Christmas on the Downbeat

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Christmas on the Downbeat
Christmas is not my holiday, but I’ve always vicariously enjoyed it. Its inspired glorious liturgy, wonderful literature, drama, and timeless classical music (can anyone top “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet as the purest distillation of Christmas culture, no matter how familiar they are?) Christmas gives everyone permission to get sloppy and sentimental, and indulge enough supernatural credulity, professed altruism, and unbridled optimism to propel us into a hopeful new year until, burnt out and exhausted, we greet the next Christmas season just in time. After all the heavy political stuff and global calamity this year, I intended to close things out with a lighter, upbeat message of hope and joy, but I’m just not feeling that happy holiday spirit. But that’s OK, because Christmas blues are a real thing: the National Alliance on Mental Illness defines it as temporary feelings of anxiety and depression emerging around the holidays due to additional stress, unrealistic expectation, and troubling memories. Holidays are inescapable reminders marking the passage of time, unavoidably conjuring thoughts of cherished friends and loved ones we’ve lost touch with, or may have lost altogether. Sadness and loneliness have always been the dark twins of happy holiday commercialism, but the brighter the lights, the deeper the shadows. So in that alt-spirit of the season—however much, like many of you, I still love the familiar favorites—I’ve put together a distaff playlist of other songs, in chronological order, that carry a different but I hope equally meaningful Christmas message. Green Chri$tma$” Stan Freberg (1958). The definitive commercialized Christmas take-down record from satirist Stan Freberg. Here ad agency chairman Mr. Scrooge grills his various clients on their ideas for Christmas marketing tie-ins. One participant, Bob Cratchit (Daws Butler) timidly suggests instead simply mailing out cards featuring the Three Wise Men and a simple message of “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”) As one of the other clients mutters suspiciously, “Well, that’s a peculiar slogan,” Scrooge interrupts, sneering, “Old hat, Cratchit! That went out with button shoes!” Commercialism ultimately wins out, with the big finale punctuated by a jangling cash register. Freberg overcame record label objections, advertising pressure and radio station blackouts to create a bona fide classic that’s as relevant as ever.
“Please Come Home For Christmas” Charles Brown (1960). This mournful R&B doo-wop number about a lonely guy ditched by his sweetie at Christmas time made the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 when it came out in 1960, but it later went Top 20 for the Eagles and Top 10 in the UK as a charity-benefit single by Jon Bon Jovi. Today it’s a bona fide holiday classic with more than 225 recorded versions.
Bells will be ringing the glad, glad news
Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues
My baby’s gone, I have no friends
To wish me greetings once again….
“Blue Xmas” Bob Dorough (1962). Hipster jazz vocalist Bob Dorough (popularly known for his “Schoolhouse Rock” songs for kids many years later) wrote and recorded this swinging entry in 1962 with Miles Davis in his “Kind of Blue” period, replete with a cool bongo intro. Dorough sneers at the greed and phoniness all around:
Merry Christmas
I hope you have a white one, but for me, it’s blue
Blue Christmas, that’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste…
“Sock It to Me Santa” Bob Seger and the Last Heard (1966). Now an “elder statesman” of rock best known for mournful ballads like “Night Moves” and “Against the Wind,” Seger back in the mid-’60s was just another Detroit white boy with a garage band, infatuated with the era’s Black soul shouters. Amidst a string of proto-punk singles, Seger and his pals took a brief detour and cut this Christmas novelty record for the Cameo label in manic screaming James Brown style:
Come on jump up, oh
Sock it to me Santa, you know what I like
Sock it to me Santa, just bring me a bike
Christmas just won’t be a drag, Santa’s got a brand new bag….
“Little Drummer Boy”/ “Silent Night” / “Auld Lang Syne” Jimi Hendrix (1969). A charming curio from the Hendrix archives, this slowed-down psychedelic jam on a medley of traditional favorites was recorded during a December rehearsal for Jimi’s upcoming Band of Gypsies concerts New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at the Fillmore East.
“Father Christmas” Kinks (1977). In between their “Sleepwalker” (spring 1977) and “Misfits” (spring 1978) albums, the Kinks released this powerful non-LP Christmas single, in which lead singer-songwriter Ray Davies recounts being mugged by a gang of kids while playing Santa Claus. Taking a poke at the emerging punk movement and Christmas commercialism, Ray still finds compassion for the victims of social and economic injustice:
Father Christmas, give us the money
We got no time for your silly toys
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Have yourself a merry, merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine
“A Fairytale of New York” Pogues (1987). Widely hailed in the UK and Ireland in critical and popular surveys as among the best songs (not just Christmas songs) ever written, the lyrics tell a bitter story of a lonely Irish immigrant sleeping off a Christmas binge in a New York jail, reminiscing about a past lover and how their relationship broke down over alcohol and drugs. Crushingly sad and easily the darkest of this lot, the song still manages a glimmer of hope at the end:
It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you…

Adding to the pathos, it’s sung as a duet between the song’s co-writer Shane McGowan and guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl, the daughter of legendary Scottish folk-singer Ewan MacColl; 13 years later, after career struggles that earned her critical acclaim but only intermittent commercial success, she was on a diving vacation off the coast of Mexico with her two sons when a speeding powerboat entered their restricted area. Seeing that her older son was in mortal danger, she barely managed to push him out of its way just before she was struck and killed instantly.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas” Band Aid (1984). The first, and still my personal favorite, of the many superstar charity-benefit singles that subsequently became popular, especially in the UK. In October 1984, Boomtown Rats singer-songwriter Bob Geldof was inspired by a BBC television report on the Ethiopian famine, and enlisted Midge Ure of Ultravox to help create a charity record featuring as many top stars in the UK and Ireland as they could round up. Within six weeks, the song was in the shops and all over the radio. It rocketed up the charts and has been updated and re-recorded several times to raise money for other charities, to date selling nearly 12 million copies worldwide.
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life

Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Here’s to you
Raise a glass for everyone
Here’s to them
Underneath that burning sun

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Music alone won’t heal a suffering world. But if it inspires and moves us to be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little better, happy or sad, I’ll take it.

Happy Christmas, Dear Readers.
Joel Bellman

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