It’s the most wonderful time of the year: when people complain about all the speakers blaring Paul McCartney’s deathless X-mas ditty “Wonderful Christmastime.” Since 1979, the song has haunted holiday airwaves, its soft synths, simple earworm melody and even more simple lyrics (“The party’s on/The feeling’s here/That only comes/This time of year”) signaling a Pavlovian response in the world’s mightiest grinches.
I used to be one of you.
Time was, for a long chunk of my life, I would break out into hives when I heard the song creep into my innocent sojourns to Rite Aid or CVS. Once I heard it for the first time in November I knew the dreaded holidays were in full swing, and the War on Christmas couldn’t come sooner. I also loudly deplored solo McCartney, and maintained that the real best Beatle wasn’t even John but George.
Then I started, for the first time ever, really listening to post-Beatles McCartney beyond the greatest hits. Over the last handful of years it seems the cool kids have too, coming to the same conclusion that I, not a very cool kid, had: Sir Paul’s solo and even Wings stuff is far more interesting than I had been led to believe. “Ram,” credited to him and Linda, is strong. Ditto “Wild Life,” ditto “Venus and Mars,” even ditto “Back to the Egg.” Noah Baumbach, always a proud McCartney supporter, has put McCartney songs in his last few films. (Along with the killer use of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” in “Greenberg,” there’s a great spin of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” the noodly capper of “Band on the Run,” in “While We’re Young.”)
McCartney even gets pretty weird, if maybe not as weird as John’s art records with Yoko Ono. The height of Bizarre Paul is “McCartney II,” from 1980. As with 1970’s “McCartney,” it’s a literal solo album: it was made in his remote country house, entirely by him. But this time he’d gotten his hand on some newfangled synthesizers and had been listening to some of that New Wave the kids were talking about. Some of it is fairly conventional (the Talking Heads-y concert staple “Comin’ Up,” the mopey ballad “Waterfalls”), but some of it is truly out-there, and not just for a pop music god. “Temporary Secretary” has one of the four or five craziest riffs in music that’s technically mainstream.
Long story short: “McCartney II” and its supreme weirdness is the key to unlocking “Wonderful Christmastime.” The song came from the same sessions, and was released half a year ahead of the album. If you listen to it in the context of “McCartney II” — and not as just another holiday jingle, played in tandem with Lennon’s respectable “Happy X-Mas (War is Over)” — it sounds less like an enforced radio staple than a transmission from one of those alternate universes you see on “Rick and Morty.” The synths are no longer cheesy but a minimalist concoction that dominate over the childish melody and barely-there lyrics.
Read in this context, “Wonderful Christmastime” seems like a work of deeply personal art that accidentally became a holiday cash cow that still nets its already disgustingly wealthy maker $400,000 every year. It’s the sound of someone with nothing left to prove experimenting anyway. And the sounds of group merriment toward the end make it even stranger when you realize it’s just one dude working by himself in the middle of Scotland. Now that I see it that way, I kind of love it. And, of course, Noah Baumbach’s got my back.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge