Re-released to commemorate its 25th anniversary, Paul Kelly’s ‘How To Make Gravy’ has over that time become an Australian Christmas classic. Originally released on November 4, 1996, the song name-checks today, 21 December, and is sung from the point of view of a man named Joe, who has been incarcerated over the Christmas period, while he’s writing a letter to his family. As Joe recounts all those who will be gathering for the family Christmas, what’s foremost on his mind is, who’s going to make the gravy while he’s on the inside?
Thankfully, he shares his recipe – a genuine one that Kelly was given by his father-in-law – so the family will be able to make it – but, “I bet it won’t taste the same”.
The song was originally written by Kelly after he was approached by Lindsay Field, guitarist and backing vocalist for John Farnham, to perform a Christmas-themed song or carol for ‘The Spirit Of Christmas’, a charity album, raising money for The Salvation Army. When he discovered his song of choice, ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ wasn’t available, he decided to write one instead, later recalling,
“I had a rough tune I’d been kicking around with the band at sound check, but was having trouble getting started on the words. Kelly’s inspiration for the lyrics was subsequently drawn from Irving Berlin’s song, ‘White Christmas’, where “Irving intensifies the feeling of Christmas by not being there”.
The song struck a chord with Field, who then asked the Salvation Army’s selection committee to accept it for the album. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Kelly didn’t want to re-record it, and it took some persuading.
“it’s [already] out there. But friends I was talking to about the record – and the band – were really surprised that we weren’t recording it again. We play it so much, it plays us, as much as we play it.”
Paul Kelly has included the song on his new album, ‘Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train’. His 28th studio album, it was released on 19 November, and includes 22 tracks on a double CD set. Paul sings with a diverse range of artists, including Casey Chambers, Vika Bull, Linda Bull, Waleed Aly, and Emma Donovan, and the songs are just as varied, with traditional classics such as ‘Silent Night’, and ‘Little Drummer Boy’ sit alongside ‘Shalom Aleichem’, a Hebrew prayer, here sung by Lior, and ‘Surah Maryam’, a chapter from the Qu’ran which tells Mary’s story, and is recited by Waleed Aly, an Australian writer, lawyer, academic and musician.
Also included on the album is ‘Swing Around The Sun’, by Casey Bennetto, which perfectly captures Christmas in the steaming heat of Australian mid summer, with lyrics such as,
“miles of scrunched-up paper, yards of burning skin
an alcoholic vapour ’round the yellow-lidded bin”
While Australians have long known the feeling of being apart from loved ones scattered across the globe at Christmas time, the song has taken on an extra poignancy these past two years due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. if the song didn’t already bring a tear to your eye, it may well once you watch the new video below, which sees people from all over the world sending their love to their family and friends.
So this Christmas, whether we be in prison, or in the grey drear of the UK mid-winter, or under the burning sun of Australia, or scattered across far corners of the world, far from our families and friends; let’s all come together and with Paul Kelly, make gravy, and plenty of it.
‘Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train’ is available to stream and download here.