Monday, December 19, 2011

Beyond the Phil: Thirteen Spectacular Non-Spector X-Mas Songs

Rock & Roll fans have little to choose from come Christmas time. While we’re inundated with holiday odes from Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and those barking dogs, there’s precious little that kicks anything remotely resembling an ass. Then in November of 1963, Phil Spector really gave Rock & Roll fans a Christmas gift they could cherish with his monumental and appropriately titled A Christmas Gift for You. Finally, a holiday platter to drive mom and dad nuts! The kids who bought that album way back in the ‘60s are probably moms and dads themselves now, and A Christmas Gift for You—which, legend has it, flopped because it was released the day Kennedy was assassinated—is now rightfully regarded as a classic. Darlene Love’s emotionally draining “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” may be the single greatest Christmas recording, Rock or otherwise. Spector made Christmas songs cool, and a select few of his pop progeny have since recorded great ones of their own. Not all of these thirteen non-Spector holiday numbers kick the proverbial, but they’re all pretty amazing in their own ways. When you feel like heaving after the hundredth spin of that Chipmunk song, here are thirteen unconventional alternatives to cleanse your palette.

1. “The Man with All the Toys” by The Beach Boys (1964)

Certainly the best non-Spector holiday long player was created by Phil’s top pupil. In less than two years, Brian Wilson would surpass his master when he conjured Pet Sounds. He’s not quite there yet on 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s still a damn fine and rather inventive record. The album’s best-known track is the “Little Deuce Coupe”-rewrite “Little Saint Nick”, a decently corny holiday favorite. Better is “The Man with All the Toys”, an abbreviated ode to Santa that picks up on the baroque hints of the previous summer’s “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”. Mike Love’s lyric is evocative: a peeping tom peeps on Santa and his elves in their workshop, but doesn’t dare to enter. The sharp exclamations of “Uh!” are an offbeat yet pleasing touch and the tightly controlled rhythm is hypnotic.

2. “Christmas Time (Is Here Again) ” by The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles could record any old junk and make it sound pretty wonderful. Take their late 1967 single “Hello Goodbye”. McCartney’s composition is flimsy, but the performance and production elevate it to top-quality pop fluff. A short time later they recorded their annual fan club-only Christmas single, and for the first time included an actual fully produced song on the disc. As a composition, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is even thinner than “Hello Goodbye”, but it is created with all the joy of that single. The lyric is absolutely silly: the title phrase repeated over and over, only varied by a brief interjection from Paul about the holiday’s longevity and a cryptic spelling lesson from Ringo. But the guys’ harmonies soar and Ringo’s drumming is loose and powerful. And it’s all over in little over a minute, which doesn’t hurt.

3. “A Christmas Camel” by Procol Harum (1967)

Here’s how to write a Christmas song that won’t make listeners barf: give it a holiday-themed title, but jettison all holiday themes in favor of psychedelic gobbledygook. Keith Reid was one of the great writers of psychedelic gobbledygook, and he’s in rare form on Procol Harum’s “A Christmas Camel”. All Christmas songs should contain lyrics like “While some Arabian Sheik most grand impersonates a hot dog stand” and they should all be played with the Gothic grandeur the Harum brings to “A Christmas Camel”…

4. “Riu Chiu” by The Monkees (1967)

..but if you must stick religious themes into your Christmas carols, at least have the taste to do it in Spanish. Most listeners could only suss that The Monkees’ “Riu Chiu” is a Christmas song because they sang it (live!) in the Christmas episode of their TV series. The title translates to “Roaring River”, and the lyric imparts a prayer to God pleading for the safety of his newborn baby: Baby Jesus. Safe from what? A wolf that wants to eat him! Delicious Jesus. “Riu Chiu” is more evidence of The Monkees’ quirky tastes and wonderful vocal abilities. Micky Dolenz delivers the Spanish lyric without a single stumble. The contrapuntal harmonies are gorgeous.

5. “All Our Christmases” by The Majority (1968)

Hull’s The Majority bring their Hollies-esque harmonies and an arrangement lifted from “I Got You Babe” to “All Our Christmases”. Like Procol Harum’s “A Christmas Camel”, the holiday message is inscrutable, though less bizarre and the music is certainly more Christmassy.

6. “Christmas” by The Who (1969)

Christmas songs are often defined by their snowflake lightness. The Who aren’t. “Christmas” is the heaviest song in their relatively light Rock opera Tommy. A man ponders what might happen to the soul of his deaf, dumb, and blind son who can’t pray and grovel and do all the other nonsense one must do in order to enter Heaven because he isn’t even aware of the God concept. While Tommy’s dad agonizes over this spiritual dilemma, the boy plays a little pinball and picks his nose. A far better way to spend Christmas morning than sitting in church.

7. “Child’s Christmas in Wales” by John Cale (1973)

John Cale’s lovely “Child’s Christmas in Wales” pulls the greatest Christmas song trick of them all: the only holiday it specifically names is Halloween. The title references a radio poem by Cale’s fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas, and like much of Thomas’s work, it’s hard to pin down. Both the song and the poem stir nostalgia, but Cale’s lyric is prickled with imagery one doesn’t expect from a holiday carol: “Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship lend comedy to shame.” Indeed.

8. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” by Wizzard (1973)

Apparently, Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is one of those holiday standards so overplayed in the U.K. that it drives some British folk a bit bonkers. As a yank not bludgeoned with the track, I think it’s pretty terrific. Beginning with the cynical touch of a jingling cash register, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is a remarkable approximation of Spector’s Wall of Sound. It’s all incredibly over-the-top, with its punishing orchestrations and children’s choir and dream of 365 days of ho-ho-hoing. Considering that cash registers now start taking Christmas dollars and pounds in mid-August, Wizzard is coming distressingly close to having their dream come true.

9. “Winter” by The Rolling Stones (1973)

Mick Jagger is an underrated lyricist, and “Winter” finds him painting a portrait of the holiday season with spare images of frigid temperatures, restoration plays, and malfunctioning Christmas lights. This is no celebration of that holly jolly season but a weary lament, a prayer for a “long, hot summer.” Jimmy Miller’s murky production didn’t do Goats Head Soup many favors, but it contributes to the blizzardy atmosphere of “Winter” beautifully. Nicky Harrison’s icy string arrangement, which could easily be mistaken for the masterful work of Paul Buckmaster, whips up gusts.

10. “Father Christmas” by The Kinks (1979)

“Father Christmas” may be the greatest non-Spector holiday record of them all. The Kinks channel the punks they helped inspire, both in their muscular playing and the working class message and explicit violence of Ray Davies’s lyric. Poor kids threaten to beat up Santa and tell him to shove his “silly toys” because toys won’t help put food on the table or furnish dad with a job. They will accept a machine gun to scare all the kids on the street though. I assume they don’t mean a toy one. Mean, pointed, powerful, and absurdly catchy, “Father Christmas” is that rare Christmas song that can be enjoyed all year long.

11. “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause” by The Damned (1980)

From old-guard Rock & Rollers mimicking punks to the real deal. The Damned were actually moving away from their two-minutes-of-shouting formula in 1980. Of course, you’d never know that from the Chico Marx-quoting “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s hilarious. The Damned bared their atheistic stance on 1979’s rampaging “Anti-Pope”. Here they rail against easier game: Santa Clause. The guys equate the holiday mascot with a succession of monsters, each of which has its own equivalent in the band. Rat Scabies thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. Dave Vanian believes he’s had visits from Dracula. Captain Sensible takes up the not-so-sensible habit of impersonating Jaws. There’s as little sanity in such behavior as there is in Santa worship. Like The Kinks, if The Damned ever met St. Nick they’d “give him some stick.” A punk carol for Christmas and Halloween alike.

12. “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders (1983)

The Pretenders emerged from the same punk scene as The Damned. Chrissie Hynde even briefly played in an ill-fated band called Masters of the Backside with Sensible, Vanian, and Scabies. But the sentiment and style of The Pretenders’ Christmas song couldn’t be more different from The Damned’s. “2000 Miles” is a pretty, gentle ballad about reuniting with an estranged loved one in the holiday season. Hynde indulges in disarmingly straight-faced sentimentality: “You appear outside under the purple sky/ Diamonds in the snow sparkle/Our Hearts were singing/It felt like Christmas time.” She’s cool enough to pull it off.

13. “Santa Claus” by Throwing Muses (1989)

Kristin Hersh is cool too, but she’s also disjointed and surreal, hence Throwing Muses’ jarring “Santa Clause”. Like “2000 Miles”, it’s a love song, although it’s hard to believe Hynde’s long lost lover looked like Santa Clause, as Hersh’s beau does. Rhythm guitar jangles like sleigh bells (or maybe the James Bond theme song). Lead guitar shrieks like a reindeer in a meat grinder. Hersh howls “Ho, ho, ho!” like an escaped psycho in a Santa suit. Your local shopping mall won’t be playing this track over the P.A. this Christmas. All the more reason why it’s so spectacular.

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