Sunday, 16 December 2007

"Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus": Bizarre Christmas Songs

"Father Christmas, give us some money..."
("Father Christmas," The Kinks)

"So come all ye unfaithful
Don't be left out in the cold
You don't need no invitation, no...
Your ticket is your soul"
("Christmas with the Devil," Spinal Tap)

Among the most popular holiday singles released this year is a song called "Don't Shoot Me Santa" by The Killers. Released November 27, 2007, it is far from the typical Yuletide carol. Essentially, the song is couched in the mythology of the Western, centring on a boy, who has been "killing just for fun" and must now pay the price for his crimes by way of Santa and his gun. Last year's holiday single by The Killers, "A Great Big Sled," was unusual, but not quite so outré as this one. At any rate, bizarre Christmas songs are nothing new. In fact, they have been around since the better part of the 20th century.

Indeed, in some respects "Don't Shoot Me Santa" is not even that unusual given the fact that violence has played a role in some holiday songs in the past. Perhaps the most famous example is The Kinks' attack on Yuletide greed, "Father Christmas." The song centres on a poor fellow playing Father Christmas who finds himself beaten up and robbed by street punks. While the song is bit left of centre compared to most Christmas songs, it does have an important message about remembering the less fortunate during the holiday season. Not every Yuletide carol has such a message, as is the case with the notorious "Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas" by Wall of Voodoo. The song details the consequences of giving a father a few bricks shy of a load a weapon for the holiday. In "The Night Santa Went Crazy" by Weird Al Yankovic, it is the big man himself who commits a holiday massacre. In the song Santa gets drunk and then proceeds to shoot up his workshop. In the end he winds up in Federal prison (I didn't think the United States had jurisdiction over the North Pole...). While "The Night Santa Went Crazy" is a violent song, its level of violence is actually less than that of Weird Al's more famous holiday tune, "Christmas at Ground Zero." Indeed, "Christmas at Ground Zero" is violence on a massive scale, as nuclear missiles are launched just in time for Christmas Eve.

Of course, not every Christmas song in which someone is hurt is the mayhem necessarily intentional. This is the case of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patsy. The song centres on Grandma who, drunk on too much eggnog, gets run over by Santa's sleigh. First released in 1979, the song has become something of a holiday standard, although I cannot fathom why. I must confess that it is one of the few Christmas songs that I actively hate.

Given the spirit of the Yuletide, it might seem odd that violence would be the subjet of some songs, but I don't think the same argument can be made for sex. At least in northern Europe, the northern United States, and Canada, Christmas is often a time when it is very, very cold. Indeed, there is sometimes even snow and ice covering the outdoors. For that reason, the holiday season might seem a very good time to curl up with some special someone next to the fire. Romance has played a role in several holiday songs over the years. In fact, even though they are played during the Yuletide, some aren't even Christmas songs, but merely songs about being with the one you love during the winter--"Winter Wonderland" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are two examples of this. Still, there are outright Christmas songs that reference romance during the holidays. "Merry Christmas, Baby" by blues legend Charles Brown was first released in 1947 and concerns spending the holiday with the woman he loves. A more famous Christmas song with romantic content is "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," originally performed by Jimmy Boyd and released in 1952. The song centres on a kid who witnesses his mother kissing old "St. Nick (presumably his father impersonating the big guy in red)." "Christmas All Over Again" by Tom Petty celebrates the holiday season in general, although it puts emphasis on mistletoe and warm bodies.

From romance it is simply a small step to outright sex. A prime example of this is "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" by rhythm and blues artist Albert King. First released in 1973, the song centres on the father of a family (the "Santa Claus" of the title) who wants more than kissing on the holiday. At least the Santa Claus of "Santa Claus Wants some Lovin'" is in a committed relationship. This is not the case of the "Santa" in "Back Door Santa" by blues artist Clarence Carter, first released in 1968. It would seem that the Back Door Santa is not concerned with simply curling up by the fire with the one he loves--he has to keep all the "girls happy, while the boys are out to play..." As sexually suggestive as "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" and "Back Door Santa" are, they are nothing compared to "Mistress for Christmas" by AC/DC. Essentially, the song is a holiday wish for, well, a mistress for Christmas (which, when I stop to think about it, would actually be a fairly good present for the holiday...).

If asking for a mistress for Christmas sounds unusual, it is perhaps not as odd as some of the gifts requested in some songs. Songs featuring unusual Christmas wishes have been around at least since the Forties. In fact, the earliest may well have been released in 1948--"All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," originally performed by the great Spike Jones. A novelty tune, the song centres on a little tyke missing his his two front teeth and wanting new ones as his present for the holiday. If wanting one's two front teeth for Christmas seems odd, it is perhaps not as strange as the gift requested in "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." Originally performed by eleven year old Gayla Peevey and released in 1952, the title pretty much sums up the song. A little girl wants a hippo for Christmas. Oddly enough, I remember several years ago when the song became something of a sensation on our local oldies station (I must admit, after a while I got tired of hearing it...).

Of course, if asking for a mistress, one's two front teeth, or a hippo for Christmas seems odd, they are nowhere as strange as the gift requested in the song "I Want an Alien for Christmas" by power pop band Fountains of Wayne. In the song a kid asks Santa for a real, live alien for Christmas--he doesn't want a bike, ugly sweaters, or a basketball. At least in most songs about Christmas wishes people are content to ask for just one thing. In the classic "Santa Baby," first released in 1953, Eartha Kitt asks for a whole list of expensive items, including a '54 convertible, a yacht, and the deed to a platinum mine. Given the sheer nature of Eartha Kitt's voice (she could sound sexy reading a phone book...), I suppose this song could also count as one of the more sexually suggestive Yuletide carols out there.

While there are Christmas songs asking for odd gifts, there are also Christmas songs that are just plain odd. Novelty songs, from "All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth" to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" have been a part of the holiday for years. Perhaps none has been more persistent than "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks. Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. had first sped up the playback on a record with his song "Witch Doctor," released earlier in 1958. For "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," he went even further, creating the three different characters (Alvin, Simon, and Theodore), each with his own voice. Not only did "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" become a #1 single in 1958, it also launched the career of The Chipmunks. Here I must note that The Chipmunks were not the cutesy, politically correct creatures of the Eighties cartoons. In fact, originally Alvin was the Bart Simpson of his day (I've no idea if the new movie returns them to their former glory, but I rather doubt it...).

Another Yuletide novelty song was actually a sequel to a novelty song for another holiday--Halloween. Bobby "Boris" Pickett had a smash hit with the song "Monster Mash" in 1962. Indeed, the song has become a standard with regards to the Halloween celebration. That same year Pickett recorded a followup for the Yuletide season entitled "Monster's Holiday." The song went to #30 on the Billboard singles chart before disappearing entirely. Another holiday sequel to another novelty song has fared a bit better over the years. In 1966 The Royal Guardsmen had a hit with "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron," a song based on Snoopy's imaginary battles with the German flying ace in the panels of Peanuts. They followed up the song in 1967 with a holiday themed sequel, "Snoopy's Christmas." This song not only has its roots in the comic strip Peanuts, but in an actual historical event--in 1914 British and German soldiers declared a "Christmas truce" and celebrated the holiday together. In the song, the Red Baron (it was the German soldiers who came up with the idea of the truce) calls over to Snoopy and the two celebrate the holiday together. It has become a regular at the holiday season ever since its release in 1967.

Of course, Snoopy is not the only dog in a Christmas song. "Christmas is Going to the Dogs" by The Eels relates the holiday from a dog's point of view. It would seem it is a joyous time for pets as well. Holiday cheer is not to be found in "Christmas with the Devil" by Spinal Tap. The notorious heavy metal band posits a holiday in which Satan has taken over... So far the songs I've mentioned here are not meant to be taken seriously. This is not the case with Irish musician Chris de Burgh's "A Spaceman Came Travelling." In the song an alien positions his spaceship above a small village in Israel where it is seen as the star of Bethlehem. De Burgh plays the song straight, even though I suspect it is hard for anyone else to take it seriously...

While the various novelty songs celebrate the joy of the season, there are songs that recognise that there are those who are not happy during the Yuletide. The theme appears in the aforementioned "Father Christmas" and several other songs. The Fountains of Wayne sing of the plight of a department store Santa in "The Man in the Santa Suit," who takes the job simply because he needs the money. Of course, the life of the Man in the Santa Suit is a walk in the park compared to the protagonist of The Ramones' "Merry Christmas, I Don't Want to Fight Tonight." It is Christmas and he is apparently on the verge of losing the woman he loves. It is even worse for the heroine of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. The single greatest holiday rock song of all time, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" inverts the imagery of Christmas, using the snow falling and the bells ringing as symbols of sorrow and not joy as a woman pleads for her lover to return to her for the holiday.

Hard as it is to believe, there are actually holiday songs more depressing than "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." In "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits, the hooker of the title relates how she is broke and headed to prison. Even this is not as depressing as the situation in "Dead by Xmas" by Hanoi Rocks. Not only is the protagonist of the song dying during the holiday season, but the woman he loves is with another man.

Given the fact that not everyone enjoys the holidays, it should come as no surprise that there are even songs that are outright against the holiday. In "Christmas My Arse," English actor Ricky Tomlinson bewails the fact that the holidays never quite live up to their hype (among other things, "there aint no snow" and "The crackers don't bang..."). "Christmas My Arse" is nowhere as virulent as a song by punk band Fear. "F*** Christmas" is a simple statement that for the singer Christmas is "..not so great."

While rather odd, off the wall songs have been a part of the holiday season for years, it seems to me that they are not appreciated by everyone. Every year KOMU shows clips of the various school choirs performing holiday songs after their newscasts. This year someone complained about one of the choirs performing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," thinking the song hardly suitable for the holiday. I must admit that I can understand the complaints about many of these songs. There are those for whom Christmas is an important religious occasion and it is natural that they might want to see it treated more solemnly and respectfully.

That having been said, the Yuletide has always been a time of joy, fun, and frolic, even before there was a Christmas, in the days when the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings celebrated Géol or Jól respectively (Yule in Old English and Old Norse). Nearly since the beginning of comedy, humour has been derived from contradiction (sex and violence in songs about a holiday associated with love and joy), exaggeration (requests for extravagant gifts, like hippos and aliens), absurdity (Chipmunks singing a Christmas song), and misunderstanding (not realising your mother isn't really kissing Santa Claus, but your father in a Santa suit). Given the nature of comedy, it is going to push the boundaries of respectability a times and even offend a few people. As the Yuletide has always been a time for having fun and enjoying oneself, I think there is a need for funny, even bizarre holiday songs, even if they aren't appreciated by everyone. For myself it is part of the fun and frolic that is all too necessary to the holiday season. Granted, I might hate "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," but I am not going to object to it on thematic grounds.


Jeremy Barker said...

That's one twisted Christmas playlist you've got there, and a hell of a lot of research. Nice job! I will have to grab some song titles to mix in with the usual fare.

d. chedwick bryant said...

I believe Grandma would have been safe if she hadn't run out into the snow to get some drugs.