The point had become, clearly, money, consumption and competitive buying.

So I resigned. From Christmas. I stay out of preparations and avoid, as much as possible, the preamble. Thank God for Tivo. I never watch a commercial, haven’t even seen the new John Lewis.

Of course, every time I go to buy bread and milk, the shops are saturated with all those yucky songs. So thanks again, John Lennon.

But really, I count it a triumph if I haven’t become too stressed by Christmas Eve, have plans to see my family, and wake up in my own bed on Boxing Day – all over for another year. And that is really, sincerely, how I feel about it.

So, now, altogether – Bah, humbug…..

But not before we remind ourselves that Mike Batt was no one-trick pony. For me, still being capable of a song as romantic and heart-wrenching as this in your mid-50s is an inspiration. As for Katie Melua – I don’t care what you think (unless you love her). If the current crop of pop divas would just once sing a song with this level of control, tone and emotion I might take them a bit more seriously.

 

Scott Walker and me. Oh dear…..

Scott Walker, eh?

I know, I know. You love him. I know you do!

Well I don’t, and I’m going to tell you why.

But first, some background so you understand where I’m coming from.

I joined Music Week two months after Sgt Pepper was released. I was 18.

Within a year I was the go-to guy when it came to new talent. It was hard work, but very exciting. Apart from an already alcoholic news reporter who didn’t really like music, I was the only writer under 30 and the only one raised on The Beatles. I understood what was going on post-Revolver.

I was the first to review a James Taylor album (earning a telegram of thanks from Apple Records’ Derek Taylor). I raved about the Bee Gees and Creedence Clearwater Revival, promoted the interests of Al Stewart and Roy Harper, interviewed American folk giant Odetta, and then followed up her tip to quickly acquaint myself with Richie Havens.

My joy was in being able to write about these people, and knowing that almost every record dealer (remember them?) in the UK would read what I said. So when the record company rep walked into the shop and tried to sell in records by Creedence Clearwater, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Al Stewart, James Taylor, The Incredible String Band, or Hawkwind the dealers knew they should pay attention.

I did this work for five years and my track record did not escape record company notice. Which was how I ended up working in the A&R department at CBS Records.

One of my tasks as an a&r man was to find songs for the artists on my roster. One of my artists was Scott Walker.

At the time, I thought of him as blessed with an exceptional voice. Beyond that, I found him embarrassing, a precocious child who felt he was not getting the attention he warranted. The whole Jacques Brel thing lacked authenticity for me. This was my critical evaluation before I met him.

In 1973 Walker was at a low point. He had tried, with Scott 4, to kickstart a new era under his birth name Noel Scott Engel. The album bombed, despite the fact that in the year it was released – 1969 – he had his own BBC tv series.

That is truly spectacular, A* failing; the kind you really have to work at. Like changing your name on a record. Genius.

But now he had a new deal with CBS Records, which is where I came in. It should have been a fresh start.

So I took myself down to Nova Studios, near London’s Marble Arch, where Del Newman was producing Walker’s first album for CBS, Stretch. The singer did nothing to endear himself to me – which was fine; why should he? But I watched him closely, and my sense of him was of simply not caring. Del Newman worked hard, as ever, contributing some of his trademark beautiful and carefully crafted arrangements. But the song choices were desultory at best. This album was not going to change Scott Walker’s life.

As I studied him, Walker seemed more interested in betting on this that or the other – the spin of a coin, the turn of a card, anything – rather than engaging with the music. I left Nova thinking: “This is a guy who needs some exceptional songs to reboot not only his career, but also his sense of himself as a major figure in music.”

I’m not going to drag this out. I found three songs for him. One of them was The Air That I Breathe, by Albert Hammond. Another was (You Keep Me) Hanging On, which I had heard in a brilliant version by Ann Peebles. Both of these were later hits – by The Hollies (Air) and Cliff Richard (Hanging On).

Scott turned them down. He wanted, he told me, to do an album of Bobby Bare songs. Bobby Bare was a country & western singer, in the days before country & western became ‘country’, when it was still frowned on and lampooned.

I gave up. Scott got on and did what he wanted. He didn’t make a Bobby Bare album. But he did do an album of c&w covers. He called it We Had It All. In fact we had nothing, not even a potential hit single. It didn’t make the album chart.

Which you might think would be the end of that. But then he was interviewed by Melody Maker and asked why he had made, of all things (Shock! Horror!) a country & western album. He blamed me! The gist of what he said was, “I didn’t want to, but the guy at the record company made me do it”.

Next time his manager called me up, ranting that we weren’t looking after his artist, I put the phone down.

He called me back. “Did you just put the phone down on me?”

“Yes. I. Did. And if you continue to rant at me, I’ll put it down again.” Which he did, so I did.

Five minutes later, managing director Dick Asher, a very hard-boiled Noo Yawker, was at my door. “Did you just put the phone down on Avi?” He was furious. But I just said, “Yup. Twice. If he wants to talk to me, tell him to show some respect.” I think my lack of contrition amused Dick. I never heard from Scott Walker or his manager again.

In 2006, he was still peddling the same self-serving crap. Talking about his career immediately post-69 he said: “The record company said you’ve got to make a commercial record… I was acting in bad faith for many years during that time… I was trying to hang on. I should have said, ‘OK, forget it’ and walked away. But I thought if I keep…making these bloody awful records… this is going to turn round. And it didn’t. It went from bad to worse.”

Yeah, right Scott.

Which brings me to this week’s song, which was written after my recent divorce. It’s called All Done and is about accepting responsibility for your life and moving on. One of the lines is: “When all is said and done, you have yourself to rely on“.

As I wrote about my experiences above, it occurred to me that the song could equally apply to Scott Walker and his career.

Mind you, I’d still like to hear his version of The Air That I Breathe.

All Done is from my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!! available at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/now-thats-what-i-call-divorce!/id496551833 and also from Amazon.