Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Silent Night

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
Plink-plink-plink
Plunk-plunk-plunk
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.

18 comments:

  1. And when Mahalia sings, "O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL", she Means IT!
    You are absolutely right, Bluz. Chrischmaltz is a bore. Try R. Carlos Nakai, Native American flute with a children's chorus singing "Silent Night" in Navaho. And yes! Vince Grualdi (sp) is the greatest Christmas music of all. I smile every year.
    And Everybody, listen up and well to the Alligator Christmas CD. JOY to the World!

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  2. Having worked in retail since the the first Christmas, I completely understand your loathing of the music. I think that our music provider got a hold of all of the trite dreck you list and they play it from midnight Thanksgiving thru New Years Day.

    The only thing that that stops me from reaching for the cane sharpener is the occassional Steamroller and Trans Siberian Orchestra. Only 3 weeks to go. Ho.Ho.Ho. Pass the canes.

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  3. Could Mitch Miller look any more like someone on To Catch a Predator? And Bing Crosby was smiling because he beat his kids that morning.

    Have you heard Bob Dylan's Christmas album that was released this year? I'm afraid to. It will either be great or a travesty.

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  4. IKNAB:
    Ah, so you know my pain. You're a captive there and it's like, "My Kingdom for something new!"

    I've only heard the TSO in commercials, but it sounds like something I'd like. I heard their shows are fantastic.

    Bagger:
    He does look like quite the perv, doesn't he? As far as I know, only he and Satan have that beard. And maybe Burl Ives.

    Bing probably beat his kids because they let Bowie in the door.

    Haven't heard the Dylan album yet... probably sounds like it was done by elves.

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  5. I always loved the Blues groups doing the Christmas music too. I have a compilation tape somewhere, but alas, nothing to play it on. Who knew then that CD's were coming? I'm a little reluctant to listen to the Dylan CD too. Sometimes, though, he catches you off guard with a novel sound that you never forget like, "The Man in The Long Black Coat."

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  6. "...reluctant to listen to the Dylan CD?" Ha, you know you can't resist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVs6X9yIM_k

    Now, you, too, are forever infected by the earworm of this steroidally-enhanced klezmer/polka/zydeco version of "Must Be Santa." Conficker has nothing on the virility of this auditory virus. Even dumping Clorox in your ears won't help.

    And Dick Cheney said that playing this to Gitmo detainees goes beyond the pale of human decency.

    My work here is done.

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  7. Dick Cheney likes Mitch Miller.

    Cher:
    You have to watch out for some of those blues Christmas songs... one of the cuts on the CD I burned was by Lil' Ed and The Blues Imperials, and features the following verses:

    "The things you do to me
    Make my Christmas swell
    From the top of my tree
    Down to my jingle bells.

    "I got a big ol' candy cane
    That you'd like to lick
    If you take your time
    Ooh, that'll do the trick

    "Let me slide between your stockings
    Check out your fireplace
    I think I got a log now
    That'll fit right in place"

    OK, I hadn't really heard the whole thing before I selected it for my Christmas Mix CD, I just liked the beat. So when I was listening to it while I was putting up my tree, I was like, "Damn, Lil Ed... now THAT's some Christmas Mojo."

    I guess I better not bring it over to my brother's for Christmas... his mother in law will have a cow...

    The things she finds disgusting are on a very long list, Including wearing sneakers to work, Troy Polamalu's hair and adding any kind of flair to the National Anthem. Hearing about Lil Ed's log might send her over the edge.

    Then again, I bet I could get a post out of it.

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  8. dude i am SOOOO into TSO. I have all three but the first one is my favorite. I'm not so much into their non xmas stuff. my dad liked MHS so I listened to it but never bought any. TSO is far superior. If you want rock....check out Gary Hoey's HO HO HO. it is blistering! EVerybody I suggest it to loves it. Whats cool is to mix it all up. I think I am up to 227 xmas tracks on my ipod and I love to shuffle. Mahalia Jackson followed by Gary Hoey followed by RUN DMC followed by Bing followed by Mercy Me. Mercy Me is sweet. SOmeone suggested to me and I surfed their CDs before downloading 3 tracks. I love those 3, the others? Meh. Last year for xmas I video'd my daughter opening each gift just for a second or two and then she went ice skating on our trip to western PA. when we returned I put a video together starting with her skating and I mixed in the skating song from vince G in the movie. i sent it to friends and family and I was bombarded with requests for the music. people dont realize they can buy it.

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  9. That was the thing with the Peanuts music... no one knew it was available. Once they heard it in the store, it was easy to seal the deal.

    I'll have to investigate the TSO. Sounds like it's got some oomph to it. And I'm all about the oomph.

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  10. Wow, Manheim Steamroller! It's been forever since I heard them. A friend in college was a freak about them. He was one of the first people to buy CDs and all he ever played was MS. It drove me nuts after a while, but I miss him and thus the music.
    Peanuts is the best. Vince Guaraldi is a legit jazz player, which makes it even cooler. I still get requests to play "Linus and Lucy" this time of year. And of course my kids love it.
    Thanks for some new ideas about Xmas music. My wife comes from a family that listens to some pretty lame, elevator BS, so I'm constantly trying to enlighten her.

    She enlightens me in other areas, that's why we work well together!! :)
    Happy Holidays!

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  11. My Mom used to listen to MHS and I too was quite interested in them because they were so different. I must be one of the few who is not that savvy about TSO.

    And due to our toddler, I am listening to more than a fair share of Elmo singing Christmas songs.

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  12. can I just say that Raffi makes the best Christmas album of all time? Oh, wait. We're not all under the age of 5, huh? I mean, Tori Amos!!!

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  13. Guy and Jenny:
    Aside from the unusual instrumentation on MHS, my favorite thing about them were the album covers, especially the one I used above. It just looks so warm and inviting.

    Jenny and Cassie:
    As a non-parent, I do NOT envy your having to deal with kid-music, from Elmo to the inevitable progression up the "pop" chain with boy bands and girl singers, to the ultimate destination, Music that Your Parents Forbid.

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  14. Bluzdude, you just missed TSO @ First Mariner Arena (12/10) then? Heard it was wild. Half their show was regular stuff and half a Christmas show... pyrotechnics and all.

    Check out my next (soon to be posted) "What Are You Listening To Now" post over at Steel City Slant. It'll be at least somewhat dedicated to Christmas music. ...and of course some bluz, Dude!

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  15. Blues is one of my favorites, so it goes without saying that I love it at Christmas. And I just listened to Mahalia and I am on my way to that mountain now.

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  16. My regret is that I didn't discover it when I was younger, or it would have been a staple at our Barn Parties. There's a reason I'm a bluzdude and not a schmaltzdude...

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  17. Hi Bluzdude: It varies from year to year, but this season the only Christmas music I can take is An Oscar Peterson Christmas and Diana Krall's Christmas Songs. That's cause I'm a Jazzgirl at heart.

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