Christmas song

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.



25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 9

Gene Autry – “Here Comes Santa Claus” / “An Old-Fashioned Tree” [Columbia Records 20377, Shellac 10″ 78 rpm, 1947.]

Gene Autry Side 1

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

Everyone knows this one, don’t they? Written in 1947 by Gene Autry – the Singing Cowboy – and Oakley Haldeman, a composer who worked in Autry’s music publishing office, “Here Comes Santa Claus” was an immediate hit, making it into the top 5 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and into the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 not long after it was released. It’s been popular ever since, with both kids and grown-ups. The song has been covered a zillion times, with notable versions recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley on his first Christmas album and Alvin and the Chipmunks, among a throng of others.

The history of the song is told nicely in an excerpt from Holly George-Warren’s official biography of the Singing Cowboy, which I found at the Gene Autry website:

“Another Autry recording marked a turning point for the singer in 1947. That summer Art Satherly had suggested Gene record a new Christmas song he had discovered, “An Old-Fashioned Tree.” For its flipside, Gene remembered a song idea he’d gotten while participating in the annual Hollywood “Santa Claus Lane” parade the previous November. Astride Champion Jr., ahead of St. Nick on his sleigh, he’d heard a child on the sidewalk shout, “Here comes Santa Claus!” Satherly took Gene’s idea to Oakley Haldeman, the composer who operated Gene’s music publishing division, and he came up with the melody.

"Here Comes Santa Claus!" music notes

Gene Autry Side 2Johnny Bond recorded a demo version of the song at his home studio, where Art, cocktail in hand, stood next to the mic (as he usually did during recordings). The tingling of ice cubes was captured on the recording, inspiring the use of jingle bells on the August 28 Columbia session. After initial sales of two million following its December release, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” became a perennial top-ten hit every Yuletide season for years to come. More important, it opened up a whole new market for Gene – holiday discs aimed at children. Easter and Thanksgiving recordings would follow, as would one of the biggest-selling Christmas discs of all time.”

There you have it folks, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Although born in Texas, Autry spent a good part of his youth in Oklahoma. By the late 1920s, he was appearing regularly on Tulsa’s KVOO radio station (the “Voice Of Oklahoma”) where he was known as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.” KVOO would also become famous for being the radio home of Bob Will and His Texas Playboys starting in the mid-1930s.

Autry became one of the biggest stars of his day. He had a hugely successful career that covered all aspects of the entertainment industry including radio, recordings, movies, television and live performances. He was also an incredibly savvy businessman. He was well known as the long-time owner of the California Angels Major League Baseball team, one of my hometown baseball teams, from their inception in 1961 until his death in 1998.

Gene Autry on platter

This is another estate sale purchase that I came across several years ago. Compared to many of the 78s that I have, this one is in good condition; it’s not nearly as scratched as some. It appears to have been well cared for since it was first purchased by someone back in 1947!

There’s an interesting side note about the catalog number of this record, at least interesting to a record collector like me. This copy has the Columbia number 20377 on it, but I found a listing for another 10″ 78 rpm Columbia recording of these same two songs from the same year, but with the number 37942 on it. I was a little baffled by this and thought that one of the entries must be incorrect at the Discogs website where I was looking up information. After searching for more details about the Columbia Records catalog numbers, I learned that they sometimes used separate numbers for records that were marketed directly for a particular market. This record came in two versions upon its initial release in 1947: one version had a number that was in the series which was marketed along with Columbia’s regular popular music recordings, and the other version had a different number that was used in the series marketed to Country & Western audiences. Huh. You learn something new every day.

And here’s a nice treat: a YouTube user with a large 78 record collection has uploaded a video which shows the actual record playing. Take a listen to “Here Comes Santa Claus” at 78 revolutions per minute…

Here’s the flip side also: “An Old-Fashioned Tree”

Happy trails to you.

Oh, wait…that’s a different singing cowboy!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 8

Elton John – “Step Into Christmas” / “Ho, Ho, Ho, (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas?)” [MCA Records MCA-65018, 7″ 45 rpm, 1973.]

Elton John Christmas 45 Side A

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” is fairly well known, but I hadn’t heard the B-side of this single – “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)” – until I played it for the first time recently. I like it a lot more than “Step Into Christmas,” maybe because that song has become too familiar. The title hints at what’s to come. It’s a really raucous song, and it’s funny, to boot. As you can see on the record sleeve, I paid a whole .25 cents for this at the San Francisco-based store Rasputin Music sometime when I lived in northern California back in the late 80s to early 90s. I most likely bought it at either their Berkeley location on Telegraph Avenue or the shop on Haight Street right in San Francisco. That’s a pretty great score for two bits! I’m glad to see that Rasputin is still around.

Elton John Christmas 45 Side BBoth songs on this single were written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. According to the Wikipedia article and other sources I’ve read, they were recorded and released as a 7″ single in November, 1973. A promotional video was made for “Step Into Christmas,” which you can watch below. It has that classic Elton John sound to it. They recorded the song with a big, reverberating sonic presence, intentionally mimicking the “wall of sound” technique that Phil Spector used in his famous recordings of the 60s. On the other hand, the flip side – “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)” – has a much more informal, rollicking, party atmosphere to it. You hear a lot of other voices and strange noises bubbling up throughout the song and it has a rousing group chorus which includes the wonderful lyrics:

“And I keep hearing ho ho ho, guess who’s here?
Your fat and jolly friend draws near.
Ho ho ho, surprise, surprise!
The bearded weirdy’s just arrived.”

I love it! It’s a really fun, irreverent tune that captures the joyous, celebratory aspect of the season well. What else would you expect from the guy who owns so many fancy glasses and feather boas?! Sir Elton and Bernie certainly know how to make some great pop-rock songs. (You can read the full lyrics here: “Ho, Ho, Ho, (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas?)” at Eltonography.)


Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)Setting such jolliness aside for a moment,  I do need to mention John Lennon today – this being the anniversary of his murder 34 years ago: December 8, 1980. Being a huge fan of the Beatles (like many, if not most, of you reading this) his sudden death and the awful circumstances surrounding it were a real shock to me and many of my friends. I can remember hearing the news on the car radio when I was riding back from a high school soccer match stuffed in the back compartment (it wasn’t really a seat) of a friend’s VW Karmann Ghia. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then as we kept hearing more details, it hit us hard. The news stunned us into silence. If you want to revisit the events of that sad day, I found this long piece written by journalist Pete Hamill for New York magazine in its December 20, 1980 issue: “The Death and Life of John Lennon”

I wish I had a copy of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on vinyl, but I don’t. This was originally released only as a single in 1971 and later on included on the album Shaved Fish, a compilation of Lennon’s solo work. Backing vocals for the chorus were sung by the Harlem Community Choir as noted on the cover of the 45. It’s a Christmas song that makes you think.

You can take a listen to it here:

Take care of each other…

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 3

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 3

Enrico Caruso – “Cantique de Noël (Holy Night)” [Victrola 88561, 12” one sided 78 rpm, 1916.]

Caruso Cantique de Noel

Caruso label

One of the most pleasurable aspects of this Christmas music project I’ve embarked upon is rediscovering parts of my record collection that I haven’t explored in quite some time. There’s also the bonus of learning all kinds of interesting new things about these records along the way. The reason it took me until late in the evening yesterday to make the Day 2 post was that I first had to find the copy of “White Christmas” that I wanted to feature. My collection includes approximately 150 78 rpm records, most of which are in blank paper sleeves and only a dozen or so have actual picture covers. None of them have spine labels. And since I have yet to alphabetize them, it makes finding a specific record a bit of a hunt. Of course, the “White Christmas” record was near the end of the stack I was searching in yesterday, but that’s all part of the fun. (I did find five more Christmas records amidst all those 78s!)

All of which led me to this wonderful old recording by the great Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso that I rediscovered while searching the stacks. And I mean old. It’s from 1916, folks. I learned a lot about this record and the era it came from while doing research for this post, so I hope you don’t mind some brief historical tangents. Apparently, this is the only Christmas song that Caruso ever recorded, and he had a long career as one of the first great recording artists, making hundreds of records, mostly for Victor, from 1902 until his last session in 1920. Thanks to the Library of Congress National Jukebox project, we can actually listen to this recording right here:

Enrico Caruso sings “Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night)” (NOTE: The audio player linked here will not work on a mobile device.)

If you’re on a mobile device, follow this link: Caruso sings “Cantique de Noël” 

Because my turntable doesn’t play 78s, I had not actually heard this until I came across this audio player while looking up info about the record. It’s beautiful, and I can hear why he was so beloved by so many. Caruso really did have a powerfully clear voice and he sings this well-known Christmas carol with verve. (“O Holy Night” was written in French by Adolphe Adam in 1847. Caruso is singing it in French on this recording.) Hey, Caruso was such a big star in his time that he even graced the stage of Tulsa’s historic Brady Theater in 1920!

As far as I know, this is the oldest recording I have in my collection. This is another estate sale treasure and when I bought it there was no sleeve on it or anything; it has some big scratches across the face and shows some wear and tear from years of mishandling. I had found information at the Discography of American Historical Recordings website, produced by the U.C. Santa Barbara Library, stating that it was recorded for Victor on February 23, 1916. But I wasn’t sure if the record was also released commercially at that time. After a little more digging on the internet, I was pleasantly surprised to find this newspaper advertisement from the Deseret Evening News in Salt Lake City in their Saturday, October 28, 1916 final edition:

Caruso Victor Ad 1916

Caruso Victor Ad close up

How cool is that?! There we have confirmation of the actual release date for this record from 98 years ago! (I’m a former librarian, so I really find all this fascinating…) Sadly, you can also browse the headlines of that same newspaper and read all about the terrible battles raging across Europe during the Great War, before the United States entered the fray.

Another interesting thing about this record is that it is single sided: there’s a recording on one side but the other side is blank – there are no grooves:

Caruso Record Blank Side

I’m not sure why these early records were only one-sided; maybe it was a technical issue? But even after double-sided records became the norm for most recordings starting in 1908, Victor continued to produce all their Red Seal classical records with only one side until 1923, apparently to reap more profits from their classical customers, according to 78 collector Tim Grayck on his website Tim’s Phonographs and Old Records.

But, yes, I digress. This all just goes to show that Christmas records have been around for a long time, and appear to be as popular as ever. I wonder how many of our ancestors might have picked up a copy of Caruso’s “Cantique de Noël” for the 1916 holiday season? Happy listening today…

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 2

Bing Crosby (With Ken Darby Singers And John Scott Trotter And His Orchestra) – “White Christmas.” (Decca Records A-550, 10” 78 rpm, 1947.)

Bing White Christmas

After talking about Bing Crosby in the previous post, I can’t help but dive straight into the biggest Christmas song of all time: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as sung by Bing in the 1940s. For many people this is the song that epitomizes Christmas. Not only is it the biggest Christmas song, it is the best-selling single song of all time, having been credited by Guinness World Records with over 50 million copies sold worldwide. When taking into account its inclusion in album and other sales, estimates run up to 100 million copies sold. That’s some record!

The story behind the song is pretty interesting and there’s a nice Wall Street Journal article by Roy J. Harris Jr. that you can read entitled “The Best Selling Record of All: “White Christmas” and the Reasons It Endures.”

My copy of the song (pictured above) is from a set of four records that was released as the album Merry Christmas in 1947. “White Christmas” had first appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing and Fred Astaire, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. I was excited to come across this copy at an estate sale some years ago. I have only two of the four records that were included in the original album, and they’re in what appear to be the original Decca paper sleeves. My current turntable doesn’t play 78s, so I don’t know how this record sounds, but it appears to be in fairly decent condition for being 67 years old! Here’s what the cover of the original 1947 album set looked like:

Bing Merry Christmas Cover

With a few track additions once the 33-1/3 Long Play format came to the forefront in the 1950s, this is essentially the same album that’s been in print since 1947. You may be more familiar with it from the cover that has been used ever since it appeared as an LP in 1955:

(This is part of my collection also...)

(This is part of my collection also…)

I have to admit that “White Christmas” isn’t my favorite Christmas song, or even my favorite Christmas song by Bing Crosby. It’s still a very fine song and certainly central to the popular Christmas music canon. I’ve always loved the swinging Christmas tunes that Bing did with the Andrew Sisters (several are featured on this album,) and perhaps my favorite Christmas song by Bing is a really great duet of “Silver Bells” that he performed with Ella Fitzgerald. But you can’t deny the enduring power that “White Christmas” has had as one of the great Christmas tunes of all time.

Well, it ain’t really Christmas until you hear Der Bingle croonin’ this one, so here you go, a shortened version of the song featuring a video montage of Bing singing it at different times of his life, courtesy of the Official Bing Crosby VEVO/YouTube Channel. May your days be merry and bright!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 1

So, you think you like Christmas music? How much? Most people who like Christmas music probably like to listen to it, but they probably don’t collect it obsessively. And, of course, there are those people who don’t like Christmas music at all, for one reason or another, perhaps from being subjected to some endless stream of saccharine holiday tunes against their will? I love Christmas music. I love to listen to and collect Christmas music. How much do I love Christmas music? A lot. This much.

My crate o' Christmas vinyl.

My crate o’ Christmas vinyl.

That’s my collection of vinyl Christmas albums and singles. Between them, that’s 109 distinct records (I do have duplicates of several things, but I only counted them once.) There are likely a few more records lurking in a stack of 78s that I haven’t sorted through properly yet. {Update: after going through those 78s, I did find 5 more Christmas records; so that makes 114 records.} Not pictured are the 21 cassette tapes and 104 CDs of Christmas music that I also own, which makes for a total of 239 recordings – of Christmas music. Fa la la la la! I guess it goes without saying that I also love the Christmas season. Sure, it can be hectic, hurried and over-commercialized. Maybe that’s part of why I love Christmas music so much. Music helps me pay attention to the moments that matter. Those moments can be rockin’, swingin’, funny or simply quiet during Christmas-time. I love ’em all.

For the next 25 days, I’m going to share a record a day from my Christmas music collection: some of my favorite albums and songs, from traditional carols to contemporary takes on time-worn pop Christmas standards, along with some interesting novelties, oddities and curiosities that I’ve come across over the years. There’ll be beautiful tunes, brilliant musicianship and a sprinkle of schmaltz. You can’t talk about Christmas music without coming across a little, or sometimes a lot of, schmaltz! I’ll limit the exploration to my vinyl collection. Maybe next year I’ll break out the cassettes and CDs. And I’m sure there are many people out there who are even bigger fanatics and have even more Christmas music in their collections than I do. I’d love to hear about them. Let’s go dashing through the musical snow…


David Bowie/Bing Crosby – “Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.” (RCA Records PH-13400, 7” single, 1982.)

Bowie:Crosby Single

The record that started it all for me… (click on an image to enlarge it.)

This is the song that started my obsession with collecting Christmas music. It was recorded in 1977 for Bing Crosby’s Christmas special that year. I actually watched it with my family when it aired on TV, and I remember my Mom making a comment along the lines of “I can’t believe that awful David Booey [her pronunciation] is going to be on the show.” She was not really a fan of rock music, except for maybe some middle of the road Beatles tunes, and up to that time Bowie had been quite the strange-looking glam rocker. But when the segment with Bing and Bowie came on, it was pretty amazing. Bowie comes in as the guy who lives down the road and talks with Bing about Christmas music and traditions, all played very nicely within the conceit of the show, and then they go into this really sweet duet where Bowie’s clear voice is allowed to shine along with Bing’s unmistakably warm crooning. Apparently, the counterpoint song that Bowie sings, “Peace On Earth,” was written specifically for the show because he wanted to sing something other than “Little Drummer Boy.” It worked brilliantly, I think. And I have to give my Mom credit for praising Bowie’s voice after it was over. She thought it was nice, after all. This was also one of the final recordings that Bing Crosby made; he died 5 weeks after making this TV special.

Part of what made this song stick with me was that it became a part of my Christmas-time memories. Although I had heard it first in 1977 when the Crosby TV show aired, the song did not become commercially available until RCA released it as a single five years later in 1982. You have to remember, kids, that back in those days we didn’t have access to things like that at the press of a button! VCRs weren’t even around yet. I only had my memories of hearing the song when it first aired and didn’t hear it again until it came out as a single in 1982 and I bought my own copy. I had remembered the song fondly and was really excited when they put it out. It still moves me and it’s one of my favorite Christmas music performances. And thus an obsession is born. Or let’s say a passion.

Take a listen (and look) at it here.

I especially like seeing the interaction between Bowie and Bing before they sing. The whole bit is nostalgic, sentimental and warm, with just a little schmaltz. Perfectly Christmas-y.

Cheers, friends. Welcome to the 25 Days of Christmas Records!