A Christmas mystery

As holiday season ramps up, we’ll be hearing more and more Christmas songs—on the radio and TV, in stores, and even out on the streets in some shopping districts. And the perennial question will make its way onto everyone’s lips; why is Paul McCartney’s Christmas song such a piece of shit?

Part of it, of course, is the instrumentation. Like the cheesy keyboard in Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”—the sound that launched a thousand Holiday Inn lounge acts—the synthesizer in “Wonderful Christmastime” hasn’t worn well.

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But while Stevie rises above the instant cliché of his keyboard, Paul wallows in his. Instead of working out an actual melody to the song, he just bounces from one half-formed idea to another, hoping for the same alchemical magic that fused together the pastiche on the second side of Abbey Road. The difference is that the raw materials on Abbey Road were good.

I confess there is one good part in “Wonderful Christmastime,” and I suspect it’s what inspired Paul to write the rest of the song. The first four notes of the chorus, “Sim-ply ha-ving,” are great. Even the resolution in the rest of the line is OK, although it doesn’t live up to those first four notes.

The lyrics are awful. Rock criticism puts too much emphasis on words—a natural consequence, I suppose, of critics being writers—but these are especially bad. They’re the kind of placeholder lyrics you’d expect in a song that’s still having its melody and arrangement figured out. Since there’s no melody and—apart from Denny Laine’s short guitar break—no arrangement, you’d think Paul would have had plenty of time to come up with something better than

The party’s on, the feeling’s here,
That only comes this time of year.

Let’s not even mention the “ding dong” part.

The most frustrating thing about “Wonderful Christmastime” is that Paul McCartney is exactly the person you’d choose to write a pop/rock Christmas song. He can be bouncy, he can be sentimental, he can take ideas from earlier music and make them fresh. Everything he’d done up to 1979 would lead you to believe that his Christmas song would be the late 20th century standard, a “White Christmas” for the post-Elvis years. Instead, we get this half-assed dreck.

The problem with a lot of Paul’s post-Beatles work is the awe others have for his great musical talent. If his own inner editor fails him, there’s no one around to tell him he needs to work harder on a piece.

Oddly, one of the few people who could tell him that, a guy you’d think had no business writing a Christmas song, wrote one that’s much better.

Yes, this song has more chord progression than it has melody, and the “without any fear” lyric is a wince-inducing holdover from John’s primal scream days, but it works. Chord progressions are what you want in an anthem (think the “Listening To You” section of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at the end of Tommy), and the seasonal cliches are set against original lyrics.

Even Yoko’s voice is used well. Can you hear the song in your head without her voice over the top of the Harlem Community Choir? No, of course you can’t.

I suppose I should include the whole McCartney song, even though it’s not fair to him.

If you listen to this all the way through, you may find the chorus stuck in your head for hours. That doesn’t mean it’s a good song; it just means Paul can write a catchy line, even when he’s at his worst.