This is the 85th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In 1973, English band Slade was one of the most popular bands in its home country. “Cum On Feel The Noize” was the first single to enter the British charts at Number 1 since The Beatles’ “Get Back,” and was the seventh single in history to do so. A few months later, the band repeated that feat with “Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me.” The record company pushed the band for a December single in the hopes the band could have a third single enter the charts at the top spot. Noddy Holder and Jim Lea, the band’s two main songwriters, felt pressure to make that third single irresistibly good.
Holder and Lea decided the song should be Christmas-themed, so in the summer of 1973, they began crafting the song. Lea took a melody that Holder had written a few years earlier and combined it with a song he had been working on at the time. The lyrics were left to Holder, who wrote the song at his mother’s house one night after a drunken night at a pub. By 7 a.m., he had written the song that would become “Merry Xmas Everybody.” As he told The Daily Mail:
We’d decided to write a Christmas song and I wanted to make it reflect a British family Christmas… Economically, the country was up the creek. The miners had been on strike, along with the grave-diggers, the bakers and almost everybody else. I think people wanted something to cheer them up – and so did I… That’s why I came up with the line “Look to the future now/It’s only just begun.”
Slade recorded the song in the late summer at Record Plant studios in New York while on tour. The song took five days, which was considerably longer than most Slade recording sessions. Unsatisfied with the result, the band members decided to re-record the song, this time in a stairwell in the studio.
“Merry Xmas Everybody” sold 500,000 pre-ordered copies, such that the band was presented with a silver disc the single was even released. Upon release, the song sold another 350,000 copies. To meet demand, Polydor used its pressing plants in England and France to print more copies. It became the band’s third single to debut on the British charts at Number 1. It was also the band’s final single to reach Number 1.
But “Merry Xmas Everybody” has a greater significance beyond its status in the Slade catalog. Around the same time, fellow English glam band Wizzard released “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday.” In the days leading up to Christmas, UK music writers and record executives played up a competition as to which of the two songs would be Number 1 the week of Christmas. Slade got that honor, with “Merry Xmas Everybody” remaining on the charts well into 1974. From that year on, UK music writers and record executives cast the quest for the Number 1 single the week of Christmas as a must-watch horse race.
Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” has returned to the UK singles chart at least eight times, but its status as a modern classic has inspired several artists to pay tribute.
The Metal Gurus was a glam rock tribute band and a side project members of the UK band, The Mission: Craig Adams, Mick Brown, Simon Hinkler, and Wayne Hussey. In 1990, the band released a cover of “Merry Xmas Everybody” produced by Slade’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea. It sounded less like a cover and more like just an update of the Slade version. Which it more or less was.
In 1994, Kim McAuliffe of all-female British heavy metal band Girlschool contributed a “Merry Xmas Everybody” cover for the compilation, “Metal Christmas.” Just like Stephen Pearcy’s cover of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” McAuliffe’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” was as much a tribute to ’80s metal as it was to the source material. But based on this version, I would not want to mess with McAuliffe, who sounded possessed.
German punk band Die Roten Rosen covered “Merry Xmas Everybody” in 1998 for its Christmas album, “Wir warten auf’s Christkind.” The cover kept the pacing of the original, though it was a little heavier and sounded like a drinking song. Which is certainly not a bad thing for a cover of a Slade song to sound like.
The Spice Girls played “Merry Xmas Everybody” live during at least one concert. Rather than try to recast it in the group’s style, the members sang it pretty faithfully to the original. In the recording, it’s easy to picture this as not as a cover, but rather one big sing-along among the Spice Girls and thousands of their fans.
British dance-pop group Steps recorded a version of “Merry Xmas Everybody” for the 2000 holiday compilation, “Platinum Christmas.” From the first note, he sugary, polished version sounded sanitized compared to the trippy, gritty version by Slade. And that was before the autotuned vocals appeared.
Oasis covered “Merry Xmas Everybody” in 2002 for a charity album, having previously covered Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize.” The acoustic version sounded subdued not just for the song, but for Oasis as well. One can listen to it and picture sitting around with the band just hanging out. If any of the Oasis members were that down to Earth, that is.
A recurring joke on the TV show “The O.C.” was the mashed-up holiday of Chrismukkah, created by Seth Cohen to recognize his mixed heritage. The show made it a point to include modern and up-and-coming artists, both on the show and its soundtracks. On the third installment of the “Music From the O.C.” series, Rooney performed a sunny “Merry Xmas Everybody” that sounded every bit as Californian as Slade’s version had sounded British.
UK pop group Girls Aloud included “Merry Xmas Everybody” on the bonus version of the group’s 2005 album, “Chemistry.” Like the version by Steps, it was polished and dance-y in the vein of 21st century UK pop radio. But unlike the Steps version, which sounded almost robotic, the Girls Aloud cover kept some of the same humanity that the original by Slade had.
English singer Tony Christie’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” cover comes off as an earnest big band number of the likes satirized by Richard Cheese, but when watching the video, it seems obvious that no one was more in on the joke than Christie himself.
R.E.M.’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” was catchy from the first note, as one can picture Michael Stipe bopping his head as he was singing. Just listen and try not to picture him in a Santa hat.
You pictured it, didn’t you? How could you not? He sounded so jolly (on a jolly scale calibrated for Michael Stipe’s moods.)
In 2010, former Generation X guitarist Derwood Andrews released a covers album appropriately called “Cover Yer Arse.” On “Merry Xmas Everybody,” Andrews’ slow acoustic playing sounded like a wind-up, as if he were getting ready to start rocking out any minute. But over a span of nearly four minutes, he kept that same pace, as if he were just playing around on his guitar during a tune-up.
As lead singer of Heaven 17, Glenn Gregory sang on some iconic synthpop songs, which is why it’s so weird to hear his acoustic version of “Merry Xmas Everybody.” But as an American who loves British things, I couldn’t help but think of how British this was: a singer from a band that had limited success in the US covering a band that had less visibility here, performing a beloved UK holiday song that most people over here probably don’t know.
Novelty/folk band The Wurzels covered “Merry Xmas Everybody” for “Holy Cow! It’s The Wurzels Christmas Album.” The band dates back to the ’60s, though more recently, The Wurzels have been know for quirky covers of British songs. Like the Glenn Gregory cover, this version felt distinctively British.
If the covers by Glenn Gregory and The Wurzels were both quintessentially British, then this next one is quintessentially Canadian. It comes from Sloan, a band that Stephen Thomas Erlewine described as “one of the most successful Canadian bands of the ’90s, which was both a blessing and a curse.” Beloved in Canada, Sloan had trouble getting a huge audience in other countries. That’s a shame, because the band’s power pop is some of the catchiest music to come out of Canada. Sloan’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” pays homage to the original by Slade while also sounding Beatles-esque.
English band Pulled Apart by Horses sped up the song for a faster, punk-flavored “Merry Xmas Everybody” in 2014. It’s poppy and catchy, but I caution calling this cover “pop punk,” because it lacks the emo brattiness that a lot of pop punk covers have. This cover’s brattiness is much more confident, as the band changed “Everybody’s having fun” to “Everybody’s getting drunk.”
In 2015, Train released its first Christmas album, “Christmas In Tahoe.” Released exclusively through Amazon Music, the album featured original songs, as well as covers of “Merry Xmas Everybody” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
“Punk Rock Christmas” was a compilation album released by Cleopatra Records, featuring covers of popular Christmas songs. The line-up is a random mish-mash, as it included Iggy Pop, Smash Mouth, Anti-Nowhere League, and Reel Big Fish. The Vibrators’ cover of “Merry Xmas Everybody” sounded like a sing-along at a pub. Which very well could be the case.
Cheap Trick covered “Merry Xmas Everybody” for its 2017 album, “Christmas Christmas.” It was a fine cover, and it was obvious the band was having fun while recording it, but that song was overshadowed by the bizarre and borderline-silly cover of The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).”
English singer-songwriter James Blunt performed “Merry Xmas Everybody” live in the Radio 2 Piano Room in November 2017. The bare performance, stripped of pounding drums and crunchy guitars, allowed the lyrics to stand out. In other versions, references to Granny and Santa seemed silly, but here, they sounded sweet and earnest.
As an American who had limited exposure to Slade and to this song, what stuck out to me about these covers is how many of them there were. The sheer number of covers — most of which were by British musicians — demonstrated to me how important this song must be to British pop culture and the Christmas season.
Lyrically, the song was not traditional Christmas fare:
Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?
So here it is, Merry Christmas
Everybody’s having fun
Look to the future now
It’s only just begun
Are you waiting for the family to arrive?
Are you sure you got the room to spare inside?
Does your granny always tell ya
That the old songs are the best?
Then she’s up and rock and rollin’ with the rest
In my head, I picture British schoolkids knowing the song well enough to sing this song while caroling.
That’s weird, sure, but no weirder than American kids growing up knowing all the lyrics to “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”