Review: Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire: ‘Christmas 1979’

Billy Childish and the MBEs - Christmas 1979

[First published 23 December 2014]

Did I mention I’ve written a book about music in Medway.

‘No, Stephe,’ I hear you cry. ‘I don’t think you have. Please. Tell me more.’

Well, I’ve written a book about music in Medway. It’s called Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway and it’ll be out early in 2015.

The reason I bring this up during a series of blogs about Christmas albums is that Medway’s very own Billy Childish – along with one of his many, many bands, the Musicians of the British Empire, did a Christmas record. Christmas 1979 (2007) is as thrashy a garage Christmas album as you could ever hope to hear. Nat King Cole it most certainly ain’t.

As with most Billy Childish records, it’s a dirty sounding, warts and all collection of songs guaranteed to give you a not so silent night.

Christmas 1979 isn’t just a Billy Childish Christmas record. For those who are unfamiliar with his and his bands’ music, it’s a good introduction to some of what he’s about. I say “some”; for all the seeming similarity in much of his thrashy musical output, there are nuances which require listening to quite a few of his well over one hundred albums to fully appreciate.

But for a summary of some of the basics: his influences, themes and what he’d been up to by the time of this album’s release, it’s not a bad starting point. Plus there a jingling bells. Even Billy Childish couldn’t avoid them.

Childish and co’s Christmas outing is far from your standard festive fare – as is evident before a note of music has been played. Witness the conversation between Childish as Santa and bassist (and wife) Julie playing an excitable little girl:

Santa: Ho ho ho ho hooo! Hello little girl. What would you like for Christmas?

Little Girl: I’d like to sing ‘Santa Claus’ with my favourite group, The Sonics.

Santa: Ho! Well I’m afraid that’s no longer possible, little girl, as the lead singer was convicted of statutory rape and the were dropped from The Beatles tour and subsequently split up.

Little Girl: What!!!

Santa: Hmm. I know. Why don’t you try singing ‘Santa Claus’ with the Musicians of the British Empire?

Little Girl: Oh no!

From there on it’s a riot of glorious rough and ready garage band noise. True to Santa’s word, there’s a cover of The Sonics’ ‘Santa Claus’. There’s also a Chistmas-ified cover of The Who’s ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ under the name of ‘A Quick One (Pete Townsend’s Christmas)’.

Here the line “you are forgiven” gets Yuletide substitution for “presents will be given”. Childish had previously recreated the ‘A Quick One…’ with his previous band, The Buff Medways, just as an earlier band he was in, The Milkshakes, had covered Link Ray’s ‘Comanche’. That song too gets revisited on Christmas 1979 with the seasonal alteration of “it’s Christmas” yelled at regular intervals.

A Childish original is revisited too. The Buff Medways’ ‘Strood Lights’ turns into ‘Christmas Lights’, although the gritty, grubbiness of “Chatham fights” remains an integral part of the song.

Elsewhere there is material new for the album. But just as the various reworked songs above cover the likes of rape, street fights and having “a nap” with Santa, these remaining tracks don’t cover your usual Christmas repertoire of chestnuts, Jack Frost and Yuletide carols.

‘Knick Knack Paddywack’, complete with a borrowing of the Twilight Zone theme tune, berates the transitory nature of a season whose presents will soon be “chucked[ed]… in the bin”. And two tracks later continues the theme with a tale of Christmas on a budget (“everything’s for sale for a quid/bring a smile to your family’s Christmas/made out of plastic by an Asian kid”).

Meanwhile ‘Merry Christmas Fritz’ considers the Christmas truce of 1914 – and the futility of the war it punctuated.  It’s another chance for the band to reference World War One – something the Musicians of the British Empire and their predecessors, The Buffs, did in the form of costume choice on a regular basis.

The grizzled blues of ‘Christmas Hell’ complains about the perils of being dumped during the festive season. But it’s the final track, from which the album takes its name, that things get personal:

My father walked in pissed through the door
and chucked the telly across the floor
then he fell drunk to his bed
and these were the last words that he said:

“Merry fucking Christmas to you all”.

It’s not your standard Christmas album. But what did you expect? It’s Billy Childish.

You can buy the Christmas 1979 on Amazon or iTunes.

For more Christmas themed reading, have a look at these other reviews:
Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart
Smoke Fairies: Wild Winter
A Medway Christmas Alphabet

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