The songs of Christmases past

It’s Christmas Friday! How great is that?

The strangest Christmas ever for most of us has arrived. Many of us chose not to (or couldn’t) travel to be with our families, and some of us are all on our own for the holiday. But we’re making the best of it and try to be grateful for what we have, and that “this too shall pass.”

I have always maintained that one of the best ways to get through difficult times is to listen to your favorite music, or maybe some brand new music, or, at this time of year, seasonal music that cheers you up. My favorite rock music Christmas songs have been in rotation at my house for a month now, and perhaps at your house too.

In many cases, there are some interesting back-story details about these songs, and Hack’s Back Pages is happy to provide this information as you listen to the holiday playlist below. Merry Christmas!

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“I Believe in Father Christmas,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1977

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.  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, Lake collaborated with lyricist Peter Sinfield to write this piece, intended as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas.  Musically, it has a grandly traditional, hymn-like flair to it, thanks to Emerson’s suggestion to use a riff from Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé’s Suite” (1934). Lyrically, though, it’s a bit dark. As Sinfield has said, “It’s about the loss of innocence and childhood belief. It’s a picture postcard Christmas song, but with morbid edges.” Lake’s solo recording reached #2 in the UK, but didn’t chart here. In 1977, ELP re-recorded it for their “Works Part II” album, and that’s the version you’re hearing here.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 1975

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie teamed up back in 1933 to write this holiday favorite, which became an instant hit when performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show the following December. Hundreds of recorded versions followed, from Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters to The Temptations and Neil Diamond. A version by The Four Seasons reached #23 on the charts in 1962, and Phil Spector included a rousing version by The Frystals on his Christmas collection in 1963. When Springsteen and his band recorded a performance of their rendition in 1975 at a small Long Island college, they used a modified arrangement of The Crystals’ version. It was released as part of the “In Harmony 2” package on Sesame Street Records in 1982, and again as the B-side of the “My Home Town” single in 1985. It had long been familiar to Boss fans through distribution to rock radio stations in the late ’70s, and the band has been featuring it for decades in its playlist any time they’re touring in late November and December.

“Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry, 1958

In a November 1958 recording session, Berry and his backing band recorded two tracks: his new tune “Little Queenie” (which would be released as a B-side several months later with “Almost Grown”), and “Run Rudolph Run,” which was basically the same song with different lyrics, made up quickly in the studio by Marvin Brodie and Berry. The label rush-released “Run Rudolph Run” for the Christmas market, and it reached #28 on the charts that year. Both songs are melodically similar to Berry’s earlier signature song “Johnny B. Goode.” Since then, the song has been recorded by such big names as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sheryl Crow, Cheap Trick, Grateful Dead, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Buffett, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Hanson and Foghat.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles, 1978

Blues pianist/singer Charles Brown co-wrote this track in 1960 with Gene Redd, and Brown’s recording made the charts that year. It remained a seasonal favorite each year throughout the 1960s, reaching #1 on a Christmas Singles chart in 1972. Six years later, as The Eagles were struggling to come up with the follow-up to their mega-platinum 1977 LP “Hotel California,” their label insisted they select something to release for the lucrative Christmas season. Glenn Frey, a blues rock aficionado, had always liked Brown’s song, so he brought it to the group’s attention, and they polished off a solid cover version, which reached #18 in 1978, the first Christmas single to make the Top 20 on the pop charts since Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” in 1963. Bon Jovi had a popular version of “Please Be Home for Christmas” included on “A Very Special Christmas 2” collection in 1992.

“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 and recorded it in 1977, during punk rock’s heyday in England, as a screed about the unfair class system prevalent there, where rich kids got many Christmas presents while poor kids got none.  Davies sings of a gang of poor kids beating up on a department store Santa Claus, telling him they want his money, not toys. “Father Christmas, give us some money, /Don’t mess around with those silly toys, /We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over, /We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed, /Give all the toys to the little rich boys!…” Many punk and hard rock bands have covered it in recent years, from Green Day and Bad Religion to Warrant and Smash Mouth.

“Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys, 1963

It’s no secret to Beach Boys fans that there’s plenty of bad blood between Brian Wilson and cousin Mike Love that has kept the band in different camps on and off for decades. Sometimes the differences were artistic; for example, Love didn’t care for Wilson’s new direction with the songs on the universally praised 1966 LP “Pet Sounds.” Love also took exception to being excluded from songwriting credit for some of the classics in the band’s lucrative early catalog. The Christmas single “Little Saint Nick,” recorded in 1963 and borrowing heavily from their earlier Wilson/Love tune “Little Deuce Coupe,” was one such bone of contention. The original single indicates Wilson as its sole writer, but Love won back royalties and co-writer credit in a 1993 lawsuit. The song appeared on “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” in 1964 along with a dozen covers of traditional carols.

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971

Like so many Lennon tracks of his early solo period (“Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma,” “Power to the People”), this unique “holiday protest song” was written and recorded quickly, this time to capitalize on the 1971 Yuletide season, but they were late getting it out. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” never got past #42 in the US that year, but it was a Top Ten hit in Europe and #4 in the UK when released there for the 1972 holiday season. The song, which utilized the basic structure of the English folk song “Stewball,” was designed as an anti-war anthem mixed with untraditional Christmas tidings (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?…”), bringing in the “War is Over if you want it” theme from past protests. John and Yoko used session musicians Nicky Hopkins on piano and Jim Keltner on drums, and brought in the Harlem Community Children’s Choir to add vocals to the chorus, all produced by Phil Spector. Following Lennon’s death in 1980, the track soared to iconic status and is now heard relentlessly every December.

“A-Soalin’,” Peter Paul & Mary, 1964

PP&M did a nice little trick in 1963 when they took a traditional English folk song, added a new verse by Paul Stookey with Christmas references and part of the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” melody, and voila! A Christmas song for their repertoire. It’s a simply stunning performance which appears on their “Peter Paul and Mary In Concert” double live album in 1964 when the trio blend two acoustic guitars and their three voices. Lyrically, it sounds like it’s from some sort of soundtrack for a Charles Dickens tale. “A-Soalin'” is a variation on “A-Wassailing,” which is the practice of going door to door, singing a song and getting a small gift in return. These gifts were often fruit, candy or soul-cakes (or soal cakes) to commemorate the recently departed souls of family members… PP&M’s live recording in Paris in 1965 is on YouTube and should definitely be on your must-see holiday viewing list.

“Song for a Winter’s Night,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1967

Not so much a Christmas song as a wintertime song, its use of sleigh bells evokes fond memories of Christmases from the ’60s and ’70s when I first heard it.  Lightfoot wrote and recorded this beautiful tune in 1967 on a hot summer night in Cleveland. He was there while on a US tour and was missing his wife, and his thoughts turned to winter in Toronto. It appeared on his 1967 album “The Way I Feel” and was then one of several Lightfoot re-recorded in 1975 for his “Gord’s Gold” greatest hits collection, which is the one you’re hearing on my playlist.

“Christmas Song” and “Another Christmas Song,” Jethro Tull, 1969 and 1989

Of all the British rock artists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, none has written and recorded as much Christmas-related material as Tull. Leader Ian Anderson is a self-confessed Yuletide fan, and as early as 1969, he wrote “Christmas Song,” which uses traditional imagery of “Royal David city” and cattle sheds, but also reprimands us about “stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties” and reminds us that “the Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”  In the late ’80s, he wrote what amounts to a sequel, “Another Christmas Song,” which centers on a dying patrician who yearns for his estranged family to gather ’round one last time to celebrate the holidays. Both of these tracks are melodic and poignant.

“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 piece that is regarded by many as a Christmas-related song, even though it’s actually more about the sorrowful breakup of a relationship she’d been having with Graham Nash.  Her Canadian roots are evident in the recurring line about how “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”  Several of my close friends and family members share my fondness for this one. My daughter recorded a gorgeous cover of “River” a couple years ago with two musical colleagues. It’s available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley, 1971

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 his 1971 Christmas album 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, but in the end, you gotta go with Elvis…

“Pretty Paper,” Roy Orbison, 1963

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Willie Nelson struggled mightily to find a major label to sign him as a recording artist. In the meantime, he wrote songs which sometimes were made into hits by other artists. Most famously, he wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker and “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison. Nelson was inspired by a disabled man he knew in Texas who sold paper and pencils on the street corner to eke out a living, and Nelson turned it into a Christmas-themed song by singing about wrapping paper. Orbison turned it into a #15 hit in 1963, and then Nelson recorded it himself after he was signed to RCA the following year.

“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 the Live Aid event the following summer. These and other efforts helped stem the tide of misery in that part of the world.  That’s what Christmas should be all about.

He’s a dedicated follower of fashion

When they talk about Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, they should’ve added Fashion. The clothes you wore, the styles you presented in performances and other appearances, had a lot to do with establishing your image and reputation.

Early rockers like Elvis and Little Richard wore loose suits and shiny shoes. The Beatles wore matching suits and “Beatle boots.” By the mid-Sixties, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were wearing flamboyant sashes and boas. There was David Crosby and his fringe jacket, Creedence and their flannel shirts, Simon and Garfunkel and their turtlenecks.

Rock fashion exploded in the ’70s with ever more outlandish examples: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costumes, Elton John’s platform shoes and wild eyeglasses, Donna Summer’s radiant jumpsuits, Stevie Nicks’ Welsh witch capes and top hat. The ’80s brought Michael Jackson’s one sequined glove and fedora, Madonna’s excessive jewelry and pointy bras, Prince’s head-to-toe purple outfits. The MTV culture enabled an “anything goes” approach for many artists hoping to grab attention and get airtime.

Songwriters have sometimes written about the appeal of certain fashion choices and trends, so I have taken the liberty of compiling a list of 15 songs that mention clothing of various types in the title. It’s a fun playlist I encourage you to check out.

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“Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins, 1956

images-367In December 1955, as Perkins was performing at a dance, he noticed a couple dancing near the stage, and the guy said, “Uh-uh, don’t step on my suedes!”  He thought it was amusing that the guy was more worried about his shoes than his pretty dancing partner.  Two weeks later, he wrote a song about it, recorded it a couple days after that, and Sun Records released it in February 1956.  It ended up at #2, kept out of the top spot by Elvis Presley’s first #1 single, “Heartbreak Hotel.”  Presley also recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” and released it as the first track on his RCA debut album, which helped sales of Perkins’ version considerably.

unknown-665-2“You Can Leave Your Hat On,” Joe Cocker, 1986

Songwriter extraordinaire Randy Newman came up with this sexy song for his 1972 LP “Sail Away,” but he always felt he hadn’t done it justice.  It took nearly 15 years, but Joe Cocker finally recorded the definitive version with an R&B piano, full horn section and backing vocals.  It is considered a classic striptease song, thanks especially to the first verse:  “Baby, take off your coat…real slow, /Baby, take off your shoes…here, I’ll take your shoes, /Baby, take off your dress, yes, yes, yes, /You can leave your hat on…”  It never mentions a specific kind of hat, but I’ve always pictured a fedora.

Unknown-666“Wet T-Shirt,” The Bellamy Brothers, 1979

This brothers duo from Florida was a big deal in country music in the ’70s and ’80s, scoring 20 #1 singles on the country charts.  Rock fans may remember them from their #1 crossover hit, “Let Your Love Flow,” in 1976. On their 1979 LP, “The Two and Only,” David Bellamy came up with a crowd pleaser called “Wet T-Shirt” that whimsically summarized the “good clean fun” that went on (and no doubt still goes on) in many country bars around the country.  The record features a guy named Danny Jones, who plays some mighty sweet pedal steel guitar as the brothers harmonize. 

“Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, 1966

Unknown-667“Shorty” Long and Mickey Stevenson, a couple of singer/songwriters from one of Motown’s subsidiary labels, collaborated to write and record “Devil With the Blue Dress” in 1964, but their version failed to chart.  In 1966, Ryder and his band came up with a rendition that tied “Blue Dress” together with Little Richard’s potent “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and the record made its way to #4 on the pop charts.  Its position as a timeless classic was further cemented when Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band made it a staple of their concert set list, and their live recording appears on the 1979 “No Nukes” extravaganza.

“Sucker in a 3-Piece,” Van Halen, 1988

images-368Rock musicians have always showed disdain for “the suits” — the corporate guys from the record label who try to insert their unhip ideas into rock and roll production.  On “OU812,” Van Halen’s second album with Sammy Hagar on vocals instead of original singer David Lee Roth, critics hailed it as “a veritable feast of great white rock and roll wow.”  One example is “Sucker in a 3-Piece,” a putdown of a “suit” who offers his girl money but little else:  “I got everything you wanted, give you everything you need, /Still, you want that sugar daddy over me, /She want a sucker, a sucker in a 3 piece, /A sucker all dressed up in a 3 piece suit…”

“Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress),” The Hollies, 1972

Unknown-668Enormously successful in the UK but less so in the US, The Hollies relied on Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, took turns on lead vocals and songwriting.  In 1971, now without Nash, they recorded “Long Cool Woman” in the “swamp rock” style of Creedence, and Clarke sang it like CCR vocalist John Fogerty.  It wasn’t intended as a single, but their US label released it in the summer of ’72 and it reached #2 on the charts with great guitar and lusty lyrics:  “A pair of 45’s made me open my eyes, My temperature started to rise, /She was a long cool woman in a black dress, just 5’9″, beautiful, tall,/With just one look I was a bad mess, ’cause that long cool woman had it all…”

“Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton, 1971

Unknown-670The amazing Parton has written about a thousand songs, but the one she treasures the most is this one, the title track from her third solo album after her amicable split from Porter Wagoner in 1971.  The gentle tune tells of how Parton’s mother couldn’t afford to buy a new coat for her daughter, so she stitched together a coat made from rags.  As she sewed, she told her child the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors.  Dolly, “with patches on my britches and holes in both my shoes,” rushed to school, “just to find the others laughing and making fun of me” for wearing a coat made of rags.  It’s a marvelous, emotional song.

“These Boots Are Made for Walking,” Nancy Sinatra, 1966

71C5jKslRpL._SS500_Regarded then and now as a song of female empowerment, this infectious hit single was written by Lee Hazlewood, who intended to sing it himself until Sinatra talked him out of it.  “Coming from a guy, it was harsh and abusive, but was perfect for a girl to sing,” she noted, and she was right.  Not only did it reach #1 in the US and the UK, it helped spark sales of fashionable boots for women to go with their miniskirts in the mid-Sixties.  Since then, artists ranging from Billy Ray Cyrus to Megadeth have released their own radically different versions, and the song has been used in countless films and even a few ad campaigns.    

“Slit Skirts,” Pete Townshend, 1982

images-369As The Who were winding down their careers as recording artists, Townshend was doing more on his own.  He’d released his “Empty Glass” LP in 1980, then followed it up with “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes” in 1982, in between making the final two Who studio albums (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”).  The lyrics to tracks like “Slit Skirts” read like journal entries, full of wordy verses about his troubled personal life, broken relationships and his dread of aging:  “Slit skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts, /Wouldn’t be seen dead in no slit skirt, /I don’t ever wear no ripped shirts, /Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts…” 

“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” Paul Simon, 1986

Unknown-671For his celebrated “Graceland” LP, Simon featured the compelling rhythms he heard from indigenous musicians in South Africa, using them to craft accessible pop songs with whimsical lyrics.  On “Diamonds,” which he called his favorite on the album, Ladysmith Black Mambazo provided wonderful vocals in support of Simon’s simple tale of “a rich girl, she don’t try to hide it, she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.”  Said Simon, “That’s all there is to it, really.  I came right out and said so:  ‘And I could say ooh, ooh, ooh, as if everybody would know exactly what I’m talking about…’”  

“Man in the Long Black Coat,” Bob Dylan, 1989

images-370Within Dylan’s voluminous catalog, there are few songs that match the dark mood and imagery he summons in this stunning track from his well-received 26th LP, “Oh Mercy.”  In countless films and television shows, if there’s death and despair on your doorstep, it often appears as a man in a long black coat, waiting in the shadows to do you harm.  Dylan called the recording “menacing,” with lyrics that paint a picture of his lover falling under the spell of this mystery man:  “Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high, /There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry, /Not a word of goodbye, not even a note, /She gone with the man in the long black coat…”

“High Heel Sneakers,” Tommy Tucker, 1964

images-371Here’s another example of an early rock and roll song that mentions items of clothing to set the stage for an evening out on the town.  The narrator asks his girl to wear a red dress, but also bring some boxing gloves “in case some fool might want to fight.”  Most important are her high heel sneakers, evidently a good choice for dancing.  Robert Higginbotham, whose stage name was Tommy Tucker, wrote and recorded the tune in 1963, and it reached #11 in March 1964, just as The Beatles began their dominance of the U.S. charts.  Three decades later, Paul McCartney recorded the song on his 1991 “Unplugged” album.    

“Gold-Tipped Boots, Black Jacket and Tie,” Jethro Tull, 1991

Unknown-672Ian Anderson, the supreme showman who led Jethro Tull to the top of the charts in the ’70s, was still at it years later when the band released this self-deprecating tune from Tull’s “Catfish Rising” LP in 1991.  As the lyrics explain, Tull was very popular, then not so much in the ’80s, but they turned things around somewhat for a four-album stretch, and he’s wearing fashionable duds now:  “Well, I’ve been second to none, this horse was ready to run, /Now I’m has-been and used, disarmed and de-fused, /But I’m turning again, yes, and I’m turning again, /Wearing gold-tipped boots, black jacket and tie…”   

“Bell Bottom Blues,” Derek and The Dominos, 1970

Unknown-673In 1970, Eric Clapton had fallen in love with Pattie Harrison, ex-Beatle George’s wife, which caused Clapton considerable angst and heartache, because his feelings were not reciprocated by her (at least not right away).  He wrote several songs about it, including the iconic “Layla” and this powerful track from the “Layla” album.  Pattie had mentioned to Clapton how she loved bell-bottom jeans, so when he was on a US tour, he bought her several pair.  You can hear the anguish as he sings these lyrics:  “Bell bottom blues, you made me cry, /I don’t want to lose this feeling, /If I could choose a place to die, it would be in your arms…”   

“Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Brian Hyland, 1960

Unknown-674In 1946, a Paris designer came up with the skimpy two-piece women’s swimsuit that he named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific where nuclear bomb tests were held, hoping his creation would have the same explosive effect on culture.  That didn’t happen for another 15 years, when the wild and freewheeling Sixties arrived.  But in 1960, it was still very risqué on most beaches, which is why Hyland’s bossa nova novelty tune “Itsy Bitsy” made such a big impression, reaching #1 that summer in the US and a half-dozen other countries.  About a hundred artists around the world recorded cover versions in numerous languages.    

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Honorable mention:

Zoot Suit Riot,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, 1990;  “Those Shoes,” The Eagles, 1979;  “Saturday Clothes,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970;  “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” Bob Dylan, 1975;  “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Leonard Cohen, 1971;  “I Love My Shirt,” Donovan, 1969;  “Raspberry Beret,” Prince, 1983;  “Leather Jackets,” Elton John, 1986;  “Forever in Blue Jeans,” Neil Diamond, 1971.