The late Greg Lake, one third of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, wasn’t your average songwriter, and he wrote not your average Christmas song. Lake once said about the song: “It was never written with the intention of it becoming a hit single but was written, rather, as an album track making quite a serious comment about how Christmas had changed from being a celebration of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, into one huge and disgusting shopping orgy.” His friend Peter Sinfeld wrote the lyrics, and had a slightly different take on them. For Sinfeld, the song was about the loss of childhood innocence. They promised snow, I got rain. They promised Father Christmas, but “I saw him through his disguise.” The song concludes with the very adult, sober reckoning: “The Christmas we get, we deserve.”
Lake once wrote the Guardian newspaper to respond to a reader who had accused him of “living off the royalties” of the song in a manner similar to that of Hugh Grant’s character in the movie About a Boy. If true, Lake’s hypocrisy would have been obvious. To write a song protesting the commercialization of Christmas, while living off the fat of that very festival would have been the very definition of what the song despises. Of course, the accusation had a grain of truth and a pound of exaggeration. Is Lake supposed to not get paid for his work while the Guardian reporter did? His retort to the newspaper was perfect. It’s a nice royalty check, but it doesn’t buy him an island in the Caribbean. After pointing out that he was touring to make a living, he jokingly asked Guardian readers to keep requesting the song so that he could in fact buy his private Island.
Greg Lake was an atheist. “They sold me a fairy story, till I believed in the Israelite.” Lake was neither a Christian nor a consumerist, and he saw Christmas for what a lot of atheists do. He believed in its power, in its spirit, and in its utter corruption.
Then one day, Lake woke up to discover that U2 was the latest artist to cover his song. Lake told his fansite about his reaction:
“I woke up this morning to ….. this very distinctive and remarkably familiar guitar sound and the sound of Bono singing the words to “I Believe in Father Christmas. I was still half asleep and it felt almost as if I was dreaming. All of a sudden I realised what I had just heard! It was indeed U2 playing the song I had written way back in 1975.”
Any U2 fan can sense what should happen next. The faux outrage machine chiming into action. Bono changed my lyrics (“But I believe in the Israelite!”) It’s “typical U2.” It’s trite. It’s for (RED) which isn’t a real charity. Pay your damn taxes Bono. It should have been predictable.
Except that’s not what happened. Instead, Greg Lake said this about U2’s version:
Although the basic song is very simple, the internal musical structure is actually quite complex and contains elements of classical music and folk music, and just about everything else in-between. It is not an easy song to cover without sounding either as if you were vamping out the original version but not quite as well, or doing some kind of “out there” arrangement purely for the sake of being different. In a way you are sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The clever thing about the U2 version is that it manages to capture both elements, the original and the inventive without really falling on one side or the other and in this way it is definitely unique. The guitar part is very clever and the vocal, as always with Bono, sounds sincere. That is the mark of a great singer. Well done chaps! It is great to see the song serving such a worthy cause.
Well done, Greg! What a class act.
How incredible then that for Bono – a devout Christian – the song represented the exact same thing as it did for Greg Lake. Change a single lyric about belief and a devout Christian can come to the same conclusion about Christmas as a non-believer. The spirit of the season, family, gift-giving, celebration of life, peace and love, all good. The rampant consumerism and the purchase of the season by corporate interests, Bad. Bono and Greg, like a lot of Christians and Atheists, would have been friends if they knew each other. And they wouldn’t have let that single lyric get in the way.
RIP Greg. His song, like Bono’s lyrics and everything U2 has ever done, are for Christian, atheist and all others. Hallelujah, Noel. Heaven or hell.
The Christmas we get we deserve.
Happy Christmas from TalkU2 to all our members. Our mod team will be on the lookout for Bono busking tomorrow and we will update you if we see any sightings on youtube.