Friday, December 20, 2013

Track by Track: 'A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records'


In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

“The biggest thanks goes to you for giving me the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music that I love.”

-Phil Spector “Silent Night”

Like so many visionaries, Phil Spector refused to grow up. Perhaps this has been the cause of so many of his problems—his infantilizing of ex-wife Ronnie Spector, his daddy issues, and his fatal obsession with playing with guns—but it is also the source of his art. His favorite toys are the ones found in a recording studio and his favorite time of the year is Christmas. In 1963, Spector attempted to capture the essence of the holiday several months before December 25th in the less than seasonal setting of sunny Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios. How would his thunderous Wall-of-Sound work with corny kiddie songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” or the hymn carol “Silent Night” or the easy-listening standard “Winter Wonderland”? Brilliantly, of course, though it has taken longer than Spector surely wished for this to become common knowledge.

As the often-told tale goes, the release of A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records is not the first thing that comes to mind when most people recall November 22, 1963. At 12:30 PM that day, John Kennedy’s motorcade was driving through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, when the president was assassinated. How this affected A Christmas Gift for You depends on whom you ask. By most accounts, it was a simple matter of national mourning displacing holiday merry-making. In her autobiography, My Name Is Love, Darlene Love wrote that her producer decided to “yank” the album from distribution out of respect for the grim times.

Spector at work on A Christmas Gift for You while two of his crucial singers—Darlene Love and Cher—await instructions.

Regardless of the circumstances, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records was a flop, and the British Invasion that rocked American shores in the first months of 1964 would do even more damage to Phil Spector’s dominance of the pop scene. Although he’d continue to score some huge hits with The Righteous Brothers through 1966, radio now belonged to The Beatles and their brethren. Spector would get a creative and commercial second wind at the end of the decade by hooking up with that band and its ex-members, but there’s no question that late-’63 was as dark a time for him as it was for everyone else.

Today A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records sits in the classic spot it should have earned fifty years ago. Hip holiday fans with no patience for church choirs or Andy Williams feel no embarrassment when giving this disc a spin. Surely no other Christmas record rocks so hard, is so soulful and powerful, yet also translates that indescribable holiday feeling so authentically. A Christmas Gift for You is snow and sleigh bells and fur-fringed red suits. It’s also a rowdy office party, a make-out session under the mistletoe, and in at least one instance, the gut-shredding anguish of spending Christmas all alone. With incalculable support from the expressive voices of The Crystals, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and—whoa…hold onto your Santa hat—Darlene Love, as well as the instrumental might of the Wrecking Crew, Spector not only made the never-will-be-challenged greatest Christmas record, he made one of the greatest Rock & Roll records of any kind. Let’s take a closer look at each track to see and hear why.



A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records

Originally released November 22, 1963

Produced by Phil Spector

Track 1: White Christmas by Darlene Love (Irving Berlin)

With the slowly rising piano figure that sweeps it in and the moderately paced stroll that follows, “White Christmas” is an unusual choice to begin this barrage of sounds. Spector is easing us into the experience like a kid gradually waking on Christmas morning, rubbing her eyes, and realizing what day it is before zooming downstairs to find out what’s under the tree. However, Darlene Love’s voice is undoubtedly adult, without Ronnie Bennett’s (remember, she wouldn’t be Ronnie Spector for five years) kiddie enunciation or even the high register of Bobby Sheen, the only male lead voice on the record. Darlene’s delivery is also especially adult on “White Christmas”. She keeps the fire rockets in reserve to be used judiciously on “Marshmallow World” and “Winter Wonderland” and shot off without restraint on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Even her mid-song recitation sounds drowsy.

Irving Berlin’s classic was made famous by Bing Crosby in 1942, and went on to become one of the biggest hits of the pop era, returning to the Billboard charts some twenty times throughout the years and reaching the number one spot a staggering three times, the only single with that particular achievement to its credit. Its melancholic message of wishing to be in a snow-blanketed Currier and Ives paradise must have really resounded with the overseas soldiers fighting World War II. The spoken interlude in Spector’s version better reflects his own yearnings. A child of the Bronx with a love of traditionally wintery Christmases, he surely must have missed the East Coast on those sunny December days in L.A. Darlene Love laments vistas of green grass and swaying orange and palm trees. Perhaps most of A Christmas Gift was too up beat for the troubled times in which it was released. This is not one of those tracks. The mood would change with the next track though…

Track 2: Frosty the Snowman by The Ronettes (Steve Nelson and Walter Rollins)

“Frosty the Snowman”—or “Fwosty the Snowman,” as Ronnie sings—finds Spector getting down to business. The track doesn’t hit as hard as a few tracks later in the album, but it certainly has a hell of a lot more punch than the elegant “White Christmas”. The great Hal Blaine takes the mufflers off his drumsticks and beats his kit into submission. Listen to him reproduce his iconic “Be My Baby” beat beneath the opening bars, perhaps a sly in-joke by him and the producer. Ronnie’s squeak is perfectly childlike on this song for children, the first of the album to convey the hyped-up sense of wonder that is its primary emotion. Ronnie is Spector’s key conduit for that. Though Phil’s tendency to infantilize Ronnie would be more than a little questionable in their personal relationship (in My Name Is Love, Darlene Love tells a bizarre story of how Phil tried to relieve Ronnie’s boredom during the sessions by buying her comic books and children’s toys), it gets the job done on A Christmas Gift. Her voice is little girl-like in its timbre and poorly enunciated lack of sophistication. The arrangement does not want for sophistication. The strings are particularly remarkable, controlling the mood by swaying from soaring legato passages to skittering pizzicato even as the rhythm section never attempts any such dynamic shifts. The most dramatic moment occurs as Ronnie chirps, “He heard them holler stop!,” and the entire majestic orchestra halts for a breath-taking moment of silence. Blaine wallops out a brutal triplet, and the whole glorious group explodes back in for a finale on which the drummer rips off of his restraints to pummel exhilarating rolls down his toms. This is an arrangement Gene Autry couldn’t have imagined when he cut his rooty-tooty, hippity-hoppity original in 1950. Spector’s “Frosty” kicks that one’s snowy ass.

Track 3: The Bells of St. Mary’s by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (A. Emmett Adams and Douglas Furber)

Phil Spector basically has zero interest in keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas,” so don’t think for a second that there’s anything especially Christian in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” aside from its saintly title. In fact, there’s nothing especially Christmassy about it either. The song is actually a sort of sea chanty about lovers returning from voyages to the sounds of church bells (well, maybe it’s a tiny bit Christian). The reference to “red leaves” falling even indicates that the setting is probably more like October than late December. The song’s Christmas connection is fairly tangential. In the 1945 musical of the same name, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is performed during a Christmas pageant scene, though it had already been around for nearly three decades before that. As he did with “White Christmas”, Bing Crosby made it a popular hit, and as he did with the rest of this particular album, Phil Spector made it into a pop song, handing the singing chores to Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans.
Another Christmas Connection: the movie title  appears on a cinema marquee as Jimmy Stewart runs through the streets shrieking Merry Christmas! at the end of It's a Wonderful Life!

To give this non-seasonal song a stronger seasonal ambience, Phil really lays on the sleigh bells, and the Blue Jeans (of which Darlene Love was a member) support Bobby Sheen (trivia time! No one has ever actually been named Bob B. Soxx) with especially choral harmonies. Bobby had a strong tenor, but he wasn’t one of the more distinguished vocalists in Spector’s stable. Aside from the Blue Jeans’ powerful support, and more elephantine drumming from Hal Blaine, the most distinguished thing about “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is the twangy, almost sitar-like sound (probably a blend of guitar and bells) that answers Bobby’s lines on the verse, making this a likely candidate for the very first raga rock song (indulge me!).

Track 4: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town by The Crystals (J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie)

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is the first genuine classic on A Christmas Gift for You, and this is evident from the very beginning. Spector puts extra thought into the arrangement, lulling the listener with a spoken intro over a music box-style rendition of “Brahm’s Lullaby”. It’s a child’s fantasy come true: La La Brooks reports back after taking a trip across the milky way in Santa’s sleigh and visiting his work shop in the North Pole. That she addresses her tale to “Jimmy” saves the intro from alienating Phil’s ever important teenaged audience, because as we know from a million other pop songs, guys named “Jimmy” or “Johnny” are boyfriends. La La tells Jimmy to make his Christmas list as the snowflake-delicate music is poised to evaporate completely. But that’s not the real message of this track.

Pow! The Wall of Sound comes crashing down and Jimmy gets his warning to keep his shit together or he won’t be getting diddley squat for Christmas. It’s nearly absurd to reference any particular aspect of the backing track; every instrument is so utterly in concert with each other, though we do have to give credit to Steve Douglas for his hyperventilating baritone sax solo. Everything is unbelievably loud too, the musicians reveling in the kind of bad behavior that might keep Santa from shimmying down their chimneys on Christmas. After the solo, Spector gives us a verse of respite as the percussionists come to the fore to clip clop before everything busts right back in to shove us through the exhilarating fade. While the track is credited to The Crystals, La La Brooks is the only Crystal who actually sings on this album. She does justice to this holiday blitzkrieg, though the song clearly belongs to the Wrecking Crew and not to any particular vocalist.

Track 5: Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes (Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish)

OK, now we’re in the thick of the blizzard. No more yawning, no more gradual build-ups. With “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, A Christmas Gift for You began its parade of back-to-back classics, and the march continues with The Ronettes’ rendition of “Sleigh Ride”. Leroy Anderson originally wrote the piece as a picturesque orchestral instrumental during a July heat wave in 1946 (Michael Parish would not pen his lyrics until 1950). Spector pays a little lip service to the original arrangement in the first dozen seconds of his version as if to say, “Yeah, I could do traditional arranging if I wanted to…” Then he cries, “…but why the hell would I want to?” as the Crew slams home a wild ride that would have given Anderson whiplash. Ray Pohlman’s walking/swinging bassline slips a woozy undercurrent under the forward-thrust of the rest of the band, which pumps out a double-stop beat reminiscent of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” (more holiday heat waves!). There is similar unsettling push-and-pull in the vocal arrangement: Ronnie’s lead vocal is an easy-going slur as she reclines at the back of the sleigh while Ronettes Nedra Talley and Estelle Bennett (no doubt joined by Darlene Love, Cher, and anyone else Spector found hanging around the studio) sit up front, propelling the horses with their chant of “Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-dong-ding!” In 1982, Nedra told Record Exchanger magazine that Phil pushed her so hard while making this album that she thought she’d “lost it mentally.” That isn’t hard to understand after hearing this exhausting performance.

Track 6: Marshmallow World by Darlene Love (Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose)

Sitting in the middle of selections we all get sick of when hearing them performed by non-Spector artists every year is a relative obscurity called “Marshmallow World”. Though the song has been performed by a number of popular singers—including Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Dean Martin, and of course, Bing Crosby—it most certainly is not the perennial that “Sleigh Ride” or “White Christmas” are. Perhaps that’s one reason why it sounds so utterly fresh on A Christmas Gift for You.

The arrangement is magnificent. As he did on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Spector begins with a deceptively light introduction. Pseudo-classical strings sound as un-Rock & Roll as anything you’ll hear on a record by legit Rock & Roll artists in the years before McCartney sang “Yesterday”. But then—oh, I get it!—we learn this intro is actually a parody of seasonal muzak. Spector reveals the big joke as Leon Russell pounds out a very un-classical piano bounce. The Wrecking Crew responds to each jaunty stab at the keys with a skull-crushing thump. Hal Blaine then gives his kit a beating it will never forget, and the band starts swinging and banging in equal proportion. Darlene Love gets a greater opportunity to show off her robust voice than she had on “White Christmas”. Her vocal oomph makes mash of such ridiculously saccharine sentiments as, “It’s a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts.” Then we get two marvelous instrumental passages: a slightly halting, slightly jazzy horn arrangement, then another wild Steve Douglas solo. With the return of Love, the joyous sound builds and builds and builds and builds until slamming shut with a cheeky quote from “Deck the Halls”. So ends Side-A of A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records but not its run of spectacular tracks.

The record was rereleased as Phil Spector’s Christmas Album in 1972 on Apple Records with this creepy shot of Spector Claus on the cover.

Track 7: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by The Ronettes (Tommie Connor)

Side B begins with the cinematic sounds of someone getting a big, wet smooch while peeping kids cause doors to creak and slam. Once again syrupy strings give way to a rhythmic onslaught that lets us know we’re still listening to a Phil Spector record. Ronnie really belts it out on the greatest non-Darlene-Love track of A Christmas Gift for You. Had Spector decided to begin his album with a Ka-Boom instead of a whisper, this would have been the ideal track.

The original recording was cut in 1952 by the appropriately young Jimmy Boyd. Ironically, Ronnie Bennett’s vocal is her most adult on this album. Boyd’s recording apparently ran aground of the meddlesome crybabies at Boston’s Roman Catholic Church, who felt that Christmas is a completely inappropriate time to express affection. After the thirteen-year-old patiently explained the meaning of his super-complex song (Mommy kisses Santa-suit-wearing Daddy, which confuses their spying child) to the Archdiocese, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” received the official seal of approval from the church, so you don’t have to fear eternal damnation for grooving along with The Ronettes’ version. Or perhaps head-banging would be more in order since the beat is so forceful. A wall of saxes creates the bedrock beneath Blaine’s galloping beat and the pulse-quickening clatter of castanets. Even the polite string interlude (pierced by some cutesy piano tinkling) cannot lighten this weighty number, which receives a heavenly boost in the final verse from a mass of choral harmonies. And that final baby-ish quote from “Rock-a-Bye Baby” is not fooling anyone either… this is some heavy-duty Kiddie Christmas music.

Track 8: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by The Crystals (Johnny Marks)

After getting off to a seismic start, Side B of A Christmas Gift for You eases back a bit. Aside from a great harmonized guitar riff, a cool bass-line that snakes around the bottom end of the track, and some particularly in-your-face castanets, there’s nothing too extraordinary about The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

Johnny Marks’s musical adaptation of Robert L. May’s story about a reindeer whose jerky peers only realize they like him after he proves himself useful to them was a huge hit by Gene Autry in late 1949. The Crystals (again, La La Brooks solo) certainly make a better go of the song than Autry’s annual earworm, and it’s as good as any of the tracks that opened A Christmas Gift, but tucked in the middle of the stunners stretching from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” through “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, Rudolph fails to make a significant impact.  

Track 9: Winter Wonderland by Darlene Love (Felix Bernard and Dick Smith)

Now we’re back on track with one of the album’s most glorious tracks. The arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” seems like a conscious recall of Darlene Love’s recent minor hit “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home” (minor in chart performance, not in quality. It’s an amazing record). The piano/bass duet that introduces the track sounds like the “Wait ’Til My Bobby” 45 played at 33 RPMs. The decision to bury Love’s powerful pipes within a cluster of harmonies, as well as allowing her to rise from the din to shout off some bluesy improvisations, is also highly redolent of “Bobby”. All of this compliments the composition rather than feeling like rote retread. The harmonies convey Dick Smith’s pastoral lyrics dreamily. The dense backing track conveys a snowstorm. Smith wrote his words while recouping from tuberculosis and thinking back to happier times looking out over snow-blanketed Central Park in NYC. “Winter Wonderland” is one of the most oft-covered Christmas classics, and it’s hard to believe that any version is better than Love’s.

Track 10: Parade of the Wooden Soldiers by The Crystals (Leon Jessel and Ballard MacDonald)

From one of the most ubiquitous Christmas songs to another relative obscurity. German composer Leon Jessel wrote “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” in 1897 as “Die Parade der Zinnosoldaten”, which actually means “The Parade of the Tin Soldiers”. It was American Ballard MacDonald who mistranslated the title while penning his lyrics in 1922. Though the song has been performed by a number of artists, it is not necessarily considered the property of any particular singer, so La La Brooks can feel just fine laying claim to it.

There’s something really brash about her over-enunciation of the words about a coming attack of little toy soldiers. Perhaps she was inspired by the blasting brassiness of the trumpet line. “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” boasts one of Spector’s finest arrangements, jogging between the attitudinal verses and tick-tocking wind-up toy bridges. Spector’s one odd decision was fading the track rather than giving it a proper ending –or at least waiting until La La had finished singing before lowering the fader. Maybe he wanted to create the illusion that his soldiers would continue marching eternally, that his wonderful track was not ending at all but would go on and on and on.

Track 11: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love (Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector)

And here, everything reaches a goose bump-raising climax. While the rest of A Christmas Gift for You consists of well-travelled standards, Spector packed Ellie Greenwich and Jeffy Barry into the writers’ room to compose one very, very, very special original for his labor of love. The song was such a smashing success that Spector asked Greenwich to pen less seasonal lyrics for the track, but “Johnny (Please Come Home)” didn't have the same resonance as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. When Ronnie Bennett couldn’t quite deliver the adult torture present in their lyrics about a woman pining for her love on the merriest of holidays, Spector made the decision he should have made from the get go: put Darlene Love in front of the mic. Holy shit. The outcome is not just the best track on this album; it is one of the most thoroughly devastating performances on wax. Just thinking about Love’s wails puts a lump in my throat. Really, she could have been singing about doing her laundry and her voice would still have expressed utter torment completely and convincingly. But those lyrics are powerful, painful stuff. The singer looks out at all the people around her taking the usual holiday stuff for granted: snow falling, church bells ringing, “pretty lights on the tree,” choruses of “Deck the Halls”. None of it means a damn thing to distraught Darlene Love. She just wants her baby to come on home. She shouts for him, cries for him, moans, and laments, but he never does come back in those two minutes and fifty seconds of pure emotional drama.

The arrangement is equally dramatic, from the shivery strings that start it off to the backing vocalists’ conciliatory choruses of “Christmas!” to Steve Douglas’s groaning sax solo to Leon Russell’s astounding bangs up the keys as the song reaches it’s unimaginable climax as Love screams “Please! Please! Please!” The emotions this song stirs are not the kind we’re supposed to associate with December 25th, but there has never been a more utterly incredible Christmas song. The failure of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” to reach a wide audience is the greatest tragedy of the initial commercial failure of A Christmas Gift for You, so we should be thankful to Joe Dante and his holiday horror-show Gremlins for giving it proper exposure in 1984. It is now fully understood to be a classic for the ages.

Track 12: Here Comes Santa Claus by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (Gene Autry and Oakley Halderman)

As if Darlene Love’s emotional intensity was just too much for one LP to bear, things start falling apart a bit on “Here Comes Santa Claus”, yet another dopey Gene Autry song. The backing track is just as fine as we’ve come to expect from any track on A Christmas Gift for You, but Bobby Sheen comports himself strangely on his second and final vocal on the record. His singing is gulped, as if he too is choked up by Darlene Love’s wailing on the previous track. Hear how he swallows the word “bright” at the 23-second mark. It’s understandable that a singer, even one as good as Bobby, might mess up a take, but it’s rather shocking that a perfectionist like Phil Spector allowed it to creep out on his masterpiece. This is the most glaring error, but the rest of Sheens performance lacks polish too. This is particularly surprising considering the care Spector puts into the bombastic backing track, with its shimmering sleigh bells and clopping wood blocks and angelic choirs and popping pizzicato strings and zingy brass. It’s a strange track that wallops to a sudden, almost violent close. But the weirdest one is yet to come…

Track 13: Silent Night by Phil Spector and Artists (Josef Mohr and Franz X. Gruber)

For the only pointedly spiritual track on this decidedly secular Christmas album, Phil Spector decided to boot most of the lyrics about the serenity of holy mama and holy babe (leaving “Here Comes Santa Claus”, strangely enough, as the most explicitly Christian song on the album) so he could instead take the mic himself to thank his artists and you—the person who gave him “the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music I love”—in his elfish voice with almost uncomfortable sincerity. With its Hallmark monologue, syrupy strings, and choir (are we really supposed to believe that these are the voices of The Crystals, The Ronettes, and Darlene Love and not some sort of Mormon Tabernacle Choir type group?) “Silent Night” is an uncharacteristically mawkish way to close a record that otherwise sneers at the usual Christmas corniness with its punishing Rock & Roll arrangements and child-like, attitudinal, awkward, and disturbingly tormented vocal performances. But Phil Spector has given us so much to enjoy, to revel in, to tremble before on A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records that we can forgive him this one lapse in taste. After all, he had just finished making the greatest Christmas album in Rock & Roll history.

A happy holiday to you too.

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