I hate traditional Christmas music. There. I said it. It’s trite, stilted, mawkish and overplayed to the point of meaninglessness.
I used to love Christmas music when I was a little boy. When I got my first record player, I had a bunch of Christmas 45’s that I would play for myself over and over. Mostly, I just like the playing of the records and watching them spin around. (Granted, I may have been the most easily amused child on earth.) But I never had anything against the usual Christmas carols.
Mom always played Christmas music on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t the usual stuff. Our little white Italian family would wake up every year to gospel of Mahalia Jackson singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing. It was very majestic and commanding of respect. (When Mahalia sings “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” you better have your ass at that mountain!)
Everything changed when I began working in record stores. Every day from Black Friday forward, it was Assault of the Jingle Bells. Christmas music, all day long for 5 straight weeks.
Once our independent store was absorbed into a larger corporation, they began sending us pre-made tapes that we were supposed to play, to supplement the list of traditional Christmas albums we were allowed to open. It was a steady stream of Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, The Carpenters, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Mitch Freakin’ Miller, Elmo & Freakin Patsy’s drunken Grandma getting run over by a reindeer, and numerous compilations that featured all of the above. It was enough to stab myself in the ear with a sharpened candy cane. Look at some of these schmucks:
This may possibly be the worst Christmas album of all time, for anyone that isn’t over 80. It’s music for people that think the New Christie Minstrels were just too mod. Oh, and FYI, Mitch Miller was an A&R man at Columbia, way back when, and passed on signing Elvis because he said no one would ever buy that kind of junk.
I used to stare at this album cover and think, “They must have made this cover for about $1.50. Look at it… 'Hey look at me, I have a stupid little hat on. And look at my tie... it's holly! Ho ho ho'. Putz...”
Of course I know now that Bing was just drunk. He must have been, or else he’d have had Frank Sinatra throw that young punk David Bowie out on his scrawny ass when he unexpectedly showed up at the house to sing Little Drummer Boy.
Things began to change a little bit when the first Mannheim Steamroller album came out in 1984. It was different… I liked that it was instrumental, yet not 50’s-style orchestral.
In 1987, the first Very Special Christmas album came out, to benefit Special Olympics. This was a collection of the usual Christmas songs, but done by contemporary artists like Whitney Houston, Sting, Eurythmics, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, etc. It managed to breath a little life into a tired genre, and many more Very Special Christmas albums followed. In fact, I saw an ad in a magazine this afternoon for Very Special Christmas 7. I checked and I've heard of exactly 3 of the artists. That means either they're really slumming for talent, or... well, I'm too... OK, maybe I should try Mitch Miller again.
Shortly after Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out, my favorite Christmas music of all time became available again. It had been around since 1965 but you never saw it in record stores.
Charlie Brown Christmas was always my favorite of the holiday specials, just because of the music. Now this, I can listen to all month. I’ll never forget slapping that CD on the store stereo and just watching people just light up. “Linus and Lucy” would come on and people’s feet would just start tapping. Next thing you know it’s Vince Guaraldi meets “Fame.”
I’d sell that thing out in no time. That was also a problem… once it was sold out, I couldn’t play it any more.
Once I moved to a store in a more urban setting, I learned I had a whole new set of problems… namely getting enough R&B Christmas material in stock. My first year there, I sold out of all the R&B stuff in about 10 minutes on Black Friday. Couldn’t get any more, either. The next year, I tripled my order, but only got a part of it from our warehouse and was sold out by the end of Black Friday.
My third year there, I finally got it down and went to an outside vendor and got maybe 300 cassettes of Christmas music by The Temptations, and a ton by all the other Motown groups… Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Jackson Five, Supremes, plus James Brown and the Phil Spector Christmas Album… They were much more fun to play in the store.
I used to bend the ear of a rep at Alligator Records, which is a wonderful, independent blues label out of Chicago, and I’d always tell her, “Please… you have to come up with a Blues Christmas album… I’ll sell a ton of them for you… It’ll kill!”
They finally did… once I was out of that store, of course. They’ve actually done two and they’re both great fun.
Not that I’m trying to write commercials for any of these… I’m just telling you what I like. In fact, last month I burned myself a Christmas Compilation CD featuring stuff I’ve mentioned here, plus tracks from Lynyrd Skynyrd, guitarists Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Brian Setzer, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and so on. That was my sound track for putting up the tree this year. There really is a lot of interesting Christmas music out there.
So why is it that we always hear the same lame crap over and over again? I swear if I hear one more commercial with that stupid Nutcracker riff… you know… that
Plinky plink-plink plink-plink
Plunky plunky plunk…
I may be missing a few plinks, but you know what I mean… Every year I tell myself I’m going to count how many times I hear it on a commercial.
And after it hits 100, I start sharpening the candy canes.