“poor old rudolph” – the bellrays (2001)

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who abhor holiday music and those who adore holiday music.  As for me, I’m jamming to Christmas music daily after Thanksgiving until the fat man takes flight in his sleigh.  Christmas is just a musical time.  Everyone is so cheerful and the cold means I’m staying inside more, so I need some hot tunes to get me in to the holiday spirit.

A lot of people don’t like Christmas music and it isn’t hard to understand why.  The soft rock stations that change their format for the season and the malls and supermarkets that pipe in holiday tunes all play the same old standards we hear year in and year out know by heart.  They stick to the classics and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Those songs have resonated for generations and that’s why they’re classics.  And though they only come out for a few weeks towards the end of the year, those universally beloved tunes do become stale.  Whether it is the traditional Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives, or even the more modern stylings of Paul McCartney, Wham, and Bruce Springsteen, their songs are always in heavy rotation with no room for newcomers.

It takes time for a Christmas classis to earn that distinction.  When Springsteen covered “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with the E Street Band for the first time, who knew it would be the definitive version?  And who would have ever guessed that McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” would sit in the pantheon of great Christmas songs?  You can’t really know.

To those who are tired of Christmas songs, I say to them they just are not adventurous enough to seek fresh and new Christmas songs. Their criticism is that what we hear on the radio is stale and there are modern songs that don’t get the same airplay.  Fair point.  But that stuff takes time.  Give it a few decades and the more stale and dust-covered classics will be retired and make room for the new class.

As for what we consider classics now, they’re the just the ones who got noticed.  For every Christmas classic we can name now, there are 100 that are lost in the cracks of music history.  That is where I like to look.  I get so excited at this time of year to dust off the more obscure Christmas songs or even discover ones that are new to me.  There are fun, fresh songs are there dying to be heard and help you get into the Christmas spirit.  Feeling like a Grinch because of the tacky songs you hear in line waiting for the mall Santa?  Well, do something about it.  Find the Christmas music that excites you.

I have a few trusted places I go to find obscure Christmas songs. There are whole blogs and radio programs that surface this time of year just to deliver you some new music to excite you and show off to guests at your Christmas bash.  Before I found those great sources, I had to take what I could get.  While in high school, Bob Dylan had a satellite radio show that ran for three seasons on XM.  Theme Time Radio Hour was a program where Dylan would play a curated playlist based on a theme for that episode.  Episodes includes songs about shoes, Tennessee, coffee, and weather.  It was during his Christmas/New Year’s show that I first heard “Poor Old Rudolph” by the Bellrays.

I had never heard of the Bellrays before.  And frankly, I haven’t heard anything of theirs since (but I should and will).  I just know this one Christmas song.  I eventually dug around to learn more, but there isn’t a lot.  The Bellrays, fronted by Lisa Kekaula, is a garage bands based of Riverside, California that incorporate punk and soul influences in their music.  And they’ve been doing it for over 25 years!  Impressive for a garage band with minimal exposure.

“Poor Old Rudolph” was one of several contributions by the Bellrays to a Christmas compilation album issued by Vital Gesture Records in 2001 called A Vital Gesture Xmas Vol. 1 (there has not been a second volume in following 15 years).   With other contributions such as “Fuck Christmas,” “Back Door Santa,” and “Rocket Ship Santa,” It’s a shame there was never a follow-up.

“Poor Old Rudolph” has become one of my favorite Christmas songs.  It’s a raw-recorded jazzy number about the classic red-nosed reindeer living his days as a playboy since becoming famous.  It’s a warning from Kekaula about how his wandering will only bring him blue Christmases when his playboy days are over and he has no one left.  Rudolph could’ve had a simple life with a family, but he had to go for all the girls and Kekaula cautions the listener that there ain’t no use in runnin’ if you’ve got nowhere to go.

It is a fun take on a classic Christmas character that is fun, exciting, and not obnoxious like most parodies about the character.  Not only that, but it gives people who are tired of the original Christmas song a chance to appreciate the character again through this new song.  There is a lot of great Christmas music out there.  A lot of good music.  So when people tell me hate Christmas music, I don’t really listen because I know they haven’t explored the genre much.  Plus, don’t be a Grinch.  Let people enjoy the holidays with the jingle jangle Christmas tunes they do like.

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“do they know it’s hallowe’en?” – the north american hallowe’en prevention initiative (2005)

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As someone who loves novelty music, of course this also must include holiday music.  In our vernacular, what people generally consider as holiday music is pretty much the sounds of joy and cheer that only Christmas music can bring.  This makes sense.  Christmas is a major holiday and lots of money is made to capitalize on the season and it even branches to the music we hear.  That’s all well and good, but holiday music is a flexible term for me.  I apply the label of “holiday music” to whatever holiday is around the corner.  And with Halloween creeping towards us, you better believe I’ve been blasting the holiday sounds of Don Hinson, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, and all the other novelty recording artists singing about movie monsters, flying purple people eaters, and all kinds of kooky Halloween nonsense.

While I love Christmas music, Halloween music is a special treat.  All the songs I can find on YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora are ridiculously fun and don’t contain some larger message about a higher deity, goodwill towards all people, or peace on earth. At Halloween, I’m in it for the monsters, candy, and mayhem.  Give me the songs about Dracula drag racing, spooky movies, and artificially-flavored blood substitutes.  For all these reasons, Halloween music is just stupid fun.

Christmas music does really set the bar for seasonal tunes, though.  Think about it.  More people know “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” than they do “The Monster Mash.”  However, Christmas music isn’t always held with high regard and respect.  Christmas is big.  The biggest holiday of the year.  Granted, there are a lot of cultures, religions, and philosophies that don’t celebrate Christmas.  However, Christmas has its own fair share of cynics.  There are lots of people who celebrate Christmas who otherwise don’t really believe it and only do so to be a part of family tradition or fit in.  You don’t get to be the biggest holiday of the year all over the world and not inspire some snide and cynical comments.

There are dozens of Christmas-themed tunes that take the holiday and shed a light on the less merry aspects such as income inequality and social hypocrisy.  Those songs have their place, but it’s Halloween god damn it!  Christmas is still two months away so why waste time talking about it?  Because Christmas music has such an influence that it even inspires novelty songs for other holidays.

In 2005, a consortium of musicians and comedians gathered together to form the North American Hallowe’en Prevention Initiative.  Consisting of members including Beck, David Cross, Peaches, Win Butler, Feist, Karen O, and the legendary Elvira, the members the NAHPI recorded the single “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en,” a fun little indie rock song about the horrors of Halloween.  Drawing inspiration from Band Aid’s 1986 Christmas classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the NAHPI’s ode to Halloween horror was a charity single benefitting UNICEF.  While the source material is one the biggest examples of celebrity benefit grandiosity (though one of my favorite Christmas songs), “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en” took that misguided self-righteousness and not only made a fun song about Halloween, but also to make an honest declaration against charity benefit singles that have colonial and western-centric perspectives.  While I may disagree with some aspects of that premise, I applaud the NAHPI’s brazen attempt to tackle a huge Christmas classic and do so in the name of charity.

“Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en” is a fun song about Halloween terror.  It is goofy and that goes a long way when satirizing the overall concept of charity singles while being one as well.  Musically, it is a barely interesting standard indie rock piece.  But, that isn’t what makes this song work.  It is a package deal; all the pieces coming together to make a whole concept work.  The talent on the track offer personality and humor.  The video is a ridiculous cartoon.  There is nothing to take seriously in this song.  And that should be the case with all Halloween music.  It’s a stupid holiday with stupid music.  Leave the preachiness and morality in Christmas music.  This is Halloween.  Give me something questionable to drink, a pillowcase worth of candy, and idiotic costumes.  Do I know it’s Halloween?  You better believe it.

“i believe in father Christmas” – greg lake (1977)

21. Works Volume 2

Christmas is here. All around the world, friends and family are gathering to celebrate love and being together. It really is a magical time of year. There is something intangible in the air and even the biggest Scrooge can feel the spirit of Christmas. That unified bond amongst all people and the shared love is the true meaning of Christmas.

Although, it is easy to be cynical about Christmas and the feeling is not entirely unjustifiable. With each new year, it does appear that the true meaning of Christmas is diminishing. In its place, there is rampant commercialization, debt, and a manufactured holiday that is merely a husk of what Christmas really is. I try not to subscribe to this point of view, but it does get increasingly difficult.

One of my favorite aspects of Christmas, other than being with family, is the music. I absolutely love Christmas music. Everything from the traditional carols to the contemporary pop songs, there is very little I do not like. Recently, I was invited to a friend’s Christmas party where we were set to record a Christmas album. Everyone brought an instrument and a song that they wanted to perform. The idea was that people could perform individually, or have the song turn into one festive jam session.

The song I came prepared with was “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I’ve known this song for years and I truly appreciate the composition and meaning behind the song. I thought it would’ve been an appropriate choice for a crowd of alternative, indie, and punk loving millennials. However, when it was my turn to propose a song, no one at the party knew the song. Not a single person.

I was a bit surprised by that, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. Emerson, Lake & Palmer doesn’t have a strong presence in the U.S., the Americans refer to the jolly gift-giving figure as Santa Claus as opposed to Father Christmas, and the song doesn’t fit in with the Christmas narrative that is so popular in the U.S.

“I Believe in Father Christmas” is the ultimate song about the cynicism one could feel about the holiday season. It is a song about being disillusioned by the idolization of Father Christmas and the lies surrounding the myth of the holidays. In it, Lake has fully realized everything he was told about Christmas wasn’t true and that these lies were manufactured by the department stores and advertising agencies. Lake was told there would be snow on Christmas and peace on earth, but all he see when he looks out his window is rain. This Christmas, there would be no silent night. He was sold a fairy story that he believed to be true. Where was the Christmas he had read about in story books and had seen in the department store windows?

Despite his cynicism and being disillusioned by Christmas, Lake still wants the listener to get the Christmas they deserve. He tosses away the distracting elements of Christmas and wishes you a hopeful Christmas and a brave new year. Those sentiments are what Christmas is really about, but they are ideas that seem to have been lost in time.

“I Believe in Father Christmas” was never meant to be a Christmas classic. Lake had no intention to write a Christmas song. He wanted to write a song about the loss of innocence and the childlike belief we have during the holiday season. However, it has now entered the Christmas music lexicon. I don’t find this ironic, but rather quite appropriate. As much as I love Christmas, the commercialization and phony nostalgia has gotten out of hand.

I think the reason why Lake’s song has continued to be popular is that the song is more relevant now than ever before. We need more songs like “I Believe in Father Christmas.” Songs that remind us the true meaning of Christmas and that we must stay grounded. Christmas is not about how much you can spend on someone, it is about how much time and love you can spend with the people close to you.

I hope “I Believe in Father Christmas” becomes more popular in America. It seems Americans are the ones most vocal about the deadening spirit of Christmas while also simultaneously contributing to the death of it. Beyond the meaning the song, it is an incredibly beautiful song with an elegant guitar. It continues to be one of my favorites along with the grand cover by U2. Most of my friends love putting together Christmas mixes for the holidays. I hope they will consider this one because it is the one song that perfectly encapsulates what Christmas is and what it will continue to be.