Guests and Nogs and Rock 'n' Roll
For a lot of us who grew up over the last 30 years--and especially for those of us who haven't grown up over the last 30 years--Christmas is almost synonymous with rock and roll. Christmas was when we got our first stereo, or when our brothers and sisters bought us records that they wanted to hear, or when our parents bought us those really expensive two-record sets that we could never seem to save up enough allowance to buy for ourselves. Or, best of all, it was when our grandparents gave us money and we got to go out the day after Christmas and choose our own records. The result of all this is that though many of us associate certain records with Christmastime, not many of them are actually Christmas records. When it comes time to throw a Christmas party, when people really want to rock and roll, Christmas records are the last thing that come to mind. Because, let's face it, except for a couple of notable exceptions, there are precious few decent rock and roll Christmas records. Too many have the feel of quicky novelty records, something that was slapped together for an easy commercial score. And besides, when sampling Christmas records, it immediately becomes apparent that the cold winter months don't raise sap only in trees. What is it about the holidays that makes even the staunchest, toughest musicians haul out their string sections? All of which leads us to one inescapable conclusion: if you're going to throw a real rock and roll Christmas party, you're forced to depend on a handful of LPs and a few singles--in other words, you're going to have to make a tape. Below, a few essential Christmas party recordings. * John Fahey: The New Possibility, Takoma. Great for warming up, or cooling down, a party, Fahey's album presents nine traditional Christmas carols, plus one original number (the longest and least of the album's songs) on solo acoustic guitar. Fahey is often credited with creating the Windham Hill, New Age sound, but don't hold that against him. This is a beautiful record.* XTC: "Thanks for Christmas" and "Countdown to Christmas Party Time," from Rag and Bone Buffet, Geffen. This is where the party really starts. XTC originally released these two songs as a single in the mid-'80s under the pseudonym the Three Wise Men (with songwriting and production credits going to Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). The A-side, "Thanks for Christmas," is a fairly standard, sappy Christmas song. But the flip is something else altogether, a scratchy, funky piece of party music that really does feature a countdown to Christmas. * James Brown: "Santa Goes Straight to the Ghetto," from Santa's Got a Brand New Bag, Rhino; also on a number of Christmas compilations. Originally the flip side of Hank Ballard's pro-afro single "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)," this is the best of Brown's Christmas records, all of which sound like they were recorded in the time it took to turn on the tape machine. But then, so do most of Brown's other records, and they're great.* The Kinks: "Father Christmas," from Come Dancing with the Kinks, Arista. Christmas singles are supposed to be upbeat, jolly, full of the spirit of the season. This one, released in 1977, is about Santa getting the bejeezus kicked out of him by a bunch of punks. True to the spirit, however, the song gets all sentimental about the punk's impoverished backgrounds, sort of: "Give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He's got lots of mouths to feed/And if you've got one I'll have a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids on the street."* The Chieftains with Elvis Costello: "Feast of St. Stephen," from The Bells of Dublin, RCA. Another somewhat dark Christmas story, this one about a family gathering that turns into a free-for-all. From the sound of it, it's an annual ritual--a tradition as old, and as respected, as egg nog and mistletoe. * "The Lord of the Dance" from The Christmas Revels, Revels Records. An original cast recording of a theater piece designed to recreate an Elizabethan Christmas pageant, The Christmas Revels is one long celebration of wassailing. No matter how many tired versions of it you may have heard, the fact remains that "The Lord of the Dance" is the ultimate Christmas drinking song, and here it really lives up to its heritage. * The Beach Boys: "The Man With All the Toys," from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, Capitol. The big hit, of course, was "Little St. Nick," a reworked version of "Little Deuce Coupe." But this, I think, is much truer to the suburban commercialism of a Southern California Christmas. It also has one of the oddest vocal rhythms you'll ever hear. Mostly standards done on the quick, without a lot of input from Brian, the album as a whole is a dud. Nice harmonies, dull arrangements.* Elvis Presley: "Blue Christmas," from Elvis, RCA. Taping his 1968 Christmas special, Elvis sits in a tight circle with a bunch of old bandmates from his Sun Records days. Announcing that he would like to sing one of his favorite Christmas songs, he carefully begins "Blue Christmas." Both Elvis and the band are a little tentative at first. This is obviously a planned moment--it is a Christmas special, after all--and they seem uncomfortable with the hokiness and corn of it all. But then the music takes over, and the band leans into it, pushing this song about heartbreak and seasonal lust as far as it will go. Halfway through, one of the band members shouts out to Elvis, "Sing it dirty! Sing it dirty!" He does.* A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, Phil Spector Records. Originally released in 1963 as A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records and reissued in the '70s as The Phil Spector Christmas Album, this is still the greatest rock 'n' roll Christmas record. "Christmas is so American," the original liner notes read, and listening to this, you can believe it. This is the height of Spector's work as a producer--the Darlene Love number "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" may be the greatest recording he ever made. Spector and his arrangers pulled out all the stops, loading every cut with enough musicians and background singers to crew a small aircraft carrier. The resulting "wall of sound" is the most dazzling cacophony ever put on record. If there were such a thing as a grunge Christmas album--and it's only a matter of time--it would sound something like this, only slower.