By Howard Whitman
While progressive rock may not be the first genre that comes to mind when you’re seeking out holiday music, there have been some notable entries from classic prog artists that are worthy of note — and perhaps a play or two as you drink the eggnog.
So, for this seasonal edition of Prog-versation, here is a list of five outstanding Christmas-themed songs from prog legends. In compiling this list, I avoided prog covers of holiday standards; there is a slew of those available that perhaps I can cover in this column in years to come.
But for the 2022 edition, I’m going to delve into five original songs from the prog gods and discuss a bit about the history and themes of each one.
5. “December Snow” by The Moody Blues
This romantic song written and sung by Moodies guitarist Justin Hayward comes from the final studio album by the band, December. Released in 2003, this album mixed original holiday-themed songs written by Hayward and bassist John Lodge with Moody Blues versions of standards including “White Christmas” and what may be the ultimate Christmas rock song, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The album’s standout track, “December Snow” finds Hayward in sad, “why did you leave” mode, wrapping a tale of lost love around a metaphor that life (and love) can be like December snow — nice while it lasts, but ultimately fleeting. Despite the gloomy lyric, its lush arrangement with synth orchestration characteristic of latter-day Moody Blues albums, along with Hayward’s lovely vocal and guitar work, earn this melancholic masterpiece a place on this list.
4. “A Christmas Song” by Jethro Tull
Like two other entries here, Jethro Tull’s “A Christmas Song” began life as a single. Clocking in at just under 3 minutes, this folky piece was originally released as a mono single in the U.K. in 1968, and then remixed in stereo for inclusion on the 1972 double-LP compilation Living in the Past. Tull writer/singer Ian Anderson’s lyrics seem to chide Christmas celebrants for forgetting the holiday’s true meaning in a typically sardonic Anderson way. “When you’re stuffing yourself at the Christmas parties,” he sings, “you’ll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump. You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making, that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.” This is all sung over a jaunty chord progression played with vigor by Anderson’s Tull bandmates on vintage instruments. Great fun, with a point — and it’s worth sticking around until the end of the track to hear what Anderson wants from Santa.
3. “Snowbound” by Genesis
This haunting ballad from Genesis’ first album as a trio, 1978’s And Then There Were Three…, isn’t a Christmas song at all, but its constant allusions to snow and winter weather earn it a place on this list. Written by guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford, it’s just a heartbreakingly beautiful song, with Tony Banks’ long-held keyboard chords dominating the gorgeous arrangement, ably supported by Rutherford’s acoustic strumming, and powerful singing and drumming from Phil Collins. According to Rutherford in a 1978 radio interview, “Snowbound” is “a romantic song about a guy who gets inside a snowman outfit to hide from everybody, he was paranoid, and he gets stuck!” Only Genesis could turn such a simple idea into this evocative, moving winter anthem.
2. “Run With The Fox” by Chris Squire and Alan White
Not quite a Yes song, this Christmas single was written and recorded by the band’s rhythm section in 1981 after the Drama-era Yes lineup had broken up and XYZ, their attempted supergroup with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, had fizzled after a few rehearsals. Released under Squire’s and White’s names, the song was written with King Crimson/ELP lyricist Peter Sinfield (you’ll see his name pop up again below) and performed by Squire on lead vocals and bass with White on drums, keyboards and backing vocals. It’s a lively track based around White’s piano and Squire’s vocals, and of course, it’s very Yes-like. Its motivational lyric is about contemplating the future at the end of the year, with the admonition to run with the fox “into the wind, on to the dawn of tomorrow.” Perhaps Squire and White took their own advice and embraced the future with optimism, as just two years later they would revive Yes with the very successful 90125 album. Although released as a single, “Run With The Fox” would later turn up on the 1991 Yesyears box set and Squire would later include it, with an overdubbed choir added, on his 2007 Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir holiday album.
1. “I Believe in Father Christmas” by ELP
If there ever was a prog equivalent to Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” — an instant Christmas standard that started life as a rock single — it’s this song. I’ve attributed this classic to ELP, because their version is the best-known one, even though the band’s vocalist/bassist initially put it out as a solo single in 1975. Two years later, ELP released the version that’s remained a holiday staple on classic rock radio to this day on its Works Volume 2 album. Composed by Lake with lyrics by Sinfield, the song incorporates an instrumental section from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé Suite.” The two versions aren’t drastically different; if anything, the Lake version is more ornate, with busy orchestration, while the ELP recording is sparser, placing focus on Keith Emerson’s keyboards. Sinfield’s lyrics make this the most overtly spiritual song in this list; the words speak of believing in Father Christmas with sincerity as they conclude — perhaps with a touch of cynicism — that “the Christmas we get, we deserve.”
May you get the holiday you deserve — a good one! Thank you for your support of Prog-versation in its inaugural year. I look forward to more sonic adventures in 2023!