Wonderful Christmastime, by Paul McCartney
The opening synthesizer riff of “Wonderful Christmastime,” symbolic of the song’s late-‘70s production era in the same way air raid sirens are symbolic of World War II, serves as kind of an early warning signal: “change the station,” it calls out. “Change the station before Paul lets us know that ‘the moon is right.’” And we do. Yet radio keeps playing it and shopping malls slather us in its goo as if doing so isn’t just one more excuse to shop online.
It would be shocking, really, to consider that the guy who gave us “Live and Let Die” and “Maybe I’m Amazed”—and who was at least 25 percent of The Beatles—managed to scribble out, record, and actually release a song containing such lyrical damage as “The choir of children sing their song / ding dong, ding dong / ding dong, ding / ohhhh / ohhhhhhh,” and the phrase “simply having a wonderful Christmastime” repeated 75 times. Until, of course, you realize that Paul McCartney is the evil genius behind “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” He’s also the guy who stole Stevie Wonder’s mojo—an artistic assault with a deadly weapon from which the latter has yet to recover, three decades later.
Clearly, although Sir Paul is a Music Legend with a Ton of Talent, he’s not infallible. “Wonderful Christmastime” serves as an argument in favor of middle management, because someone expendable needs to be able to tell the cash cow, “No.”
The Twelve Days of Christmas, by pretty much anyone
In Chicago, we have an elevated train system (the “el”). The most famous section is downtown, where it hovers over four of the city’s main thoroughfares like a boot preparing to imprint on the face of a bug. It’s rusty, noisy, and blocks pedestrian view of many architectural wonders. Of course, we adore it and if anyone ever decides to tear it down, there will be a “Save the El” movement and the beastly thing will land on the National Register of Historic Places.
Similarly, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” proves that humans can learn to endure and eventually love pretty much anything if it simply overstays its welcome. Has anyone over the age of eight ever truly enjoyed singing this song, or even listening to it? It’s essentially the Christmas version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”: most suitable for parody, elevator music performed by musicians with mid- to long-term memory loss, and carolers wishing to annoy neighbors who let their dog bark in the yard at 5 am.
The lyrics are nothing special: a running list of gifts considered eccentric even at the time of composition and which are either irrelevant or completely ludicrous in the modern era. Add to that the song’s running theme of trading love for material goods, and you are left with a Christmas song that no one would miss if it disappeared up the chimney.
The only decent take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the Bob and Doug McKenzie parody, in which they replace “French hens” with “French toasts,” and have the good taste to skip directly from Day 5 to Day 12, slashing a good 20 minutes of repetitive accumulation.
Back Door Santa, by Bon Jovi
Why pick on Bon Jovi? This number was written and popularized by Clarence Carter, when Bon Jovi was in grade school and decades before he made it his contribution to the first “A Very Special Christmas” album—a compilation disc conceived to raise money for Special Olympics. Shouldn’t Carter get the credit for “Back Door Santa’s” inclusion on this sad list?
No. It is precisely because of “A Very Special Christmas” that Mr. Jovi gets the nod. “Back Door Santa” isn’t a Christmas song; it’s a lusty blues number in the tradition of countless other lusty blues, jazz, and folk songs dating back hundreds or maybe thousands of years. Let’s look at a sample of the lyrics: “They call me Back Door Santa / I make my runs about the break of day / I make all the little girls happy / while the boys are out to play.” I know. We can debate the song’s artistic merits later. But aside from the occasional mention of Santa and Saint Nick, “Back Door Santa” has no hint of anything Christmas, and no one would ever think to include it on a Christmas album. No one but Bon Jovi, that is.
A sampling of other songs on “A Very Special Christmas” finds a variety of themes and styles. There’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by The Pointer Sisters, ripping off Springsteen in the same way he ripped off The Crystals when he covered the same tune years earlier. “Gabriel’s Message,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc. Some of the contributions are more Christmassy than others; some are religious, some are not, and some are actually winter songs traditionally sung around the holidays, but they all have one thing in common: they are not “Back Door Santa.” Even Madonna, who dredged up Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” manages to have a little fun with the campy lyrics of the original in a way that suggests endearing self-parody.
And then, 13 tracks in, it’s “Back Door Santa,” sandwiched between “Run Rudolph Run,” by Bryan Adams and “The Coventry Carol,” by Alison Moyet. The fact that the recording was made live in concert seems only to emphasize the lack of thought that went into Bon Jovi’s contribution. One can only imagine what the producers of “A Very Special Christmas” must have been thinking: “Is he kidding? Do we include this? This guy is very popular and his inclusion will probably help sell records and make more money for the charity…but really??? Get him on the phone. See if he’s willing to whip off a take of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ in his kitchen or something. Oh, he’s touring in Outer Mongolia? Can’t reach him till January? Sigh.”
To be fair, on “A Very Special Christmas 2,” Bon Jovi provided a cover of the Charles Brown classic, “Please Come Home for Christmas.” A much better choice and almost an apology for “Back Door Santa.” Almost. But the damage had already been done, and the evidence is at your local music retailer at least one month of every year.
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, by Elmo and Patsy, and Dr. Elmo, and…
The first time I heard this song, I was amused. I think. I may have been amused the second time as well. Possibly even the third. Of course, I was a kid and what’s not to like in a ditty about a drunken old woman killed by an inept driver, particularly if the woman is Grandma and the her murderer is a jolly old elf in a sleigh pulled by reindeer?
Then came the barrage. On every station. Every year. For decades. Some people complain that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is overplayed during the holidays, but imagine if that film was three minutes long, omnipresent, and introduced by disc jockeys who think it’s the Most Clever and Funniest Thing Ever, when in truth it’s a cruel and not particularly interesting song with a cloying melody and amateurish vocals. Imagine that listening to such a song and complaining about it on one’s blog took up valuable time that could otherwise be spent making a latch-hook rug or staring blankly into space. And imagine that the song’s original performer rerecorded and rereleased it, not once, but three times. Yes, it’s true. Based on my research, there are at least four separate versions of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” all recorded by Elmo Shropshire, or Dr. Elmo as he sometimes calls himself—the ultimate one-hit-wonder.
Anything by Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra
There was a time, children, before the armies of Mordor rose up and invaded the holiday season with Christmas rock fantasies of disc sales and digital downloads. A time when Mannheim Steamroller had a modicum of artistic value and Trans-Siberian Orchestra had yet to be conceived. I know it’s hard to imagine, but try if you can. Television was two-dimensional, phones were devices with cords that you used when speaking with grandma (before her death by reindeer), and music was made by and for people. Yes, people. Those two-legged doohickeys you see slipping on the ice in front of Macy’s.
It is tempting to claim that there was no such thing as a commercialized Christmas album before Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra came along, but the sad truth is that there is probably so such thing but a commercial Christmas album. Even a bottom-tier performer can be assured of a certain level of album sales if he or she is willing to belt out a few verses of “Deck the Halls” for public release. Record companies long ago turned Christmas recordings into a perennial (or is it annual?) carrot/stick combination that terrifies and entices performers everywhere. In the popular music world, the Christmas album is the severance check; a singer’s gold watch before they revoke his key card and have security escort him from the building.
Yet Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra took the Christmas album paradigm and flipped it on its head. Although both groups have done other things, their secular projects are incidental to the fact that they are in reality holiday music factories, pumping out manufactured joy with all the soul of a plastic extrusion machine spitting out Barbie doll parts.
Sadly, though, they are probably no more than what we deserve, as creators of a society that has traded caring for gifts, emotion for greeting cards, and peace on Earth for peace at last, once the damn holidays are over.