40 Years Ago: The Kinks Get Deceptively Festive on 'Father Christmas'

The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” which was released as a single on November 25, 1977, is a rather unlikely holiday song.

For starters, the song’s premise is anything but festive. The protagonist is in front of a department store portraying Father Christmas—a.k.a. what Santa Claus is known as in the U.K.—and is mugged by a gang of hooligans demanding money. “Don’t mess around with those silly toys,” the thieves cry. “We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over / We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed / Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”

As the last lyric underscores, “Father Christmas” is actually a not-so-veiled commentary on class warfare. The ruffians are cynical toward the jolly elf, as they assume he’s posh (“But remember the kids who got nothing / While you’re drinking down your wine”) and have ulterior motives for wanting coin: “Give my daddy a job ’cause he needs one / He’s got lots of mouths to feed.” In a further example of scrappy, every-kid-for-himself, they add, “But if you’ve got one I’ll have a machine gun / So I can scare all the kids on the street.”

In contrast to the sly lyrics, the music on the Ray Davies-written single – which came together during late 1977 sessions for the following year’s Misfits LP – is rather festive. The band slashes out wind-milling, pub-pop guitar chords, which match Davies’ ragged vocals and nervy delivery; these elements, in turn, provide rugged contrast to the merriment-inducing sleigh bells and twinkling percussion.

Although “Father Christmas” is undeniably catchy and hook-laden, reaction to the song was mixed at the time. NME reviewed the single and wrote, “Successful Xmas songs are more about mood than specifics, but as this is an anti-Christmas song, it’s fine.” (The writer apparently was not a fan of the sleigh bells in the arrangement, however: “How the mighty have fallen,” they wrote.) According to a 1977 profile in The Guardian, the BBC also wasn’t giving much love to “Father Christmas,” which rankled Ray Davies. “It seems all right for the New Wave bands to say something,” he said, “but if you’ve been around you get pounced on.”

The ever-mercurial songwriter even found his fun stymied when he tried to perform the song live on the Kinks’ late 1977 tour dates. “When the record came out we were on tour with a very successful band at the time supporting them,” Ray Davies once told the California radio station KSWD. “I went on dressed as Santa at the end of the show to do ‘Father Christmas.’ And the other band found it hard to follow us.

“The following night, with the same band, I went to run on but there was a bunch of heavies preventing me from running on stage,” he added. “And I was protesting. But the people said, ‘The Kinks didn’t do an encore but Santa Claus was there and they were stopping him from going on stage.'” (Davies didn’t specify the tour mate, but according to The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night, the band did a North American tour during the 1977 holiday season that included headlining college shows and several larger-venue shows opening for Hall & Oates.)

Despite the polarizing response, “Father Christmas” has become a seasonal standard. Cheap Trick included a cover on their recent holiday album, Christmas Christmas, while OK Go and Warrant have also reinterpreted it.

 

 

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