Santacular Christmas Countdown – #1 – Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

Though the version of this song you hear each Christmas was recorded in 1975 (at C.W. Post College), Bruce and the E Street Band have not strayed from that arrangement in a live setting in nearly 35 years – and for good reason.  To paraphrase David Allen Coe, it’s the perfect rock and roll Christmas song. Roy Bittan’s piano notes that both open and close (with Jingle Bells”) the song are magical; Clarence as Santa with his “Ho ho ho’s” and “…you better be good for goodness sake” response are fun; and it has one of the great breakdowns and build ups – as really only Springsteen can execute – in recorded rock and roll: a repeated “Santa Claus is comin’ to town” refrain morphing into a band explosion and the Boss’ “whoa – oh -oh” shouted over the music to take the song to it’s conclusion.

As I write these words, it all sounds too clinical, as if a music critic needed to dissect the meaning and importance of the song, like a premature musical autopsy.  It’s silly, really, to attempt much more than what we’ve done here.  It is a great version because the music and words and crowd make it that way.  One of the few live tunes to be a Christmas classic –  maybe that is part of the magic.  Springsteen has no contender for his crown of greatest live performer, and in 1975, this was one of the first chances for a national audience (and into the late 70’s , via live radio broadcasts) to hear what made the band great. The power and looseness of the live recording came through the grooves then, as it does now via YouTube. 

It’s an arrangement of the song ripped from the version on Phil Spector’s LP, and the song certainly has an old soul. Yet what Bruce Springsteen did that night  in 1975 at a small college on Long Island, and what we still hear today, was alive, joyous and full of east coast energy. It made the song timeless and created a moment in music, even among  the great moments and music in his still-vibrant career, that will be his legacy more than anything else he’s done.  In 100 years, Santa Claus will still be around and this song will still be played, through whatever way people to listen to music in 2109. It is a great song, and it sits atop the rest of the songs for no better reason than it makes me feel alive every time I hear it. 

Here’s a bit of a rarity: a 1978 B&W version, recorded in New Jersey, and a taste of Bruce playing a smaller venue

Santacular Christmas Countdown – #3/#2 – Phil Spector/Darlene Love

Phil Spector – A Christmas Gift For You album/”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love

We put #2 and #3 together here, because we can.  At #3 is the album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, released in 1963 (on November 22, the day Kennedy was shot, so not the best possible moment for the music).  Echo-filled, kitchen sink-added, girl group-heavy music from Spector, and one of his genius moments.  The record has been re-released this year, and features a number of iconic performances, detailed below.  The song that comes in at #2 is the Darlene Love-led “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from that record, and earns its spot here in part because of its current relevancy through the inclusion by David Letterman of Love and the song on his Christmas show each year.  She still can belt it out, and Paul Shaffer and the band are able to elevate her performance through their own playing.  A thrilling homage to the greatness that was girl groups – filtered through Spector – in the 1960’s.

WIKIPEDIA: Several  tracks became iconic Christmas songs for generations, such as the original (and flop) single “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and the well-known “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong-ding” background vocals in The Ronettes’Sleigh Ride.” The arrangement of Bruce Springsteen‘s version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is based in part on the Crystals‘ version of the song , and U2‘s late 80s cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” that appeared on the first “A Very Special Christmas” album is patterned after the Darlene Love original that appeared on the Spector LP . The Ronettes version of “Frosty The Snowman” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” also usually get some radio airplay during the holiday season.

Santacular Christmas Countdown – #4 – Bobby Helms

Bobby Helms – “Jingle Bell Rock”

Here’s a song that I thought about not even including.  “Jingle Bell Rock” has been heard by you and me so many times that we become numb to it. But when it does come on the radio or is part of a movie soundtrack,  it elicts a magical Pavlov’s Dog response;  the song means it’s Christmas in America.

Helms was born in Bloomington, Indiana and lived just south of Indianapolis (in Martinsville) until he died in 1997.  A country singer who tasted a little success with one other top 10 hit, but had a bunch of songs that never quite cracked the Top 40 of the country charts.  But this little ditty was a Top 10 pop hit in 1957 and has been rereleased at least six times since then, charting in the Top 100 five times.  And that’s how you become iconic.

Though a bit of musical cheese (so are a lot of holiday tunes – dso no deduction s there), it was still a well- produced little project:  echo-drenched like the Sun Records music of the time and filled with sleigh bells ringing.  There’s an immediacy in the vocals, and – importantly – it is an original tune written by a Hoosier.  I have to believe the middle America roots somehow has helped it undure. Next time you hear it, really listen: it’s a damn good pop song.

Santacular Christmas Countdown – #5 – John Lennon

John Lennon  – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Of all of the songs in the 20 tune countdown, does this song  polarize listeners more than any other?  A bit political,  though you could argue (successfully, I would add) that its more humanistic than just about ugly politics.  Or maybe the time has passed for Lennon to still have enemies, even in his music. The subversive Lennon does tweak with the use of “Xmas” in the title, but that’s pretty tame by standards now, right? 

 The whole thing feels brilliant to me, and they used Phil Spector –  the iconic Christmas record man himself –  as producer.  He partially atones for his “Let It Be” knob turning/jerking with a great sound on this one;  in this age of “brand awareness” and staying true to an idea and self, Lennon and Yoko Ono certainly nailed it here, in idea and execution.

WIKIPEDIA: It was recorded at Record Plant Studios in New York City in late October 1971, with the help of producer Phil Spector. It features soaring, heavily echoed vocals, and a sing-along chorus. The children singing in the background were from the Harlem Community Choir and are credited on the song’s single.The record starts with a barely-audible whisper of Christmas greetings to their children: Yoko whispers “Happy Christmas, Kyoko”, then John whispers “Happy Christmas, Julian“.


Santacular Christmas Countdown – #6 – Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen – “Merry Christmas From the Family”

He’s worshiped in Texas, loved in by fans of country rock throughout the world, and completely unknown everywhere else, though this song might register with anyone who has no idea who Robert Earl Keen is.  And they should, because it’s a brilliant four-minute piece of refreshingly politically-uncorrect truth. The story of a Christmas full of family, alcohol and multiple runs to the Quik Pak store.