If you’re from anywhere in the world except the United Kingdom, you may be catching glimpses of Brexit turmoil on social media, wondering why a nation has committed to repeatedly shooting itself in the dick. I can’t explain it (though a lot of it has to do with racism) and I don’t have the energy anyway (racism). But it’s worth remembering that, despite sharing a language and, in theory, a bond with the United States, Britain is a unique and strange place, strewn with passions and in-jokes that would leave the rest of the world baffled. To understand the British psyche, you need to grasp the fact that this country that has obsessed over which single will top the charts on Christmas Day for over 40 years. And because it’s the weekend and nobody’s around to stop me, I’m going to write about that.
It started in December, 1973. The country was in turmoil. Trade unions were at war with the government. Energy consumption was being strictly rationed. Everything was the color of a filing cabinet.
The people needed a fight with lower stakes, and what they found was a man called Noddy. Slade were already glam rock superstars in the UK, outperforming icons like David Bowie in the charts, racking up hits, dominating the pages of every music magazine. They were brazen, loud, fun, full of choruses. Their lead singer, Noddy Holder, with his cartoonishly unkempt beard, beaming grin, and love for color-clash three-piece suits, was almost impossible to dislike. They released three singles in 1973, two of which—”Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me”—went straight to number one. They were in a groove. And when bassist Jim Lea’s mother-law-suggested, off hand, that the band should write “something like ‘White Christmas’,” a song that could come back and hit the charts year after year, things quickly came together.
Lea came up with the lyrics to “Merry Xmas Everybody” during a 20-minute shower, then passed the song onto Holder and recommended that he use a scrap of a chorus he’d demoed to the band in 1967. Holder, according to a 2013 interview with Uncut, then went to the pub, “got a bit pissed,” returned to his parents’ house in Walsall, near Birmingham, and worked through the night to craft an unrelentingly happy holiday song.
“It was a miserable time, 1973,” Holder told Uncut. “I was trying to cheer people up.” He wasn’t coy about it either. “Here it is, Merry Christmas / Everybody’s having fun / Look to the future, now / It’s only just begun,” he shouted in the chorus, willing the country out of its malaise. It was destined for top spot.
But there was a challenger, another Black Country glam rock band who’d been on a tear. Wizzard, led by former Electric Light Orchestra guitarist Roy Wood, had been making their own dent in the charts. “See My Baby Jive,” a horn-heavy homage to Phil Spector, held top spot for four weeks in the spring of ’72, and a follow-up called “Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad)” spent a week at the summit that summer. They were eye-catching, too, all psychedelic face-paint and rainbow-colored hair. Here they are playing on the BBC’s Top of the Pops with both of guitarists dressed in gorilla costumes.
According to an interview with Rock’s Backpages (reprinted by The Guardian), their 1973 holiday effort, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” was more about graft than inspiration. The band’s saxophonist, Mike Burney, enjoyed his job so much that he used to tell Wood: “Roy, being in this band, it’s like Christmas every day.” But Wood was a notoriously hard-working musician, and moments like that were fleeting. They worked nights and re-recorded every take until they were exhausted, all to give the listener the sense that they were having a carefree party. “I did the sleigh bells at the end myself,” Wood said. “I just shook them until I was too tired to do it anymore.”
The result was a glammy, absurd, beaming single, backed by a children’s choir and packed with lyrics that might have distracted the country from its crises: “When the snowman brings the snow / Well he just might like to know / He’s put a great big smile on somebody’s face.”
Holder and his band had no idea about Wizzard’s song until that December, when Slade appeared on the popular English TV show Lift Off with Ayshea, hosted by Roy Wood’s then-girlfriend Ayshea Hague. “Ayshea came up to us and said, ‘Roy Wood and Wizzard have got this Christmas song they’re doing, I really think it’ll be number one at Christmas’,” Slade guitarist Dave Hill wrote in his 2017 autobiography So Here It Is. “So we said, ‘Really? We’ve got one of them as well.’ If it hadn’t been for us, Roy would probably have been number one, but at that time, nobody could compete with us. We were at the pinnacle.”
He was right. Slade won out in 1973, selling 500,000 copies of “Merry Xmas Everybody” on pre-orders alone, then adding another 350,000 on the day of release. Wizzard slipped to number four, below Gary Glitter’s “I Love You Love Me Love” and The New Seekers “You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me.” Slade and Wizzard were both booked for Top of the Pops’ Christmas special, where their Christmas rivalry erupted into an on-air custard pie fight. “We pied Roy on camera,” Hill told The Guardian. “He carried on singing with custard in his beard. Then, when we were on, one of the Wizzard guys put one right in Noddy’s face.” There doesn’t seem to be any video evidence of that pie fight, but the video of Wizzard’s performance does cut away from Wood for a suspiciously long time at the end.
Both songs became ubiquitous. Christmas in Britain can’t pass without both of these songs being played on repeat. A hotel in West London even banned Slade’s song in 2008 after customers complained that it had become “irritating.” But with the country once again fumbling around in the bleak midwinter, it’s hard to imagine either of these songs being dislodged from Christmas playlists anytime soon. Just as they did in 1973, Britain needs to hear Noddy Holder shouting: “Look to the future, now / It’s only just begun.” The country needs glam rock.
Alex Robert Ross is hanging up his stocking on the wall. Follow him on Twitter.