Christmas rock

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 18

Various Artists – A Very Special Christmas [A&M Records SP 3911, 12″ LP, 1987.]

Very Special Christmas frontThis album has a little something for everyone who is a fan of 80s music or those who don’t mind contemporary Christmas music in general. It’s a modern day classic. You can read the details behind the creation of A Very Special Christmas at the official website. Since this first volume was made in 1987, they have produced 10 more volumes. During that time, according to their website, “Approximately $116 million in royalties and investment proceeds has been generated by the sale of the AVSC albums to support Special Olympics’ athletes with intellectual disabilities.” This series of albums has raised a lot of money and awareness!

Very Special Christmas notes

Read the original liner notes by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

I was working in a record store when the album was released and I remember that everyone on the staff found something to like about A Very Special Christmas. It has soul music, pop music, R&B, all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, synthpop and one truly memorable hip hop tune. And it has an iconic cover that was created especially for the album by renowned artist Keith Haring. It is an instantly recognizable cover to this day. All of the tracks are new versions of mostly familiar traditional and modern Christmas carols and songs, with the exception of that hip hop song, “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. That song was one of the stand-outs on this album and I still love listening to it every Christmas. And you have to remember that this was released in the Age of MTV when music videos played a huge part in the marketing of a song or an album. Many of the songs on this album had videos and that certainly helped make this album a success right out of the gate.

Very Special Christmas backWatch the official video for “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C.

This is a great song. I love how they riff and rhyme on traditional Christmas imagery backed with some heavy rap beats and R&B horns. And it’s humorous!

I was always a big fan of the Eurythmics and their artful New Wave synthpop, and their contribution to A Very Special Christmas is another one of my favorites. You can watch the video for their version of “Winter Wonderland” here. This has the 80s stamped all over it but still sounds fresh today, unlike some of the more poorly realized synthesizer-based tunes from that time.Very Special Christmas label

This video of U2 (one of my favorite bands of all time) performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” will give you a taste of how we might have watched these videos on our little old TV sets at home. This footage comes from a Top of the Pops TV special that coincided with the release of A Very Special Christmas and featured many of the songs from the album. The host seen in the footage is singer Nia Peeples.

I’ve created a playlist on YouTube featuring versions of all the songs from the album. Most are from that time period (the Sting video is also from that Top of the Pops special) but some are live versions that I thought were more interesting than just hearing the audio.

Here’s to A Very Special Christmas and the world of good that it has done.

 

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 16

Spinal Tap – “Christmas with the Devil” [Enigma Records E-1143, 7″ 45 rpm, 1984.]

Spinal Tap cover

Click on an image to enlarge it.

It’s a parody, folks. Let’s make sure that’s clear from the beginning. As I mentioned from the start, this project explores the broad spectrum of Christmas records in my personal collection, from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the sacred to the profane. Well, here’s the profane – in all its revved up and humorous glory.

If you aren’t familiar with this band, you should watch the film This Is Spinal Tap at your earliest convenience. Its send-up of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is hilarious. I hate to spoil all the fun for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I feel a little background is needed here. The film is a mock documentary based upon the fictional English heavy metal rock band called Spinal Tap. The core members of the band are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on lead vocals and guitar; Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) on lead guitar and vocal; Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass. It’s a fictional band, but the actors actually play their instruments and they wrote all of the music for the film along with director Rob Reiner. And so the madness begins. Spinal Tap may be the only band I know of that has a fictional discography and a real discography. You see, there are all the fictional albums that they supposedly released within the story of the band as portrayed in the movie, and then there are the real albums that the actors made and released under the name Spinal Tap. Oh boy. Just go with it. (Hey, I just noticed this: at the IMDB listing for the movie, the rating function shows you can give the movie up to 10 out of 11 stars! I like their sense of humor.)

Spinal Tap backThis 7″ single that I have in my collection was released in 1984, the same year the film came out. It was also released as a picture disc with art work similar to that seen on the picture sleeve on my copy of the record. Boy, I’d love to find that picture disc someday! The song itself uses classic heavy metal rock trappings to create a twisted Christmas tune. You can read the close up of lyrics that are found on the back cover. These guys are very clever, they are. I like how they take all this classic Christmas imagery and turn it on its head. They’re really brilliant at what they do. And notice the line about halfway into the lyrics, “There’s someone up the chimney hole and Satin is his name.” I’m guessing the “band” really thinks that’s how Satan is spelled and it’s no typographical error! Just another nice touch of Spinal Tap humor there.

Spinal Tap lyricsFor me, the song reaches its apex of absurdity at around 3-1/2 minutes in. The whole thing is a very stereotypically loud heavy metal rocker, complete with wailing guitar solo and screeching vocals, and right when the song reaches its orgiastic climax of sound, the band suddenly breaks in with this utterly sincere unison Christmas greeting: “This is Spinal Tap, wishing you and yours the most joyous of holiday seasons. God bless us, everyone.” I love it! That’s what makes the song so great for me. It’s actually a well done heavy metal song, but that little touch of holiday kitsch is a great example of the kind of perfectly balanced irony that Spinal Tap is so good at pulling off. They walk that fine line between having us willingly suspend our disbelief, as good fiction does, and having us think it’s just an over the top joke. It’s not easy to do that, and they do it really well.

Take a listen to “Christmas with the Devil”  – you know what to do: turn it up to 11.

P.S. There’s also the B side to the record: “Christmas with the Devil (Scratch Mix”) – the only difference is that the song begins with the sound of a turntable needle scratching the surface of the record, and there’s no holiday greeting. Again, too clever for their own good!

The original 7" single, with the small LP sized spindle hole.

The original 7″ single, with the small LP-sized spindle hole.

P.P.S. While doing some more reading about the song, I found this new jazz version of “Christmas with the Devil” that was released by Spinal Tap’s bass player Derek Smalls/Harry Shearer and Judith Owen, his musician wife, in November 2014. Definitely watch this! If heavy metal isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe this swinging jazz trio rendition will help cleanse your palate. It’s fantastic.