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