December 20, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
My research in the field of Garbage Record Analytics has shown holiday records have been a source of amusement and profits long before popular culture was a thing, long before every recording artist and/or celebrity has felt the need and/or pressure to release one themselves. However, my studies have shown it was more about themed LPs rather than particular artists jumping onto the Yuletide bandwagon. These days it’s become an industry within an industry; so, when lifelong outlier such as Bob Dylan releases a Holiday record (Christmas in the Heart, 2009) you know it’s beyond industry standard.
During the time while I was out in the field collecting raw data (2001-2016), two things became clear about holiday records released 40-50 years ago: (1) they were aimed at a not just a specific market, but the entire market and (2) 97.8 percent of the LPs were by anonymous session musicians instead of a single, established recording artists. The main purpose of these records was for ambience, to be played while decorating the house or for background music during parties. Holiday records released within the past 20 years are thought of as actual additions to the artists’ catalog instead of being a one-off or novelty.
So, here’s a mere sample of the records I’ve collected over the years while in the field. Again, this isn’t necessarily a buying guide but a survey of the record industry from past holiday seasons.
Snowbound – Ferrante and Teicher
The keen-eyed reader will recognize Ferrante and Teicher from a few months back in the Easy Listening Music edition of this column and, as a whole, this title is no different from the rest of their work as it has all their trademarks: soothing vocals on a few tracks, lots of weepy string arrangements, and a heavy emphasis on romance. Yet, as with most of their work, these two musical brutes have the ability to strangle an innocent tune with their obnoxious double-teaming grand pianos; they over-perform and all but snuff-out the melody, something completely unnecessary when it comes to the simple pleasures of holiday music.
They somehow force the usually buoyant “Happy Sleigh Ride” into ominous territory, which is an interesting technique but overall the Holiday spirit prevails and the two decide to go the distance and add such seasonal instrumentation as bells and… a glockenspiel. Not sure why they decided to include “June in January” here, are they just messing with us? The real question here: Is this something you’d want to play while making paper snowflake decorations with you children or grandchildren? Yes, this is a (boring) no-brainer.
Christmas Carols in Percussion – Patricia Wilde
With the word “percussion” in its title, I was expecting some pizzazz from this one. Instead, Ms. Wilde gives us predominantly organ music with only a hint of bells as percussion. Had I walked into my favorite record outlet and actually spent the $1.95 or whatever to buy this thing, I may’ve been right pissed. However, the buyer was getting their money’s worth as the bigwigs at Acord Records crammed 20 songs onto this record, 10 per side, most of them not even complete versions of the song; it’s like a medley without the segues. As an example, on the last track, “Jingle Bells,” Wilde plays only the chorus twice and then calls its quits. What about dashing through the snow?! It feels as though they forgot about this song until the last minute and just burned through it because, really, what’s Christmas record with that song?
Without the benefit of being in some ornate house of worship, solo organ music tends to be far too overpowering for at-home listening; Wilde grinds some of these songs into morbidity making this record akin to attending a funeral, the only thing missing is the corpse. Along with the rapid-fire pace and ridiculous number of tracks here, this record is sure to give you a brutal Holiday Headache. This is not for trimming the tree, lighting the menorah, or entertaining company; no, this record is for deep holiday rumination. One gets the sense that someone behind the scenes at Acorn Records hates the Holidays and this record was their way of exacting revenge. Just a thought.
18 Christmas Songs – various artists
There wasn’t a record in this when I found it and it doesn’t need one, either. Just look at that cover; I think the holidays are fully explained right here with this one picture: The kids don’t seem to happy with the loot they’ve received thus far, and Santa appears to be pleading with them (“That’s all I have!”). And dear readers, let your eyes soak in that room! The room looks cold and cavernous, especially with only a few pieces of kindling in the fireplace — and, my god, that tree is a nightmare.
This holiday looks grim at best for these kids, one they’ll never be able to forget. Flip the cover over and you’ll see all the hits are represented here with “Poppy the Puppy” being an extreme deep cut, one I’ve never seen anywhere but a Gene Autry record. By the way, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” has always given me the creeps, there’s no need to sexualize ANY season; it didn’t work for Ferrante & Teicher and it ain’t gonna work for… whomever did this record.
Christmas in Germany – Bielefelder Kinderchoir
No record in this one either, but again, the cover is something to behold. With its snow-covered hills and trees, this looks to be as tranquil and inviting as the cover to Snowbound. However, if you zero in on the man there, he looks tense and either lost or looking for a way to get out of Germany. Either way, his lost-in-the-woods stance is not too far from what many of us feel while trying to get through what can often be a difficult season. That’s a rad sweater, though.
Aside from all that, there is an impressive number of deep cuts on this one: “Sound Little Bell Sound”? “Every Year Again”? “A Rose Sprang Forth”? Are those even Christmas jams? If only there was a record here to legitimize it all. Still, that sweater!
Disco Noel – Mirror Image
Now this is more like it! Yes, it’s exactly what you’d imagine: heavy accented backbeat Christmas dance music with popping bass, ineffectual female vocals, and strings. All of the disco clichés are here colliding perfectly with all the Christmas clichés, thus making this a highly amusing holiday mess. Can you play this while setting up the menorah, decorating the tree, or entertaining guests? You’d be a fool not to because this one comes with “Disco Dance Step Lesson Enclosed” (Choreography by Arthur Murray® Disco Dance Schools — he trademarked his own name!). It needs to be pointed out when I found this record it was still sealed in shrink-wrap, so you can imagine how excited I was about learning to do the Holiday Hustle or whatever. Guess what? THERE WAS NO DISCO DANCE STEP LESSON INSIDE. What absolute bullshit. Yeah, happy holidays Pickwick Records!
Speaking of Pickwick, they were one of those fantastic/terrible budget labels who pumped out this style of schmaltz. Their in-house batch of session musicians went under the name Mirror Image and they’re at full force here sticking themselves to the original arrangements. That is until they it “Little Drummer Boy,” which opens with a kind of sluggish, Grateful Dead-like space jam until settling into the somber melody. “Winter Wonderland” kicks things back into gear and has not one but two fancy breakdowns (with bongos!). “Silver Bells” also goes off the rails a bit and is pretty amazing as it slides into something closer to a low-budget 70s made-for-TV crime movie.
There are other versions of this concept floating around (Disco Christmas being one of the titles) and I can’t comment on their quality, but I can say Disco Noel is a straight-up classic, you need it. Can you play this during your holiday party or while making a fruitcake? You’d be an absolute fool not to. Just look for the one with the bright-eyed woman in festive red dress on the cover! Looks like she hasn’t eaten anything but cocaine for the past six months. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
Season’s Greetings From Mr. & Mrs. Mike – Mr. & Mrs. Mike
The cover to this one is just a plain cardboard sleeve with no info whatsoever (though someone at some point tried out a few sketches in pencil on one side); it’s the same kind of generic sleeve which bootlegs were often found. The only information is the record’s label which reads: “Season’s Greeting From Mr. & Mrs. Mike. Song Meet 1973.” The excitement was incredible as I put this one on… it could be anything. A private home recording with X-rated skits? Perhaps a bootleg of Grand Funk Railroad doing Christmas jams? Maybe it’s just an elderly couple recording a holiday message to their friends and family? The possibilities are endless.
Turns out, this isn’t a holiday record whatsoever. No, instead it’s a recording of a kids choral group performing at either a summer camp or some kind of seminar. I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting this was mailed out to students and faculty as a souvenir at the end of the year. Similar to the Christmas Carols in Percussion, not a single line of vinyl was wasted as this one is packed with music from edge to label. Also, this is ain’t no soundboard recording either, and considering the year, was probably done with one or two microphones onto a ¼” reel to reel. Or worse, onto a cassette with a handheld mic.
The record opens with kids singing “Roll Out the Barrels,” but with different lyrics, and it just goes downhill from there. All in all, this is one of the worst records I’ve heard in some time, folks, especially since I was ready for some goddamn holiday music. Can you decorate your house or have guests over while playing this one? Technically, yes, but you’d be better off just throwing it away… or leaving it in the garbage where you originally found it. I’ve described this record to other people and many of the responses are: “Oh, how cute!” But it isn’t cute, it’s miserable and has kinda ruined my goddamn holiday spirit. I never liked camp. Or seminars.
Christmas Superheroes – Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman
My Christmas Spirit has been saved thanks to the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman! In all actuality, there’s no clear indication as to what this record is officially called as the cover and the label don’t match; the only name attached to any of this is Arthur Korb who is listed as writer and producer.
As a child, I grew up watching a lot of Challenge of the Super Friends on Saturday mornings and, thrilling as their adventures were, I always found them to be humorless and stiff. Their sworn enemies, The Legion of Doom, seemed to have better personalities and, therefore, seemed to be way more fun despite their rather negative worldview. So, you can imagine my surprise when I came upon this record and discovered three of the Super Friends actually smiling on the cover; that alone gives you an idea of just how powerful the holiday season can be.
Anyway, there are three holiday-themed stories on this album, so here’s a quick breakdown:
“Light Up the Tree, Mr. President”
There’s a heavy disarmament theme for this story where a nuclear scientist, Thurston Kilgore (they always have to announce themselves for some reason), has gone crazy and is now “running around the streets of Washington and he’s somehow rigged up a near-by missile launch to the button which activates the White House Christmas tree. That’s a clever idea, actually. Anyway, both Jimmy Olsen and Superman are unwittingly attending the tree lighting ceremony and guess who gets roped-up in Kilgore’s scheme? That’s right, they do! But the narrative is far too convoluted and I stopped paying attention after a few minutes so I couldn’t tell you how it ended; the only thing I remember is Jimmy Olsen is an idiot and he brags to Louis Lane about his part in bringing down Kilgore, which isn’t a bold-faced lie because Superman did all the work.
“Christmas Carol Caper”
Batman and Robin are in awe of how calm Gotham City is on Christmas Eve. Then the phone rings:
“Is this Batman?”
“I have a singing telegram for you.” “How nice. Sing away.”
“I wish you a deadly Christmas, I wish you a deadly Christmas, I wish you a deadly Christmas, and no more New Year’s.”
“Who is this!?”
Then the phone line goes dead. Of course, Robin, being his typical nosey self, just has to know who it was but Batman kinda blows it all off as the work of “some creep crawling out of the woodwork.” Undaunted, they walk to a “south side Mission downtown” to hang out with a bunch of “down and out” people (ie: senior citizens) and sing Christmas carols with them. A lot of characters are introduced at this point and I find myself lost in a maze of hackneyed film-noir dialog and voice actors trying to sound elderly. Gun fire, fistfights, strong words, and Batman’s constant flow of sarcastic remarks… and yet, Robin is nowhere to be found during the ruckus. Typical. He was probably with Jimmy Olsen.
“The Prisoner of Christmas Island”
This final story is incredible for its scope. Santa Clause (referred to here as “a white-bearded patriarch of the community”) is kidnapped. How? A nuclear-powered submarine is driven underneath the North Pole (is that possible?) and cuts a hole from the bottom with a laser drill (I guess that could happen) and some guy emerges from the sub and takes him from his bed at gunpoint. This causes an international outcry unseen since Kennedy’s assassination; even Russia is up in arms about it. A German woman named Brunhild, an old enemy of Wonder Woman, is behind this lunacy; she seems perpetually mad and is constantly rolling her “R’s” (like all Germans) and pronounces our heroine’s name as “Vunder Vumen.” Plus, she has a “specially equipped command plane” and is using the kidnapping of Santa to lure Wonder Woman into a trap, even though she clearly stipulated there were to be NO TRICKS when they meet. What a liar. Brunhild plans to blow up Christmas Island, Santa, and WW, all of which she sees as “The decadent trappings of a decadent world” before going into an amazingly un-holiday-like screed: “I shall r-r-r-restore the Germany of old, the power of the ancient Gods, and the glory of the master race!” According to her, this will establish “A new order, a new race, a new disciple with no room for the sentimental claptrap and nonsense that he represents.” Damn! Sure glad my kids weren’t around to hear all this propaganda. I can’t remember the exact details as to what happens as I drifted off after Brunhild’s rather ugly right-wing hissy fit, but I can tell you Santa lives and Christmas is saved. Again. Oh wait, I forgot to tell you the best part: at one point Wonder Woman yells: “Hurry up, robot plane!”
Can you drink eggnog and smoke salmon to this one? Yes, but I wouldn’t if you have kids in the vicinity. Can you throw this on during a festive party? Yes, but only if you want to see arguments erupt as each story not only requires precise attention but is embedded with confrontational flashpoints sure to pit drunken party-goers against each other.
Happy Holidays, everyone!