In the run-up to Christmas this year, I thought I’d write about three “non-Christmassy” songs that were big Christmas hits…in the UK at least, other territories may vary.
Whether or not they were hits where you live, they’re all great songs…whatever time of year you happen across this article…
First up is Lily Allen with “Somewhere Only We Know”. Full disclosure — I’m not the world’s biggest Lily Allen fan. But whoever’s decision it was to use her vocal on this song was a genius. It’s entirely right for the subject matter and Lily Allen gives a great performance.
“Somewhere Only We Know” was written by Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes who together make up the British band Keane. This was the group’s commercial breakthrough, reaching number three in the UK charts back in 2003.
10 years later, UK retailer John Lewis, who put a lot of time and effort into their Christmas TV ads every year, selected “Somewhere Only We Know” as the soundtrack to their Christmas commercial.
Unlike most retailers advertising on TV just before Christmas who like to tell you what deals are on and how stocks are limited so you’d better get there fast, John Lewis take a different tack.
The job of a John Lewis Christmas ad is to generate warm, fuzzy feelings appropriate to the time of year, with just enough pathos to stop their commercials becoming another syrupy concoction like so many others at this time of year.
John Lewis’s Christmas ads stand out because they’re not in “sell, sell, sell” mode. There’s not a product in sight. And I’m not sure they even know what a pitchman is.
The resultant combination of high production values, non-salesy storyboard and a dose of British eccentricity makes the John Lewis Christmas ads something of a British institution.
Back in 2013, John Lewis decided to make that year’s TV commercial into an animated mini-feature. For reasons best known to the creative minds on this project, they settled on Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” as the soundtrack.
But who was going to sing it? Keane’s original is a fairly rocky, upbeat song which wasn’t quite the mood John Lewis were aiming for. Keane themselves recommended Lily Allen for the job.
Much as I like Keane’s original (here if you’d like a listen… https://youtu.be/Oextk-If8HQ ), there are two great things about Lily Allen’s cover version which make it perfect.
Firstly, the piano part, which largely carries the track, is divine. This was played by Paul Beard, who also produced Lily Allen’s version of the track.
Paul Beard is a great piano player and has played on a number of songs which have hit the upper reaches of the pop charts, but this was his first big hit as a producer as well as a performer.
Keane were a piano-driven band anyway, but for Lily Allen’s version of “Somewhere Only We Know” there’s not much else going on instrumentally aside from the piano.
Paul Beard played a much more complex piano part than Keane’s original, but the joy of his performance is that the end result is still delightfully under-stated. It’s clever, deft and astonishingly musical, but it’s not “in your face”.
A performance this complex and gifted, yet muted almost to the point of invisibility, is the sign of a real artist, comfortable in his craft.
To be fair, Lily Allen’s vocal isn’t far behind. She brings a fragility to her performance…a slightly tentative, hesitant vocal which nestles a lot further back in the mix than chart-topping lead singers tend to feel comfortable with.
Both Paul Beard on piano and Lily Allen on vocal manage a great trick…their performances, whilst brilliant, are pitched at the very points in our brains where the conscious starts to fade into the subconscious.
Together they give us an almost hypnotic, subliminal performance. It’s easy to forget there’s a piece of music being performed at all. You can half-listen to it in the background and have a very pleasant experience. Yet when you turn your full attention to it, you’re rewarded with feelings of almost unspeakable joy at the brilliance of the performance…it really is that perfect, and one of my favourite “non-Christmassy” Christmas songs.
I say “non-Christmassy”, but the power of John Lewis’s Christmas commercials are so strong for a UK audience, that most Brits will associate “Somewhere Only We Know” with Christmas for evermore. Yet Christmas itself, the time of year or the season, doesn’t get a single mention in the lyrics.
“Somewhere Only We Know” is about a couple finding…or, perhaps more accurately, rediscovering…a secret place that meant so much to them. It could be a physical place, but I’ve always thought it meant a place in each other’s hearts where they felt perfectly comfortable and at ease with one another. (Feel free to choose your own interpretation, though…the great thing about song lyrics is that they mean what you want them to mean, even if that isn’t what the lyricist intended.)
Yet time has moved on. Relations are strained. Perhaps the end is in sight.
We get a sense of the mood from the opening verse…
I walked across an empty land
I knew the pathway like the back of my hand
I felt the earth beneath my feet
Sat by the river and it made me complete
Oh, simple thing, where have you gone
I’m getting tired and I need someone to rely on
This could be about a couple breaking up.
Or…in the hands of a much-loved UK retailer…this verse could be about two cartoon animals, a hare and a bear, setting out on their journey across a snow-covered landscape, hoping to navigate the frozen tundra safely so they can meet up with their animal friends just in time for Christmas.
Throw in some great animation, a story-line with just enough pathos for it not to be too sickly, accompanied by a wonderful cover of a song written 10 years earlier and…hey presto!…you’ve created one of the most popular UK commercials of all time.
The official video for Lily Allen’s full version shows the making of the TV commercial. This is really interesting, but I always find it a little distracting as the cleverness of the animation takes my attention away from the brilliance of Paul Beard’s piano and Lily Allen’s vocal.
But it is well worth a look…you can find that version here… https://youtu.be/mer6X7nOY_o
However, I’d strongly advise listening to the audio-only track first to give you the full sense of Lily Allen’s version of “Somewhere Only We Know”, which you can find below. Then come back to fully appreciate the “making of the commercial” video.
I hope you enjoy the first of our “non-Christmassy” Christmas songs. With Paul Beard on piano, it’s Lily Allen’s brilliant cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please consider following me on Medium to make sure you get new stories as soon as they’re published. You can also find me on Twitter here.
And if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find that here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5uvosCdMlFdTXhoazkTI5R