A Love Letter to 'Stop the Cavalry'

Wish I was a gnome for Christmas.
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Wish I was a gnome for Christmas.

cavalry

You know Jona Lewie. He looks like your dad's best mate, who “does a bit plastering now and again” for cash-in-hand and often goes down the pub on a Thursday. He used to be in a band called “Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs” who had a hit in 1972 with the bluesy ”Seaside Shuffle” (which if I'm honest, isn't worth a listen).

In 1980, Jona had gone solo - seeing his career better spent away from Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs - and released an anti-war tune on Stiff Records, called “Stop the Cavalry”. It has long become a cultural staple in the nebulous Frankenstein-genre of "British Christmas Singles", and it's hard not to see why.

It’s the brass band, the plodding synth, the uproarious brass band bridge used for a plethora of teatime marketing campaigns. It’s the charmingly dated video and the monotone drawl that Jona sings with, that makes it a Christmas radio staple in Britain.

I like to think of this song as something that two father-in-laws would casually mull and brood over in an attempt to bond at Christmastime. I'll set the scene for you: two men are waiting outside the changing rooms in the second-best department store of a large UK city. Their wives are inside trying on clothes.

The men stand idly, looking at their feet, failing to have found a seat to recline on. Both notice each other and one makes a facial expression, implying “women, eh?”. The other smiles and silence resumes.

Moments pass until “Stop the Cavalry” comes on the shop floor radio. One of the two finally plucks up enough courage to initiate conversation.

“Christ, it’s been a while since I’ve heard this”

“Yeah, Jona Lewie isn’t it?”

“Haha yeah, 'Stop the Cavalry', great song”

“Great Christmas song“

“Yeah. 1980, when this first came out?”

“Jesus tonight”

“I know, makes you feel old doesn't it?”

“Yeah... hmph.”

Both men ponder where they are now to where they were back when it was first released. Younger, healthier and with a fair deal more freedom. Sure they’re more content with the way things are now, but nostalgia always has a bad habit of making the past more attractive.

“You a local?” the first man asks

“No she’s just got family here so we're down for the Christmas period, then it's back to see mine up north”

“Oh alright”

“Here she is now”

“Nice speaking to you mate”

“And you”

Both part ways with their wives in tow.

And thus ends a brief and transient friendship, formed by the shared knowledge of a song distinctly unpretentious, and simple enough that its universal likeability factor can trigger off a conversation with just about anyone.

This song particularly stands out for me because it’s not actually about Christmas. It mentions it a couple of times, but it was released at one of the heights of the Cold War tensions, and was actually meant to protest against nuclear war, rather than the Great War of 1914-1918.

Jona Lewie told the Daily Express on March 12, 2005 that "the soldier in the song is a bit like the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, but the song actually had nothing to do with Christmas when I wrote it. There is one line about him being on the front and missing his girlfriend: 'I wish I was at home for Christmas.' The record company picked up on that from a marketing perspective, and added a tubular bell”. And yet, it is that iconic tubular bell which transformed Lewie's protest song into a quintessential Christmas song.

The video is set on the Western Front during the Great War, where a soldier in a trench quite simply wishes he was home for Christmas. The song went to number three in the UK, kept off by two John Lennon songs (given he had only recently been gunned down in New York by Mark Chapman) and topped the charts in several European countries. Jona had managed one prior hit before 'Stop the Cavalry' - the new-wave novelty track 'You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties' - and never managed to chart in the UK again.

To me, this is a bloke’s song. Not a man's song, nor a masculine song, nor a boy's song even. A bloke's song. A song written for and by the gentleman with dirt under his fingernails, and crow’s-feet etched onto his face. They work hard, they support their beliefs and teams with unwavering faith and they like their music with a good beat and a catchy chorus. Jona Lewie is that man, 'Stop the Cavalry' is that song, and it deserves our appreciation. Next time this comes on the radio, turn it up, grin and maybe text your dad. See how he is.

Thomas Parslew is not on Twitter.

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