I listen to The Music a bit less at this time of year, and more to the sounds of the season.
My wife loves Christmas, the music of the holiday as well as the decorating, gift-giving, etc. So when we travel together, the radio is more likely tuned to one of the satellite channels or broadcast stations playing carols, rather than Soul Town, our usual compromise (much less the album rock I usually listen to).
It’s not that I’m the not-yet-reformed Grinch or not-post-Ghost Scrooge; I do like some Christmas music. But a lot of it isn’t really good music. In too many cases, I feel, there was some A&R dude behind the recording project saying to the artist, “You need to do a Christmas album!”
That results in music that often sounds like the artists were just mailing it in. That applies to some of the Christmas rock and roll, and holiday-themed music released by rock artists, that I hear on the contemporary Christmas venues.
Not all, by any means. The opening line of “Blue Christmas” is quintessentially Elvis, and there is a back story to the song’s structure that is quite interesting. It also was a track on what was perhaps the first Christmas album recorded by a rock artist, released in 1957; it was also part of an extended-play package of The King' Christmas songs, but wasn’t released as a 45 rpm single until seven years later.
Another Christmas rock standard, Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph,” released in 1958 as the B side of his single “Merry Christmas Baby,” has Chuck’s classic guitar licks, and lyrics by the same guy who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (and several other Christmas favorites), Johnny Marks. But it also borrows heavily from “Johnny B. Goode” and “Little Queenie.”
The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” seems to fall into the “Mail It In” category, and is a knock-off of the group’s “Little Deuce Coupe.” The former was released a few months after the latter, and actually had some chart success, although nothing like the original.
The following year, 1964, the Beach Boys released a Christmas album that included “Little Saint Nick” — and their cover of “Blue Christmas,” issued as a single by Presley around the same time. The Boys’ version was the flip side to their original song, “The Man with All the Toys.”
“Little Saint Nick” and “The Man with All the Toys” are both ranked in the 100 Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time compiled by New York radio station WCBS-FM. The former actually ranks a few positions higher than Presley’s “Blue Christmas”; go figure. The Beach Boys’ version of “Blue Christmas” isn’t on that list, but was on another all-time ranking I found online.
Also not to be found on the WCBS chart is the recording of “Little Drummer Boy” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, which until last night I didn’t know existed. Not sure that was really necessary, but I feel the same way about the Bing Crosby-David Bowie duet version of that song, considered a classic by some — and an excruciating detour by others, including myself. The Thin White Duke and the Crooner, though, made the WCBS Top 100, so what do I know?
The New York station’s list includes roughly 40 recordings by artists who could be called rock and roll performers. Their No. 1, though, is the Bingster singing “White Christmas”; the closest rock came to the top — unless you count Alvin and the Chipmunks — is fifth-ranked “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms (hardly a household name in the genre).
No. 3 on the list is Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which is definitely not rock but has some significance in popular music. For one thing, it was the No. 1 Billboard pop hit the first week of the decade that gave us rock and roll, the 1950s.
(It also had the dubious distinction of being the only such No. 1 hit to vanish off the charts the following week. That happened during the final week of the Christmas season of 1949, but because of the way the magazine did its ranking, it didn’t register until a week later!)
“Rudolph” also may hold the record for being recorded by the most artists. A non-exhaustive listing in Wikipedia shows 43 different artists — Crosby to the Chipmunks, rap to Rugrats, doo wop to death metal, you name it/them — did a version.
“Rudolph” is also No. 10 in the Top 25 of the most-performed "holiday” songs compiled by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2006. (The list includes only songs written by ASCAP members, and is based on the number of times the songs were played in the U.S. the preceding five years.)
The only strictly rock songs on the ASCAP list are “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” and “Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World),” the collaboration of U.K. artists recorded as a famine benefit in the 1980s. That roasted chestnut, “The Christmas Song,” is No. 1, followed by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Which is my wish for my readers. It seems unlikely that it will be a “Winter Wonderland” (No. 3) or a “White Christmas” (No. 5) for the holiday, no matter how many times we sing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (No. 6), but “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (No. 11) and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (No. 4). So enjoy!