Freaky Christmas: “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”

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From the first moment I saw this video on MTV way back when, I was a little flummoxed.  I like the duet, but it’s probably the strangest musical pairing ever.

The combination of the two songs is really well done.  And David Bowie’s voice melds nicely with Bing Crosby’s.  But it’s just so weird!  It was filmed for a TV  Christmas special Crosby was making in 1977, just a month before his death.  Bowie has moved on from his serious gender-bending and Ziggy, but he was still pretty out there for the older, conservative crowd that was Crosby’s primary fan base.  I’m sure CBS just wanted to get as many eyes on their program as possible, appealing to the widest demographic they could; ratings make strange bedfellows, I guess.

Although strange bedfellows also often leads to unexpected success.  “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” circulated as a bootlegged cult classic for a few years after the special aired, and was finally released as a single in 1982.  It’s gone on to be one of the more popular Christmas duets.

It’s still weird, though.

“Blue Christmas”

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There’s been a number of excellent versions of this song.  Elvis’ is probably the most famous, and I’m personally quite fond of Leon Redbone’s recording.  But I think this one will always be my favorite.

While watching The Year Without a Santa Claus a week or so ago, this brought me to tears (kind of like it always does).  I’m a sucker for those dopey old Christmas cartoons, but my holidays really are a little blue this year.  The song made me think of the one thing (person) I want Santa to bring, even though I know it isn’t possible.

I’m a little emotionally fragile right now, although I’m mostly okay.  It’s just kind of hard to know what will set me off on one of my crying jags.  I’m waiting for the big meltdown, and I’m afraid it’ll hit on Christmas eve or day, when I’m celebrating with everyone.  It’ll just be family, and they already know what I’m like, so they’ll understand.  Probably.

“The Chipmunk Song”

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You know what I learned today?  It’s really hard to find a decent video of the original version of this song.  There’s lots of later versions (for various incarnations of televised Chipmunks, I assume), and some slowed down versions.  But finding a fun video that had the song I know and sing along with (in a very silly voice) was, frankly, impossible.

Okay.  It was probably possible.  I just got bored after a few minutes of searching.  I guess I’m kind of like Alvin in that regard.  I think Alvin is a bad little Chipmunk because he’s bored.  I bet if Santa would just bring him that darn hula hoop, he’d be able to amuse himself for hours.  Or at least fifteen minutes.

“Dave Seville” was actually a guy named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.  He won two Grammy awards for his work as Dave and the Chipmunks–Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.  Bagdasarian did all the voices by manipulating the recording speeds.  It was really quite clever, and the result is one of the more enduring novelty songs ever recorded.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

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While my ability to enjoy Christmas music has its limits, this is one song I could enjoy pretty much all year round.

Even if this wasn’t already a favorite carol, I’d like this plucky, jazzed up version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (morphing into “We Three Kings” in the second half).  With Sarah McLachlan contributing her heavenly voice, the Barenaked Ladies turn this into a jolly romp while managing to retain the reverence of the original tunes.  While I’m a much more secular celebrant, I understand the deep religious meaning of the holiday for many.  And I think this song manages to cover all the bases, appealing to all varieties of Christmas listener.

But mostly I like it because I think it’s cool.

Ray Price

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The end of the year seems to bring more heartache than any other time.  Maybe it’s the shorter days, or the colder weather.  Maybe it’s the stress of the holidays.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence.  But there seems to be more deaths this time of year.

Peter O’Toole was just the most famous name.  Yesterday, actors Joan Fontaine and Tom Laughlin passed away.  And today it was announced that Country music legend Ray Price had died after being released to hospice care just a few days ago.

Price was one of those singers who could handle just about any style; his career spanned just about every fad in Country music history.  He recorded songs by Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, including one of my favorite songs, “Night Life.”  Like all good Country singers, he could break your heart with just a few lines.  He wasn’t one of the singers I seek out, but he was one of those classic voices that helped make Country music what it is today.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Peter O’Toole

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I probably like Peter O’Toole as much as I do because of my father.  Although the movie Creator also probably had a lot to do with it.  It’s one of his less-celebrated movies, but I think it’s one of his most endearing performances.  There’s also the uninhibited silliness of My Favorite Year.  And, of course, there was his work as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (and his singing was not half bad).  His dramatic work will always be rightfully acknowledged as his finest, but I like the smaller movies best.  He was such a charming and disarming man, and it was always such a joy to watch him act.

Peter O’Toole has died at 81.

 

“I’m Sorry”

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I’ve been a little neglectful lately, and for that I apologize.  Life just gets in the way of the virtual world sometimes.

Christmas shopping is just one of my current distractions.  There was a little family get-together tonight, and my mom hasn’t been feeling well (back trouble bad enough to keep her home).  And it’s probably just going to get worse for the next couple of weeks.  Or better.  Obi-Wan Kenobi was right; the truth really does depend on your point of view.  Right now, the truth is that I’m busier than normal.

And my brain is a little mushy.  The holidays have been just as challenging as I feared.  The other night, there was an emergency call at a house on the next block over–ambulance, fire trucks, the whole nine yards.  My main hope is that whoever was on the other end of that call is fine now, but seeing all those flashing lights triggered memories of all the times they came to my house because of Daddy.  I was a mess.  But my extra sensitive emotions are leaving me kind of out of it, which makes good musical commentary sort of an issue for me.  (Hopefully, some of the changes I have in mind will help improve my writing and your reading experience here at the jukebox, but all that’s still in the planning stages for now.)

So for now, “I’m sorry” will have to do.  Luckily, Brenda Lee seems to have the same Christmas shopping problems we all share at the moment.  Unless she was looking for puppies.  Then she scored, big time.

 

Freaky Repost: “Dad I’m in Jail”

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I went out Christmas shopping with a friend tonight, and this song came up after we got home a were watching a show about a bank-robbing family.  So here it is again.  Enjoy!

 

This is probably one of the strangest tracks ever recorded by anyone, ever.  Approximately a minute and a half of lunatic raving, Was (Not Was)’ “Dad I’m in Jail” can be seen as a surreal experiment, or satirical commentary on social mores.  I’m still not entirely sure if it counts as music.

Was (Not Was) was a funky-bluesy-jazzy pop/rock group with lyrics straight out of a poetry slam.  They simply did not fit into any single category.  Which is what made them so freaking wonderful.  David Weiss and Don Fagenson renamed themselves David and Don Was, and arranged a lineup that suited their musical tastes and influences.  They had some radio success with “Walk the Dinosaur” and the eminently cool “Spy in the House of Love”, not to mention a more than serviceable cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”.  But “Dad I’m in Jail” remains a favorite of mine, mostly because it seems so out of place.  Singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens don’t show off their stellar vocal talents here.  I’m not sure which of the Was brothers is committing vocal suicide on this track, but my money would be on David Was (he apparently wrote beat poetry).

It’s easy to listen to music that can be ranked, listed, and rated.  It’s easy to pick a genre, and choose superb examples.  It’s much harder to listen to something that challenges you, that refuses to be a neatly fitted round peg in a round hole.  Of course, “Dad I’m in Jail” isn’t even a square peg trying to fit into a round hole..  It’s more like somebody took the peg, set fire to it, and threw it in a pit full of . . . something flammable.  Possibly explosive.  The jarring, chaotic jumble of notes behind the screeching voice is, to put it politely, a little strange.

Which is, of course, the best thing about it.

Repost: “Frosty the Snowman”

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We haven’t made Christmas cookies yet.  (Which reminds me to call and ask if it’s happening this year.)  But everything else in this repost is true.

So Christmas has officially arrived for me: today was Christmas cookie day.  We get together with my aunt and make sugar cookies from my Grandma’s recipe, cut into various holiday related shapes and decorated with sugar, sprinkles, and icing.  (This year, I found a cookie cutter shaped like the leg lamp from A Christmas Story, so we had to try that one; it came out okay, although the cookies were a little puffy this year, so it looked like the lamp was retaining water.)  I’ve taken part in this tradition since I was a tiny person, although my brother has long since quit.  My sister-in-law joined my aunt, niece and nephew, and me this year.  There was much baking and many bad jokes, along with a little wine.  A good time was had by all.

I’m not generally a big fan of Christmas music; I tend to be very selective.  But the songs I like, I really like.  I mean, I tend to get weepy listening to them.  “Frosty the Snowman” is one of those tunes for me.  Now I grew up listening to the Jimmy Durante version of the song from the Rankin-Bass cartoon, and that’s generally the version that gets me a little choked up.  (I keep seeing poor little Karen crying over the puddle that used to be Frosty, and the joy when Santa used his magic to bring Frosty back.  Yeah, I am a total marshmallow.)  “But he waved good-bye, saying ‘Don’t you cry.  I’ll be back again someday.'”

This version is almost as awesome as Jimmy Durante’s.  Leon Redbone and Dr. John are two of the most distinctive voices in popular music.  They were both more popular in the 70s, although neither one was exactly mainstream.  They were niche artists, playing well to a certain kind of audience.  My family has always fit nicely into that niche, so I’ve always known who they both were.  I actually bought Redbone’s Christmas Island just for this song, although I don’t know if it’s still available.

I won’t be inundating y’all with Christmas music between now and the big day, but I’ll probably do a few more songs that I think are pretty special.  And considering the news lately, we could all do with a little Christmas cheer.

“Absolutely (Story of a Girl)”

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I like songs.  That should be obvious by now.  And a lot of songs are by artists known as one-hit wonders, as in, they had one hit and disappeared from popular view.

Now, one-hit wonders have always been prevalent.  Back in the 1950s, when Rock was born, the cheapest mode of releasing a song was the 45 RPM single–a tiny (comparatively speaking) piece of vinyl with a large hole in the middle that required a plastic adapter to be played on most record players (just in case you were born anytime after 1990).  I began my musical journey right at the tail end of 45s.  For a while, singles were released on cassette and CD, but neither format ever caught on the same way 45s did.  For a brief dark period, post 45s and pre itunes, it was virtually impossible to find a single of songs you liked.  If you wanted something by a one-hit wonder, you were gonna have to buy the whole album.

That’s how I ended up with Nine Days’ The Madding Crowd.  I usually regretted buying CDs for one song, but this wasn’t one of those.  Besides having a title inspired by Thomas Hardy, there were some pretty good songs on the album.  I enjoyed listening to it.  And the one hit, the reason I wanted the album in the first place, was downright terrific.

The video makes about as much sense as a fish with a bicycle, and the song really isn’t that much more comprehensible.  The status of the relationship in this song seems a little murky, but he “absolutely” loves her, so I guess it’s okay.  I just like this tune.  There’s nothing remarkable about the song; they sound like everything else released in the late 90s-early 2000s.  Just better.

Follow-up success for Nine Days was hampered by trouble with their label, and they went back to releasing their own music after 2006.  Their website  even has free music available for download.  Unfortunately, I don’t think they would’ve repeated the success of “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” even if business had gone smoothly.  That song seems to be their one standout.