Seven Songs for Christmas: Jona Lewie, Stop the Cavalry

A common theme of the Christmas songs I?ve featured over the last few days is that they either had their origins in dark times ? war, economic deprivation and social collapse ? or featured depressing material, which somehow found unexpected hope.

Today?s song likewise concerns dispiriting subject matter ? war and protest ? and wasn?t even meant to be a Christmas song.

Yet, helped by a clever twist from a producer, Jona Lewie?s Stop the cavalry almost claimed the coveted Christmas number one for 1980 (pipped only by the recently-murdered John Lennon?s (Just Like) Starting Over, and the surprise number one, There?s no one quite like Grandma by the St. Winifred?s School Choir.

Jona Lewie had been playing in blues and jazz bands since the early 60s. After a brief moment of fame in 1972, as part of Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs, he persisted through the 70s, until breaking through in 1977 with the New Wave/synthpop hit, You?ll always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lewie would go on to have several more hits over the next few years, in Britain and around the world, with songs like Louise (We get it right) and Big shot – momentarily, but it was Stop the cavalry that became his biggest song.

Besides its chart peak in 1980, the song has become a perennial December favourite on British radio and television. Lewie appeared on a Channel 4 Christmas special in 2005, along with Slade and David Essex. In 2017, he performed the song on a Christmas edition of ITV?s award-winning This Morning, against a twee backdrop of ice skaters and a badly miming ?soldier? brass band. All of which formed a splendidly incongruous contrast to Lewie?s dour style and deadpan Sotonian vocals.

In 1980, the Cold War had ramped up again, as the Soviets deployed their deadly new SS-20 missiles across the Eastern Bloc, Communist Poland teetered on the edge of crisis, and the hawkish new American president began to throw down the gauntlet to the Evil Empire. The murder of John Lennon seemed to be the final knell for Baby Boomer idealism. Peace protests were in the air again.

Despite its upbeat, oompah-oompah tune and jolly brass-band refrain, Stop the cavalry is a lyrically bleak song. A soldier laments that ?it?s very cold out here in the snow?, and wishes he ?could be dancing now, in the arms of the girl I love? instead of fighting the war.

Although its accompanying film clip (worth watching simply to see Lewie and extras visibly poop themselves when a bomb goes off) depicts an explicitly First World War setting, references to ?Mr. Churchill? and ?the nuclear fall-out zone? make clear that its narrator is a timeless figure. ?The soldier in the song is a bit like the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe,? says Lewie. War-weariness, homesickness, and a yearning for peace are common to soldiers who ?have had to fight, almost every night, down throughout these centuries?.

So, Lewie?s song might have remained a clever, misleadingly cheerful-sounding anti-war, had not an astute record company exec picked up on the line, ?Wish I was at home for Christmas?. With the addition of a tubular bell motif, Stop the cavalry was suddenly a Christmas song.

Which is probably appropriate: as the Christmas Truce of 1914 showed, Christmas is the season when the thoughts of billions of people turn to peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Its message has a power which still resonates even in the increasingly secularised West. Stop the cavalry is a song which, in its own way, finds unexpected happiness in the darkest of times.

Which is, really, the message of Christmas.