The Spandau Ballet singer highlights differences between American and British holiday music traditions with his new LP, "The Christmas Album."
The voice of Christmas in England is Noddy Holder’s rascally rasp as much as it’s that of Bing or Peggy Lee. Holder fronts Slade, whose “Merry Christmas Everybody” along with Roy Wood and Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday” are the answers to Jeopardy! questions in America but the soundtrack to the holiday season in the UK. Tony Hadley is the singer for Spandau Ballet, and his The Christmas Album highlights some of the differences between American and British music during the holidays.
On it, he covers “Driving Home for Christmas” by British singer Chris Rea, who’s best known in the U.S. for his 1978 light rock hit “Fool if You Think It’s Over.” Rea’s Christmas song never did well enough to even throw a rock at the window of the American holiday charts, but “his song is massive in the UK at Christmas,” Hadley says. “Chris has a very different voice from me, so my interpretation was always going to be different.”
Rea’s husky voice, spare instrumentation and romantic arrangement mark his version as one more expression of love for the one to which he sings all his songs. Hadley’s voice has always brought the great crooners to mind, and perhaps because they’ve always seemed mature, the stakes seem higher and more concrete when he sings “Driving Home for Christmas.” It’s easy to envision him driving a businessman’s car home on a snowy night to see his family, whereas Rea’s version is less luxe and less solid. Like many singer/songwriters, Rea sounds as in love with his displays of love as the person he actually loves, but the universality of the thought more than the nature of Rea’s performance wasn’t what drew Hadley to the song.
“We all want to get home, and this song just says it all,” he says.
Hadley also sings “Lonely This Christmas” by glam rock band Mud—another band that missed America. “When I was a kid in the ‘70s watching Top of the Pops, this was a huge Christmas song,” Hadley says. “Mud always performed it, in a slightly comic way.” In fact, the song went to number one on the British pop charts in 1974, and when the band performed it on the show, singer Les Gray hammily sang the song to a ventriloquist’s dummy wearing a “Mud on Board” T-shirt. The disjunction between the performance and the song itself made an impression on Hadley. “The lyrics are heart breaking. You could almost imagine Elvis singing it.”
Much the same way that annual television rebroadcasts of The Sound of Music during the holiday season made “My Favorite Things” into a seasonal song, Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” has become a British holiday standard despite having nothing lyrically to do with Christmas. “About three Christmases ago John Lewis—a national department store—in the UK recorded a version with Lily Allen and based an amazing Christmas campaign around the song that wasn't a traditional Christmas tune,” Hadley explains. “It became a huge hit, and in the UK it's considered to be part of the Christmas repertoire.”
Hadley sings the song with robust passion closer to Keane’s original than Allen’s fragile performance. He worked to make sure his vocal wasn’t too far down the Sinatra/Tony Bennett/Jack Jones path, but in his version, he’s less likely than Keane’s Tom Chaplin to swoon, spent from his own epic passions.
“Whatever song I sang, I always sound like T.H.,” Hadley says. “It could be a Bowie song or something by the Killers, but it still sounds like me.”
Hadley’s decision to record The Christmas Album is in itself different from the way things are done in America. British pop artists have traditionally considered Christmas albums a bit déclassé and avoid them with greater vigor than American artists. “I couldn't ever imagine Spandau Ballet recording a Christmas album, and if you look at Duran Duran, Culture Club and Ultravox, none of the bands from that ‘80s era have made a Christmas album,” he says. The exception is a huge one: “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Are wrote and recorded in 1984 with Band Aid, a who’s who of British pop stars at the time. The video depicts a moment when U2, Bananarama, Paul Weller, Paul Young, Wham!, Jodi Watley and Phil Collins all shared real estate on the charts with Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club.
Spandau Ballet was on tour with Duran Duran when the session was being planned. After the bands spent a long night partying, they got the call to get to the studio, so Hadley remembers still feeling a little ragged when he got there. He also remembers Geldof sending him into the studio first with Bono, Simon LeBon, and countless others watching from the booth.
Midge Ure remembers the song diplomatically. “What we made was a record and it did a brilliant job,” he said in 2014. “It was quite nicely produced, it had lots of textures on it, lots of highs and lows—and you hear it coming out of the radio, and it still does the job today. As a song, if you take away the periphery, the artists, the money raised and the reason we made it, I think it’s not that great. It’s not the best thing I’ve been involved in.”
The song’s cultural narcissism likely wouldn’t fly today, and some of the lyrics are pretty over the top. “It's a world of dread and fear / Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” ends a verse that Hadley sings with Sting, and “The Christmas bells that ring there / Are the clanging chimes of doom” starts another. But understandably, Hadley can’t separate his feelings for the song with his feelings for the whole experience.
“Every time I hear the song I'm transported straight back to 1984,” he says. “It was a very special day and great fun to be singing with so many fantastic artists. There were no egos; just a desire to give a little bit back. I don't think any of us at the time realized just how big Band Aid/Live Aid would become.”
Not surprisingly, the lyrics are the thing for Hadley. “The lyrics on all songs are so important, but probably even more so for Christmas songs. It's a time of such happiness, especially with the kids, but it's also a time for sadness, maybe you can't get home, think of our troops overseas or missing the people who are no longer with us.”