Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Sizzling summer... it must be time for the Christmas single

Martin Newell

Martin Newell - Credit: Andrew Partridge

During this hot summmer weather, eagle-eared readers may recall that last week I mentioned rushing home to finish my recording of a Christmas song which I was late delivering. I’d just like to clarify that at the time, the song was late for next Christmas and not last Christmas. Christmas songs are very often written and recorded during high summer.

The classic 1973 hits by Slade and Wizzard, for example, were recorded in July and August, respectively. Welcome to the strange world of your Essex correspondent. This particular part of it began with a rather pleasant cycle ride through the Essex by-ways and ended with me deciding that since I’d mislaid my sleighbells, some heavily reverbed windbells would have to suffice.

Even a keen “studio rat” such as I, will tell you that there are lovelier things to do than being shut in an airless room all day in the middle of a heatwave trying to work up a Christmas atmosphere. But then, I like Christmas songs and I’ve never been known to turn down the chance of recording one. I’ve yet to have a Christmas hit, although we got pretty close in 2003, when Captain Sensible, myself and a bunch of other old miscreants released “Ere’s Your Xmas” a charity punk disc with rather more ramalama than ding-dong.

The video, produced by Sophie Ellis’s dad Robin Bextor, featured the glamour model Jo Guest, some Page 3 “stunnas”, and Nasty Nick from Big Brother. It really should have been a hit. My mum was rather thrilled to see it on breakfast TV anyway.

Back then, we laughed about our chances of having a hit but the winning Christmas number one that year was, mystifyingly, an utterly cheerless rendition of the old Tears for Fears hit, Mad World. Tricky customer, Johnny Chart-Success.

The Christmas song which I was slaving on last week is now finished and despatched to the States. It’s to appear on a charity compilation CD. Musicians and songwriters are forever being asked for such contributions. We don’t question it. We just do it. It all goes in the karma bank.

It’s worth noting here that plumbers, roofers and accountants are rarely subjected to such requests. I just thought that I’d bung that gem in for you, there. Considered it? Good. Let’s move on.

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The Christmas album concept is much more common in the States than it is in the UK – as is enthusiasm. It’s a cliché but the Yanks really are a lot more “can do” than we are. My American correspondent there is called Ray and lives in the state of New Jersey.

Ray whose record label Koolkat, specialises in re-releases of rather esoteric old pop records, including some of mine, asked various of his artistes if they’d be willing to contribute a track to a Christmas charity album. Still suffused in the fuzzy Pickwickian afterglow of Christmas, I agreed, taking the idea down and storing it away with the decorations.

In June, the official reminder arrived, with a deadline. What was once a speck on the horizon was now a great looming ocean liner. I sat down at the piano. Then I made a cup of coffee. Then I went to the laptop and looked up Marmion, a half-forgotten Walter Scott epic. That led me for some reason onto 15 minutes of watching old Ronettes videos on YouTube. Then I went over to the guitar and ended up trying to work out how Keith Richards played the riff for Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Then I went back to the piano. Then I went for a bike ride. Then finally, I just sat down and wrote the thing. Because that’s what you do. It’s work.

The finished tune has a pentatonic scale, the sort of thing that liturgical songwriters used before the black keys on the piano were invented. My tune’s ancestry lies somewhere between God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and No Milk Today I suppose. Over the next few days I began recording bits and pieces. This, however was only the cake. Christmas songs are all about the icing and the decorations.

So that’s how I ended up in blazing July, curtains drawn, sitting trying to blend a “mystic Xmas wind” from my sound effects file with some wind-chimes. This was just one of many jobs to be done. At the end of day 2, I concluded that the song was OK but not quite “magical” yet.

I’m a bit of a garden-shed George Martin, I am, so on day 3 with sleeves rolled up, I went back in and concluded that we desperately needed an electric organ. I exhumed a faulty 35-year-old DX27 synthesiser from under my bed and found exactly what I was looking for; a vintage “club organ” sound. Drenched in echo it was perfect. Now we had Christmas. We really did.

As I opened the sash window to allow the air in, as if by magic, the sky clouded over, a cool wind began to blow and there were spots of rain in the air. This was a good omen. Someone up there seemed, half-heartedly at least, to be lending me a hand.

I mailed the final mix off to Ray. “I LOVE IT” he shouted back in his email. I poured a small brandy, wiped my brow with my forearm and whispered “Merry Christmas, Yoko” to myself.