Coasting to Christmas

I started right after Thanksgiving listening 24/7 to KOST 103.5 FM in Los Angeles.

They call this “KOST-ing” (pronounced “coasting”). They are playing nothing but Christmas music 24 hours a day until December 26th. I can’t believe I actually missed a couple days of this at the beginning, but I am on the Christmas train big time now, at work, in the car and during those otherwise introspective moments at home. I am Father Christmas, awash in good cheer.

But a byproduct of this total immersion is that one begins to realize how many Christmas songs have been remade by new, ever-younger performers, and each new generation seems (to me) to have gotten a little farther away from the original meaning of the song, until you end up with something like Whitney Houston’s hideous, overwrought version of A Christmas Song. Hey, Whitney: Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope and joy. You don’t have to torture every note until it cries for mercy.

Don’t get me wrong – I think Whitney is a gifted artist, and once we get a little distance on the substance abuse and the general flakiness we’ll no doubt begin to see her as a latter-day Billie Holliday, but I mean, I grew up with straight Christmas carols sung straight: Jingle Bells, Gene Autry singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, choirs doing Silent Night, 101 Strings with classics like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Oh, sure, over the years there have been some less-than-antique songs that have squirmed into the lexicon of classics: Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Bobby Helms’ Jingle Bell Rock, Mel Torme’s original The Christmas Song.

Still, it always jars me when a new one comes along, and my natural inclination is to resist adding any new songs of the season. Like, I remember the first year I started hearing The Little Drummer Boy. It was by The Harry Simeone Chorale, and it arrived for Christmas, 1958. I was just a kid, but this song rubbed me the wrong way on several levels:

  • The bible makes no mention of a drummer boy. So they are making up stuff that didn’t happen. And don’t throw Santa at me. This is my indignation. Go get your own.
  • My own mother would have smacked me if I had beat on a drum around a newborn infant. I assumed the mother of God would do no less for her little savior.
  • “The ox and lamb kept time?” Give me a break. Oxen and sheep have no rhythm.
  • Who were those guys singing “Parumpa pum pum?” Couldn’t they find a real drum? Grown men making funny noises = just embarrassing, for everybody.
  • Finally, it is not a gift to play a drum for a baby. A gift would involve giving something. He could have given the drum, for example. Then there would have been no song. Fine with me.

But the song hung in there, in spite of my scorn. Soon there were 150 covers of it, and 25 million recordings sold. Twenty-five million. How could it not be a classic? I mean, Christmas is all about the bling. Twenty-five million sales brings a lot of bling. So, long story short, I hated it for about five years, but now The Little Drummer Boy is one of my beloved Christmas favorites, heavy with the emotional freight of many holiday seasons. Eventually David Bowie got on board, and I saw him singing it on television with Bing Crosby! Talk about cognitive dissonance. But we’re not talking about that, are we?

But, in general, what do you think makes a young singer or band want to do a Christmas record (CD)? Is it because they just love Christmas, and want to share their excitement with the world? Or maybe they want to show the parents of their fans that they are not bad people, even though they have shaved their heads, injected pints of ink under their skin and wear safety pins as jewelry?

There’s probably a commercial reason (ya think?). Many of these recordings sound like throwaways, and yet there is an automatic audience for them, and KOST will play them for sure. When you’re looking for hundreds of hours of holiday programming you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. But, even this early in the season, and as full of holiday spirit as I am, there are a few I wish I didn’t have to hear again:

  • Barry Manilow, For All the Children. The children thank you, Barry. Now please go sit down.
  • Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton, Baby It’s Cold Outside. This may be the only version in which a conclusion to the seduction is tacked on. Of course Rod wins Dolly over. She stays, he chuckles, creepily. In my dream about this, he can’t get it up, even to fuck her tits.
  • The aforementioned Christmas Song, by Whitney Houston. This is done in the style of Mariah Carey, and Whitney should know better. Every note is drawn out with dips and trills until even a marathoner would be out of breath, and still the phrases go on and on. Just stop it!
  • Barry Manilow again, for his almost-exact ripoff of an arrangement of Jingle Bells released in the 1940’s by Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters. Did he think he wouldn’t get caught at this?
  • Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Bruce applies his own tortured growl to this happy little children’s song. At least they try to have a little fun with it, but really all I get from this is “Gosh, maybe Phil Spector really is a genius after all.” (Note: Springsteen’s version is a direct rip of The Crystals’ 1963 version on Phil Spector’s “Christmas Gift” LP. Can’t these guys think up their own arrangements?)
  • Burl Ives, Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas. When this hayseed holiday classic hit the streets in 1965 I thought Burl Ives had been dead for at least ten years. Now it looks as if he’ll never go away. (Composer Johnny Marks also wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and, incredibly, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I think if you are vocally flexible, you could sing Holly Jolly and Rockin’ Around to the same accompaniment. But really, why would you want to?)

However, I am Jones, not Scrooge, and I like stuff, too:

  • Judy Garland’s lush, heartbreaking Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
  • Please Come Home For Christmas, by Aaron Neville, The Eagles, B.B. King, and more.
  • Elvis’ Blue Christmas. The King. ‘Nuff said.
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas by The Beach Boys. Has any boy’s choir sounded more angelic?
  • John Lennon, Happy Christmas (War is Over). Hopeful and useless. My kind of song.
  • Eurythmics, Winter Wonderland. Take me with you, Annie.
  • Oh, Holy Night, Al Green. Absolutely spine-tingling. Tell it, Reverend.

You’ve got more, of course. What are they? Come on: ‘Tis the season for making lists.

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19 Replies to “Coasting to Christmas”

  1. man, I love this post! How the hell do you know so much about Christmas songs?

    Little Drummer Boy, Bing and Bowie, is still one of my favorites. And I was EXTREMELY impressionable when Bob Geldof had Band Aid singing “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?”

    Some bands’ original songs strike me as Christmas-y. No Christmas mix is complete without The Pretenders “2000 Miles.” And I like unacccompanied choir arrangements of lesser-known carols such as “O Come Emmanuel” and “Good King Wenceslas.” Also good are Windham Hill’s Winter Solstice and R. Carlos Nakai’s Winter Dreams.

    Wish we had KOST here in Tucson. No station plays 24 hour Xmas.

  2. shy smiley – Music is my life + Father Christmas * Internet = Knowing a lot about Christmas songs.
    Good choices, although Bowie sang some crazy made-up words that were not part of the original. Still, he had the spirit, didn’t he?

  3. gnightgirl – They are playing some wimpy kids’ chorus on my radio station. I never get the ID for sure, but I think it’s Vince Guaraldi from a Peanuts soundtrack. I say, lose the kids and play me some o’ that cool, funky jazz, Like Cast Your Fate to the Wind.

    G.D. – Such a delicate flower, so easily disturbed. Come on, wallow in this with me!

  4. My favorite is the one about “sweet silver bells.” It always makes me want to get up and run around the room, one quality I admire in a song.

    I love this post. I think KOST should offer you a job.

    But Larry, come on, everyone knows that a song is better than a tangible gift any day!

  5. Good list! Always hated the Little Drummer Boy.

    I like the Jingle Bell Swing CD, myself (Duke Ellington’s Jingle Bells, no lyrics, Tony Bennett’s Winter Wonderland . . .) A cool cat like you might dig it, too, Daddy-O.

  6. Bing has the corner on Christmas songs in my book. I always hated Little Drummer Boy too, until I heard him and Bowie do it. Now I can listen to it over and over again.

    Larry, even when you’re a critic, your passion for music makes it feel romantic for everyone. This is a fantastic post.

    Tell us, if you were to sing a Christmas song, which would you choose?

  7. Erin – Are you referring to “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style…”? That one is so far beyond saccharine that you eventually forgive it and sigh “Suweet…”
    Also, a “song” on a drum?

    Jayne – I actually own Tony Bennett’s “Winter Wonderland” CD, and it is indeed classy. Must find Duke’s stuff.

    Theresa – What a good question! Tonight I feel like singing Please Come Home For Christmas.

  8. No, not that one. The chorus that has a round of “…all seem to say, Christmas is here,” and “MerryMerryMerryMerryMerry Christmas,” and “Ding-dong, Ding-dong.” Someone help me out here.

    You can so have a song on a drum! The “parumpa pum pum” factor is a little questionable though. I’ll give you that.

  9. man o man, man…..your faves are my faves…..I think I’ll just loop those til Christmas. You notice the best Christmas songs sound the best at about 11 PM on Christmas Eve?

  10. Erin – Oh yeah, that one! Got it now, and now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve heard it this year. The CD player in my office stopped working sometime since last winter, and the song doesn’t seem to be on the radio playlist. We’ll have to talk about the song on the drum.

    Edge – Yes! Late at night on Christmas Eve, a bittersweet peace descends, and the songs tug that much more insistently on my heart.

  11. I LOVE the Andy Williams Xmas album. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the screeching children in the last few songs, but the rest is classic.

    Also love “Santa Baby”.

    It also upsets me what Dolly & whats-his-name did to “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.

  12. Jayne – Carol of the Bells! Now that I know the name, I can call and request it.

    kStyle – Andy Williams is Christmas! “From Atlantic to Pacific, gee the traffic is terrific…”

    L – I know what you mean. My coworkers and everyone who passes near my office seem to feel the same way.

  13. Your knowledge of music is impressive! I wouldn’t attempt to make a favorites list. Christmas songs from my childhood would probably be among my favorites because of the emotional connection that’s forever burned into my memory.

  14. Your post is inspiring. Maybe I’ll do one on my fave holiday tunes, with a nod to you (great idea).

    I know what you mean about younger and younger… it’s the music trend now; get them recording so early they’ll be heart=throbbing record machines for 50 years. Yuk.

    I have to say, for me, my list is going to feature Karen Carpenter. Her voice *is* Christmas to me (that may peg my generation).

    ~S 🙂

  15. Shephard – I was just being a curmudgeon with the “…ever-younger…” remark. What I meant, and what I should have said, is that each new generation of singers takes off on a song from the point where the previous generation left off, and as a result their performances are spmetimes not informed by the original spirit of the song (as defined by me, of course). Compare Whitney Houston’s wailing, testifying rendition of “The Christmas Song” to the purity and longing of Mel Torme’s original. Does she have any idea what she is singing about?

    And I am ashamed to admit that I scorned The Carpenters in their day. I thought they were sappy, plus I had to perform their stupid song at 500 weddings. But, boy-howdy did they do Christmas right! Karen’s voice brings enough beauty and warmth to the songs to melt the heart of any Scrooge, and there is never a false note (not to be confused with “wrong notes,” of which there are also none). And with her sad real-life story hovering in the background, it’s a bittersweet experience to hear her now.

    I have checked out your blogs, and I’m looking forward to reading your Christmas music reviews.

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