The Xmas Factor: The Secret of Slade's Festive Phenomenon
As a seasonal treat we present a special muso appreciation of the classic Merry Xmas Everybody, chosen by musicradar voters as the third best christmas song of all time
Few would disagree that it is the most iconic though!
Along with Turkey, plum pudding and mince pies, Merry Xmas Everybody has been an essential Yuletide institution ever since its 1973 release. But just what is the secret to the relentless staying power of Slade's Christmas cracker (recorded, ironically, in the summer that year at the Record Plant in New York)?
Beyond the anthemic lyrics mixing a universally hopeful message ("look to the future") with colourfully quaint images (Santa, sledges, stockings, "your granny"), the music itself reveals touches of compositional genius that withstand the repeated listening that, every December, we cannot avoid.
Let's take a suitably self-indulgent tour of some of the song's harmonic, melodic and rhythmic highlights.
The Intro's Tonal Tease (0.01-0.07)
The opening bars remind us of Slade's love of descending basslines, with what appears to be a simple 8-7-6-5 drop down the Bb major scale being consistent with Cum On Feel The Noize (8-7-6 in G) and Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me (8-7-6-5 in E).
But as the bass continues to fall a further semitone to D (at 0.04), it soon transpires that the listener is being primed for a cheeky key change from Bb to the impending verse key of G. Sure enough, that hanging D chord is soon understood as the dominant V of G - with the harmonium highlighting the 3rd degree (the F# at 0.06) that acts as a leading tone by resolving an effortless semitone higher to its new tonal home of G at the start of the verse.
The Pure Pop Verse (0.08-0.23)
No huge surprises in this 8-bar section that showcases a four-chord cycle that follows a famous formula in the key of G. The sequence is an implied I-vi-iii-V, tried-and-tested on such previous pop classics as The Beatles' She Loves You (verse in G) and David Bowie's Starman (chorus in F); and lives on today in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Turn Into (C) and The Courteneers' No You Didn't, No You Don't (A).
Nevertheless, the use of the mediant iii chord (the Bm on "stocking on the") is a colourful touch, supporting a tense F# melodic pitch now in a descending context, while ensuring the progression avoids the cliché of the far more common I-vi-ii-V and I-vi-IV-V.
Notice, too, the unusual melodic rhythm of this four-bar phrase, with the first three chords crammed into two bars and the dominant D enjoying two full bars of its own. This structure, along with the cool guitar embellishments that enter in verse 2, cleverly disguise the predictability and familiarity of the sequence.
The Pre-Chorus Build Up (0.23-0.37)
Nothing special about the tilt to the subdominant C chord as the song develops IV-I-IV-I (C-G-C-G), but notice the variation on the second four-bar cycle. In particular, the ear-catching drop to the Am (on "fairies" at 0.31) before this supertonic ii chord effortlessly primes its relative major (C) in what is now a conventional (but still effective) IV-V preparation for that tense 'hanging dominant' D chord which ratchets up the anticipation for the chorus.
The Killer Chorus (0.38-0.56)
It's the power of this sing-a-long section that ultimately defines Merry Xmas: another four-chord cycle but one with a supremely novel twist. This is the brain-teasing appearance of a rogue Bb chord that emerges as a left-field bIII in the sequence I-iii-bIII-V (G-Bm-Bb-D).
That hijacked harmony is not diatonic to the key of G, and would have no place in a simple major-key pop song that typically draws exclusively from the basic harmonized major scale. The Bb chord is, as musos say, "borrowed from minor" referring to how it belongs indigenously to the Parallel Minor key (G minor) but can be plundered back into a major context to add subtly menacing texture. In this way, the Bb gives the song some extra steel and expertly ensures it straddles the pop/rock boundary for both commercial success and artistic 'credibility'.
The Descending Bass Run Revisited (0.49-0.56)
Notice how, on the second of the two four-bar chorus cycles, the same Bb is accompanied by a re-hearing of the intro's descending bass run.
Not only does this create a neat structural symmetry, but it also illustrates how canny songwriters often use a song's intro to sneak preview an unexpected harmony that will later be introduced into the main structure. It is a way of subconsciously preparing the listener for a more challenging development ahead. [One classic example is the sprawling intro to The Beatles' Here There And Everywhere where McCartney also uses a Bb chord to prime the listener, in that case for an inspired bridge modulation after a verse in G.]
Holder's Harmonization (0.38-0.44 revisited)
Irrespective of whether Noddy wrote first the chords or the melody, these two elements clearly complement each other perfectly, with the chords providing logical harmonic support for the main melodic pitches of his tune.
The following table summarizes the novelty of the melody which notably shuns the popular pitch path of an underlying 8-7-6-5 diatonic descent (of the G major scale) in favour of a cool, chromatic twist that unfolds 8-7-b7-5.
Stripped to its bare essentials, that crucial b7 (the inspired F note on "every-body's") is the killer touch that makes the tune, while the similarly harmony-defining Bb supports it as the 5th of the chord.
The Parallel Minor Bridge (1.45-1.56)
The delicate mid-song interlude is more than just a dynamic breather from the upbeat action. Having finished the chorus cycle on that dominant D, Noddy hangs onto the same root but now delivers a startlingly novel D minor chord and a mini progression that fundamentally alters the tonal atmosphere.
Semantically, the moody minor-key setting transports us to the early hours of Christmas morning, reinforced by the reappearance of that F natural note (functioning, now conventionally, as part of the diatonic D minor scale) in the melody "do if he sees your". This is harmonized by another Bb chord which is now recast as a formal bVI relative to the bridge's temporary tonality of D minor.
This Bb also cues a powerful Aeolian rock ascent: bVI-bVII-I (the classic formula for the Bb-C-D run at 1.51-1.56) as we exit the bridge and awaken from our slumbers on Christmas morning ready for a verse back in the brighter, 'daytime' key of D major.
The Leading Note Climax (3.19-3.22)
The icing on the Xmas cake is the way the melody fails to resolve as we might expect to its G tonic but instead closes quizzically on the leading note, F#, on the final note of "beg-un" (the last syllable of which is sung as three-note melisma F-D-F#). In this respect, the song shuns the songwriting theory dictating that a melody should cadence satisfyingly to its tonic (whether up a semitone, 7-to-8, or down a 3-2-1 'Three Blind Mice'-style descent).
Technically, the tune does feature a 'resolution to tonic' on each hearing of the chorus, as we climb 5-6-7-8 up the major scale ("so here it is") as each G chord reappears. And Noddy and Jim could conceivably have ended the song in melodic midstream on that phrase. But, of course, avoiding such conventional 'closure' perfectly complements the equally unresolved lyrical theme that tell us to "look to the future now it's a only just begun".
In this way both the words and the music combine to leave us with a sense of expectation, hope and challenge for the coming year.
Semantic stocking fillers
We can't finish without suggesting that the texture of the harmonium creates an innocent, almost fairground feel perfect for depicting the imagery of Santa Claus himself; while the shuffle beat of Don Powell's drums cleverly capture the canter of reindeers. Then there's Dave Hill's ballsy sus4 guitar embellishments (at 1.02) as the sleigh gets into its stride, and even some delicate cymbal tickles (at 0.38) that evoke the sound of falling icicles. And, surely, bassist Jim Lea's triadic arpeggiation of the bridge chords during that atmospheric drop in dynamics (0.46-0.53) paints St Nick carefully negotiating the rooftops as the punters slumber, oblivious to the action unfolding above.
Hang on, I think I can hear him coming down the chimney….
Dominic Pedler is a freelance writer and author of The Songwriting Secrets Of The Beatles (Omnibus Press)