Episode 62, December 23, 2018 : ALMOST CHRISTMAS
NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi there, and welcome back to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m ruining everything today.
Don’t forget about the website, and the Twitter thing, and of course the Facebook page, over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
Let me offer up some Christmas Music trivia for ye: between 1963 and 1969 the Beatles recorded seven Christmas messages that were sent on flexi-discs to the members of their fan club. They contained skits, spoken messages, Christmas carols and general goofing around. And if you’re a Beatle fan, you’ve probably heard these recordings in one form or another. But here’s the question: Whose idea was it for The Beatles to record the Christmas messages? As usual, I’ll have the answer near the end of the show.
So it’s the holiday season, which means radio stations everywhere are pouring on the holiday tunes, and some of them have even gone all-Christmas, all-the-time, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if they could manage to open up the playlists a little bit. After all, the Christmas song canon is still relatively small, and it’s not a bad thing to hear several different renditions of each song. But that’s the old guy in me talking, and it’s not what this episode is about.
What it IS about, however, is that there are a bunch of Christmas songs that aren’t really about Christmas at all. But they’ve become so linked to the holiday that as soon as you hear it, you say, “Oh, Christmas song.” So we’re going to take a look at just a few of the songs that have been associated with Christmas, that aren’t really Christmas songs.
This first one was a listener request, and I’m so sorry that I don’t have your name here. But I told this person that I’d intended to talk about this song, and that made them happy, but maybe not in this context.
Wham!’s “Last Christmas” isn’t so much about Christmas as it is about a failed relationship; it’s just that Christmas time is when the whole thing came unraveled. Andrew Ridgely says that he and George Michael had just eaten at George’s parents’ house, and were just hanging out, watching TV when George went upstairs and stayed there for about an hour. When he came back down, he had the opening and the chorus for the song.
Now, this is kind of interesting: in the US the song didn’t chart at all when it was first released because it was a promotional single that wasn’t commercially available. In the UK, however, it was huge, and it remains so with 2 million sales and counting, but it only got to Number Two when it was released in 1984, because the Band-Aid track “Do They Know It’s Christmas” kept it out of the top spot. So “Last Christmas” is THE biggest-selling single in the UK not to reach #1 there. And I should mention that, like “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, the royalties from “Last Christmas” were donated to help with the famine in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, here in the US, the record finally did reach the Billboard Hot 100 just a couple of years ago, about two weeks after George Michael’s death on Christmas Day in 2016. An effort in the UK to get it to Number One that same year failed, and it once again peaked at Number Two. And it finally cracked the Billboard Top 40 during the week of December 15, 2018, when it went to Number 34. And for the week of December 22, 2018 it climbed to Number 31.
The video, part of which was shot in Switzerland, has cameo appearances from their backup singers Pepsi and Shirlie, and you also very briefly see Shirlie’s boyfriend, Martin Kemp. Kemp, of course, is the bass player from Spandau Ballet.
Oh! And there’s a movie based on the song in the works, starring Emma Thompson, Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. It’s set for release in 2019 and will feature that song plus a few others by George Michael.
“Jingle Bells” is probably one of the most common American songs in the world. It was written in 1857 and originally published as “One Horse Open Sleigh”, but it wasn’t really meant to be a Christmas song. So far as historians can tell, it was intended to be a Thanksgiving song about riding your sleigh through the snow, where a couple of different adventures take place, none of which have anything to do with Christmas. Everyone knows the first verse, and even most recorded versions these days use only the first verse and maybe a variation on it in repetition, but the song actually has four verses.
The second verse is about the narrator taking a sleigh ride with a young lady named Fanny Bright, and losing control of the sleigh.
The third verse, which takes place at a different time, the narrator falls into the snow and another rider laughs at him as he passes by.
And in the fourth verse the narrator is advising a friend that he can use a sleigh and a fast horse to pick up girls.
Incidentally, nowadays we hear the phrase “jingle bells” and we think of a specific kind of bell used on sleighs—which, by the way, are called “sleigh bells”—but in the song it’s more of a command. So it’s not so much “hey, we’re listening to jingle bells” as it is “you need to jingle those sleigh bells so people hear us coming.”
OK, one more thing before I move on. On December 16, 1965, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 have just completed the first-ever rendezvous by two spacecraft. Gemini 6 commander Wally Schirra breaks out a small harmonica and plays the first song broadcast by humans from outer space:
[GEMINI] (out: you’re too much, six)
If you listen to the entire exchange—and I’ll have it available at the website—you see that Schirra was basically setting up Santa’s sleigh as a UFO sighting.
Speaking of sleighs, Leroy Anderson wrote “Sleigh Ride” in 1946 as an instrumental piece. What’s more, he started writing it in the month of July during a heat wave in Woodbury, Connecticut, where he, his wife, and his 18-month-old daughter were spending the summer. The project stalled out for a bit and he finished it in February of 1948, The first recording was done by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra that May, and Anderson himself recorded it in 1950. That’s what you’re listening to now, and for my money it’s the definitive recording.
Around the same time that Anderson was recording it, Mitchell Parrish added lyrics to the song and the Andrews Sisters were the first to sing it. But none of Parrish’s lyrics have anything to do with Christmas. Anderson was simply trying to evoke a winter scene, Parrish followed suit with basically another set of lyrics involving a one-horse open sleigh, but the bottom line is that the song doesn’t mention the holiday at all. Despite all that, between 2009 and 2012, this was THE song most played by American radio stations during the holiday season.
[LET IT SNOW]
“Let it Snow” was written by, Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne in 1945, and it was first recorded by Vaughn Monroe. But perhaps the best-known version is the one by Dean Martin, I think largely because it’s so reflective of his laid-back, swinging, whatever happens, happens style. According to the people who chart these things, though, the most popular version on the radio is by Harry Connick, Jr. Sorry, Harry: Dean’s got you beat on this one. But once again, the song has nothing to do with Christmas.
According to Sammy Cahn, “Let It Snow” was also written during a heat wave, but they were in Los Angeles at the time, not Connecticut. Cahn says he suggested to Styne that they go to the beach to cool off, but Styne said, “Why don’t we stay here and write a winter song?” Cahn went to the typewriter and they got the first few lines out. In that same interview, Cahn explained that there were three “Let it Snows” rather than two or four, because three is LYRIC.
But if you take a look at those lyrics, they’re all about a couple that’s snowed in and have to make the best of it.
Of course, lots of artists have done this song, but a couple that stand out, besides the two I’ve already mentioned, would be Rod Stewart, who released a version in 2012 that went to Number One on the Adult Contemporary chart, and was his first visit to the Billboard charts since 1993. Stewart’s version stayed at that position for five weeks, which ties the record for a holiday song at that position, with Michael Buble’s version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You”.
[CARLY SIMON Clip]
The other version that’s worth noting is this version by Carly Simon from 2005, which basically does a role-reversal and tells it from the host’s viewpoint rather than the guest’s.
[FROSTY THE SNOWMAN]
Frosty the Snowman was written in 1950 specifically for Gene Autry to be a follow-up to his earlier hit from the previous year, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. It was that same year that Jimmy Durante recorded his own version, and while both versions peaked at Number 7 on the charts, it’s Durante’s version that gets more attention these days almost certainly because of the Rankin-Bass cartoon that set up Durante as the story’s narrator. However, there is another cartoon version that was put together by United Productions of America in 1950. It’s only three minutes long and uses a different version of the song, but it’s been airing in the Chicago area every single year since 1955. At any rate, it’s a story about a magic hat that brings a snowman to life, and he dances and plays with children, and eventually the sun makes him run to the village until the local police officer gets him to stop briefly. And that’s about it! Once again there’s zero mention of Christmas, and the song disappears long before the winter weather does.
Now, I had a lot of fun doing this, and I don’t want you to get the idea that I don’t like any of these songs; in fact I do. This was just me doing a lot of quick trivia hits on a few songs that don’t really have enough background to do an entire show. I mean, I could do a full-scale rant on how “My Favorite Things” is not, not, NOT a Christmas song—in fact, it’s not even a winter song!—and musicians should just cut it out already, but I know I’m not going to get anywhere with that one, so let’s all just relax and enjoy the tunes, right?
It’s time to answer the Christmas Music Trivia question:
Back on Page Two I asked whose idea it was to have the Beatles record holiday messages for the fan club. The answer is Tony Barrow, who was their publicist, and who gets credit for writing and producing the first few of them. Because the fans’ letters weren’t being responded to in a timely manner, just out of the sheer volume of the mail coming in, Barrow came up with the recordings as a means of appeasing the members of the fan club. As it happens, the fan club recordings were quite UK-centric, as the US fans didn’t get the 1963 recording in 1964, and got no record at all for the following three years. Everyone got copies of the 1968 and 1969 editions, but in those cases the messages were recorded separately and then edited together by Kenny Everett.
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Episode 62, December 23, 2018 : ALMOST CHRISTMAS