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In the early 80’s, drought caused a famine that crippled the nation of Ethiopia.  It was a bad scene.  Half of the mortality rate is said to be attributable to “human rights violations.”  People around the world were moved, like Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof, who along with Midge Ure, wrote a fundraiser song.  Who could they get to sing it?  How about “everybody”?  The likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, Bono, and Sting joined forces as Band Aid to record the fast-selling single in UK history, asking us the question “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”  My name’s…

 

Some songs rub us the wrong way because they’re sung by shrieking children on now-oudated equipment was was not kind to female and higher-pitched voices, songs like I’m Getting Nuthin for Christmas and All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth, standards which I think think would have died away if we weren’t all made to sing them in elementary school.  Some are painfully goofy, like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, but you almost have to give them a pass since it seems they accomplished what they set out to do.  Some songs make us their enemy by borrowing into our brains and setting up shop for hours or days on end, the dreaded holiday earworm, like Jingle Bell Rock and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.  The mere mention of the title is enough to activate them like a sleeper cell of obnoxious holiday cheer.

 

Banned

You might be able to forbid people in your own home from playing songs that irritate you –and I stress “might”– but if you can find yourself with a bit of authority and a big enough humbug up your butt, you can try to make it so nobody has to hear the song either.  For instance, the 1952 classic “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” sung by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd from Mississippi.  Did you realize the song was about the little boy not realizing that his Dad was dressed as Santa?  It had to be pointed out to me, and embarrassingly recently.  People were *scandalized by the musical marriage of sex and Christmas, with one churchgoer stating “mockery of decent family life as well as Christ’s birthday.”  Many pearls were clutched.  They’d probably clutch them pearls twice as hard if I’d been there to tell them Jesus wasn’t born on 12/25, but that’s another show.  Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese denounced it and the young Boyd had to meet with church leaders to explain that Mommy and Santa were properly, sanctily married.  A West Virginia broadcasting company prohibited its radio stations from playing this “insult to Santa Claus.”  The same thing happened to one of my husband’s favorite songs, Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey,” but the people of WV went to bat for the little donkey who could take the Italian hills that were too much for the reindeer.  The public protested the ban so forcefully that it was repealed after less than two weeks; and this was in 1960, when 20% of homes in the US still didn’t have a telephone.

 

For every time the hubs plays Dominick the Donkey, I play the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York at least twice.  A lot of folks don’t like, and I respect our difference of opinions, and think it’s the farthest thing from a cheery Xmas song, and I agree with y’all there.  The 1987 duet with singer Kirsty MacColl, quickly became a UK holiday classic, famous then infamous in turn.  It tells the story of a toxic couple who seem to love each deep down, but should probably not be allowed within 200m of each other.  There’s talk of drug use and insults, including a certain homophobic slur to rhyme with the word “maggot.”  In December 2019, BBC radio DJ Alex Dyke said he was cutting the song from his program.  The BBC had previously censored the song in 2007 with an unconvincing word-swap, but this brought more backlash than the original version had.  The BBC reversed course for a few years, then put the censored version back up.  What do you think?  soc med

 

Some songs we consider absolute standards, impeccable and indispensable, made people in their day as prickly as holl and less than jolly.  The BBC worried that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” could damage British morale during World War II, so no air-play for you!  In an amazingly blunt statement that would definitely trend on Twitter today:  “We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country.”

 

One of the most frequently cover and burlesqued-to songs, Santa Baby, wouldn’t have become the classic it did if it had been sung by anyone other than the utterly incomparable Eartha Kitt.  Who doesn’t love a Christmas song dripping in sexuality, sung by a loudly self-confident mixed race woman?  In 1953, a lot of people.  

Radio stations refused to play it and political officials gnashed their teeth after Kitt performed Santa Baby at a dinner for the king and queen of Greece that November.  That was an unusual sentence and I’m stalling for time to let you process it.  However, Billboard magazine reported “Neither the King nor his Queen were one whit disturbed by the chantress’s performance, nor by the song.”  Kitt was quoted as saying it was ‘inconceivable that anyone would question the ingenious poetry of the song.’”  I don’t know about poetry, but I do know I don’t want to hear any version other than hers.

 

Chipmunks

My hatred for this next song cannot be overstated.  I almost hired an editor just for this section. It’s shrill, it’s pointless, and it’s been playing for 63 freaking years.  It’s the goddamn Chipmunks’ song aka Christmas Don’t Be Late.  I’m mad already.  Named after the president, chief engineer, and founder of Liberty Records, the furry little characters are the members of a “band”, called Alvin And The Chipmunks, while a “man” named David Seville functions as their human manager, catapulting them to super stardom.  The Chipmunks, three singing cartoon rodents in Victorian nightdresses apparently, or maybe ill-fitted sweater dresses, were the brainchild of a songwriter named Ross Bagdasarian, though he was better known by the pseudonym of David Seville, the name that would be immortalized as The Chipmunk’s fictitious manager.  Bagdasarian was the son of Armenian immigrants to California, who served in the Army Air Force in WWII, which is how he came to find himself stationed in Seville, Spain.  He did a bit of acting, landing minor roles in Rear Window and Stalag 17.  Songwriting played out considerably better.  In 1951, he used the melody of an Armenian folk song to write Rosemary Clooney’s hit, Come On-a My House. [sfx clip] 

 

Bagdasarian-cum-Seville began toying around with voice distortion effects, speeding up and slowing down his voice to achieve the cute high pitched sound of the little animal’s voices.  Consumer tape decks at the time had changeable speeds, but usually only in simple binary multiples, doubling or halving the speed, creating sounds an octave apart. Changing speeds of voices in these limited multiples creates extremely high or low pitches that sound too extreme for most purposes.  Disney used half-speed recording for his Chip ‘n Dale cartoon characters, making the extremely fast dialogue difficult to understand. As a result, dialog recorded at that speed had to consist of very short phrases.  Seville’s chief innovation was to use tape machines that could vary speeds in between these extremes, creating more understandable and thus emotionally accessible voices that worked well for both singing and spoken dialogue.

 

The Chipmunk Song made its debut on Christmas 1958 and immediately became a smash hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart.  It would be the “band’s” first and only #1 song, as well as Seville’s second and final, No. 1 single.  The first was the song Witch Doctor, wanna hear it here it goes [sfx clip]  I guess when you have a hammer… 

 

A write-up in Life magazine in 1959, noted that Bagdasarian/Seville was the first case in the “annals of popular music that one man has served as writer, composer, publisher, conductor and multiple vocalist of a hit record, thereby directing all possible revenues from the song back into his pocket.”  That’d be impressive enough even if you didn’t know that Seville couldn’t read or write music, nor play any instruments, but now you do know that, so you should be quite impressed.

 

The Chipmunk Song earned them three Grammy Awards at the very first Grammy’s the following May.  I’m going to say that again, because I don’t think you heard me.  The Chipmunks song won three Grammy’s.  In fairness, one is for best children’s song.  A few years later, The Chipmunks landed their own television show as cartoon characters, but it did not command the same success their music career.  After Bagdasarian passed away unexpectedly in 1972, his son and daughter-in-law took over the voices of The Chipmunks, but it would take nearly ten years for The Chipmunks made it back to TV, with their 1981 Christmas special, the ingeniously named “A Chipmunk Christmas.”  

 

Like a holiday Jason Vorhees, “The Chipmunk Song” re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007 with the CGI Alvin and Chipmunks movie.  As of December 25, 2011, Nielsen SoundScan estimated total sales of the digital track at 867,000 downloads, making it third on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas/holiday digital singles.  #3 was Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who I’ve had the mixed blessing to see live – the performance was great but the stage light swept over the audience constantly; it was like having a camera flash go off in your face several times a minute.  #1 is, to the surprise of no one, Mariah Carey’s 1994 “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and that’s all the more attention she’s getting from me.  If you ever want a real smdh moment, Google Mariah Carey’s requirements to appear on camera for interviews.  The word “diva” doesn’t begin to describe it. 

 

Wonderful

Now this one depends on the day.  Some days, it’s so bad it’s good and some days, and for some people all days, it’s the regular kind of bad.  [sfx clip] Say what you will about it, you can’t say Paul McCartney didn’t put in the work.  Wonderful Christmastime features McCartney on guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and vocals, even the creepy-sounding ‘choir of children.’  Makes one wonder why he even kept a band around.  You see the other members of Wings in the video, but the song was all McCartney.

 

Like a number of holiday classics that you heard about in the episode #92, The Jews Who Wrote Christmas, Wonderful Christmastime was written on a ‘boiling hot day in July’, and recorded during sessions for the McCartney II album.  It apparently took the former Beatle just ten minutes to pen the song which – some of us find that more readily-believable than others.  One of the most memorable elements of the song is the odd synthesiser sound that punctuates it throughout.  That is, if you care to know, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, which was also used on the hit songs Bette Davis Eyes and What a Fool Believes.  Though I suppose it’s still a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 even if you don’t care to know.

 

It peaked at number six on the UK Singles Chart and has since become of the most widely played Christmas songs on radio.

 

Bonus fact: The Beatles only really had one Christmas release – Christmas Time Is Here Again, which was distributed to their fan club in 1967.  I imagine that would fetch a pretty pence on the secondary market. [sfx typing] checking ebay…Oh, they’re actually pretty cheap.  

 

If you don’t like the song, you’re not alone.  McCartney himself isn’t all that keen on it, but he has begun playing it on UK tours in recent years.  You gotta give the people what they want and clearly enough people want Wonderful Christmastime.  According to the Forbes website, McCartney earns over $400,000 royalties from the song every year, though other sources claim that figure is probably the cumulative total.

 

Little Drummer Boy

As time passes, tastes change, culture shifts, new things are created and old things fall away.  We rarely ride in one-horse open sleighs –I can’t remember the last time I was even in a closed one-horse sleigh– and it seems really strange to us that people sat about telling ghost stories.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand The Little Drummer Boy.  How is a drum solo an appropriate gift for a sleeping infant and the woman who just squoze him out in a cow-shed?  The ox and lamb kept time?  That’s literally the drummer’s only job.  Well, that and making the rest of the band’s drinking problem look reasonable.  Hey, what’s the difference between a drummer and a drum machine?  You only have to punch the info into the drum machine once.  [sfx rimshot] What do you call a drummer who broke up with his girlfriend?  Homeless.  [sfx rimshot]  Don’t worry, drummers, this abuse isn’t exclusive.  What do you call the pretty girl on a bassist’s arm?  A tattoo.  That’s my time, good night!

 

How old do you think this slow, plodding song is?  I couldn’t have put a year to my guess, but for some reason it surprised me that it was written in 1941.  The composure was a teacher named Katherine Kennicott Davis.  Originally called “Carol of the Drum” –does what it says on the tin– was based on an unidentified Czech carol and intended for choirs.  One group of singers took a liking to it and propelled it to success in 1951 – The Trapp Family Singers.

 

As boring as it is, The Little Drummer Boy lets us draw a straight line between the Trapp Family and ‘the lad insane’ David Bowie.  In 1977, Bowie was ‘actively trying to normalize’ his career.  Debilitating drug addiction and accusations of Nazi-sympathizing threatened to sink his earning potential, so it was a no-brainer for him to appear on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.  Crosby was a crooner and golden age Hollywood icon and seemed like a means to the end because, as Bowie said later, “my mom likes him.”  The promise by producers to promote the video for Bowie’s single Heroes, fitting as poorly as it did in the middle of a holiday special, certainly didn’t hurt either.  The special starred Crosby, his actual family, and stars of the day like the model Twiggy, who my mother has still not forgiven for coming along and making curvy, busty figures unpopular.  

 

So Bing Crosby and David Bowie.  On paper, it made no sense.  But in reality…it made even less sense.  A negative amount of sense, if that’s mathematically possible.  I mean, just look at this juxtaposition.  You can see the two together on the Vodacast app… Bowie arrived in a mink coat, an earring, and bright red lipstick….to appear alongside Bing Crosby.  Bowie agreed to producers’ demands to tone his look down, but asked/begged the producers if there was anything else, anything at all, he could sing, letting them know in no uncertain terms that he hated the song.

 

“Ian Fraser, who co-wrote the ‘Peace on Earth’ portion, told The Washington Post in 2006. ‘We didn’t know quite what to do.’ Instead of panicking, he and two other men working on the special — Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman — hunkered down at a piano in the studio basement and spent 75 minutes working up the tune.  Ever professionals, Bowie and Crosby perfected the new song in less than an hour.”  It was that professionalism that actually brought the men together.  According to Crosby’s daughter, Mary, who was 18 at the time and a big Bowie fan,  “Eventually, Dad realized David was this amazing musician, and David realized Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made.”  Bonus fact: Mary went on to become an actress, starring in the hit TV show Dallas, but she isn’t the only thespian the Crosby legacy produced.  Bing’s granddaughter Denise will always have a place in my heart as Tasha Yar, first chief of security on the Enterprise D and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, maybe *you’re* not cool enough to sit with *us* at lunch.

 

The special was recorded in mid-September, but Crosby would not see it released.  He died of a massive heart attack after a day of golfing in mid-October, so the special was aired posthumously at the end of November in the U.S. and on Christmas Eve in England.  Bizarrely, The single proved to be one of Bowie’s fastest-selling singles, selling over 250,000 copies within its first month and being certified silver by the British Phonographic Industry one month after its release.  And what does it say about me that I had to do a second take, beause I read it as British Pornographic Industry.  They certify very different records.  One thing that helped propel that success was the fledgeling Music Television network, which in its original primitive state actually played music videos.  When it launched in 1981, there weren’t really enough videos to fill up an entire channel, so they played what they had, including the ‘Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ clip, a lot.  This prompted RCA to issue an official release in 1982 with the arbitrary single B-side of “Fantastic Voyage” from The Lodger album.  Bowie was annoyed with that move, contributing to his departure from the label soon after.  Still, it was a high-charting single for Bowie in the post-Scary Monsters era, at least until Let’s Dance came out three months later.

 

And that’s…So the question was “Do they know it’s Christmas?”.  Since Ethiopia is ⅔ Christian, yes.  I’d go out on a limb and say even the ⅓ that’s Muslim knows. But the important thing is that 100% of the royalties go to the cause, and that figure sits north of $250 million.  Among the luminary names involved was a pre-beard George Michaels.  This was in his Wham days when he also recorded the song you’re hearing now.  Recognize it?  To anyone who just lost Whamageddon… [sfx laughter]  Worth it.  Just passing it on after Red from Overly Sarcastic took me out during a video last year.  For everyone else, as the nearest Gen-X’er.  Remember…Thanks..  

 

And that’s…So the question was “Do they know it’s Christmas?”.  Since Ethiopia is ⅔ Christian, yes.  I’d go out on a limb and say even the ⅓ that’s Muslim knows. But the important thing is that 100% of the royalties go to the cause, and that figure sits north of $250 million.  Among the luminary names involved was a pre-beard George Michaels.  This was in his Wham days when he also recorded the song you’re hearing now.  Recognize it?  To anyone who just lost Whamageddon… [sfx laughter]  Worth it.  Just passing it on after Red from Overly Sarcastic took me out during a video last year.  For everyone else, as the nearest Gen-X’er.  Remember…Thanks.. 

Sources:

https://www.cbc.ca/music/read/david-bowie-bing-crosby-and-the-story-of-the-strangest-christmas-duet-ever-1.5008343

https://theconversation.com/christmas-earworms-the-science-behind-our-love-hate-relationship-with-festive-songs-89268

https://www.slantmagazine.com/music/worst-christmas-songs-of-all-time/3/

https://www.sundaypost.com/fp/story-behind-the-christmas-song-paul-mccartneys-wonderful-christmastime/

https://www.songfacts.com/facts/paul-mccartney/wonderful-christmastime

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/637970/banned-christmas-songs-past

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chipmunk_Song_(Christmas_Don%27t_Be_Late)

http://www.christmassongs.net/chipmunks-christmas-song

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Bagdasarian

https://nowweknowem.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/david-sevilles-the-chipmunk-song-won-three-grammy-awards-today-in-1959-the-top-winner-at-the-inaugural-grammy-awards-now-we-know-em/

https://holidappy.com/holidays/History-of-Christmas-Carols-Little-Drummer-Boy

https://www.newsweek.com/story-behind-bowie-bings-unlikely-holiday-duet-sends-welcome-message-divided-times-opinion-1478295