December 25 – Jimmy’s Laid-back Christmas

Merry Christmas Everyone! I was taking it a bit easy today at A Sound Day but still, wanted to send out greetings to all you readers, whom I really appreciate – there’d be little point in this if no one was reading and hopefully enjoying – and note that there are a few notable birthdays on the day many figure is the Biggie Birthday of all-time. Happy 50th to Dido, 67th to Annie Lennox and 75th to the ever-youthful Jimmy Buffett. Here he does his trademark laid-back, tropical treatment on a modern classic by an even bigger name in music – “Wonderful Christmastime”, the 1979 holiday song from Paul McCartney. This take comes from his 2009 Christmas album, Tis the Season. It certainly seemed appropriate here today where we set a new record for hottest Christmas on record, with the temperature well into the 80s!

Here’s hoping your Christmastime has been wonderful this year! Be healthy and well and enjoy the day and those around you.

December 24 – Payolas Are Right, Christmas Is Coming

Christmas is coming…quickly! So today we’ll give an ear to a song of that name, “Christmas is Coming” by the Payolas. The 1983 song by the Canadian alt rockers sounds a wee bit like the Ramones and expresses the universal truth – Christmas isn’t that special if you can’t be with the ones you love.

The Payolas were a band fronted by the duo of Bob Rock and Paul Hyde, having formed in Vancouver around 1978. Both played guitars well, Hyde also sang most of their stuff. Their alt rock sound caught on well in their homeland, with their first album, No Stranger to Danger, going platinum in 1982 and ending up among the year’s top 40 albums, largely on the basis of the Canadian smash single “Eyes of A Stranger.” Their next album, Hammer on a Drum didn’t quite match up to that, but still did earn them a platinum record. Interestingly, it was produced by Mick Ronson, who played the keyboards on it. From that we got their Christmas offering, which wasn’t huge, even at home, but it lives on due to the inclusion on the compilation The Edge of Christmas.

The Payolas were liked by their record label, but not their name. A&M thought the name was too controversial for the U.S. (where radio stations still remembered the “payola” scandal of a couple decades prior, in which many DJs got paid money  under the table to play specific records), so the pair changed to ‘Rock & Hyde’ later in the ’80s and scored one more hit – “Dirty Water”, which got to #6 on Billboard‘s American rock charts. But they didn’t really catch fire commercially, so they split up. Hyde put out some solo efforts, but Rock’s career really took off, with him becoming one of rock’s top, umm, “Rock” producers. He’s done albums for the likes of Motley Crue and the Cult, but most notably pushed Metallica from cult-ish status to seller of tens of millions of copies with their self-titled album that he co-produced with them.

We hope Christmas is coming for you and will be full of those you love, dear readers.

December 24 – Christmas Eve Convenience Store Classic

Christmas Eve is a comparatively slow day in music. No one releases a new record on the day and few concerts take place. So we’ll look again at one of the staples of the holiday music set that was inspired by a real December 24th. Today marks the 46th anniversary of the inspiration of one of the more unusual “Christmas” classics – “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. The single made it up to #9 in the U.S. after it’s late 1980 release and helped his double album, The Innocent Age become his sixth-straight to go platinum.

The song is unusual for Christmas fare for a couple of reasons. First, the title references “Auld Lang Syne”, typically a New Year’s Eve ritual, not Christmas. Secondly, the song is rather sad and downbeat! But entirely listenable nonetheless.

Fogelberg was a familiar voice on easy-listening radio through the late-’70s and had come close to having a Billboard chart topper the year before with “Longer”. He’d made quite a few friends in music along the way, and this album actually had help from Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joni Mitchell on backing vocals on some tracks, Russ Kunkel (Nicolette Larson’s husband) on drums and on this particular track, a noteworthy sax solo by Michael Brecker – brother of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Randy and himself a session player who’d been used by Miles Davis and Pat Metheny. The melody itself was loosely based upon Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The song tells of a singer running into an old girlfriend on Christmas Eve – the Christmas tie-in – in a store, and the pair drinking a six-pack in the car, reliving old times before going their own way again in the snow. Turns out the song was a real-life story. Fogelberg says it happened more or less exactly how he sings it, on Dec. 24, 1975 when he was back in his old hometown of Peoria. After his untimely death due to cancer in 2007, the gal came forward and told the story to the Peoria Journal Star. Jill Greulich, nee Jill Anderson, was Dan’s girlfriend in high school. He “wrote a lot of poetry and shared ideas” with her, but predictably, they went their separate ways when they left for different colleges. Fast forward a few years to ’75, and she and Dan met unexpectedly at a convenience store at 1302 East Frye Ave. in the city (see photo above). They did indeed recognize each other and bought a six-pack of beer which they drank over several hours in his car. She says most of the song is accurate although her eyes are actually green not blue and her husband was a teacher, not an architect. Asked about the line Dan sings about “she would have said she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie”, she had no comment, but it was noted she and the man were divorced by the time the song came out.

Downbeat indeed, but touching and melodic. It seemed to be one of both Dan and Jill’s lasting memories of Christmas, and the song has become what most of us remember most about Dan.

December 23 – Eagles Holiday Hit Still Flies High

To the American public, The Eagles could do no wrong in the late-’70s. So it’s no surprise they filled the gap between Hotel California and The Long Run with a Christmas single which went on to become the band’s tenth top 20 hit. “Please Come Home For Christmas” hit the top 40 on this day in 1978 and sprinted up to #18, the highest any Christmas song had made it on Billboard in 15 years, and one of the best-charting Christmas singles ever.

Please Come Home For Christmas” was sung quite nicely by Don Henley who emoted the appropriate level of sadness and longing, and was the first record for them in which Timothy B. Schmit replaced Randy Meisner on bass. Fans didn’t even seem to mind that The Eagles were perhaps flaunting their success with the record sleeve, which featured a photo of the band relaxing topless around a palm-edged pool with a cute bikini-clad girl and a white Christmas tree. And why would they? It was a beautiful Christmas song playing up the common, and worthy theme that Christmas is only special when you’re with the one you love. It worked well for Elvis on “Blue Christmas”, and later for The Pretenders with “2000 Miles” , but perhaps best of all with this one.

The song was written by one Amos Milbourn and recorded in 1960 by Charles Brown, on his Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs LP. It should be noted that Brown was a Texas blues-man, not the cartoon kid so that record shouldn’t be confused with the wonderful soundtrack to the Peanuts’ Christmas show.

The song has enduring appeal. Not only is The Eagles version popular to this day (currently it is listed as #76 on Spotify’s most-played list, but is 12th most of “modern Christmas songs”, aka those from the ’70s on) it’s been covered by other artists since. Pat Benetar dedicated her 1990 version of it to troops stationed overseas for the Gulf War and Bon Jovi did a version for A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992 which hit the UK top 10 two years later. Willie Nelson had a country hit with his own take on it in 2004, and believe it or not, the Queen of Christmas Songs, Mariah Carey has also cut a version that’s on the Spotify most-played list. 

Here at Soundday, we hope that if you’re special person is away, they will indeed come home for Christmas (or if not for Christmas, at least “for New Year’s Night!” )

December 22 – Welcome To Winter, Cocteau Style

Since it’s the first complete day of winter, why not look at a song for the day. It’s one you’ve probably already heard a lot of this month, but served up just a little differently… as was the norm for Scotland’s Cocteau Twins. They had a foray into the holiday music world in 1993 with “(Walking in a) Winter Wonderland.”

The Cocteau Twins, much like the Thompson Twins, weren’t siblings and numbered more than two. Formed in 1982, their main members were ethereal singer Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, who played guitar and drum machines and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde. They signed to the small but influential 4AD Records in 1982 (who’d been noted for bringing Bauhaus to light) and had a run of a little over a decade putting out nine studio albums plus numerous singles and EPs. Their hallmark was being hard to describe musically, being called at times “Goth rock,””shoegazer” but probably more accurately as “dreamy pop.” Their first single, 1982’s “Pearly Dew Drops” topped the UK indie chart and they went on to have decent success there, and later on the U.S. alternative charts, scoring a trio of top 10s on the alternative charts in the early-’90s including “Iceblink Luck.”

They decided (probably to bow to a request from their label, Fontana) to do a holiday song in ’93, but Guthrie apparently didn’t like “Christmas” songs, so they decided to do this one, with “Frosty the Snowman” on the b-side. One would have to rank it among the more unusual of the well-past 200 versions recorded of this song so far.

“(Walking in a) Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by the team of Felix Bernard and Richard Smith. The latter came up with the lyrics after walking around a park in his Pennsylvania hometown after a heavy snow, he wrote it as a winter love song, doing just the first verse with the snowman/Parson Brown. The second verse, with all the frolicking the “Eskimo way” some time later. The first record of it seemed to be by the Ritz Carlton Orchestra in ’34, Guy Lombardo made it a hit the same winter. Since then any number of artists have taken a shot at it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett (who had a top 40 hit with it in Australia and New Zealand), Perry Como and more recently the Eurythmics and a countryish take by Jewel. ASCAP consider it the most played title of the holidays, when all the different versions are added up.

The Cocteau Twins version peaked at just #58 on the British charts, possibly due to the limited quantity Fontana Records pressed; said to be just 5000. It does live on though through alternative rock radio stations and compilation discs like An Alternative Christmas. And whoever’s version you lend an ear to, it’s not a bad reminder at this time of year. Take a break from the hectic stores and streets now and again and take a walk…even if your winter wonderland is sunny and hot!

December 20 – The Instruments Went On Holidays For Housemartins

The guitars and synthesizers went on Christmas break. Britain had only its second acapella #1 hit ever, “Caravan of Love” by The Housemartins on this day in 1986. (The Flying Pickets had done so with “Only You,” a cover of a Yazoo song, and it was sitting at #1 on this day in ’83 as it turns out).

The melodic little ditty was a perfect Christmas sound but a fair departure from the band’s usual bright, guitarsy pop sound often compared to The Smiths. The band put out only two studio albums through their brief five years. The debut London 0 Hull 4 ,the more successful, hitting #3 in Britain and a top ten hit in Scandinavia. They notched six top 20 singles in their homeland but this was the only #1…and a chart-topper in Sweden as well. The song was actually written by former members of the Isley Brothers, who recorded it a year prior as Isley, Jasper and Isley. Chris Jasper who wrote the lyrics says “I had been looking at the world scene and I wasn’t pleased with what I was seeing. I just felt that we all needed a positive message.

Despite the lyrics to this one and the upbeat sound they were known for, the Housemartins’ lyrics were often cutting and indicated the band’s curious mix of Christianity and Marxism. The back of the first album contained the quote “Take Jesus, Take Marx,Take Hope.” Norman Cook was a bassist for the Housemartins; after they broke up he became “Fatboy Slim.”

December 15 – If Sgt. P And Magical Mystery Tour Weren’t Gifts Enough

John Lennon did it, so too did Paul McCartney. But surprisingly, The Beatles as a group never did. Put out an enduringly popular Christmas record, that is. But the closest they got to it was on this day in 1967, when they put out “Christmas Time Is Here Again.” 

Through the mail mind you. If you’ve not heard of it, don’t be surprised. It is featured in Mental Floss‘s “11 Christmas Songs That Never Really Took Off” for starters. And it wasn’t available in stores for decades after that. Plus, well… it really isn’t all that amazingly good. Even the Fab Four could from time to time make a misstep, after all. Although since it wasn’t designed to be a hit record, it perhaps served its purpose well. Let’s explain.

From 1963-1970, the Beatles sent out a special Christmas gift to members of their fan club. In Britain it was always a special edition record, usually a “flexi-disc” single, mostly a one-sided one, but in 1968 one with an a-side and b-side. American fans sometimes got the same disc but some other years had to settle for a nice postcard from the lads. Now these discs were rather light-hearted, jokey kinds of things… gag gifts if you will. No “this song is even better than ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and its only available to you” nor “here’s our new single, ‘Come Together’ six months before anyone else can get it” type things. Instead, the records generally consisted of holiday greetings from each of the members and perhaps a few randomly sung bits of carols or their hits. In 1965, they did a bit of an off-key, acapella version of “Yesterday” and went into the Four Tops “Same Old Song” before George tells them to stop because they might be violating copyrights. In 1969, Ringo and George do a little plug for the movie The Magic Christian, and little else. One year they had Tiny Tim play “Nowhere Man” on ukelele. Just as 1967 was arguably the peak of their creativity with regular records (see Sgt. Pepper…, Magical Mystery Tour plus singles like “Penny Lane”) it was arguably also the best Christmas record.

Unlike other such recordings they sent out, this year’s was produced by George Martin. A six-minute, 33rpm disc, it was a sort of concept based on the idea of them being a different band, auditioning for a music radio show, with John reading a Christmas poem at the end. Musically it featured the psuedo-band doing the song “Christmas Time is Here Again,” a rare one with all four credited as writers. While relatively melodic it was far from ambitious and quite repetitive… basically, the title was the lyrics, repeated over and over. They recorded it in one take, with John playing timpani instead of his usual guitar.

Since the number of copies sent out was limited, it wasn’t much heard. Eventually it made its way to record store shelves when it was put out, edited to just the song, as the b-side to the song “Free As a Bird,” the old, incomplete song finished up and put out to promote the Anthology compilation album. By which time, diehard fans wanting some Beatles at Christmas would probably opt for McC’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” or Lennon’s “Happy Xmas/War Is Over,” both already established holiday standards by then.

Even though they never resulted in any songs of lasting importance, the Christmas discs were important. One can only imagine the happiness the fans felt when they went to the mailbox right before Christmas and found a special record by the Beatles that so few people had. And it started a tradition for other bands to follow. Pearl Jam and R.E.M. are just two of the bands that followed suit and sent out special Christmas recordings to their fan clubs in later years.

December 12 – The Boss…Of The North Pole?

A song you’re going to hear today (count on it) if you’re listening to radio or spending any time shopping was recorded 46 years ago in 1975. And you’d better not pout – because “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” So promises the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, in what has become one of rock’s most-played Christmas songs.

Of course, it isn’t a Bruce original. The ditty about the big guy from the North Pole who watches kids while they’re sleeping was written way back in 1934, by J.F. Cootes and Haven Gillespie and recorded later that year by Harry Reser and Tim Stocks. It was an instant hit, with over half a million copies of the sheet music being ordered that year alone! Bing Crosby further popularized it in the ’40s with his rendition, which added that Santa was “the big fat man with the long white beard,” in case the listener hadn’t seen Coca-Cola’s ads which essentially created the Santa we now know, with the red suit with white trim and so forth.

The Carpenters had released their own version of it in 1974, and had a top 30 hit in the UK with that. A year later, in fall/winter 1975, Bruce Springsteen was rising to international fame and was touring to support his Born to Run album. The tour had run most of the year, and was going strong through December, running to Toronto on Dec. 21 and then resuming to end the year with four shows just outside of Philadelphia. During the tour, he did a considerable amount of his own material, of course, but also at times added in covers. Over the course of the tour, some fans heard him play Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” the Beach Boys “Be True to Your School” or ’60s classics like “Twist and Shout.” So with Dec. 25th closing in, it was no surprise he’d decide to have a little fun and do a seasonal tune or two. Thus we get his Christmas classic, complete with instructions for Santa to bring Clarence Clemons a new saxophone, recorded in a show at C.W.Post College on Long Island.

Oddly enough, the recording seemed to have appeared first on a Sesame Street compilation record in 1982; fans of The Boss could have their own copy by itself three years later when it was put out as the B-side to the single “My Hometown” off Born in the USA. The single hit #6 in the U.S. and earned him one of many gold records both there and in Canada, and as we know, has become a mainstay or pop and rock radio every December since.

Santa Claus mind you, is far older than the 1934 song, the 1970 animated TV show (narrated by Fred Astaire) about it or even Springsteen himself. The story of Santa seems to have evolved from St. Nicholas, a 4th Century Greek saint who gave gifts to the poor and was in turn anglicized as Father Christmas in the middle ages, when giving gifts to children became commonplace. The 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known to us as “Twas The Night Before Christmas”) made him a regular part of the culture and set the gifting date as Christmas Eve… up until then, December 6 was a popular date to do so.

December 10 – TSO A Real One Of A Kind. (Except There’s Two Of Them)

It happens every December. People are listening to snoozy, familiar Christmas songs on the radio; old crooners of yore singing about Frosty the Snowman or drunkenly imploring Mother Nature to let it snow when they’re jarred awake by something resembling a full-blown airstrike assaulting the senses with a carols reimagined as 100 decibel rock music. Or is it classical? It’s hard to put Trans-Siberian Orchestra into any musical box… other than the one marked “different”!

Or “popular”. This month Billboard put out lists of the most popular Christmas songs(singles) and albums of all-time. Trans-Siberian Orchestra – TSO for short – just missed the top 10 on both; registering the 11th most popular Christmas album (Christmas Eve and Other Stories) and 11th most popular Christmas song (“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12-24”). They assuredly are the “one of these things is not like the other” when put next to the Mariah Careys, Burl Ives and Michael Bubles also populating the top of those charts. But what exactly is TSO?

That’s a good question without a simple answer. Allmusic describes it as “session orchestras assembled for a number of symphonic-rock crossover albums” and shows. Others have defined it as a “symphonic metal” group. Or groups, because the membership is quite changeable and around this time of year there are often two different TSOs touring, playing the same music to the same stage shows. Such is the case this year apparently.

It was created by Paul O’Neill (not the baseball star.) O’Neill was a talented guitarist and in fact, multi-instrumentalist. He says he grew up on hard rock but also “Broadway musicals, Motown and singer-songwriters like Jim Croce and Harry Chapin.” He got work in Broadway orchestras for runs of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. In the ’80s he got into music production and promoting, producing a couple of Aerosmith records plus ones from lesser-known hard rock acts like Omen, and Savatage. He was an unofficial member of that speed metal-crossed-with-prog rock act through much of the ’90s, writing a good portion of their material and producing albums for them. Around 1996, he signed to Atlantic Records who told him to form his own band. To do that, he called on a trio of the guys from Savatage – Jon Oliva, Al Pitrelli and Robert Kinkel. But he had no intention of making them just another four-piece hard rock outfit.

O’Neill wanted to merge classical music and rock (something that the Moody Blues and E.L.O. had cited as a basis for some of their music as well) and make it BIG. Big sounds, big shows. He had an idea of doing a couple of rock operas as well as a trio of Christmas-themed records. He picked the name after visiting Russia, and specifically Siberia in the eastern end of the country. He found it “incredibly beautiful but incredibly harsh as well”… rather like the music he was setting out to make. That vast area was linked by the Trans-Siberian Railway, from which he drew the name’s inspiration.

Their first album was the first of their Christmas ones, and still their most popular. Christmas Eve and other Stories came out in fall 1996, sounding very little like anything else at the time. Although it did have some songs with vocals, its best-known works were all instrumentals derived from traditional Christmas carols (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) played like an orchestra doing The Who. Or maybe The Who doing Beethoven – who was the theme for another one of their albums, Beethoven’s Last Night. O’Neill described him as “the world’s first heavy metal rock star.” The first album’s best-known track though is instantly recognizable by ear, if not by name – “Christmas Eve/Sarjevo 12-24”.

That one with all its time changes and huge dynamic range blends in bits of “Carol of the Bells”, other Christmas standards and a quiet repose of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on cello. O’Neill got the idea from a story of a world-class cellist who returned to his homeland of Sarajevo to find the Bosnian War wreaking havoc on the once beautiful city. The rocker said the cellist was heart-broken to see the destruction and know it was caused by his fellow countrymen, so he went out for several nights before Christmas, playing his cello in the town square, often as bombs fell around the city. “The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, the single cello, that single individual…the spark of hope.” The single instantly found a home on holiday playlists and sold to gold levels and helped the album itself go triple-platinum in the States.

But more than their records, TSO are renowned for their highly impressive, and theatrical shows. Although they occasionally play in the first ten months of the year (for example, in 2015 they headlined a heavy metal festival in Germany in front of almost 90 000 fans, taking along two stages, a TSO signature) they are widely known for their Christmas music tours, an annual event (except for the pandemic-stopped 2020) that in the words of O’Neill was designed to be “as over the top as we can make it. We have two stages, with pyro, lights, lasers, on both sides of the arena… the best sound we can find. We want people to walk out of our shows speechless.” They also set out to help the communities they play in, donating some of the ticket proceeds for every show to local charities, usually ones helping children if they can. So far it’s donated over $16M in total.

Although sadly O’Neill passed away in 2017, his orchestra(s) continue on. This year’s tour began Nov. 17 in both Green Bay.WI and Council Bluffs, IA and fans today in Greenville, SC and San Antonio will have a chance to see if it leaves them speechless. It continues on til Dec. 23rd in Chicago, then resumes on Dec. 26, playing various Midwestern cities until year’s end.

December 1 – John & His Honey’s Honey-coated Holiday Hummable

Well it’s December and we all know what that means – full steam ahead to Christmas! Mind you, around here one local pop radio station has been playing nothing but Christmas music for over three weeks. Argue amongst yourselves whether that is excessive or overly excessive! Anyway, with all the interest in the Beatles of late thanks to the Get Back documentary, what better time than to look at the first solo “Beatles” holiday record – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon with Yoko Ono. The song, by now a seasonal staple, came out 50 years back on this day in 1971.

By that time of course, John and Yoko were married and had already been outspoken peace advocates, staging “bed-ins for peace”, meeting with politicians to state their case and putting up billboards in a dozen world cities saying pretty much what turned out to be the song title. The signs read “”War is over, if you want it! Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” So a song seemed the obvious next step, especially after John had had good success with “Imagine.” He said the theme was the same on both : “as long as people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them, and that they have no control, then they have no control.” Or, as Songfacts sum it up “if enough people want something to happen, it will.” In the case of Lennon and Ono, the thing they wanted most back then was to see the Vietnam War end. But yelling from a soapbox wasn’t very effective, as many had found out by then. Lennon noted “now I understand what you have to do : put your political message across with a little honey.”

In this case, the “little honey” was mixing in the political message with a Christmas sentiment, and having 30 children – the Harlem Community Choir add their voices. Lennon recorded it in New York City in October of that year, with Phil Spector producing and a number of studio musicians playing behind him. They included guitarist Hugh McCracken, who’d already worked with Paul McCartney since the Beatles had broken up, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Jim Keltner on drums and “sleigh bells.” Lennon’s friend Klaus Voorman was supposed to play bass, but got stuck in Germany after missing a flight, so an unknown guitarist (Spector brought in four) picked up the four-string for it.

Happy Xmas (War is Over)” initially came out in North America as a green vinyl 7” single, with a Yoko song, “Listen! The Snow is Falling” on the b-side and an interesting “label” with a series of photos morphing their two faces together. Alas, since “business” is half of “music business”, Brits had to wait a year to buy it. Legal disputes with Northern Songs over there kept it from being released until late-’72 in the UK. The song wasn’t a huge success right away, getting to #42 in the U.S. However, it’s popularity has increased through the years, particularly after Lennon was killed in 1980. Over the years it has gotten as high as #2 in the UK and while not making the U.S. top 40, it has gotten to #3 on Billboard‘s Holiday Music chart and was voted among the top 10 Christmas songs ever by British viewers of ITV. The single is platinum in the UK, and gold in many places including Japan…making it marginally more of a hit than the other notable ex-Beatle Christmas song, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

And if you aren’t quite sure just what is said at the song’s end, don’t feel bad. Most written lyrics, including ones on some Lennon compilation albums have John and Yoko whispering “Happy Christmas Yoko” and “Happy Christmas John.” But apparently the couple said otherwise, saying it was “Happy Christmas Kyoko,” and “Happy Christmas Julian,” greetings to their two kids from outside their marriage.