Friday, 9 December 2016

Song for Advent #13: I believe in Father Christmas - Greg Lake

Yesterday came the sad news that Greg Lake had died. That's two members of the mighty ELP we've said goodbye to in 2016. Greg Lake wrote many great songs and then there was the ubiquitous I Believe In Father Christmas his rather jaundiced take on the Christmas season. Interesting to note that when the film About A Boy came out in 2005, with the premise of a central character who lives off the royalties of his father's Christmas hit, someone wrote to The Guardian asking if it was possible to live off the royalties of such a song. Lake penned the following reply:

In the film About a Boy, the man played by Hugh Grant never has to work another day in his life because of the proceeds he receives from a Christmas single his father released. Could one really make a living in this way?
In 1975, I wrote and recorded a song called I Believe in Father Christmas, which some Guardian readers may remember and may even own. It was a big hit and it still gets played on the radio every year around December, and it appears on more or less every Christmas compilation going. So I can tell you from experience that it’s lovely to get the old royalty cheque around September every year, but on its own, the Christmas song money isn’t quite enough to buy my own island in the Caribbean.
I’m on tour at the moment and the Christmas song is as well received now as it was 30 years ago – maybe even more so. If Guardian readers could all please request it be played by their local radio stations, maybe that Caribbean island wouldn’t be so far away – and if I get there, you’re all invited.
U2 did a cover of the song a few years ago and tweaked the lyrics, changing the song into a more positive affirmation of faith by altering a couple of lines. You can hear their version here. On hearing the cover Greg Lake approved commenting

In some ways, “I Believe in Father Christmas” is a very quirky song. It was never written with the intention of it becoming a hit single but was written, rather, as an album track making quite a serious comment about how Christmas had changed from being a celebration of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, into one huge and disgusting shopping orgy.
Although the basic song is very simple, the internal musical structure is actually quite complex and contains elements of classical music and folk music, and just about everything else in-between. It is not an easy song to cover without sounding either as if you were vamping out the original version but not quite as well, or doing some kind of “out there” arrangement purely for the sake of being different. In a way you are sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
The clever thing about the U2 version is that it manages to capture both elements, the original and the inventive without really falling on one side or the other and in this way it is definitely unique. The guitar part is very clever and the vocal, as always with Bono, sounds sincere. That is the mark of a great singer.
Well done chaps! It is great to see the song serving such a worthy cause.
Here are the original lyrics with the U2 changes alongside in italics:

They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite (But I believe in the Israelite)
And I believed in father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise (I saw him through his disguise)
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

Here's Greg Lake performing the song with Ian Anderson accompanying on flute around 2006.

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