It’s only a week until Christmas Day, so it seems like a good time to offer a look at the back stories of some of my favorite rock and roll Christmas tunes.
Of course, there are many Christmas albums by popular music artists who offer their very strong (or remarkably bad) versions of Christmas carols, but this column will mostly examine less traditional, but still noteworthy, holiday classics you might include as you assemble your Christmas mixes.
“I Believe in Father Christmas,” Greg Lake, 1974
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the most bombastic of the British progressive rock bands of the ’70s, with Keith Emerson’s virtuoso keyboards dominating their albums. But each LP featured at least one commercial ballad by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake (“Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” “Still, You Turn Me On”). In 1974, as a solo track, he recorded this piece, intended as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas. It reached #2 in the UK, and in 1977, ELP re-recorded it for their “Works Part II” album. Very formal and regal in structure.
“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 1978
Despite his passion and sincerity for the working man and serious issues of the day, Springsteen has always had a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face when the spirit moved him. When he went on tour to promote his “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album in 1978, the E Street Band added this over-the-top, effervescent version of the age-old Christmas classic to his concert repertoire, complete with Clarence Clemons on sax doing his best Santa imitation.
“Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry, 1958
The father of rock ‘n roll came up with a great track to keep the burgeoning genre in the forefront, even during the Christmas season. Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie wrote this one, modeled after Berry’s own “Johnny B. Goode,” and Berry made it a huge seasonal hit in 1958. It’s been covered many times since by a wide variety of artists, from Sheryl Crow to Billy Idol, from Hanson to Los Lonely Boys, from Jimmy Buffett to The Grateful Dead.
“Please Come Home for Christmas,” Charles Brown, 1960, and The Eagles, 1978
Blues pianist/composer Charles Brown wrote this track in 1960 with help from Gene Redd, and it became a modest seasonal favorite among blues audiences throughout the ’60s. In 1978, The Eagles unearthed it, gave it that patented California sheen and made it a #18 hit that year. Pretty great version right here.
“Father Christmas,” The Kinks, 1977
The hardest rocking tune on this list, and the least Christmassy, is this angry diatribe by Ray Davies and The Kinks. They wrote this as a screed about the unfair class system prevalent in England, where rich kids got many Christmas presents and poor kids got none. A gang of poor kids beats up Santa Claus and takes his money and tells him to “leave all your toys to the little rich boys.” Not exactly a warm Yuletide sentiment, but, well, the truth hurts sometimes.
“Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys, 1963
Brain Wilson and Mike Love co-wrote this track as a Christmas single based on the same structure as their earlier hit “Little Deuce Coupe.” It made only modest impact in the subdued 1963 holiday season following the Kennedy assassination, but it reappeared on “The Beach Boys Christmas Album” the following year and has been a seasonal favorite ever since.
“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971
This holiday knockoff was written and recorded quickly (like so many Lennon tracks of this period) in time for the Christmas season/market. It didn’t make that much of a splash at first, missing the Top 40 charts, but following his death in 1980, it soared to iconic status and is now heard relentlessly every December as one of his finest anti-war anthems.
“A-Soalin’,” Peter Paul & Mary, 1964
A simply stunning madrigal carol, co-written by Paul Stookey, when this folk trio were at their peak. It sounds like something from a Dickens tale, and incorporates lines from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Check out YouTube for the live recording in Paris in 1965. Incredible.
“Song for a Winter’s Night,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1967
Not so much a Christmas song as a winter song, its use of sleigh bells evokes warm memories of Christmases from the ’60s and ’70s when I first heard it. Lightfoot wrote and recorded this gorgeous tune in 1967, then re-recorded it in 1975 for his “Gord’s Gold” greatest hits collection. Either version will fit nicely on any Christmas mix.
“Christmas Song” and “Another Christmas Song,” Jethro Tull, 1969 and 1989
Ian Anderson has written many Christmas-themed songs, in and out of Jethro Tull, most notably these two songs 20 years removed. He was in his early 20s when he came up with “Christmas Song,” which refers to “Royal David city” and a cattle shed, then reminds us that “the Christmas spirit is not what you drink.” In the late ’80s, “Another Christmas Song” centers on a dying patrician who yearns for his estranged family to gather ’round one last time to celebrate the holidays. Very poignant, both of these tracks.
“River,” Joni Mitchell, 1971
Deftly weaving in multiple musical phrases from “Jingle Bells” in both the introduction and the ending, Joni Mitchell created a marvelous Christmas-related piece that’s really more about the sorrowful breakup of a relationship. Her Canadian roots are evident in the line about how “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” One of my all-time Joni favorites.
“Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley, 1971 and Natalie Cole, 1994
Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore came up with this beauty back in 1947, and dozens of versions have been recorded since then, from Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding, from Melissa Etheridge to B.B. King. I’m torn between Elvis’s smokin’ rendition from 1971 and the sexy blues cover by Natalie Cole in 1994. Pretty much any version of this song is worthy of inclusion on your holiday mix.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Band Aid, 1984
An amazing collaborative effort by the best of Britain’s pop scene at the time, including Sting, Phil Collins, Bono, the members of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, and Bob Geldof, who produced it and co-wrote it with Midge Ure. Geldof and his wife had seen heartbreaking footage of the starvation in Ethiopia at that time and rallied their colleagues to put together this charity single, which not only raised needed funds but sparked “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and other efforts to help stem the tide of misery in that part of the world. That’s what Christmas should be all about…