What Do You Want For Christmas?

The Gresham Flyers spent last Sunday at our favourite (well, only) recording studio. Given that it was such a wonderful day, it only seemed fair to tell you about it…

It’s been months since we’ve seen the inside of Soup or its proprietor Simon, and since the album’s finished we’ve not had much call to visit. We’ve got about seven new songs in various stages of completion, but none that have required urgent taping. This all changed when we got an email from Cherryade Records, who asked us to contribute to their annual Christmas compilation. To my mind, there was only one song that we could do- a song that I’ve badgered the others to rehearse for the last two Christmases, but has never been taken up. The song is Diamond White Christmas, which was written by John a few years ago, and released as a charity Christmas single by his old band The Milburns- not to be confused with the derivative and rather terrible Milburn. The recording is a wistful, melancholy affair, with a military drum-beat holding together the duet between John and guest vocalist Tricia Stubberfield (who is currently using her graphic design skills to rustle up artwork for our album) as the guitars swell to a joyous but eye-moistening climax. I’ve loved it since I first heard it and rate it as one of John’s finest compositions.

There was debate over whether we should try and write a new song. After all, Diamond White Christmas had already been released as a single by another band, so we were effectively ‘covering’ the song, despite it being written and sung by one of our own. Seeing as we’d raided John’s archive for earlier songs- Red Nose Day, Blackpool, and the riff to Cricket Bat all pre-date the band’s existence- it was finally agreed on that we would re-do Diamond White Christmas in Gresham Flyers style. We sent the Milburns’ version to Rachael at Cherryade, who loved it. We rehearsed the song a few times in between our other new stuff, and it stuck enough for us to devote a lot of time honing it down. Sharon, slightly daunted by Tricia’s vocal and melodica performances, managed to pick the song up quickly enough and make it her own. The countermelody she sings to John’s lead at the climax is spine-tingling. James- whose abilities as a human drum machine are unsurpassed- managed to break the choruses up, giving it a more graceful feel. I alternated between trying a soft bass-line or leaving out the bass completely and sticking to extra drums and sleigh-bells, but really wanted to give the song a drone- I was thinking bagpipes and Mull of Kintrye. In the end, I was so desperate, I walked into a shop on Denmark Street and plonked down a hundred quid for one of the six remaining E-bows still for sale in the country, after about two minutes’ fiddling around with it. They told me it wouldn’t work on a bass. They were wrong, though it takes a lot of patience.

Come the day of the production, it was obvious this had to be big. We’d booked the whole day to do one song, contrary to our previous days where we’d do two complete songs, or lay down the basics for four songs to come back to later. Not this time- all the focus was on Diamond White Christmas.

After all the equipment was set up, introductions made (this was James’ first recording session with us, and he and Simon hadn’t met) the click track was aligned and James, with Martin and John on guitars set down the basic track. For six whole minutes, they played the song flawlessly and it was down in one take. It was slightly faster than the original, but still powerful. A great start.

John goes back in with his guitar and added some extra to the climax of the song. We’d agreed that the song needed to have a ‘Salvation Army’-style feel on the drums, which meant we’d have to put more than one drummer on the track. When we first discussed this, I mentioned we could get Andrew, Kerry and Dan back to play on the song, in the spirit of Christmas, but we decided that would work a bit better if we did that at a gig. Instead, John put down a military snare of his own from the second verse, and I doubled James’s part on the third verse with a slackened snare. Although John and James are far better drummers than me, the differing styles and competencies make it sound far more ‘real’.

The rest of the day was spent putting various things on top of the track to make it sound enormous- a Hammond organ, two basses (one drone using the e-bow, the other coming in after the first verse), the hook played on a vibraphone and Rhodes piano, more guitars, the inevitable sleigh bells and a choir. Yes, a choir.

Simon was the catalyst for the choir; instead of multi-tracked Sharon and John, he suggested it might sound better if we had different voices of varying abilities to make it sound like Midnight Mass in a small church, with the traditional churchgoers and the drunken revellers singing together. Simon, James and John took the middle part, beefing up Sharon’s heartbreaking refrain. Sharon and our friend Lizzie, who’d dropped by to say hello were assigned the top end, sounding like the most innocent child’s choir (one missed opportunity occurred when Launette from Strange Idols happened by the studio; alas we hadn’t got round to the vocals yet, so didn’t get the chance to have her to sing with us…). Martin and I were on the bottom end, adding extra depth. Listening to each of these parts in isolation may not have been awe-inspiring, but put together and mixed, it was beautiful.

We took two hours to mix, and after various tough decisions- choir upfront or mixed back? Where do the sleigh bells come in? - we arrived at 5:58 of sheer beauty, the best thing we’ve yet to put down. John spent an hour listening to non-stop, and sent the rest of us emails detailing his favourite parts (for my money, the greatest moment occurs at the climax, when the sleigh bells join the choir, shortly followed by the melodica refrain). Everyone that’s heard it thinks it’s wonderful. My Mum played it four times in a row and suggested a video for it.

You really should hear this song. It’s coming out on November 26th on Cherryade Records’ A Very Cherry Christmas.