The Christmas Conundrum is alive and well. Its manifestations are everywhere, but its existential force can be summed up thus: while I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Peace on Earth, good will toward men, sometimes it seems as though everyone out here with me is either a creep, a fraud, or a fool.
But I’m here to say that rock ‘n’ roll can help. Now Christmas was once a religious holiday, and I’m told that some credulous folks out there think it still is. They are God’s sheep, and should be treated gently. The rest of us know Christmas as a primarily mercenary event. So what better way to discuss Christmas rock ‘n’ roll than with a Top 40 chart?
There are probably thousands of Christmas songs with an R & B, soul, pop, funk, or rock orientation. The list that follows has been compiled on the basis of quality–not popularity or number of sales. Nor, contrarily, is it based on obscurity: albums by NRBQ and Chris Stamey didn’t make the cut; in both cases the idea is better than the reality. Similarly, some big sellers, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” for example, just aren’t my cup of tea. To my mind the proper considerations for judging rock Christmas songs are (1) riffs; (2) disrespect for Christmas, or, conversely, the rare successful conveyance of genuine emotion; (3) a “Christmassy” feel in the music without resort to the melody of “Jingle Bells” in the background; and (4) the preservation of a rock sensibility–which is why Bob Seger’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” failed to chart, along with about a hundred other similar forays into sentiment.
Three final points: compilation deadlines precluded the consideration of late releases such as a new Warner Bros. promotional sampler called Winter Warnerland, which will include a rare cut by the late Jesse Ed Davis, “Santa Claus Is Getting Down,” and a Los Lobos track, “Rudolph the Manic Reindeer.” Also, there’s already talk about a new Christmas single from Dreams So Real on Arista. Second, details on availability follow the list. Finally, thanks to Santa’s helpers–T.J. Mertz, Joe Bruce, and Ted Cox–for hard-to-find stuff.
1. “Back Door Santa,” Clarence Carter
Since the virgin birth, sex has been missing from Christmas. Carter offers it with a vengeance. Lines like “Now I ain’t like old Saint Nick / He don’t come but once a year” and “I carry a mean sack” bounce off the almost preternaturally bawdy title to make this one of the all-time antidotes to the season. There were earlier R & B proto-rock Yuletide smashes, but none of them mixed a killer riff with a deeply profane attitude to produce such a scabrous triumph. (A few people tried, though: see numbers 14 and 33 below.)
2. “Merry Christmas Baby,” Charles Brown, Chuck Berry, James Brown
This is the first great modern Christmas song, and if it lacks the brazen oomph that put Carter in the top spot, it’s still the greatest songwriting contribution to the genre. Charles Brown first sang the song as a member of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in the mid-40s; it was credited to Moore and someone named Baxter, and Brown has disputed the diversion of the songwriting credit (and the concurrent royalties) for years. No matter–it’s his song. Bluesy and intimate, it conveys genuine affection and real emotion–a simple catholic gratitude–without becoming even remotely sentimental. This song far transcends the genre, and remains a definitive blues performance. Chuck Berry’s version, like James Brown’s, while respectful of Charles Brown’s preeminence, is quite soulful as well; typically, Berry puts his own stamp on it, changing the words “You brought me a diamond ring” to “You brought me a hi-fi.” These versions, however, represent only one strain of the song’s evolution; for more details see numbers 12 (Ike and Tina Turner) and 24 (Elvis Presley).
3. “2000 Miles,” the Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde audaciously fashions herself as both a mythic outsider and a traditional earth mother in this extraordinary record, the best of the Christmas one-shots many recent rock bands have undertaken. Some others are the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” Squeeze’s “Christmas Day,” XTC (d/b/a the Three Wise Men) doing “Thanks for Christmas” and “Countdown to Christmas Party Time,” and Blondie and Freddie’s “Yuletide Rap,” most of these only somewhat successful. (The last, incidentally, is the group Blondie, with a rapper named Freddie; the song is a takeoff on Blondie’s late 70s hit, “Rapture.”) Hynde’s song achieves something that few other attempts, including those on this list, approach: an immediate and unmistakable “Christmassy” feeling–without sleigh bells or other instrumental references to this or that Christmas carol. She does it with a chiming guitar, letting producer Chris Thomas ripple the song with electronic glossolalia, and singing the hell out of it. Her phrasing is ambitious and novel: in one line, she sings “I miss you”; a verse later, she fills the same line with only the word “Sparkle.” Fine stuff, it’s the best-ever lonely-at-Christmas song.
4. “Christmas Wrapping,” the Waitresses
The song is sentimental in the extreme, and its use of rap, as in Blondie’s “Rapture,” now seems a bit dated. That said, this is the jauntiest Christmas rock song, and probably the most likable. Under a terrific vocal arrangement, a story unfolds, and a woman’s preemptive bid for loneliness at Christmas fails nicely. Cynicism meets the Christmas Conundrum, and both lose.
5. “Merry Christmas,” Lightnin’ Hopkins
“Merry Christmas, Baby / Now ain’t you glad to be home?” Hopkins growls. Behind his voice, a bass pounds like death and his guitar skips away from the devil. Not Christmassy at all.
6. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
This is done Crystals-style, borrowed from the Phil Spector album (see number 18). Where Spector overwhelmed the classics, Bruce simply appropriates them, his one-track mind reinterpreting every phrase; in an aside, he says to his band, “Have you guys been good and practicing real hard?” I like the extended intros you get on the bootlegs, but that’s being picky; this brilliant early recording–from a small college hall in 1975–has already become a generation’s definitive holiday rocker.
7. “White Christmas,” the Ravens, the Drifters, the Statues
The Drifters’ version of this Irving Berlin classic, overpopularized in the 40s by the unspeakable Bing Crosby, is the favorite of Rhino Records’ James Austin, so it’s probably appropriate to discuss his contributions to the genre here. Over the past few years, he has compiled, annotated, and drawn the cover art for Rockin’ Christmas: The 50s and Rockin’ Christmas: The 60s, Cool Yule volumes one and two, and Christmas Classics for Rhino; he did the same for The Christmas Rock Album on Priority in 1986 and had a hand in Rhino’s new Hillbilly Holiday, a collection of country Christmas tunes, and the James Brown sampler Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag as well. Austin, who is now an associate A and R director for Rhino, got interested in the genre as a kid when he heard the Drifters doing “White Christmas” on the radio. “Back then I was too shy to call up a radio station, so I would just stay home by the radio just waiting to hear it.” The Ravens recorded the first R & B version of the song in 1949 on National. The Drifters (with Clyde McPhatter) adopted the arrangement and popped it up only slightly on their 1954 version. The important thing is that both groups took the classic apart and put it back together again with a new R & B heart. The Statues were an obscure doo-wop outfit from Nashville who recorded on Liberty. They recorded their own version in 1959, as different from the Ravens’ as it was from Der Bingle’s. Wedded to a steady beat and double-time piano, a set of inconceivably beautiful backing vocals propels the song upward. It’s the only Christmas song, old or new, that suggests religiosity through sheer sound. A knockout.
8. “Call Me for Christmas,” Gary U.S. Bonds
Another great soul classic, reminiscent of Otis Redding. Bonds’s emotional range is in unusual evidence here: after an unfortunate spoken intro, he’s lonely and magnanimous and sad and happy and thankful all at once.
9. “Father Christmas,” the Kinks
This 1979 recording sounds a lot like the Clash, combining some fierce power-chording from Dave and typically acid lyrics from Ray, about a Santa confronted by some kids who want money, not toys. The song is quite gritty, and it rocks; there’s a funny Springsteenish glockenspiel in the background, and the song ends with a gentle plea to “Remember the kids who have nothing / When you’re drinking down your wine.”
10. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir
This is a sentimental favorite of mine: I have the original picture sleeve–John and Yoko with the kids from Harlem–and a single on green vinyl. The label has a series of pictures of John and Yoko that merge and then separate their faces. It’s a simple song, with a great Phil Spector production. The lyrics, sung with gusto by the choir, sound dumb on paper–“Have a very merry Christmas, and a happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one / Without any fear”–but on record it’s a simple unpretentious wish from someone we lost on a very sad Christmas eight years ago.
11. “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” Louis Armstrong and the Commanders
The Stash Christmas Album is a jazz and blues must-own, well-annotated and programmed and without a single dud track. Besides Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Merry Christmas” (number 5) and Ella Fitzgerald’s racy “Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney” (number 33), a sizable chunk of the album is devoted to Louis Armstrong. “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” dates from 1953 and features the sound of a howling wind and penny whistles galore as Armstrong, as anxious as a kid, prowls the house waiting for the big guy’s arrival. David Johansen as Buster Poindexter did an OK cover of this last year.
12. “Merry Christmas Baby,” Ike and Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen
This is the rock ‘n’ roll strain of Charles Brown’s perennial. (See number 2 “for more details.) Ike and Tina turbocharged the song in 1965; it’s a smoldering, rocked-up rewrite, and a brilliant production move by Ike, who could’ve played it safe and used Tina’s voice for a straight blues cover. Otis Redding’s 1967 reading is upbeat and joyful, descended from both the Turners’ and one by the MGs, done the year before. Bruce Springsteen’s full E Street Band workout, recorded live, is the Turner-Redding version, and a lot of fun; disappointingly, however, he follows them in dropping the killer last line: “I haven’t had a drink this morning / And I’m all lit up just like a Christmas tree.”
13. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” the Ramones
Beginning with the Ramones’ patented unsubtle guitar attack, the song begins with Joey impatient (“Where is Rudolph / Where is Blitzen, Baby”) but turns, amazingly, into a love song. Strong stuff.
14. “Trim-Your Tree,” Johnny Butler
A salacious fuzz-guitar line propels this almost unknown classic, recorded in 1954. It’s from a wonderful sampler on the Savoy Jazz label, Mr. Santa’s Boogie (Santa’s Secret), which also includes “I Want to Spend Christmas With Elvis” by Debby Dabney and the original R & B version of “White Christmas” by the Ravens. Butler, of whom almost nothing is known, is a prurient shouter, and comes close to “Back Door Santa” with verses like: “I’m going to bring along my hatchet / My beautiful Christmas balls / I’ll sprinkle my snow upon your tree / And hang my mistletoe on your walls.”
15. “I Don’t Believe in Christmas,” the Sonics
The verse continues, “‘Cause I didn’t get nothin’ last year!” The Sonics’ classic is one of the best of a slew of Christmas offerings from the Pacific northwest. Certain connoisseurs speak well of an early Paul Revere and the Raiders Christmas album, but the few cuts of it I’ve heard aren’t promising; as far as I know, the Kingsmen never recorded a Christmas song, which is unfortunate. So we have to make do with the Sonics and the Wailers (number 39). Selections from both of these legendary mid-60s Seattle-area garage bands can be heard on a marvelous collection called Merry Christmas From the Sonics, the Wailers and the Galaxies on Etiquette’s Pacific Northwest Rock Collection series. The standout track is “I Don’t Believe in Christmas,” which starts out like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” ratchets over into something reminiscent of “Too Much Monkey Business,” and ends up sounding like the Ramones.
16. “Christmas in Cape Town,” Randy Newman
The song has nothing and everything to do with Christmas. It’s not very Christmassy, but then I bet Christmas in Cape Town isn’t either.
17. “Presents for Everyone,” Solomon Burke
Like another great soul preacher, Burke had his roots in gospel, and he never sounded more like Sam Cooke than here. This is a pleasant and gentle rocker in which Burke campaigns on a platform of “Christmas Presents for Everyone,” and he has my vote.
18. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Darlene Love
A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, featuring various traditional carols done Wall of Sound-style by Love, the Crystals, the Ronettes, and Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, is routinely cited as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll Christmas albums ever. That’s silly–a fine example of the Christmas Conundrum in action. The best rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs pillage the classics and render their former meanings inoperable–like when the Ravens did “White Christmas.” Spector, by contrast, takes the classics at face value, and his production unceremoniously obliterates them. There are some interesting things about the album, however: The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” later covered by Springsteen (number 6) is fun, and I get a kick out of the album’s annotation, which includes a credit for Sonny Bono on percussion and a set of liner notes from Spector (titled “LINER NOTES”) that are almost painful to read. The record also features a bizarre version of “Silent Night,” with Phil doing a voice-over. (A cruel parody of this appears on A Midnight Christmas Mess by the Droogs.) But Love’s “Christmas,” written by Spector and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the only original on the record, is its one unqualified success. The Wall of Sound, having performed search-and-destroy missions on the rest of the album, here has a worthy opponent; Love’s heroic vocal leads the charge.
19. “Another Lonely Christmas,” Prince
This rather kinky (what else?) song sounds like The Big Sleep meets the abyss. The narrator has the blues over the title situation: his sweetheart died on Christmas day seven years before. The arrangement features great waves of synthesizers and some of Prince’s more extravagant vocal stylings.
20. “The Christmas Song,” Billy Crystal
This is the “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” perennial (written by Mel Torme, incidentally) done as a spoof of “We Are the World” with Crystal’s stock Saturday Night Live characters–Sammy Davis Jr., Howard Cosell, the “I hate when that happens” weirdo–on various parts. I think that this is by far best of the Christmas comedy records, of which there are close to a billion. (That’s my guess; Dr. Demento, who knows, says 500.) It’s a Spike Jones Christmas sounds promising, but outside of a pig latin version of “Jingle Bells,” it doesn’t move me. Another disappointment is Christmas Time With the Three Stooges; this was a very late, very sad lineup of the Stooges, and not even “Wreck the Halls With Boughs of Holly” has that spark. A bunch of Christmas comedy singles are collected on volume six of the Dr. Demento series; notable are Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol” and Stan Freberg’s “Green Christmas,” both slams at Christmas, commercialization. (Unsurprisingly, Lehrer’s is the subtler; interestingly, both songs were recorded in the 1950s, back when America’s retailers were just figuring out how to really sell Christmas.) There’s also Freberg’s version of “(I’m Getting) Nuttin’ for Christmas” (the verse continues, “’cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”); Spike Jones did a version too. I like the a cappella version by Force M.D. on the Warner Bros. compilation Yulesville. Other notable uncollected comedy records are a Nichols and May routine about a guy trying to get out of a Christmas Eve psychiatrist appointment, a pretty funny effort from Father Guido Sarducci (“I Won’t Be Twisting This Christmas”), and of course Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil.” But Crystal’s “Christmas Song” is funnier and hipper than any of these. A couple of great cheap shots at the “We Are the World” session include Crystal saying (as Sammy Davis): “This is nothing like the big one, of course. All the good cats were there: Kimmy Carnes, and Cookin’ Kenny Rogers . . .” He even nails Dan Aykroyd for being there at all.
21. “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” James Brown
This song is often misidentified with the word “goes” in the title, which is wrong; the song is decidedly in the imperative (“Tell ’em James Brown sent you”). Brown has put out three Christmas albums: James Brown Sings Christmas Songs in 1966, Soulful Christmas in 1968, and Hey America It’s Christmas in 1970. The best from these, along with a previously uncollected single, “It’s Christmas Time (Part I),” are available on yet another new Rhino release, Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag, which comes with nice annotation by one Jonny (sic) Whiteside. Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag is one of the few single-artist Christmas records that bears repeated listenings. Besides a lot of Charles Brown stuff, we get a spectacular blues (“Santa Claus, Santa Claus”), a tolerable Torme “Christmas Song,” and of course “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto.” Brown wrote this with Hank Ballard, and it beats the hell out of his other Christmas efforts. Here we’ve got the one-chord groove, lots of funk, and a very difficult approach, particularly displayed in his baroque reading of the line “You know I know what you will see / ‘Cause there was once me!” Brown’s singing is sad and diffident, but powerful throughout. First rate.
22. “Christmas in Hollis” Run-D.M.C.
You’d think Christmas rapping would be a natural, but you wouldn’t know it from Christmas Rap, an album sampler released on Profile last year. Though it’s all energetic, none of it is Christmassy. The exception is “Christmas in Hollis,” which was the standout as well on the Jimmy Iovine-produced Special Olympics fund-raiser, A Very Special Christmas LP. The song is Run-D.M.C. and producer Rick Rubin at their very best: starting with a searing lift of the monster riff from “Back Door Santa,” the guys (yawn) deconstruct Christmas–and end up with a wallet full of cash!
23. “Santa Claus,” the Sonics
An unholy mix of “Louie Louie” and “Hang On Sloopy.” Furious.
24. “Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley
After Phil Spector, the other great Christmas-rock sacred cow is Elvis. He put out two full Christmas albums: Elvis’ Christmas Album, on Camden, the RCA budget label, and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, on RCA. They’re useless as albums, since the ratio of good stuff to bad on Elvis’s Christmas records closely parallels that of his regular output, which is to say about one track in a hundred. Elvis singing “Silent Night” or “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)” is a lot like Elvis singing “Old Shep” or “Gentle on My Mind.” Still, there are a couple of interesting tracks. Elvis’ Christmas Album, with an OK version of the tough “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” and a nice reading of “Blue Christmas,” seems better on the face of it, but The Wonderful World of Christmas has “Merry Christmas Baby,” which you’ve got to have if you want any Elvis at all. A few years ago, however, RCA put out a record called Christmas Memories, featuring some weird outtakes: the best and wildest of these is a cataclysmic seven-minute version of “Merry Christmas Baby.” Get it. While I wouldn’t recommend purchasing the set, there’s also a fairly serious version of “Blue Christmas” on the ten-record Elvis–A Golden Celebration compilation.
25. “Hey Santa Claus,” the Moonglows
These are the Chess Moonglows, known for “Ten Commandments of Love” and Harvey Fuqua and an absolute mastery of the R & B ballad (see number 30, “Just a Lonely Christmas,”). “Hey Santa Claus,” however, is closer to “Alley Ooop” than most ballads: it’s a nonsense classic with its roots, proudly displayed, in the most primal R & B. It would’ve sounded great on the Hairspray sound track.
26. “Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry
This was recorded in Chicago in 1958, with Johnny Johnson, Willie Dixon, Fred Below, and possibly Bo Diddley as well. It’s fast and funny, and has been covered by everyone from Bryan Adams (on A Very Special Christmas) to Keith Richards (on a seldom-seen 45, b/w a cover of “The Harder They Come,” on Rolling Stones Records) to Dave Edmunds (from an obscure Welsh Christmas album, Christmas at the Paddy, but available on the Priority sampler, The Christmas Rock Album) and Foghat (available at least on a single). Interestingly, Berry sometimes credits himself with writing the song, sometimes Brodie-Marks, who wrote the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Possibly there was litigation, but I don’t know why: this song sounds a lot more like “Maybelline” than the original “Rudolph.”
27. “All I Want for Christmas,” Timbuk 3
This is a 1987 benefit single for the Stop the War Toys campaign, a funky jeremiad anchored by Pat MacDonald’s typically lugubrious vocals and Barbara K.’s typically incisive guitar work. My favorite couplet goes, “Looks to me like World War III / Underneath the Christmas tree.” Because of the “political” nature of the song, it might be helped out by some heavy radio-requesting, so get on those phones!
28. “Christmas in Chicago,” Leon Russell
A forgotten B-side, this one’s better than the A-side, “Slippin’ Into Christmas.” It’s a slow, when-I-woke-up-this-morning blues. Santa’d lured his baby away with a diamond ring. There’s a nice slide here, and the song is refreshingly laconic, particularly for Russell, who tends to run off at the mouth.
29. “Christmas on Riverside Drive,” August Darnell
A smooth and languid good-bye-LA, hello-NY number from Darnell, who generally goes by Kid Creole. Though not overtly Christmassy, the song manages to be vaguely reminiscent of ballads like “The Christmas Song.” The production is stellar.
30. “Just a Lonely Christmas,” the Moonglows
A mournful ballad, with a heart-stopping vocal by Bobby Lester. For a Moonglows flip side, see number 25.
31. “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,” Billy Squier
Yes, this is Billy “the Stroke” Squier. I think of this song as the best of a variety of hard-rock Christmas records. George Thorogood’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas” is energetic but undistinguished, and Bon Jovi’s cover of “Back Door Santa” (see number 1) on A Very Special Christmas is a travesty; but believe it or not, Foghat has a couple of nice entries, among them a cover of “Run Rudolph Run” and a sprightly original, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But Squier’s is the best. This is faux heavy metal with a loping and somehow Christmassy chord progression; Billy’s clear high tenor is perfect. I believe that this song was the first of MTV’s annual Christmas tunes; others in recent years have been Bryan Adams’s dumb “Reggae Christmas” and Buster Poindexter’s amusing “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” (see number 11).
32. “The Twelve Drugs of Christmas,” unknown
Dr. Demento says that the origins of this song go back to the 1700s; his record (for details see number 20) features a typical parody, Allan Sherman making an oh-so-daring satire on 50s acquisitiveness and holiday commercialization. Another interesting version appears on RAS Records’ Reggae Christmas, recorded in Jamaica. Peter Broggs, with whose other work I’m not familiar, does a nice dub version. But I’ll never forget “The Twelve Drugs of Christmas,” which I heard many years ago on an obscure compilation LP put out by Amazing Kornyfone, a major bootleg label during the 70s. Rendered a cappella by an out-of-tune chorus, it began, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me / A tab of yellow sunshine LSD,” and ended with a high yowl. Priceless.
33. “Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney,” Ella Fitzgerald
Bawdy as hell; right up there with Clarence Carter and Johnny Butler. You’ll never think of Ella the same way again.
34. “Dancing With Santa,” the Trashmen
This is a cosmically bizarre song; yes, these are the “Surfin’ Bird” Trashmen, and no, it doesn’t sound like “Surfin’ Bird” at all. There’s a churning backing track underneath, but the vocal, almost a falsetto, sounds plaintive and sad. The story is about a strange visit from Santa, who ends up doing the watusi in the basement with his reindeer. The song is slyly self-referential and manages to salute the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and others in the process.
35. Jesus Christ–I Can’t Believe It’s Christmas Already, the Terminators of Endearment
This is a five-song, privately released tape by an acoustic duo from Berkeley. Highlights are “There’s a Stranger in the Manger and He Isn’t One of Us” and “Merry Christmas, Manic Depressives.” Funny, sick.
36. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” the Eagles
The song is one of a half dozen memorable Christmas tracks Charles Brown wrote, the obscure parentage of “Merry Christmas Baby” aside. It’s another perennial, and no respectable compilation is without at least one version. But I first heard the Eagles’ quiet reading when I was about 15, and then as now it evoked the feeling of Christmas in California like no other song.
37. “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” the Beatles
Among the rarest Beatles records are the group’s Christmas offerings, sent out annually from 1963 to 1969 to fan-club members only. The recordings, each seven or eight minutes long, can, however, be found on bootlegs. The earlier ones are light and amusing, often reminiscent of the Goon Show or low-level Monty Python; they seem to be one-take studio recordings, mostly of the four clowning around and ridiculing their prepared texts. The last few, however, have interiors that match their ever-weirder packaging. You’ve got to wonder what the fan-club members–who must have leaned toward the youthful–thought about the “Revolution 9”-ish collages the guys were proffering in ’68 and ’69. (By that time, they’d even stopped recording the Christmas records together–on the last one, John’s contribution is a rambling conversation between him and Yoko Ono; George’s included Tiny Tim singing “Nowhere Man.”) “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” was the title of the 1967 release; trivia fans will note that it is the only Beatles song credited to Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starkey. It’s a loping, trebly sing-along, sort of a cross between “Carry That Weight” and “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” Though a six-minute straight cut exists, on the Christmas record it’s delivered only in snatches, along with jokes from the gang, studio effects, and bits of another song, “Plenty of Jam Jars.”
38. “Children’s Christmas Song,” the Supremes
The best of the zillion or so Motown Christmas efforts; interestingly, one of the several cowriters was Moonglow Harvey Fuqua. (See numbers 25 and 30.) Diana Ross’s voice sounds open and conversational; her usual reserve and calculation are gone. The arrangement is a bit unctuous, but the record’s “live” feel, as Ross directs a children’s chorus, works well.
39. “Christmas Spirit,” the Wailers
A hysterical parody of a protest song that turns out to be a protest song after all; lead singer Buck Ormsby delivers a very funny Dylan imitation.
40. “The Night Before Christmas,” Louis Armstrong
If you must have Clement Moore’s hoary rhyme around the house, for Christ’s sake have Satchmo read it. The poem, incidentally, is called “A Visit From Saint Nicholas.”
The following notes on availability are based on dutiful though not exhaustive research. Certain selections do not appear here because their availability is discussed above.
(1) “Back Door Santa” is available on Cool Yule, the best of the numerous Christmas collections compiled by James Austin for Rhino Records in recent years. (For more details, see number 7 below.)
(2) The Charles Brown version of “Merry Christmas Baby” is available on various assemblages from Gusto, among them Merry Christmas Baby and Please Come Home for Christmas, and occasionally elsewhere. A new collection on Rhino, Christmas Classics, contains an inferior version, recorded on Aladdin in 1956. James Brown’s version is available on a rather rare album, James Brown Sings Christmas Songs, on King (for more details see number 21) and on a new Rhino compilation, Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag. The Berry version is available on a rare Chess single, on his Golden Decade, Volume 2, and on the recent Have a Merry Chess Christmas.
(3) “2000 Miles” is available on the Learning to Crawl and Singles LPs, the Warner Bros. promo-only Yulesville radio sampler, and as the B-side to “Middle of the Road.” There’s also a UK 12-inch single with a gorgeous picture sleeve, credited cutely as “A Christmas Thomas Production.”
(4) “Christmas Wrapping” is available on an early EP, I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts, and anthologized on both The Christmas Rock Album on Priority and on Ze Records’ A Christmas Record.
(5) “Merry Christmas” is available on The Stash Christmas Album.
(6) “Santa Claus Is Coming to town” is the B-side to the single “My Hometown.”
(7) The Drifters’ version of “White Christmas” is widely anthologized. The Ravens’ is a lot rarer, appearing, notably, on the Savoy Jazz Mr. Santa’s Boogie (Santa’s Secret). The Statues’ version appears on a very rare Liberty single.
(8) “Call Me for Christmas” is a must-have that was, until the release of Rhino’s Cool Yule, Volume 2, very hard to get. Otherwise, it’s available only on a Legrand single, as the B-side of “Mixed Up Faculty.”
(9) “Father Christmas” is available on single–the B-side of “Superman”–and on the Priority sampler The Christmas Rock Album.
(10) “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is on single and the greatest-hits LP Shaved Fish.
(11) Louis Armstrong’s “‘Zat You Santa Claus?” is available on The Stash Christmas Album and elsewhere, no doubt; see also number 40.
(12) Ike and Tina’s “Merry Christmas Baby” is available on Cool Yule, and on a pretty rare single. The Otis Redding single is rare as well, but it appears on the Atlantic Christmas Album and the four-record Otis Redding Story. Bruce’s version appears on the Jimmy Iovine Very Special Christmas all-star record, and on a single, as the B-side to “War.”
(13) “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” appears as the B-side to the 12-inch “I Want to Live” single, and is available as well on the Warner Yulesville sampler.
(15) “I Don’t Believe in Christmas” is also available on Rockin’ Christmas: The 60s.
(16) “Christmas in Cape Town” is available on Randy Newman’s Trouble in Paradise album.
(17) “Presents for Everyone” is available on Cool Yule, the Rhino sampler. Collector T.J. Mertz has an original 78 on Apollo.
(18) “Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is available on the Spector Christmas album, nowhere else. A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector has been through many labels; the Rhino rerelease features the original packaging. A version on Warner drops the annotation, but does have a neat cover photo of Phil in a Santa suit, a “Back to Mono” button on his lapel. The one notable cover of this song was done by U2 last year. It’s derivative but forceful, and appears on the Very Special Christmas package.
(19) “Another Lonely Christmas” is the B-side of the 12-inch version of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” single and is on the Warner Yulesville promo.
(20) As far as I know, “The Christmas Song” is available only on single.
(21) “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is on the Rhino sampler mentioned above, as well as on the Rhino various-artists collection Cool Yule.
(22) “Christmas in Hollis” is available on single as well as on the albums mentioned. It also appeared on the sound track to The Pickup Artist.
(23) “Santa Claus” is available on the Pacific Northwest Christmas sampler (see number 15) and on Cool Yule, Volume 2.
(25) “Hey Santa Claus” is available on Rhino’s Rockin’ Christmas: The 50s and Have a Merry Chess Christmas. Also on an MCA collection from a couple of years ago, Rockin’ Little Christmas.
(26) “Run Rudolph Run” is a rare Chess single; it also appears on a couple of later Chuck Berry albums, notably Golden Decade, Volume 2. It’s also widely anthologized, on Have a Merry Chess Christmas and on Rhino’s Cool Yule and Christmas Classics. Berry fans should note that while “Run Rudolph Run” and “Merry Christmas Baby” (number 2) get the attention, there’s a third, little-known Berry Christmas track: the slow and bluesy “Christmas,” on his 1970 Chess LP Back Home.
(27) “All I Want for Christmas” is available as an IRS single and on a seven-song, promo-only Christmas CD sent out by IRS last year.
(28) “Christmas in Chicago” is only available on single (Shelter Records) as far as I know.
(29) “Christmas on Riverside Drive” is available on the Ze sampler A Christmas Record, and as part of a 12-inch four-song EP.
(30) “Just a Lonely Christmas” is widely anthologized, notably on Rockin’ Christmas: The 50s.
(31) Billy Squier’s “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” is available as a Capitol single and on the Priority collection The Christmas Rock Album, as is the Foghat.
(33) “Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney” is on The Stash Christmas Album.
(34) “Dancing With Santa” is on the Rhino compilation Rockin’ Christmas: The 60s.
(36) To my knowledge, “Please Come Home for Christmas” is only available as an Elektra single.
(38) “Children’s Christmas Song” is on single and on various Supremes and Motown anthologies.
(39) “Christmas Spirit” is available on the Pacific Northwest Christmas record (see number 15) and on Rockin’ Christmas: The 60s.
(40) “The Night Before Christmas” is on The Stash Christmas Album.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elwood H. Smith.