Monday, December 23, 2013

In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs: Part III

For some reason, Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" is reviled by many, even those who otherwise like Sir Paul and that Beatles group he was part of. We've never understood the hate.

If we were to level any criticism at "Wonderful ..." it would be that it's a two-minute idea stretched out to a more radio friendly four minutes. So it repeats itself for the back half, but that's a complaint easily leveled at many pop standards that get much more love.

Surely the Cute One tossed off this charming, inoffensive ditty while plinking around with his fancy new synthesizer. [It was a Prophet 5 -- ed.] Even his futzing around is radio-worthy. Is the distaste born of anger and frustration?

Musically, it's has that kind of "hey, did I mention I can play the piano?" feel -- with McCartney as the cool, maybe tipsy, uncle who has traveled the globe but set down tonight at your parents house to say hi and tell stories that you may or may not believe and dang it he's so much fun.

The lyrics are inconsequential to say the least, and that's for the best. No nonsense about trees, holly or presents, just a "hey, we're here, let's drink and sing." Aside from the chorus, it could easily be a summoning to the local for a pint and a few jokes.
And this is where the real defense comes in. It's nearly impossible to talk about Paul McCartney without talking about John Lennon. And what did Lennon give us for Christmas? "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."

There's nothing wrong with Lennon's solemn, introspective tune. Arguably, he's more in line with the tone of classic English Christmas music. And yes, Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote and recorded the song in 1971, when Vietnam was still in full swing and the collective hangover from the '60s was just setting in, while McCartney recorded "Wonderful ..." in 1979 on the cusp of the go-go '80s.

But these two songs best illustrate the differences between McCartney and Lennon. The former is pure happiness and love, to the point of tooth-ache sweetness. The latter is a somber inventory that puts all the work on the listener: "What have you done?" "War is over, if you want it." John, if we wanted a lecture we'd go to church.

Need more proof? Watch the official video released for "Happy Xmas" and then try to swallow another mug of nog. It's the Christmas song equivalent of reminding everyone at the table about how poorly cranberry bog workers are treated.

It's not that Lennon's song is bad, it's just a bummer. And any sensible person has plenty of winter weltschmerz stocked up by the time Santa comes sliding down the drainpipe. Baby Jesus, that's why we all just want to drink and sing:

[courtesy of Holiday Favorites]

If we have not convinced you, nothing will. But we dare you to listen -- really listen -- to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and then tell us how much you dislike "Wonderful Christmastime." Or, if all else fails, you can just listen to this.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Solstice Time Is Here

The Earth has tilted just so, throwing the northern hemisphere into winter. And on December 21, that tilt will reach it's furthest point before leaning back for a long, slow journey toward spring.

Since it's unlikely that anyone at The Typing Monkey's Seattle office will be awake and/or sober when the true solstice occurs at 9:11 a.m. on the 21st, we are here now to acknowledge the event.

Cultures around the globe have various ways of celebrating the shortest day of winter, raging and kicking against the dark, eating and drinking as if they might not survive the cold, because for centuries, surviving the winter wasn't guaranteed.

You know what? Let's just look at this supernatural winter scene by Jason Bennett:

Check out more of Mr. Bennett's work via his generous online portfolio. And if that's not enough, here's a (probably late 19th century) illustration of Father Christmas riding a Yule goat. Oh yeah!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs: Part II

Or next defense is a little shakier, but stay with us for the teen dreamboat of the hairy 1970s, Bobby Sherman.

His “Love’s What You Get for Christmas” was a b-side from the dawn of the decade and the rare attempt at writing a new Christmas song that actually succeeded.

Okay, succeeding may be a little strong, but our reasoning is twofold:

1. "Love's What You Get ..." doesn’t really sound like Christmas music. It’s a peppy pop number that leans on the sherbet-hued horns inspired by the previous decade’s pop masters, Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert. If there’s a jingle bell anywhere in this recording, we can’t hear it. It even recalls the work of Jack Jones.

2. The message seems to be “Love is the best gift of all.” While that’s something every Christmas television special has crammed down our throats for decades, it’s not a bad message.

However, the more cynical listener might think of this tune as sung by a lunkhead boyfriend who was too stoned to remember that Christmas morning has arrived, and upon realizing he has nothing to give to his lady, feeds her this bullshit line about how you can’t gift wrap love. Ugh, yes, but also genius. It’s like a rehearsal for “Dick in a Box.”

No matter. Punch play on this one and the world of snow, holly and chestnut roasting gives way to a faded Polaroid of sunny California where there’s a dessert table featuring Jell-O with fruit cocktail suspended in it.

[courtesy of Tom Smith]

Lord have mercy, perhaps before the big day arrives we'll manage to post another "In Defense of Questionable Christmas Songs." And if you are somehow incapable of scrolling down, here's the previous entry.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs

Christmas music destroys all in its path. It sounds the distant thrum of an approaching toy army sometimes as early as Labor Day. By Halloween the jingling of bells and the faint whiff of canned snow makes the jack-o’-lantern’s mouth shrink with fear. Thanksgiving falls like a tissue-paper turkey into the green and red combine of CHRISTMAS! – the machine with engines parum-pah-pum-pumming and blades chopping: We! Wish! You! We! Wish! You!

We’re talking about “CHRISTMAS!” as opposed to “Christmas” just in case that wasn’t clear. The former is like mega-church Jesus (JESUS!), the latter is bible verse Jesus. The music of all-caps Christmas can even be identical, melodically and lyrically, to the music of actual Christmas. But the saccharine joyishness of CHRISTMAS! music clobbers the ears if we are not careful to find ways to tune it out.

One easy way to drown the terrible carols is to find the holiday songs that don’t offend. Or better yet, those that actually (gasp) please the ears. But we’re not here to pit the noble, mostly unsullied beauty of say, Vince Guaraldi’s seasonal arrangements against the sentimental hogwash of some pop star cashing in with another pointless rendition of “The Christmas Song.”

No, gentle reader, we offer to you a gift of debate, of justification. We come to defend the oddball splashes in the syrupy ocean of Christmas music, hoping to vindicate them in your mind and bring them to your attention again.

So gaze into the not-too-distant past and look upon these works with a new sense of wonder. Should they anger you rather than please, know that if you hunt us down and kill us, our medic alert bracelet is also a silent alarm that will wake the Krampus we keep locked in the custodian’s closet.

The first track on Barbra Streisand’s 1967 LP, A Christmas Album is the elementary-school music program classic “Jingle Bells.” Yes, Barbra Streisand is Jewish. But, to paraphrase Marvin Hamlisch, she’s Jewish, not stupid. So she joined the ranks of many non-Christians who’ve recorded Christmas tunes and chuckled all the way to the bank come January.

Streisand blusters through James Pierpont’s winter song (note there is no mention of any winter holiday in the lyrics) as if it were “Salt Peanuts” and the band had a little too much coffee. That’s probably the precise reason some listeners despise this version. Streisand also includes one of the lesser known verses of “Jingle Bells.” The arrangement plays with our expectations of the tune and fills its lungs with brisk December air. Nice one, Babs:

[courtesy of krisk, no relation to TMI’s janitor and sometime contributor]

Stay tuned for another entry or two in our mercifully brief series “In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs”