Banner for blog O Christmas B

O Christmas B-Sides

As the year draws to a close many pop performers get seasonal, knocking off potentially lucrative stocking filler B-sides. Have a favourite?

EVERYONE KNOWS A CHRISTMAS HIT is the gift that keeps on giving. Take Slade. Singer Noddy Holder has called their 1973 chart-topper ‘Merry Christmas Everybody “a nice pension plan”, annually delivering an estimated half-million in royalties to him and co-writer Jim Lea. Research by Channel 5 in 2016 showed that the Pogues, Mariah Carey, Wham! and Paul McCartney regularly pocketed over a quarter of a million each from their seasonal frolics. So, putting an original Christmas song on a B-side ranks as a no-brainer — if it turns out to be a turkey and doesn’t take off, hell, it was only a bit of flipside fun.

Andy Cowan, author of the book B-Side, takes a dive beneath the musical mistletoe.

Listen to the O CHRISTMAS B playlist

Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers —


One early B-side that leapt to an American standard was ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers [‘Lost In The Night’, EXCLUSIVE 1947]. A creamy showcase for the talents of singer/pianist Charles Brown, he wrote it around a title suggested by songwriter Lou Baxter, but was jerked out the credits by Baxter and bandleader Moore. Understandably, he soon left the Blazers. While Brown would go on to prove himself a steady seasonal hitmaker, it must have been galling to reap no reward as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen and CeeLo Green all had a pop at his creation.

A future country legend who made his first recordings at Sun Studios and wrote for Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty was still knocking on the door when ‘Only Make Believe’ [‘I’ll Try’, MGM 1958] blew its hinges off after an Ohio radio DJ flipped the disc on air. Not a festive song per se, but with a knee-trembling pulse that tapped into its magical mood, Twitty’s audible similarities to the King helped him top the UK charts at Christmas 1958.

A rare jewel amid a swirl of 80s Ramones’ swine came with ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight’ [‘I Wanna Live’, SIRE 1987]. A festive anthem that worked thanks to the throwback songwriting chops, tender wordplay and cool vocal delivery of singer Joey Ramone, it belied the wider turmoil going on in the punk veterans’ ranks, gaining traction long after they split. Two-hundred miles away in Boston, New Kids On The Block made one of their least prescribed moves with ‘Funky, Funky Xmas’ [COLUMBIA 1988]. It caught hip-hop obsessed singer Donnie Wahlberg (brother of Marky Mark) and producer Maurice Starr concocting a loosely thrown-together, goofy Christmas rap that even smuggled in a Public Enemy tribute at the 3:50 mark. It beat the faux-concerned conveyor-belt ballad A-side ‘This One’s For The Children’ to a sticky pulp.  

Bon Jovi —

Destiny’s Child

New Jersey stadium rockers Bon Jovi all but tossed away their gospel-tinged festive anthem, ‘I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas’ [MERCURY 1992] while launching A-side ‘Keep The Faith’. A typically optimistic questioning of seasonal spirit (“Why can’t every day be so bright?” wondered Jon), it didn’t quite have the same chops as their cover of Charles Brown’s ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ a couple of years later. Just under two minutes long and with meagre accompaniment (acoustic guitar, trumpet), Kate Bush’s ‘Home for Christmas’ [‘Moments Of Pleasure’, EMI 1993] put the emphasis on her quivering voice and felt like a bit of jazzy light relief after the A-side’s textured dance with death. Not that many heard it amid the early 90s multi-formatting madness (it was only available on the 12-inch single). A band not averse to penning the odd festive ditty or three (see also: ‘We Just Go Nuts At Christmas Time’, ‘Santa’s Beard’, ‘Feast Of Lights’), They Might Be Giants offered something much slighter with ‘Christmas Cards’ [‘O Tannenbaum’, ELEKTRA 1993], a rare blot on their B-side copybook.

There was no dial down in quality on Prince’s ‘Another Lonely Christmas’ [WARNER BROS 1994]. Continuing A-side ‘I Would Die 4 U’’s theme of mortality, the purple one’s echoey lament to a lost lover even contained a seasonal twist (its third verse reveals she died on Xmas day). Up there with the cream of Purple Rain, the image of Prince getting drunk on banana daiquiris is a hard one to shift. New Orleans rockers Better Than Ezra mined a similarly downbeat train of thought on ‘Merry Christmas Eve’ [‘Rosealia’, ELEKTRA 1995], singer Kevin Griffin’s sad-toned rhymes about “mistletoe, cinnamon and Nat King Cole” offset with parps from a far from jolly saxophone.

Recorded after a year of constant touring, Beck’s ‘Little Drum Machine Boy’ [‘Clock’, SELECT 1997] was a partial return to the hip-hop/folk hybrid that made his name in the early 90s. Issued as a free CD single with Select magazine, it found him riffing off the melody of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ with humour and mischief, finding therapy in nonsense wordplay and chants of “Hannukah pimp!” Alt-pop’s master of the morose Mark Everett also played against type on Eels‘Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’ [‘Cancer For The Cure’, DREAMWORKS 1998], packing away his deathly familial woes in favour of light relief, avowing “Baby Jesus, born to rock!” before a blazing guitar solo.

Destiny’s Child recast ‘12 Days of Christmas’ with full ghetto-chic on ‘8 Days of Christmas’ [‘Independent Woman Part 1’, COLUMBIA 2000], their demands flipping from material gains (diamond belly ring, dirty denim jeans, a CLK Mercedes) to more spiritual sustenance (a massage, poem, ‘quality time’). Expertly weaved around its “Doesn’t it feel like Christmas?” hook, the B-side would become the jump off point for 2001’s holiday album of the same name, a set with more grisly filler than Notorious B.O.B.’s favourite sandwich.

Flaming Lips —

Gene Autry

Flaming Lips surrendered one of their loveliest moments A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So)’ to a stop-gap EP [‘Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell’, WARNER BROS 2003], singer Wayne Coyne serving up a plea for peace that came with all the usual Christmas trimmings but stayed true to their psychedelic mindset. The trio doubled down on its festive spirit with 2008’s preposterous yet profound feature film Christmas on Mars. And while whimsical indie cubs Slow Club arguably played it safe by opening their ‘Christmas, Thanks For Nothing’ EP [MOSHI MOSHI, 2009] with two Darlene Love covers, its almost hidden highlight ‘Christmas TV’ found singers Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor urging each other to “just come on home”, presumably before Top of the Pops starts.

Another outlet for the festive flip came via the Fan Club single — a great way to sate a captive audience without any commercial trappings. Northampton’s most fearless documentarian The Jazz Butcher put his delirious slab of sub-calypso nonsense ‘Christmas With The Pygmies’ [GLASS 1986] on both A and B-side of a Fan Club single now worth a pretty penny on Discogs. R.E.M. were similarly off-pitch when they backed Vibrators cover ‘Baby, Baby’ with the grouchy complaints of ‘Christmas Griping’ [R.E.M. Fan Club, 1991], as mild-mannered guitarist Peter Buck threatened to go “up on a tower with a high-powered rifle” on a Rambo-type gun rampage if he heard ‘Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer’ one more time.

There’s every chance R.E.M. and the Butcher took their fan club single idea from The Beatles, who recorded a single-sided flexi-disc for fans each year from 1963 to 1969. 1967’s ‘Christmas Time (Is Here Again)’ was easily their most psychedelic, a six-minute audio play about a fictitious BBC radio show that included greetings from all members and a curious organ ending. A gruesomely edited version, slashed of all its wit, humour and charm, eventually backed ‘Free As A Bird’ [APPLE, 1995], sounding very much like a chorus in search of a song.

One way of removing any buyer doubt about your single’s intentions was to produce a festive double header (both A&B), doubling its chances of taking off over the holiday season. It was also an ideal excuse to ladle songs with every Christmas cliché going: dinging sleighbells, ho-ho-hos, roasting chestnuts, crackling fires, etc., etc.

Singing Cowboy Gene Autry knew the power of a festive hit better than most after hitting the big time with 1947’s ‘Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)’. Yet the country crossover star saw little merit in Johnny Marks’ ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ [COLUMBIA, 1949], even rejecting it as a B-side before wife Ina Mae Spivey made him reconsider. Recorded reluctantly, in a single take at the end of a session, it outclassed Autry’s intended A-side ‘If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas’ and became the biggest single hit of his career. While Autry undoubtedly inspired Paul McCartney’s 1979 B-side filler ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reggae’ [‘Wonderful Christmastime’, PARLOPHONE 1979] — it is what it is — a chance meeting with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr inspired Jim Vallance to pen ‘Reggae Christmas’ [‘Christmas Time’, A&M 1985] for his songwriting partner Bryan Adams. A bizarre slice of frat-boy lovers rock detailed with steel drums; not even Pee Wee Herman’s video cameo could redeem it.  

Bing Crosby —

Rufus Thomas

Other bet-hedgers in the Xmas hit parade include ‘White Christmas’ groaner Bing Crosby ­playing to type on ‘Poppa Santa Claus’ [‘Mele Kalikimaka’, DECCA 1950] just in case fans didn’t dig the A-side’s Hawaiian twist, and Louis Armstrong envisaging Santa licking a peppermint stick with 1953’s Cool Yule’ [‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’, DECCA 1953]. Jazzy elements also ran amok on ‘Hey Santa Claus’ [‘Just A Lonely Christmas’, CHANCE 1953] as Ohio doo-woppers The Moonglows tried to reverse the failure of their first single on Alan Freed’s Champagne label.

Elsewhere Indiana’s Bobby Helms backed defining rock ‘n’ roll holiday song ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ [DECCA 1957] with a proper sci-fi outlier ‘Captain Santa Claus (And His Reindeer Space Patrol)’ complete with amateur sound effects, while slick Houston R&B singer Amos Milburn had a genre jumble sale on ‘Christmas (Comes But Once A Year)’ [Charles Brown: ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, KING 1960] slamming together rock piano and ska guitar with orchestral bells. The singer known as Mr Christmas, as much for his long parade of holiday albums as his seasonal knits, Andy Williams naturally played it double-safe, crooning through the roasting chestnuts of ‘Christmas Song’ when backing ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’ [COLUMBIA 1963].

Much less worried about upsetting the neighbours, Loretta Lyn’s ‘It Won’t Seem Like Christmas’ [‘To Heck With Ole Santa Claus’, DECCA 1966] caught Nashville’s hardscrabble honky tonker in autobiographical mode, spilling tears into her tinsel over tinkling pianos. John Lennon claimed he wrote John & Yoko The Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ [APPLE 1971] because “I was sick of ‘White Christmas’”. Flipside ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ was just as powerful, Ono’s first pop song setting her gentle nursery-rhyme vocals against her beau’s woozy slide guitar.

One 1972 Christmas double-header that fans didn’t get to hear until long after the fact was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Christmas In The City’ [‘I Want To Come Home For Christmas’] after an ideologically trenchant Motown rejected the A-side’s doleful lament to a Vietnam prisoner of war. The cancelled B-side aced it, as Gaye revelled in spacey fun with a Moog synth gifted to him by Stevie Wonder. Similarly low on Christmas cheer was the unemployment blues of Merle Haggard’s ‘If We Make It Through December’ [CAPITOL 1973], soon to become a standard for the Oildale ex-con. Haggard doubled down on the dourness by focusing on a small boy’s loneliness on B-side ‘Bobby Wants A Puppy Dog For Christmas’.  

Self-styled ‘world’s oldest teenager’ Rufus Thomas was in much more cheery form, offering up ‘I’ll Be Your Santa Baby’ [‘That Makes Christmas Day’, STAX 1973] on a great bawdy B-side stacked with fruity innuendo (“I’ll slide down your chimney and bring you lots of joy!”) High, perhaps, on Christmas snow, Elton John cut an unusual swathe with ‘Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas)’ [‘Step Into Christmas’, DMJ 1973], explaining a weirdy-beardy Santa encounter after he’d “had a few too many”. Its merits might have divided Elton devotees, but it was infinitely superior to the plinky-plonk schmaltz of 2021’s Ed Sheeran hook-up ‘Merry Christmas’. 

The Mel Smith Yuletide Choir —

Bruce Springsteen

Even that was preferable to The Mel Smith Yuletide Choir taking a comedy hammer to an old welsh carol on ‘Deck The Blooming Halls’ [Mel & Kim: ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’, 10 1987]. “Welcome to the side of the record that no one listens to,” says Smith at the start, “known in the trade as the B-side. B presumably for boring.” Depends who you are. If its “Weird Al” Yankovic then I concur. On ‘The Night Santa Went Crazy (Extra Gory Version)’ [‘Amish Paradise’, SCOTTI BROTHERS 1996] Al got his teeth into Soul Asylum’s ‘Black Gold’ as he imagined Santa going on Rambo-type gun rampage. It was so bad it was later reissued as an A-side for the Xmas market.

Thankfully, New Jersey pop sophisticates Fountains Of Wayne disproved Smith’s theory with The Man In The Santa Suit’ [‘I Want An Alien For Christmas’, ATLANTIC 1997]. Adam Schlesinger’s wry description of a lightly sozzled Jerry Garcia lookalike pretending to be Santa simply for ‘the loot’ proved stronger than an A-side trying a little too hard to assert its novelty power pop status.

NSYNC’s rush to sustain their initial fame resulted in a holiday album, Home For Christmas, just nine months after their debut LP. B-side ‘All I Want Is You This Christmas’ [‘Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays’, RCA 1998] gave lesser starred, non-Mickey Mouse Club alumni Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone their chance to doll out the sentimental clichés. Oi-loving Bostonites Dropkick Murphys were less equanimous. While A-side ‘The Season’s Upon Us’ [BORN & BRED, 2012] celebrated a Christmas night laced with brandy and eggnog, they had clearly imbibed too much before recording ‘AK47 (All I Want For Christmas Is An)’, another B-side bent on a Rambo-type gun rampage. Do all Americans harbour homicidal fantasies at Christmastime?   

Of course, when wanting to add a bit of tinsel to a single issued late in the year, the easiest route is a cover version, putting your own stamp on a festive staple. The B-side of jiggy novelty flop ‘Don Alfonso’ [VIRGIN 1975], ‘In Dulci Jubilo (For Maureen)’ was Mike Oldfield’s jolly, flute-laced take on an old German Christmas carol (co-credited to Bach) that allowed listeners to guess how many instruments the Tubular Bells misfit was multi-tracking at any one time. Dedicated to his late mother, Oldfield sensed something in the air, rapidly re-recording it for his next A-side and first single success. Jake Burns’ Belfast punkers Stiff Little Fingers put less effort into a raw-boned rumble through Irving Berlin’s Xmas behemoth ‘White Christmas (Live)’ [‘At The Edge’, CHRYSALIS 1980], simply punking it up to plug those empty grooves.

Recorded by Bing Cosby, Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons and the Jackson 5 before he grappled with it at a 1975 live show in Long Island, Bruce Springsteen copped his arrangement for ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ straight from the Crystals’ version on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. A counterpoint to bummed-out A-side ‘My Hometown’ [COLUMBIA 1983], it was surely the only reason to buy the seventh single from Born in the USA. B-side of a middling farewell to Geri Halliwell, Spice Girls’ anglicised take on the Waitresses’ fizzing Xmas staple ‘Christmas Wrapping’ [‘Goodbye’, VIRGIN 1988] found Emma Bunton and Melanie C giving it their best shot, a cut above Kylie Minogue’s bizarre duet with Iggy Pop on 2015’s Kylie Christmas.

Enya —


Celtic new age futurist Enya was at her crystalline best on ‘Oíche Chiún (Silent Night)’ [‘How Can I Keep From Singing’, WEA 1991], a Gaelic show of ethereal subtlety as producer Nicky Ryan layered choirs of vocals with unfurling grace. Cocteau Twins’ take on Christmas standard ‘Frosty The Snowman’ [‘Snow EP’, FONTANA 1993] occupied the same sonic ballpark. Radio-friendly, full of sparkle and joy, Robin Guthrie’s layers of reverbed guitars couched Elizabeth Frazer’s most comprehensible delivery in years. Considered by their new A&R man as a potential Xmas number one, it was relegated to B-side status when engineer Lincoln Fong cautioned, “How would you like it to go down as the biggest hit you’ve ever had?”

Shifting into an uptempo gear, New Jersey alt-rockers Whirling Dervishes put a lively stamp on ‘You’re A Mean One Mr Grinch’ [‘Grinch EP’, FOUNDATION 1992], spattering the tune written for 1966’s animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! with horns while Don Dazzo proved himself a reliably louche frontman. Orange County ska-poppers No Doubt looked little farther than covering their friends the Vandals’ ‘Oi To The World’ when summoning up their first Xmas B-side [‘Happy Now?’, INTERSCOPE 1997]. If only vaguely Christmassy, the fully attitudinal lyrics celebrating punks and skins could easily be misconstrued.

Singer Gwen Stefani would go onto have an A-sided pop at Ertha Kitt’s suggestive 1953 hit ‘Santa Baby’, but Kylie Minogue’s cutesy take on the flip of ‘Please Stay’ [PARLOPHONE 2000] came much closer to the original’s coquettishness, knocking Madonna’s Betty Boop treatment into a cocked hat. Like Kylie, Delta Goodrem served time in Neighbours before pop became her true vocation. She even broke Kylie’s record for by scoring five consecutive Australian number-ones with ‘Predictable’ [EPIC 2003]. Its B-side’s blousy, over-ripe take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Vietnam kickback ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was not her finest hour though.

Two more recent B-sides have fared much better. Hannah Peel’s take on Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ [‘Find Peace’, SNOWFLAKES CHRISTMAS SINGLES CLUB 2014] tapped into a previously concealed folksiness in its denouncement of Xmas commercialisation that the syrupy original missed. The last track on brooding Christmas EP ‘If We Make It Through December’ [DEAD OCEANS 2020] witnessed Phoebe Bridgers’ slow down Judy Garland staple ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, tapping into the darker hues of her Punisher LP with its bruised fretwork and shuffling drums. It was as rueful and reflective as Coldplay’s take a decade earlier [‘Christmas Lights’, PARLOPHONE 2010], a version that could tip any reasonable human being onto a Rambo-type gun rampage. Merry Christmas! 

Like this article?

Share > Facebook
Share > Twitter
Share > Pinterest

Related Posts


Leave a Reply

Pop & Unpop Culture.
The best in independent publishing.

Copyright © Headpress


customers outside the uk & usa

Due to changes in international shipping we are presently not always able to offer a flat shipping rate to all countries outside the UK or USA.

If you are ordering from a country other than the UK or USA, please contact us before placing your order for a shipping price. This is to ensure you are charged the most sensible price for delivery, wherever you are in the world.

Click on the link below and send us:

(1) Info and quantity for the item/s you are after;
(2) Delivery details, i.e. Country, State and Postcode

Alternatively, email us with any questions here