Over the past week some ugly Christmas jumpers (featuring llamas on them) inspired me to write a Christmas Single. Now the reason for inspiration is that my band’s called Grass Mud Horse, which is the literal English translation of the Chinese term for the animal known to us as a llama or an Alpaca.
In Chinese the llama is named 草泥马 (pronounced Cao Ni Ma.) Now the reason we chose this for our name, is because if you say “Cao Ni Ma” with the wrong tones…you don’t say Alpaca at all, in fact you tell somebody to go fornicate with their mother.
In addition to this being quite funny, China is of course a land of extreme censorship and to avoid getting in trouble for swearing, young Chinese angrily exclaim “Llama!”, when in fact they mean something else entirely.
And that is why some ugly xmas jumpers with lamas on them inspired a xmas single!
We obviously had to buy these jumpers for some xmas pics and I thought that the pics may as well be in support of a xmas song. Which could in turn act as a really nice lead-up to our debut album.
I’ve always been a bit fascinated with the idea of a Christmas single. It’s a pretty big deal back in the UK where I’m from, and artists usually battle it out for what the media calls “the Top spot.”….i.e. the Christmas number one (in the UK singles chart). Some of my favourite songs where Christmas singles, such as Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade or Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues.
I love Christmas and I’ve always wanted to do my own Christmas single. I wrote a Christmas song for my previous band The Strange, but it never got recorded unfortunately. It’s not a bad song though, and I could maybe rework it one day. Heres a demo I did acoustically of that song.
Writing a Christmas single!
My first idea for the song was simple; a Christmas must have Sleigh Bells. Next I decided I would write something about the Christmas experience for a foreigner living in a backwater city of Northern China. The first demo I did of the song was actually a video, so I’ll let you see that before we continue.
I wanted the song to be funny and perhaps touch on a few stereotypes, but I wanted it to avoid anything that could be confused with racism. I also wanted the song to have a little bit of a social conscious and perhaps an underlying message (which I admit it does). The message is perhaps only thinly veiled through sarcasm, but to avoid anymore trouble I won’t elaborate on that any further (figure that out for yourselves). My band plays punk music with a lot of what we do in the Celtic Punk or Paddy Punk genre and I thought this style (much like Fairytale of New York) would be really nice for my Christmas song.
The initial writing process for this song was a little bit strange, because the title (also the hook), and the lyrics (for the most part), all came before any melody or harmony ideas. For me the writing process usually happens in reverse, chord progressions/melody, then the lyrics. Anyway here are my first ideas, and the lyrics for the final version of the song.
Christmas Time in China
By Chris Barry
It’s Christmas time in China,
no tree to dress and no turkey either,
this year there’ll be no Yule-time log,
just an apple if your lucky and lungs full of smog,
It’s Christmas time in China,
and while they’re knocking up the latest designer,
all the kids in the fashion production prisons,
Sing songs of joy for Communism,
I know it’s not the normal way,
but please could we have boxing day,
to nurse the massive heads in store,
from all the beer the night before,
We only have one day each year,
to spread some joy and Christmas cheer,
lets order Guinness and Whiskey too,
we’ll make this merry if it’s the last thing we do!
For those who don’t know Christmas does exist in China, however it’s mostly just used for advertising purposes. There is a tradition of giving people apples for Christmas here, and that’s why that’s included in the song. I also referenced the famous winter smog in the northeast of China, which is horrific and goes a long way to dampen the Christmas spirit.
I’ll talk a little bit about the arrangement. Firstly when structuring the song I deliberately allowed created space for a riff to be played on mandolin and tin whistle and also an instrumental/solo section in the middle.
During the recording process I decided to restructure the third verse into a broken down verse that builds back up halfway through. The third verse then cuts out right at the end before launching into the final verse with the full band. It was a little difficult to edit the song after having recorded everything one way.
I could have simply re-recorded everything for that verse, (and I did re-record a few instruments), but I viewed this editing task as a challenge and opportunity to improve my production abilities.
The song features drums with a slight swing to them and also bass guitar sitting high and in the centre of the mix. I then feature two different distorted guitar rhythm track, panned quite wide. There are acoustic guitar and mandolin rhythm tracks panned out a little bit opposite each other. I have the lead mandolin, tin whistle, and guitar sitting quite high in the mix each panned slightly. The vocals are double tracked, with some occasional harmonies that are also panned left and right. This is all just my basic mix, the song will now go to a producer who is mixing and mastering the album that the song will be included on (he is fast tracking this track for pre-release).
Well I’m quite happy with the song, and I hope you like it too. If you have any thoughts, questions or ideas please comment! Heres the song so far, you get to hear it before anyone else…maybe you think that’s cool, I hope so anyway!