The annual dash for number one at Christmas refers to singles and thus excludes the vast majority of prog. In recent years it’s been the preserve of manufactured pop and a small cohort of individuals who are totally opposed to the stranglehold of karaoke product generated by cheap TV and who nominate an alternative song by a genuine band (such as AC/DC with Highway to Hell), or a charity single (the Justice Collective’s Hillsborough Tribute in 2012.)
Prog bands shifted millions of albums and until the rise of rampant consumerism began to affect the music business. There was no real need to release singles because touring was sufficient to promote material aimed at a more mature and more discerning audience, the university circuit. The rise of album-oriented radio stations was also important and this was my major source of exposure until I was old enough to go to see bands at Lancaster Uni or Preston Poly.
When I first started to listen to music, glam was dominating the singles charts and Christmas was no exception, allowing protagonists to wear baubles as earrings. The first successful prog Christmas single was Greg Lake’s I believe in Father Christmas which reached number 2 in 1975. At the time of release this was not featured on any album and though put out under Lake’s name alone, this was the product of the Brain Salad Surgery-era ELP who at the time were at the height of their career, with lyrics penned by Peter Sinfield and an archetypal ELP formula, borrowing from the classics; in this instance the Troika section of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije. This was not your run-of-the-mill Christmas hit, about partying or being sentimentally religious, having far more in common with the John and Yoko Plastic Ono Band’s Happy Xmas (War is Over). Like the Lennon single, there is a suggestion that I believe in Father Christmas is an anti-war song, supported by the images of bombs being dropped and rockets launched that feature in the video, though Lake claims that he wrote the song as a reaction to the commercialisation of Christmas on his official website. Sinfield appears to back the impression given by his lyrics that it’s about loss of innocence, which in turn fits in with the video. I’m not a great lover of Lake’s solo acoustic output but the Emerson contribution aligns it more with Lucky Man than say, Lend Your Love To Me Tonight, and I grudgingly like the song.
Folk is classified by referencing early tradition. Steeleye Span, if you’ll allow me to classify them as prog-folk, released Gaudete in 1973 and it reached number 14 in the UK charts. Sung entirely in Latin, Gaudete, which simply means ‘rejoice’, was first published in Piae Cantiones from the late 16th century. Mike Oldfield released an instrumental version of In Dulci Jubilo in 1975 with On Horseback, the postscript to Ommadawn, on the B side. This was in keeping with Oldfield’s output at the time because Ommadawn was much more folk-inflected than either Tubular Bells or Hergest Ridge and incorporated guest artists on traditional instruments.
During Jethro Tull’s prog-folk phase, comprising of a loose trilogy beginning with Songs from the Wood, there are specific references to pre-Christian traditions including the winter solstice, Beltane and the Kelpie. Ring Out Solstice Bells was released as an EP in December 1976 and included Christmas Song from Living in the Past. Tull later released The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003), a compilation that included A Christmas Song, Ring Out Solstice Bells, Weathercock (from Heavy Horses), Fire at Midnight (Songs from the Wood) and Bourée (Stand Up.)
It seems strange to think of Yes as band that dabbles in Christmas music but they have considerable form in this field. Rick Wakeman’s Christmas Variations (2000) isn’t too much of a surprise because of his Christian faith and his new-age output. Jon Anderson’s 3 Ships is much more shocking. When I first heard about this release I assumed it was a story along the lines of Olias of Sunhillow or Arriving UFO. That it was a collection of traditional carols interspersed with Anderson’s blend of spirituality quite stunned me. It’s not an album I have in my collection.
The Chris Squire and Alan White single Run with the Fox is a genuine prog Christmas single, released in 1981, sometime after the demise of the Drama-era Yes. The lyrics were penned by Peter Sinfield and the flute-like keyboard gives it something of a Jethro Tull flavour though the melody line reminds me of Miracle of Life from Union (even though that was written by Trevor Rabin.) Squire’s vocals are strong and the song moves at a good pace, as though the fox genuinely has to run for its life. I like to think that the song is sympathetic towards the (hunted) fox because I’m something of a vulpophile. This track was later included on Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir album (2007.)
Chris Squire’s musical background was in a church choir. It is acknowledged that the genre owes a debt to church music, so though prog is more spiritual than simply religious, perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that bands should indulge in Christmas albums or music inspired by pre-Christian myth associated with year’s end and rebirth. But Christmas singles? Anything is better than cover-versions of old songs by short-lived, manufactured pop stars.