Okay, okay…. I know what you’re thinking “CLIFF!”, but come on, Cliff Richard‘s 2003 album Cliff At Christmas just shows how his longevity has been well and truly tied with Christmas in the UK. For decades he’s been ‘the Peter Pan of Pop‘, and this 17 track album brings old and new Christmas songs together.
The album features 8 new songs, and 9 classic Cliff Christmas moments, so this album kind of falls into a half-new, half-greatest hits territory, previously inhabited by Michael Jackson‘s HIStory album.
The album opens with the classic Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, which goes at quite a pace. Cliff makes light work of this song, pitched against a racing bassline, and complimented by some strings and piano. Cliff’s vocals even get some sampling before the saxophone solo comes along. This is probably the fastest version of this song i’ve ever heard. At times, I imagine this is what a Take That version would sound like.
Up next is Cliff’s big 80s Christmas hit, Mistletoe And Wine, with that unmistakeable introduction. Someone I once worked with told me how she’d met one of the songwriters once, who explained that the song was written as a comedy piece, but that it was then taken as Cliff’s new single. I don’t mind this song, but I know plenty of people who just can’t listen to it. This version has had a 2003 remastering.
Walking In The Air is the first new recording here, and is of course memorable for its usage in Christmas film The Snowman. Cliff is no Aled Jones here (or whoever actually sang it), he takes a much lower key. I’m not sure that this really helps the song, but thankfully there are some nice harmonies with backing vocalist Amanda Omartian. It also sounds like it would be quite at home amongst some of his late-70s and early-80s material. I think it’s the drums and guitars. There’s no replacement for the original.
This is followed by Little Town (aka O! Little Town Of Bethlehem). An uncredited vocalist takes the higher notes in this track, but there’s some good harmonies between multiple Cliffs as well. A brass band takes over in the middle, which is followed by Cliff singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It kind of works, although seems a little lost towards the end.
Next up is new track Mary’s Boy Child, which sees Cliff joined by Belgian singer Helmut Lotti. From the outset, the track takes a fairly modern but reggae sound, one that instantly reminded me of something from Peter André‘s early career, or Chaka Demus and Pliers. Helmut’s vocals aren’t so different from Cliff, and it takes a while to spot the swap over.
Sixth track Christmas Is Quiet is next, which is a warm track, giving Cliff a great place to show off his voice alongside acoustic guitar and piano. He’s joined by some great backing vocals from Michelle Wolf. This track is a simple but lavish recording, and it definitely feels Christmassey despite a lack of sleigh bells.
Let It Snow is up next, and it’s another new recording. Like the opening track, this one has a really bouncy sound to it. The sleigh bells were definitely being saved for this track, and the piano, strings, and bass keep the track bouncing along. Again, Cliff and his backing singers work together perfectly, although they approach the ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow’ line in a slightly different key.
Another big hit is up next, with Cliff’s 1990 Christmas Day UK number one single Saviour’s Day (it displaced Vanilla Ice with his number one Ice Ice Baby hit). As with Mistletoe And Wine, you’re probably either ok with this track, or you hate it with a passion. Again, I’m okay with this song. I think that its use of synths, tempo, and vocal harmonies in the chorus, really help this track work.
The inevitable Cliff cover is up next – White Christmas – and he does a pretty good job of it vocally, although the keyboard player seems to have had a little too much sherry. A wonderful vocal harmony section comes in to sing with Cliff and alongside a violin solo. Whilst the Bing Crosby version is the definitive, this version is perfectly listenable.
Up next is the classic Silent Night, given a gentle modern make-over with some new lyrics – ‘and we drink a last hot coffee. Your head’s upon my shoulder and they just played Mistletoe And Wine on the radio‘ he sings. The beats are light and skittish here, and the synth ‘bells’ are not too intrusive. A saxophone (i think) comes in, but overall this slightly odd modern version works, as the classic song part is the dominant bit and that is delivered by Cliff sympathetically.
The first and final new single from this album is Santa’s List, written by Chris Eaton, who previously wrote him his Saviour’s Day hit. This track (and this album) saw Cliff return to EMI – the label he’d left after decades on their books, due to a dispute over his plans to release single The Millennium Prayer in 1999. This is a really strong track, and Cliff’s vocals work well against the strings and rockier beats and guitars.
Synths and strings not unlike something from William Orbit open next track, When A Child Is Born. This is another new recording of a classic song, and this time it works really well. The modern sounds/instruments aren’t too over the top, giving Cliff an easy ride through the lyrics. It also gives him some great build-ups in the chorus, as well as a key change, although after a while I realise that there are some strong musical similarities between this and Josh Groban‘s hit You Raise Me Up. Don’t tell the lawyers.
This is followed by new track Come To Us, is a-wash with strings, oboe (?), and piano, although the song isn’t particularly Christmas themed.
Christmas classic The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) gets a modern twist, this time with lots of piano, too much saxophone (that sounds like an opening theme from a TV Breakfast magazine show), some sleigh bells and a funky bass. This one feels a bit Cliff meets backing tape.
An unanswered telephone call opens the down-beat track released in 1991 – We Should Be Together, which is a gentle beat and 90’s synths. It includes some wonderfully twangy guitars. This is a really nice song, but again, it’s not particularly Christmassey.
Newly recorded, the penultimate track is the lush Winter Wonderland (you knew it had to be on here somewhere, right?). The gentle brushes on snare, double-bass led track wanders through the wonderland hand-in-hand with Cliff as he sings the vocals with great ease over a tinkling piano. I can almost imagine the fire flickering in the hearth. This is a wonderful cover of this Christmas classic, tailed by a cheeky ‘we can take the dog’ from Cliff at the end.
Final track is The Millennium Prayer, a mixture of The Lord’s Prayer and Auld Lang Syne. This song is a difficult listen, and perhaps I can see why EMI were not prepared to release it. But, to his credit, and the courage of Chrysalis, it gave him his first #1 single in 9 years. He was displaced by Westlife‘s single – a cover of the ABBA hit, I Have A Dream, and which led us into the new millennium.
Overall, this album, although quite long and therefore a lot of Cliff At Christmas, is a good album, a few of the modern-styled covers feel dated or simply disappointing.
The big hits, Santa’s List, and the sympathetic covers (like Winter Wonderland) really work well, and so perhaps a slightly shorter album might have helped, but face it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a Cliff Richard song or two.
- POP RESCUE 2014 RATING: 3 / 5
- 2003 UK CHART POSITION: #9, certified Platinum.
- POP RESCUE COST: £3.85 from an eBay seller.