Saturday, December 24, 2005

Holiday Rock

For many of you out there today is Christmas Eve. For me it is otherwise signficant, as it was on this day that someone dearest to me and closest to my heart was born. I do hope that she has had a very happy Yuletide so far and that she has an even happier birthday. I have often joked that she was my Yule gift when I was six years old (even though I wouldn't know about the gift until years later) and I honestly believe that.

Anyhow, with today being what it is, I thought I would write about a holiday topic. When it comes to rock 'n' roll Christmas songs, most people's knowledge goes ony so far as "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." And while the genre has never produced many classic holiday tunes, it has produced its fair share.

Indeed, the first Christmas rock song not only pre-dates "Jingle Bell Rock," but even pre-dates the term "rock 'n' roll." In 1947 Charles Brown releasead "Merry Christmas, Baby." As proof that the song is indeed rock before that term even existed, consider that it has been remade by everyone from Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen, often with very little change from the original. The song breaks from many traditional carols in being openly romantic, even erotic in subject matter.

For that matter, Elvis Presley beat "Jingle Bell Rock" when it came to making a rock 'n' roll holiday tune. "Blue Christmas" was released in 1957. The song is one of the first of many holiday rock songs that dealt with the idea of someone being without their loved one during the holidays. It breaks with many traditional songs and standards in being openly melancholy about the holidays.

This is certainly not the case with Chuck Berry's "Run, Run, Rudolph." The song is a joyous celebration of Santa's most famous reindeer. The song was supposedly written by Marvin Lee Brodie and John D. Marks--the latter having written the original "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." That having been said, the song has the signature sound of Chuck Berry, clearly four bar blues. It doesn't sound that different from "Roll Over Beethoven" or "Johnny B. Goode." One has to wonder if Berry wasn't denied a composer's credit on the song.

While "Jingle Bell Rock" was not the first holiday rock song, that does not reduce its siginificance. It was arguably the first song that made a point of mixing rock with Christmas. It was originally released by Bobby Helms in 1957 and re-released in 1958. There are those who argue that it is not a rock song at all, but utter pop, although I have to disagree. Although a bit watered down when compared to the songs of such acts as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the song is clearly rock to me.

Perhaps the second most famous Christmas rock song was also written by Johnny Marks of "Rudolph..." fame. Released in 1960 and performed by Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was a smash hit and became a standard. It has been remade many times since, by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Jessica Simpson.

It would be left to Phil Spector, however, to produce a truly great Christmas rock song. In 1963 A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. The bulk of the album consisted of such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" treated to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production and turned into rock 'n' roll. The only original song on the album was also the single greatest Christmas rock song of all time, perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all time, period. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," performed by Darlene Love, is the plea of a woman without her beloved at Yuletide. The song turns the conventions of Christmas on their head. The snow falling is not a sign of joy, but serves the same purpose of rain in other songs, that of illustrating the singer's sorrow. Even the bells ringing are indicative of the loss the singer feels. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" is not only the saddest Christmas song of all time, but also one of the saddest rock songs of all time. It is a powerful evocation of what it is like to be without the one you love at the Yuletide (something I sadly have experience with...). It has become Darlene Love's most famous song. Indeed, it is an annual ritual that she performs it each year on Late Night with David Letterman right before Christmas.

Rock has not produced many classic Christmas songs. Indeed, even no less than The Beach Boys failed to produce a classic holiday tune. In 1964 they released The Beach Boys Christmas Album. The album featured songs that came close to classic--the originals "Little St. Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys," but for the most part consisted of rather standard treatments of such standards as "Frosty the Snow Man" and "White Christmas."

The Beatles never released a Christmas song to the public (although they did do so to their fan club), but a Beatle would eventually create the greatest Christmas song short of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home." John Lennon meant "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" to eseentially be propaganda. It was a part of Lennon and Yoko Ono's campaign for peace and protest against the Vietnam War. The song went far beyond its creator's intended purpose, however, to become a Yuletide classic. It has been covered many times since, from artists ranging from The Corrs to The Alarm.

Of course, rock 'n' roll originally started as a music of rebellion, so it should be no surprise that artists sometimes took skewed views of the holidays. It was the British Invasion's court jester, Ray Davies of The Kinks, who wrote just such a song. Released in 1976 by The Kinks, "Father Christmas" is not about holiday joy, but about a poor bloke playing Father Christmas who is robbed by street punks. The chorus "Father Christmas, give us some money...:" is about as far as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as one can get. Another skewed view of the holidays was given to us by AC/DC on their 1990 album The Razor's Edge. "Mistress for Christmas." The title sums up the song. It is simpy one man's wish for sex on Christmas. Leave it to AC/DC to create the first holiday sex song....

Sex also plays a role in Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again." For the most part the song focuses on the cyclical nature of the holidays, addressing such traditional imagery as ringing bells, shopping, fires in the fireplace, et. al. It also contains its share of eroticism, however, making reference to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe with the lines "And Christmas is a rockin' time, put your body next to mine/Underneath the mistletoe we go, we go..."

Of course, rock artists have remade their share of the classics. As mentioned earlier, A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector featured adaptations of many standards, including a classic rendition of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers by The Crystals. Bruce Springsteen added electric guitars to the Gene Autry classic "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," while John Mellencamp gave "I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus" the rock treatment. In fact, where holiday songs are concerned, I daresay that more rock artists have remade standards than written original tunes.

Rock 'n' roll has been around now for over fifty years. The holiday season, if one counts the Yule celebration of the Germanic peoples and Saturnalia of the Romans, has been around for thousands of years. I think it safe to say that more rock artists will continue to write rock songs for the holidays, as well as remake standard Yuletide tunes. Only time will tell if any of these become classics.

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