Christmas albums are like snowflakes: there are thousands of them, and every one is different. Smart songwriters and publishers quickly figured out that a Christmas hit was like an annuity. Even better, you didn’t even have to be Christian; Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks (“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” Run, Rudolph, Run”) probably had as deep an impact on the sound of Christmas than anyone this side of Handel, but they spent their Christmases golfing at the Hilcrest Country Club.
But not everyone is content with simply cashing in on the holiday spirit. It’s not enough for them to entertain you with mere songs; singing just won’t get across the depth of their feelings. There are thoughts melody just can’t contain. As Elvis Costello intoned in “30 Rock’s” parody of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” the brilliant “Kidney Now”: “Listen—when someone starts talking in the middle of a song, you know it’s serious.” The voices behind these songs go one better—they start with someone talking.
Phil Spector: “Silent Night”
Kicking things off it the creepily Christmas Classic, “Silent Night,” with Phil Spector. Because what says Christmas more than holiday greetings from a convicted murderer? This is the final track from his classic “A Christmas Gift For You,” which includes such certifiable Christmas classics as Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and the Crystals version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (an arrangement echoed in Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song). But Phil wants to end the album by thanking you. A nice touch you say…until you hear his voice: petulantly nasal and a little bit self-admiring in his claim of “bringing something new and different to Christmas music.” (The fact that he actually did bring “something new and different” in no way absolves him.) It doesn’t help that he delivers it over a ghostly echoed piano and angelic strings that made it sound like he’s delivering his address from heaven and not Gold Star Studios.
Simon and Garfunkel: Silent Night: 7 O’clock News”
Thankfully, Paul Simon doesn’t actually talk to the listener in truly embarrassing bit of holiday commentary. Instead, you have Simon and Garfunkel harmonizing like choirboys singing “Silent Night” while newscaster Charlie O’Donnell gives actual news of August 6, 1966, which included the death of Lenny Bruce, anti Vietnam War protests, and a report on a hawkish speech by Richard Nixon. As the track ticks away, the news gets louder and the hymn sets softer. Heavy! If you think about it, it would be impossible for a song like this to be produced today: Could you imagine the outrage if a couple of left-wing rock stars—and not just any left-wing rock stars, but Jewish left-wing rock stars, using a holiday anthem to critique America’s greatness…it’s fake newscast!
Johnny Cash: “The Christmas Spirit”/ Hank Williams (as Luke the Drifter) “The Funeral”
There are no shortage of spoken word country songs—Hank Williams used the pseudonym “Luke The Drifter” to record them, including the cringe-worthy brotherhood sermon (complete with references to “the simplicity and shrewdness in his Ethiopian face”) included here, followed by Johnny Cash’s Christmas tale, which is a little more…shall we say, nuanced, mostly because the man who makes Johnny understand is a London chestnut salesman, and the scales drop from Johnny’s eyes when he wishes him a “merry Christmas, mate.” He moves on around the world and, as the choir starts wordlessly harmonizing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” to Bethlehem, where he buys a Bible he later takes out, which magically opens to Luke 2:10-11: “ And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Compared to Luke, Johnny’s testament to his deep religious beliefs is modestly heartfelt, but the record is still so soaked in bathos it’s a slog.
James Brown: “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year”/”My Rapp”
James Brown was as prolific when it came to writing Christmas songs as he was in writing and everything else. He released four Christmas albums of mostly original holiday songs over his career. As you might imagine, they run the gamut—from straight-ahead renditions of Christmas classics (although his version of “The Christmas Song” does have a very odd code of a pleasantly surprised sounding James squealing “Hello! Merry Christmas to you,” as if a child had just entered the vocal booth); to the kind of wonderfully funky party grooves such as “Go! Power at Christmas” and “Soulful Christmas,” the latter a gift from James, thanking his fans for “buying my records and seeing my shows,” social commentary such as the strutting “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto,” and the two songs included here.
From its title, “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” would appear to fall into the social commentary column. It’s got a nice, rolling gospel/R&B groove (and urgent female backup singers) but the “Hello everybody, this is James Brown,” that kicks off his vocal track makes him sound like a demented children’s show host. And he’s thankful, “for God (#1) and you (#2) so don’t start feeling so important. James really enjoys it, he says, so much he can’t find the words. I’m willing to believe him, as the his rap stops abruptly, with James wishing for “the kind of Christmas that mom, dad, grandad…” and then the chorus kicks in, he calls for the the violins to play, and he’s screaming in that James Brown way and the song fades out before he can explain what kind of Christmas he he means. .
“My Rapp” is lachrymose, potted declaration of bruised manhood, delivered over the kind of jazzy, Hammond B3 and vibes groove so lubricious it wouldn’t sound out of place on a porn soundtrack (and yes, Virginia, there really is Santa Porn, gathering nearly 200,000 hits on Google). Apart from a squeezed-in “now at Christmastime” (immediately modified by “the whole year ’round…right on…right on” so as not to limit possible airplay) the only thing that makes this a Christmas song is that it appears on James’ 1970 Christmas album, “Hey America!” (because it’s just not Christmas until James Brown reminds you). It’s a bereft James Brown seated in front of the mike this holiday season, so bereft his sentences become even more syntactically fractured than usual. His woman has left him; not just that, she left him with another man. So, like any man in his position, he racks up a backing track for some unused song, tells the engineer to hit “record,” and starts talking. It’s not hard to imagine a bottle of something on a table beside him. He starts the song like a letter—”Dear Sweet Thing”—then after nearly a minute of rehashing the previous evening, he tells us wants to write a letter, and starts again,” Dear Sweet Thing.” Between squeezing in references to “It’s A Man’s World” and Cold Sweat,” he declares he’d be willing to live in a tent with his love, calls her “hard headed and stubborn,” engages in some philisophical musings on identity: It’s not John Doe we’re talking about here, it’s James Brown (or maybe Bobby Byrd), and ends, after nearly six minutes, telling her she can take her time.
Becky Lamb: “Little Becky’s Christmas Wish”
In a voice so overly girlish and cute, you can imagine her pigtails and missing front teeth, Little Becky is writing a letter to Santa, reminding him that her brother won’t be around this Christmas. He went away, dressed in a green suit with gold buttons (he looked just like the mailman, she giggles). Tommy loves his country, he explains to her, which is why he has to go away. But one day, the mailman brings a letter which makes both Mommy and Daddy cry, and keeps Tommy’s girlfriend away. The one things she asks Santa for is to bring Tommy home. This piece of pro-war tearjerking claptrap, offensive not only to the ears but the brain and heart for using the season of peace to plump for a war, actually made it to #2 on the charts, which should also disabuse anyone that 60s charts could be just as embarassing as anything produced today. (h/t Andy Zax