Since the chart rules changed in 2017 after Ed Sheeran ‘broke’ the chart, which has since not been fixed, tiringly, every year the singles chart is flooded with all the old Christmas fodder which, although they do stream in their millions, it’s not a true representation of how many copies are actually ‘sold’/downloaded/streamed because one of the chart rules is to have these old songs on ACR. That stands for accelerated chart ratio meaning any current chart hit that has declining sales for three consecutive weeks have their stream:sale effectively halved from 100 streams=one sales to 200 streams=one sale, but cannot be applied to any product with fewer than nine weeks on chart. If a song increases its consumption, then ACR is reset. A relatively new rule has been introduced which now states, ‘Any song (excluding Christmas songs) older than 3 years may be automatically reset under the same circumstances if the track has not charted in the Top 100 singles chart within the past three years.’ But because the festive favourites are back every year, they remain permanently on ACR.
So, at the time of writing, (15th December 2023) the current top 75 has 39 festive songs in it with another batch set to enter later today. As this request only came in last week, it was pertinent to push it up the waiting last to tie in with this seasonal period. So, now that the ridiculous chart rules are out the way, let’s get on.
It’s hard to believe that Chris Rea’s now perennial favourite is celebrating its 35th year of release from when it first appeared in 1988. Although it was first recorded two years previous, it was just a lead track on The Christmas EP and stalled at number 53. Some 19 years went by before it appeared on the chart again and has been back every year since and, only once, in 2021, did it climb to the dizzy heights of number 10 which is a much improved position from the early days.
It all began when Chris was working at Abbey Road studios in London. He was trying to emulate something as popular as his debut hit Fool (If You Think It’s Over). In 1987 and 88 he had two number 12 hits Let’s Dance and On the Beach respectively but had never yet had his the top 10 hit. He had been in London for a while and his wife Joan drove down from their home in Middleborough in their Morris 1000 to pick Chris up and take him home for Christmas. “My career, at the point, was really on the floor,” he recalled, “I’d ceased to become the pop star the record company wanted me to be and I was about to be dropped. It was pretty ropey and as we left Abbey Road that night, we had been discussing opening an Italian restaurant and leaving the music business altogether. As we drove away, it began to snow and we were young and I just felt happy and I just thought ‘stuff this’, it’s Christmas. Then a little tune started forming in my head, we were driving home for Christmas and I’d do silly things like wind the window down and wish people a happy Christmas. I just scribbled the lyrics down on the back of a fag packet so I didn’t forget. We eventually got home about half past five in the morning and one thing I do remember was opening the front door and snow falling into the hall and it didn’t melt, it was that cold.” The song then got put on hold. Why? Chris explained, “When we stepped in the house, there was one letter from PRS America. My song Fool (If You Think It’s Over) had been a hit in the US, so there was a cheque for £15,000. We went from being down to our last £220 to being able to buy a house, so the song went in my old tin full of unfinished stuff.” He wasn’t that fussed because he never intended to write a Christmas song, “I’m a serious musician.”
A couple of years later, his career turned around, “Max Middleton, my keyboard player, and I were testing two new Roland pianos,” he explained to Dave Simpson at The Guardian, “We started joking around, playing this Count Basie-type thing. I said to Max, do you remember A Walk in the Black Forest? and he said, ‘yes, by Horst someone or other, some German guy’, so I said, let’s play it and we did and it stayed. I pretended to be Nat King Cole and someone said, ‘That’s a great tune, that. You should get it down.’ I went back to my tin, and the words to Driving Home for Christmas fitted perfectly.”
Chris still wasn’t overly keen on releasing a Christmas song, but once it was recorded it was originally issued on the B-side of the non-charting single Hello Friend. Chris didn’t even realise at first, he said, “Someone decided to put it on the B-side and I never used to have conversations about a B-side, it never bothered me because I didn’t think anybody listened to them. Max and I then had the idea that maybe we should send it to Van Morrison because we thought he’d do it great, that’s why it’s in that key.”
Chris’ gravelly voice gives him a crooner type style and if you listen to the 1996 single Girl In A Sports Car, you’ll see what I mean. So, not being keen on recording a Christmas song and not even considering it for an A side, Chris was hardly likely to sing it live, but…”I’d never played it live until one year at Hammersmith Odeon, the gig was on 21 December, so the road crew kept badgering me to do it. I went, ‘If I’m going to sing this fucking song, we’re gonna do it properly.’ So we hired 12 snow cannons and when we started the song, you couldn’t hear it for the noise of the crowd, and we let go with the machines. We put three feet of artificial snow in the stalls. The venue charged me £12,000 to clean it up.”
Now the song was starting to get noticed, “I had big companies using it in adverts and it was in a video for Shelter.” Chris told Dave Simpson, “I used to be terrified the song would ruin any credibility I had left, but now we have a laugh with it. If I’m ever stuck on the M25 – the Road to Hell – I’d wind the window down and start singing, ‘I’m driving home for Christmas’ at people in cars alongside. They love it. It’s like giving them a present.
Martin Ditcham was the drummer on the song and he had his own recollection of the song, “I did lots with Chris, so at the time it was just another session, but it’s nice to be part of a song that’s turned out to be one of the most played Christmas singles of all time. You put on the radio or sit in the coffee bar, and it’s on.” In a 2015 interview, Ditcham said, “My daughter is 15 and none of her friends know who the hell Chris Rea is but they know that song, as soon as it comes on, they start singing it. I’ve played with everyone from Status Quo to Talk Talk, but nothing impresses them as much as the fact that I play on Driving Home for Christmas.”