This is a repost from 15 years ago on my old blog – I needed to refer to it from something but it can’t have transferred. Such is life! So apologies for being slightly unseasonal (although technically this is still Epiphany).
Well, it was inevitable I comment on this track, which U2 put out to launch (RED)Wire [back in 2008].
But it is stunningly beautiful and manages totally to avoid Christmas kitsch. In fact, it goes a lot further and actually communicates some surprises.
But prompted by Beth Maynard’s great little post (on 1st Dec) about it, I was intrigued (geek?) enough to place Greg Lake’s original lyrics beside Bono’s tweaks. And the changes are intriguing. As Beth points out,
I had to smile in admiration at the very minor but very thoughtful lyric changes that turn Lake’s text into something not just potentially, but authentically, U2ey. Did you catch them? “They sold me a Merry Christmas, they sold me a Silent Night, they sold me a fairy story…” is transmuted into something more like Popmart’s “I wanted to meet God but they sold me religion” by one little shift: no longer did “they” keep selling “till I believed in the Israelite”; no, they can try to sell such holiday fantasies all they want “but I believe in the Israelite.”
Apparently Greg Lake’s original was a brilliantly pointed rant against the commercialism of Christmas. But still, his second verse looks as though he has thrown out the baby with the pine-water. The Israelite baby is is just part and parcel of the fairy tale. So is the Verse2Line4 about being forcibly told the story enough times ‘until I believed’? And then as he wakes to see that Father Christmas is (? his dad) in disguise, the Christmas message itself is presumably also just a fraud. It didn’t snow, it rained. Interestingly, notice Bono changes the tense of the Verse3Line3 (echoes there of his other Christmas lament Peace on Earth?) – it’s as if people still haven’t got the point.
But then Bono knowingly and subtly tweaks. Far from faith-doubting, this is faith-enhancing. The Israelite is all that really matters amidst the tinsel. And while he has rejected what was sold, he does believe in him. Hence, in the last line, as Beth also picked up, Bono drops the middle ‘and’.
And the end of the original second verse, one assumes the implication is that the once-hopeful little boy awakes, exhausted and bleary-eyed, to witness his father dressed as Santa and realize the whole thing’s a shuck (“I awoke with a yawn in the first light of dawn and saw him — and through his disguise.”) But U2 create a whole different feel by taking out that one little “and,” so that the narrator now says that he watched in hope, woke at dawn, and “I saw him through his disguise.” Another idea that we’ve heard many times before from this band.
The implication is that even though a lot of nonsense is spoken about Father Christmas and all, the Israelite can be found in disguise even there! The 3rd verse has then made me think a lot – it’s unsettling but fascinating – but the way Bono sings it he somehow, realistically, instills courage for the year ahead, despite all that will inevitably come. So far from throwing out the baby with the bath-water, this holds onto the Baby with all the more faith as the bath-water drains away.
Finally, I can’t not mention the way The Edge takes on E.L.P.’s original interweaving of Prokofiev’s Sleigh Ride / Troika (from the Lieutenant Kijé suite). An amazing musical bridge from Soviet propagandist film-music to a faith-enhancing modern pop song – which sounds perfect on the rhyming guitars of The Unforgettable Fire.