The Half Cloth Playlist: Christmas, Part 2
by Chad Jewett
[Read Part 1 Here]
Darlene Love “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (A Christmas Gift For You)
Simply put, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, co-written and produced by Phil Spector at the absolute height of his Wall-of-Sound magic, is the definitive Christmas song. No composition better captures the season’s equally present undertones of wonder and melancholy, ecstasy and sadness. It’s a glum song delivered with sheer rapture. In a genre designed largely for utility, where the main requirement is that a dozen or so people can carry the tune at once, Darlene Love’s performance is an ecstatic wonder, creating a masterpiece not despite the holiday theme but because of it. What Spector and Love saw in the holiday was a set of mixed feelings that only grow outsized when reflected in each department store window and whimsically decorated rooftop. In 1965, Brian Wilson, in imitation of the quasi-religious grandness of Phil Spector’s recordings, planned Pet Sounds as a “teenage symphony to God”, missing the fact that Darlene Love had accomplished just that two years earlier. And though there is nothing religious in the lyrics of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, which finds Love rhapsodizing about her one Christmas wish of a reconciliation with a departed lover, the song’s sheer power, and the sheer force with which Love delivers its beatific melody, is otherworldly indeed.
Stevie Wonder “What Christmas Means To Me” (A Motown Christmas)
Throughout his ’60s Motown run (during much of which Wonder was known as “Little Stevie Wonder”) the Saginaw, Michigan-born singer/songwriter/producer’s chief register was “irrepressible”. Whether it’s the optimist commitment to be found on high-test pop songs like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, or the unabashed romanticism of “My Cherie Amour”, Wonder was Motown’s most earnest and engaging star. All of which also makes him a perfect vessel for Christmas music – a genre that, like the best of Wonder’s love songs, is at its finest when it commits entirely to seasonal sentiments of fellow-feeling and youthful enthusiasm. Recorded in 1967, “What Christmas Means To Me” succeeds so beautifully because it is a Motown Christmas song that pays as much attention to the “Motown” part of the equation as it does to the “Christmas”. It has everything: the footless, melodic bass; the spotless, symphonic pop maximalism; Wonder’s piping, jubilant harmonica and his ear for economic storytelling detail (“Candles burning low / Lots of mistletoe / Lots of snow and ice / Everywhere we go”) rivaled only by Wonder’s fellow Motown star Smokey Robinson. Stevie Wonder remains Motown’s greatest communicator of joy, and “What Christmas Means To Me” remains the label’s finest holiday entry.
Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime”
If indie-rock’s mid-2000s renaissance was any indication, history has proven Paul McCartney right, and a million smug eye-rollers entirely wrong. The ex-Beatle’s solo work — always exquisitely produced, seemingly never terribly concerned with whether or not it was draped in the most hyper-serious signifiers of “art” – was often derided as lightweight froth next to the ultra-heavy statement albums of George Harrison and the Primal Scream nakedness of Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon. Yet McCartney’s willingness to be singular and idiosyncratic in his own sweet, unassuming way has trickled down to a whole lot of important 21st century artists. Nowhere is that clearer than on “Wonderful Christmas Time”, his 1979 holiday single and a weird bit of Christmas ephemera whose oddball synths and glitchy electro-pop fundamentals you could trace to The Postal Service, The Flaming Lips, M83, and The Unicorns, to name but a few. The song’s minimalism (just a few keyboards, some bells, McCartney, and some harmonies) could be chalked up to Paul’s famous willingness to get an idea down quick and move on just as quickly, but those instincts form the very ethos that is at the core of so much of the lo-fi bedroom pop that has been at work since at least the mid-80s advent of K Records. Heck, even the tongue-in-cheek scrappiness of much of Sufjan Stevens‘ Christmas music bears some resemblance to the playful shrug with which McCartney offers his holiday thoughts: “We’re simply having a wonderful Christmas time”. What more could anyone need?
The Sonics “Santa Claus”
If Paul McCartney’s attempt at a holiday hit contains at least whiff of “Hey, why not try a Christmas song I guess?”, then “Santa Claus”, a surreal recording by Tacoma garage-punk legends The Sonics is almost delirious in its perfunctory silliness. Set to exactly the same beat and riff as their essential 1965 marvel “Have Love Will Travel” (seriously, there is roughly a three-note difference between both twelve-note melodies), “Santa Claus” finds singer Gerry Roslie wondering aloud “Hey Santa Claus / Where have you been?”. But as goofy and low-key bizarre as the song is – after all, this is a band whose second and third best songs are about a prostitute and drinking poison, respectively – The Sonics were never any less than great, and the song’s forked-tongue of a guitar and drummer Bob Bennett’s reliably stomping drums manage to make “Santa Claus” a fun bit of garage rock ephemera as opposed to a disconcertingly cynical cash grab. When Roslie begins howling “Nothin’!” (Santa’s reply to the singer’s Christmas wishes), bathed in echo and selling the sentiment way more than he has to, you get the sense that The Sonics are in on the joke too. They may have invented punk rock, but The Sonics were truly the best kind of cool, willing to laugh at themselves and refusing to take the day off, even when all their fuzz-pop power is committed to writing a letter to old Saint Nick.
Elton John “Step Into Christmas”
“Welcome to my Christmas song / I’d like to thank you for the year / So I’m sending you this Christmas card / Saying it’s nice to have you here”. So begins the slyly meta and entirely infectious “Step Into Christmas”, Elton John’s excellent and wholly underrated 1973 Yuletide single. Written in the same cheerful register as glam-pop smashes like “Crocodile Rock” and “Philadelphia Freedom”, the song’s “thank you gift to fans” template recalls the fan-club Beatles Christmas releases from a decade earlier. But where those singles were largely last-minute novelties dedicated more to giving fans the chance to hear Paul and John goof around than giving them honest-to-god songs, “Step Into Christmas” is a well-crafted delight, built around a powerhouse, multi-layer chorus (“Step into Christmas / Let’s join together / We can watch the snow fall forever and ever and ever”) the canny sense of fun that defined so much of Elton John’s mid-70s masterpieces. John, along with lyricist Bernie Taupin, were often at their best when writing from high concepts (tracing the career of a fictional funk band on “Bennie & The Jets”, mourning Marilyn Monroe in Shakespearean terms on “Candle In The Wind”, writing a coming-of-age tale as a Wizard of Oz update on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”). “Step Into Christmas” only underlines the three-year peak that the pair was riding in 1973, a hit-streak that could spin gold even when starting from a premise of “Here’s our Christmas song”, a party where “the admission is free”.