scholars and rogues

Christmas music (5)–Best Christmas album by the Rolling Stones

Hah—trick category, since there isn’t one, and a Rolling Stones Christmas album is about as likely as a string section on a Gov’t. Mule album. I throw it in as an excuse to mention that we saw the Stones a couple of years ago. In fact, the same week that a number of the newspapers had a great picture of Mick coming out of his osteopath’s office. The concert was pretty good–Keith only fell over once, they’ve got Chuck Leavell from those great Allman Brothers albums of the 1970s on keyboards, and they do put on a good show–how can they not, with all those great songs? We went with another American couple, and we were both trying to remember the last big stadium rock concert we had been to. In our case, it was Elton John about six years earlier, and only because we got free tickets because my employer was using him in their ad campaign that year, and while Mrs. W says it was a rock concert, I’m not quite sure what it was. Before that it gets fuzzy. In our friends’ case, it was Bob Marley–and he died in 1982.

The other point is that a “Rock Christmas album” is obviously an oxymoron. This is because Christmas, if nothing else, is a time of contemplation, a celebration of joy for Christians, and whatever rock is about, it’s certainly not about contemplation. As Joey Ramone said, the important thing about rock and roll is that your parents should hate it. This is an admirable spirit, but not exactly the Christmas one. This does not make me want to run out and buy, say, the Beach Boys Christmas album, pleasant as it might be. What’s the point? It would just sound like any other Beach Boys album, and I’ve already got one. The same holds for country music, and even bluegrass. I’m sure that if Emmylou Harris has a Christmas album (and who doesn’t?), it’s just lovely–and it probably sounds just like any other Emmylou Harris album.

Actually, when rock-type people try to do a Christmas album, it’s usually hopeless. Jorma Kakounen, guitarist extraordinaire of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame, put out one a while ago, and it’s–how to say this? Boring. A couple of years ago I bought the Christmas album from Moe, a pretty good Grateful Dead type band that likes to do a lot of jamming, in the hope that any album with “Carol of the Bells” on it was worth buying. Well, nice try, guys, but no dice. Jethro Tull also put one out as well a couple of years ago, but by the sound of the reviews it’s pretty glum. No thanks. I guess if the Ramones had put one out, THAT would have been interesting, but I still wouldn’t really want to hear it more than once.

The only exception to this that I can think of is Slade. Slade is an English group whose original members hung it up in 1992, but had about 25 great touring years there, with legions and legions of fans, and were the best-selling British rock group of the 1970s, the decade of David Bowie and Roxy Music. Since then they’ve sort of re-grouped, or some of the original band has, and continues to tour. They never made it big in the US, although they were pretty influential on groups such as Kiss, who initially modeled themselves after Slade, but who never produced a Christmas album, and punk groups like The Damned, who never produced a Christmas album either. Little Feat, too—Lowell George was a huge fan. They’re probably best known in the US for Cum on Feel the Noize (they specialized in mis-spellings in their song titles), which was actually covered by someone named Quiet Riot (and more recently by Oasis). And they’ve written THE great rock Christmas song, called Merry Xmas Everybody. You can probably download it from somewhere.

Apropos of that, every December we head over to the Royal Albert Hall for the Jonathan Cohen Christmas Sing-along. This is more fun than anyone should legally be entitled to have. Cohen is great—he’s a wonderful composer and arranger, an enthusiastic and inspired conductor (especially of the audience), and a wonderful raconteur. He’s joined by torch singer and ersatz lounge act Sophie-Louise Dann, who is somebody or other in London musical theatre, I gather–Cats, I think, or something. Anyway, it’s a fantastic show, so popular that the producers of all these sing-along at RAH around Christmas now have three or four of them involving Cohen alone—plus he now does shows up in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and, if he’s not careful, they’ll be sending him on international tour pretty soon. And it’s just great. There are never any empty seats. And everyone is dressed up in Christmassy stuff, hats and whatnot, and many folks have sparklers and flashing colored lights that they wear…it’s just wonderful. And when the wave gets going, it’s unstoppable. And who’s in the audience? Well, we personally know someone who turned 92 this year (Jonathan’s mother, actually), and whole extended families of dozens of people, including toddlers. The RAH has made this sort of thing more difficult this year, sadly, by limiting the number of tickets per person to nine. Who books nine tickets? I tried to book ten, as we have the past couple of years, and couldn’t—so then you have to call that tenth person and tell them what seat to book. Jeez. Anyway, the point of this digression is that the closing number every year is always Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, and it gets the biggest and loudest reception—and EVERYONE, from nine to ninety, knows all the words. Of course, this is a country where everyone seems to know all the words to Queen’s every song, including Bohemian Rhapsody. Still, it’s just wonderful. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is possible to write a great rock and roll Christmas song. But I only know one group that’s ever done it. And it’s about Christmas as one big party. Which is fine.

Thankfully, most rock groups seem to know that the very idea of a Christmas album is a losing proposition to begin with. Which is why we’ve been spared Christmas with The Doors, or Happy Holidays from Nine Inch Nails.

Categories: scholars and rogues

12 replies »

  1. Greg Lake – “I Believe in Father Christmas” – best Christmas song by any rocker ever. Ever, Bob. And I say that as a true lover of Slade.

  2. Sorry, but no. Yes, it’s a great song. Sophie-Louise does in it the Cohen Christmas sing-along, in fact. But it’s not a rock song, whereas Merry Xmas Everybody is. Slade wins. They’re both great songs. But you can only dance to one of them.

  3. Your argument works only if you accept that rock trumps Christmas. As you’ve noted insightfully, the problem with most musicians’ Christmas albums is that they sound like all the other albums by those musicians. (BTW, I agree wholeheartedly.) That would mean that while a rocker might attempt to write a Christmas song, it would end up being a rock song with Christmas references (like Billy Mack’s “Christmas is All Around,” if you catch the reference. ;-). ) While “Father Christmas” sounds like a Greg Lake song, it’s a great CHRISTMAS song. That’s an amazing accomplishment – and one that I would respectfully submit trumps even Slade’s marvellous tune.

  4. Jennifer and I have the Barenakedladies Christmas album, and it’s pretty good. Not as good as Dr. Demento’s Greatest Christmas Novelty CD (my personal favorite), but pretty good nonetheless. If you have a chance, listen to “Elf’s Lament” sometime.

  5. I heard some sort of “heavy metal” Christmas song on the radio today. It was loosely, though not loosely enough, based on the 12 days of Christmas. I made it through the third day of heavy metal Christmas before my embarrassment for whoever recorded the song forced me to change the station.

    Wuf, your series has me thinking that perhaps i should share my holiday hobby with the world somehow…other than having someone overhear me. See, i’m subjected to shuffle, repeat all of one Christmas album for 8+ hours at a stretch (nope, changing the CD is frowned upon). This situation has led me to write my own lyrics (or partial lyrics) to a CD’s worth of Christmas tunes.

    Christmas with Lex includes such hits as: Walkin’ in Jihadi Wonderland and White Bitches. Order now and Lex will include his secret of spiritual air conditioning and annoying your fellow man by singing Christmas songs 6 months out of phase.

  6. I’m a little surprised you can discuss rock and Christmas without mentioning The Kinks’ Father Christmas (No. 19 here I think it’s as close to a Ramones take on Christmas as we’ll get.

    Anywho, the closest I come to having a favorite is The Bare Naked Ladies rendition of God Bless Ye Merry Gentleman (not sure if it’s on Brian’s CD, but I imagine it is.) As for novelty, there’s always Weird Al’s The Night Santa Went Crazy (from the Bad Hair Day album, which, I might add, was the first I ever owned).

  7. Ok you are definitely missing a classic…

    The Darkness, Christmas Time

    …Kirsty M & the Pogues. It was her biggest ever hit. RIP lady.

    Fiary Tale of New York, Kirsty & The Pogues

    Blue Christmas, Elvis

    …and finally while everybody celebrates there is always this:

    Jona Lewie, Stop The Cavalry

    • Might I humbly submit “Merry Christmas Baby (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” by The Ramones and “Christmas at Ground Zero” by Weird Al?

  8. Thanks all. I should have known that this would be the post that would generate comments. Jim, I agree with you to a point–it is a great song, no question. And as a song, you’re right, it’s probably a better song than Slade’s. But it’s not a rock song, even thugh it was written by a rock guy. That’s the point–there aren’t many good rock christmas songs. Father Christmas is another good one (thanks Tom). And there are some good rock covers of Christmas songs, but not many–Eastern Bloc did a kick-ass Jingle Bells years ago, for example. What’s interesting is that there are so few, and it’s probably song dependent. A Metallica version of “Silent Night”, or The Doors covering “Joy to the World”, probably represents a clash of categories–and this would be the case for many Christmas songs. I will clearly have to get that barenakedladies album–another hole in my knowledge base. Lex, let me know when you’ll be letting the rest of us invest in this retirement scheme.

  9. Everyone’s got an opinion. Sure, submit away!

    Elaine–sorry, how could I have forgotten Fairy Tale of New York? I gues I don’t really think of it as a Christmas song, primarily, but it is, isn’t it? But of course, Sam and Jim would probably tell you it’s “folk.” I miss Kirsty too.