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How many times have you heard Last Christmas by Wham! ringing out from radios and supermarket’s speakers? Like it or not, every winter – for almost forty years – George Michael’s catchphrase invites us to give our heart to someone special… If you think it’s a product assembled by some diabolical commercial mind, you’re very wrong: Last Christmas was a genuine DIY production and for this reason I thought to extract from it four exemplary tips – or good practices.
- Latest fashion technologies are not essential to create a success
Last Christmas has been recorded at the Advision Studio, cradle of some masterpieces by Queen, David Bowie, Soft Machine and Yardbirds; unfortunately, in the days of George Michael the glories of the studio had given way to the dust of rudimentary and dated technology. In this scenario far from futurism, only four elements were enough to create the magic: a Linn Drumm, a Roland Juno-60, sleigh bells and the voice of George Michael…
- Inspiration comes at any time (and you can help it grow)
The song was recorded in London… in August! To create the right atmosphere, a studio assistant decorated the recording room with Christmas lights and festoons: while it is true that inspiration comes at any time, the work environment can also be an important factor in helping us translate our feelings into shared emotions. Helping inspiration to sprout is always a good idea.
- You don’t have to be Mozart…
George Michael was only 21 years old when he produced and played each instrument on the track, and he had no musical education. According to Chris Porter – Michael’s sound engineer – despite his formal incompetence, George wanted to do everything by himself, playing keyboards with two or three fingers at a time. A laborious process which, however, paid off …
- …But you need the talent of a magician
One of the secrets of a good magician is the ability to manipulate the attention of the public: after moving the gaze away from his machinations, the “magician” manages to accomplish his tricks – in secret – thus giving life to “magic”. George Michael was an excellent magician: he shifted the listener’s focus to his voice, drawing attention away from a too-much-simple sonic plot. In this way, the somewhat naive base lost its importance, becoming a mere support for the voice that we all remember by heart.
Last Christmas was promoted in December 1984 and all royalties were donated to Band Aid; the generous charity act takes us straight to another catchphrase we’d love to hear more often in the supermarket aisles: RUN DMC’s Christmas in Hollis. Released in 1987, it was included on the album A very Special Christmas whose proceeds were donated to the Special Olympics. What advice can we draw out from this hit? History teaches that:
- We must never be too judgmental: not all paths are wrong
“Nope. We’re not doing it. That’s what they try to do to hip-hop…” this was the answer of Darry DMC Daniels when he was offered to participate in a compilation of Christmas songs that included artists really far from the hip-hop scene, such as Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston. A Christmas song could have annihilated the trio’s street credibility… But the occasion turned out to be magical: by participating in that release, RUN DMC gave life to the second Christmas hip hop song in history and even managed to create new scratching and sampling techniques which will then be fundamental in the following Tougher Than Leather.
- Contamination can be decisive
The track from which the beat was extracted was chosen by Bill Adler, journalist specialized in hip-hop and historical friend of the trio hired as publicist: thanks to Adler’s advice, Clarence George Carter’s “Back Door Santa” (1968) was given to Jay who put his hand on the beats by sculpting the version we all know today.
- Keep it real
The three boys from Hollis, Queens, thought a long time before writing the lyrics and decided to go against the grain. DMC explains: “I think the reason it stands the test of time is—and I mean, I don’t want to blow my own horn—but my verse in particular is so real. Every other Christmas song is like a fantasy. But my story is what really happened in real life, about real people, and what it was like as a kid growing up. It’s so real”.
For your Christmas Holidays, I’ve created a special soundtrack: Chilling and Coolin’ just like a snowman, a two-part mix-remix-mashup [stream or download] to be listened to in front of the fireplace.
I have also created the Spotify playlist Chilling and coolin’ just like a snowman with the original tracks I used.
As the Hollis guys would say: So open your eyes, lend us an ear
We want to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Fake news? No thank you! Here are the sources of this Newsletter:
- Rachel Aroesti, “Still saving us from tears: the inside story of Wham!’s Last Christmas”, The Guardian, 14 Dec., 2017
- Evan Rytlewski, “We talk Run-DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” with DMC himself”, AV Club, 12 Oct., 2013
- Ryan Randazzo, “Run-DMC’s Holiday Classic ‘Christmas In Hollis”, New York Series, 25 Nov., 2019
- Alex Robert Ross,”Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” Is a Wholesome Alt-Holiday Classic”, Vice, 8 Dec., 2008.