Updated December, 2016
Probably the most played (or some Scrooges say overplayed) Slade record ever, 'Merry Xmas Everybody' has become a much-loved classic and still as popular today as it was when first issued for Christmas in 1973. Many don't know the unlikely story of this famous song and how it originated during the so-called "Summer of Love" way back in 1967.
No West Midlands band formed outside of Birmingham during the 1960s achieved the success and popularity of Wolverhampton-based Slade who topped the record charts an incredible six times! Their rough working-class image gained them many fans and they became like the 'house band' on the influential "Top Of The Pops" TV show during the first half of the 1970s.
Although known locally for some time throughout Birmingham and the "Black Country", the band that became Slade were not an overnight success as the line-up had already been going for several years before they had their first hit record in 1971. The famous line-up of Slade was of course lead vocalist and guitarist Noddy Holder, bass guitarist Jim Lea, lead guitarist Dave Hill, and drummer Don Powell. The group's origins can be traced back to the early 1960s when they were known as "The Vendors", then The 'N Betweens, and finally Ambrose Slade at the time of their discovery by Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler.
'Merry Xmas Everybody' was not characteristic of Slade's previous hit records like 'Mama Weer All Crazee Now' or 'Cum On Feel The Noize' that were rowdy party rock numbers featuring Noddy's famous tonsil-shredding vocal and foot-stomping choruses sounding like crowds at a football match. Jim Lea said the idea for a Christmas song came from his Mother-in-law who told him he should compose "something nice" that would become a classic and could be played every year like 'Happy Birthday'.
Noddy Holder says; "It was actually the first tune I had ever tried writing on my own. I came up with it when we were going through our 'hippy' phase." The phase in question was in 1967 when Slade were known as The 'N Betweens. Everyone was trying to be clever like The Beatles with their influential "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" LP.
Also at this time, new groups like The Pink Floyd, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic, and The Move were having hit records and inspiring a new generation of songwriters. "Flower power" ruled and everything was "far out man" and "groovy!"
"I did think it was a good song but we weren't recording our own material back then, so I had never done anything with it" said Noddy. "We ended up using the chorus and the middle-eight of the song. The chorus was quite 'psychedelic'. The original lyric was; So won't you buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by, buy me a looking-glass to look me in the eye, eye, eye..."
Jim Lea was the only "real musician" in the group who could actually read music. He recalled; "The tune for 'Merry Christmas' came to me in the bathroom while having a shower in Memphis. I wrote the verse and put it to an old song of Nod's... a thing called 'Buy Me A Rocking Chair' that he wrote in 1967." Jim had initially tried writing a Bob Dylan inspired song but ended up using it as the foundation for Merry Xmas Everybody after remembering Noddy's catchy chorus from the 1960s.
Noddy Holder and Jim Lea sat down together with their acoustic guitars to work out the arrangement for the song. Noddy; "The verse part was not commercial enough - at least not the way we remembered it - so Jim came up with an alternative. He took a verse from another song he was writing and slotted it in. Jim was a good musician. He could come up with good melody lines and retain them for months. We'd often chop and change parts and jumble them around until finally they fitted together."
"By the time we'd finished messing around with my old 1960s song, we knew we were onto a winner. It was exactly what we had been looking for - a very commercial tune with a big hook, but not too heavily rock. It had to be more pop than rock if it was to capture the traditional spirit of Christmas."
Noddy Holder then wrote the lyrics to the song while sitting in his old bedroom at his mom and dad's house near Walsall. He'd spent an enjoyable evening at his favorite local "The Trumpet" pub in Bilston and didn't feel like driving home to his own recently-purchased house in Sutton Coldfield. "I was probably too pissed to drive anyway" said Noddy.
"I began by jotting down a list of things that people associate with Christmas. I wanted it to be about a working-class Christmas, not your picture book snowflakes and jingle-bells job. I wrote reindeer, Father Xmas, hanging up stockings, your grannies and aunties coming round for tea. Then I started on the chorus. As soon as I got down the line 'So here it is merry Christmas everybody's having fun' I was off."
The rest of the words came quickly. For the verse Noddy said; "I wrote 'Are you hanging up your stockings on the wall, it's the time that every Santa has a ball' I kept looking at my list and swopping all the Christmas references around. The last thing was the middle-eight and came up with 'What will your daddy do when he sees your mama kissing Santa Clause?' That was it. It was 7am and I had finished. It was a very lucrative night indeed!"
When Noddy and Jim played their completed Christmas song to the rest of the band - Dave, Don, and their manager/producer Chas Chandler - they all loved it and were sure it was going to be a huge hit. Said Noddy; "We were almost certain it would go to Number One but we never imagined it would still be going strong years later. Nor could I have guessed that the very first song I had ever written would be the song we were to become most famous for."
The actual recording of Merry Xmas Everybody was done during the hot summer of 1973 in America. Slade were booked on a tour of the U.S.A. and there was no time to make a record before they left. Noddy explained; "We had put down a rough track of it in London when Don was still recuperating but that was all." (drummer Don Powell was almost killed in a car crash that left him with permanent brain damage).
During a break in the tour, Slade were in New York City and decided to record Merry Xmas Everybody at the famous 'Record Plant' recording studio. "It was the weirdest place" said Noddy. "It was in a skyscraper building, but not a record company, just a normal office block."
Recording at the Record Plant was an experience that Jim Lea will never forget. He said; "John Lennon was doing his 'Mind Games' album there at the same time. So I was using the same piano that Lennon was. It was an odd feeling."
It was to take longer than any previous Slade recording session. "It took about five days" said Noddy. They were used to recording as in a "live" situation with all the group members playing at the same time and adding maybe a few overdubs later to finish off. However, they were not satisfied with the results when they tried doing this for Merry Xmas Everybody.
Noddy said; "It sounded too cluttered. We stripped it back down to the bare bones and re-arranged it. Then we recorded it in a totally different way to how we usually worked. We layered (multi-tracked) all the different parts starting with the drums, then the bass, then the guitars and so on until we finished with the vocals."
Something was still missing. The group decided to complete the recording by adding their own Slade "stamp" of authenticity with rowdy all-join-in singing for the chorus and Noddy yelling his famous line "IT'S CHRISTMAS!!!" Noddy said; "The studio wasn't echoey enough so we all went out into the corridor outside. We ran the mic leads right out onto the public staircase."
"It was a steaming hot day. To get the sound we wanted, we did some recording from the corridor and we were singing Merry Christmas in the middle of a sweltering summer. The Americans hanging about were staring at us and thinking 'Mad fuckin' Englishmen' ...it must have seemed pretty stupid to them!"
Slade had stiff competition from another Christmas record that year as Roy Wood's 'Wizzard' were in the charts with their brilliant 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' that eventually peaked at Number Four. Wizzard were also from the West Midlands thus making 1973 a very Brummie Christmas on the radio and television. Both bands knew each other from way back as during the 1960s, Slade (then The 'N Betweens) played the same gig circuit as The Move and of course they met regularly on Top Of The Pops.
1973 had been a dismal year in the UK with strikes, power cuts, and record unemployment. Everyone needed cheering up so Merry Xmas Everybody was very well received. Slade's Christmas record was issued as a single (with the raucous 'Don't Blame Me' on the B-side) and entered the record charts straight into the Number One position in December 1973.
Noddy said; "It had 500,000 pre-orders which was phenomenal for those days. By the time Christmas came it had sold more than a million copies. It was the fastest selling single in the UK up to that point!"
The record continued to sell in quantity even after the Christmas season was over. It was to become a staple always played on the radio in the UK at that time of year while regularly voted as one of the best Christmas records of all time. Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody is featured on many Christmas album compilations and to this day still re-enters the record charts during the holiday season.
Slade would go on to have more hit records but they would never again quite manage the level of success associated with their unforgettable seasonal hit. Noddy Holder; "Like all bands at the top we thought our success would last forever. It wasn't that we suddenly fell out of favor. But we never reached the heights of 'Merry Xmas Everybody' again."
Sources: the books 'The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles' 5th edition 1985; 'Slade' by George Tremlett 1975; 'Feel The Noise' by Chris Charlesworth 1984; 'Who's Crazee Now?' official autobiography by Noddy Holder 1999.
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