I Believe In Father Christmas
As you probably know, this was U2's contribution to the (RED)WIRE music launch party on World Aids Day (1st December), and it's a cover of Greg Lake's 1975 hit. If nothing else, you'll want to see Larry not-so-merrily jingling his bells in the video. Priceless!
I'll admit, this song has never really been among my favourites, even though I love hearing all the old Christmas hits every year. (And Greg Lake is a local boy - born in my hometown, Poole!) If I had been able to choose a Christmas song for U2 to cover, I think maybe 2000 Miles by The Pretenders would have suited them quite well. But at least this has given me a reason to pay more attention to the song than I ever have before... and the more I listen, the more I like it.
I Believe In Father Christmas was a UK #2 hit in 1975, written to protest against the commercialisation of Christmas. As Lake (of ELP fame) puts it, the song makes "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". You can find more information at Songfacts, Wikipedia, and via a brief interview clip on Greg Lake's website; there's also an article about the song here. YouTube has a behind-the-scenes interview with both Lake and his co-writer Pete Sinfield, who adds: "I wanted it to be about the sadness of, as a child, discovering everything isn't quite what you think it to be."
You can watch the original song on YouTube here. The video shows peaceful desert scenes which eventually give way to images of the Vietnam War - quite a striking reminder that we haven't yet achieved "peace on Earth", no matter how much we might like to pretend at this time of year.
U2's cover appeared as part of (RED)WIRE, a new "digital music magazine" from Bono's (RED) organisation. (You receive exclusive tracks every week, while half of your subscription fee goes toward medicine for Africans living with HIV.) And here it is for your viewing pleasure:
Let's see. We set the mood with the band in a darkened studio - just a few stage lamps glowing in the background, and at first Edge is the only person doing anything (playing the song's delicate guitar intro). Bono is actually standing there with his hands in his pockets, which makes him look incredibly bored - I have to say that doesn't exactly draw me into the performance very well! When he sings, it's in rather hushed tones, and he seems pretty serious for the most part. I realise the song has a serious point to make, but I do wish he'd been a bit more *into* it, you know? The nicest moments are when he smiles a little (0:47, 1:42, 3:10).
By the end of Bono's opening lines, you can see the smoke machine busily puffing away, which adds a bit of atmosphere to the scene - I like the smoky glow behind Edge's head as he plays. Adam meanwhile is sat there doing absolutely bugger-all, LOL! At least he seems to be chilling out happily. During the instrumental break after the first verse, we suddenly discover there are strings of Christmassy lightbulbs all over the floor, which *almost* seem to be flashing to the rhythm of Edge's guitar riff. A particularly lovely touch, I think! (That melody was written by the Russian composer Prokofiev, FYI...)
Larry has now woken up and is probably the grumpiest person you've ever seen shaking a set of sleighbells. "I'm a world famous rock drummer, how have I been reduced to this?" is plainly written all over his face - he genuinely looks like he's plotting to kill someone. As Larry moments go, this is definitely one of the most hilarious! :D
Adam still doesn't appear to be doing anything.
Once into the second verse, I can simply quote from the Happy Xmas (War Is Over) SOTD: "And of course, Larry + tambourine = yay! :D" He looks slightly less homicidal now. And ZOMG, Adam is actually doing something! Although, not all that much, to be fair. *g* It's not exactly the most challenging bassline he's ever had to tackle...
As we go into the last verse, Larry finally gets to do some proper drumming. Which does make things a bit more dramatic, although I kind of miss the swirling orchestra from the original recording - this just isn't quite as powerful, IMHO. Bono does step up a gear with his vocals, belting out "I wish you a hopeful Christmas / I wish you a brave New Year / All anguish, pain and sadness / Leave your heart, let your road be clear" far more passionately than the earlier verses. It works, but again I wish he looked a bit more happy and, well, hopeful! I'm not sure about the way he alters the melody on the next bit either, but maybe I'm being too picky. It's cute how he sings along with the guitar outro, reminds me a bit of when he la-da-da's all over New Year's Day or UTEOTW, which I always love.
This video marks the first appearance of Bono inexplicably wearing eyeliner. You either love it or hate it... or hope Bono hasn't quite finished raiding the make-up bag.....
Anyway, the song!
Bono makes a few subtle changes to the original lyrics, as discussed here. Firstly, where Greg Lake sang "But instead it just kept on raining", Bono sings "it just keeps on raining" - perhaps to emphasise that the problem still hasn't gone away. Later he alters a couple of lines in the second verse: "They told me a fairy story / 'Til I believed in the Israelite" becomes "They sold me a fairy story / But I believe in the Israelite". (A lot of people have interpreted the original song as being anti-religious because of that lyric, so maybe Bono wanted to make his position slightly clearer!) And then there's the part that goes "I believed in Father Christmas / I looked to the sky with excited eyes / Then I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn / And I saw him and through his disguise". This could refer to a child catching his parent in the Santa Claus act, or be read as a metaphor for growing up and losing the magic of Christmas as you begin to notice how commercial it is. Bono seems to provide a slightly less cynical take on it, though - he instead sings "'Til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn / And saw Him through His disguise". Suddenly that isn't quite the same sentence, it's more like he hung onto the magic and thus came to see the true meaning behind it all. Looking for the baby Jesus under the trash. You'll notice how Bono sings that particular line with a knowing smile, as if to let us know that the lyric change was no accident. :)
The staff on the @U2 blog actually managed to get some feedback from Greg Lake himself, who amazingly knew nothing about the U2 cover until someone emailed him the YouTube link! You can read his very positive response in full here. He reckons it's one of those rare covers where "someone has the ability to come up with an original interpretation which they somehow manage to make their own". In fact he's full of praise for their skill in doing this:
Ultimately, why did U2 choose to cover this particular song, over any other Christmas hit? Knowing them, it's because of the message it delivers. Greg Lake said this on his website: "It was really about, you know, objecting to the commerciality of Christmas, and... trying to sort of remind people, basically, that 'the Christmas you get you deserve'. It's all about giving, and... it's the joy of giving. And... that was the real intention behind the song." What better choice, then, for a charity record that will help to save lives in another part of the world?
"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."
They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'd be peace on Earth
But instead it just keeps on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin birth
I remember on Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell, that Christmas tree smell
And eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
They sold me a fairy story
But I believe in the Israelite
I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And 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, let your road be clear
They said there'd 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
You can still get this song officially if you subscribe to (RED)WIRE by 28th December, so I'm not gonna go against the spirit of the thing by uploading it here. The video originally appeared as an exclusive on MSN where you can also view songs by other artists who took part in the launch party.
A very Merry Christmas to everyone in u2! :)