Sunday, January 11, 2015

From Cleaning Harbors to Feeding Roughnecks: “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

 The Canadian tar sands have been very good to Clean Harbors, a perennial Wall Street favorite that evolved from a disaster cleanup business (for which the company’s web pages still carry a plug at the bottom: “For 24-Hour Emergency Response, call 800.OIL.TANK”) into a diversified industrial service company through 35-plus acquisitions costing about $2 billion over 25 years.
 The tar sands business came with the 2009 acquisition of Eveready, and so swiftly did CLH expand deeper into so-called unconventional energy (everything from feeding and housing roughnecks in lodges to hauling out drilling waste) that oil and gas exploration and production services went from 0% of the company’s total business in 2008 to 27% in 2012, before the $1.25 billion acquisition of Safety-Kleen got them into the lube oil re-refining business, diluting the oil and gas piece to something closer to 15%.
 Now, I have a friend who refers to any company repeatedly flogged by Wall Street analysts while never quite seeming to meet their lofty expectations as a “Next Year in Jerusalem” story, after the phrase concluding the Passover Seder.  No matter what happens in the business, and how it varies from their expectations, the analysts, metaphorically speaking, say “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
 Granted, CLH deserved some free passes after beating analyst expectations for eight straight quarters from mid-2010 to mid-2012, but the streak ran out some time around the aforementioned Safety-Kleen acquisition—which seemed like a good idea at the time to the cheerleaders (fee-generating transactions generally do that!)—and the company failed to match expectations in 6 of the next 10 quarters, at least according to Bloomberg.
 But don’t take our word for it: the transformation of CLH’s from “beat and raise” to “hit or miss” is told in the headlines from various so-called analyst reports along the way:

5/11:    “Premier Mid-Cap Growth Story”
2/12:    “Momentum Strong Enough to Raise 2012 Outlook, but Still Conservative”
5/12:    “Slight 1Q12 Upside; Reiterates Guidance; Growth Story Intact”
8/12:    “2Q Transition/Seasonality or Structural?  We Believe LT Story Unchanged”
10/12:  “Upgrading to Strong Buy on Highly Accretive Safety-Kleen Acquisition”
2/13:    “Q412 Results A Bit Light; No Change to 2013 Guidance; Reiterate Buy”
5/13:    “Q1 Revenue Light with Targets Back End Loaded; Segment Results Mixed”
7/13:    “Inflection Unlikely for 2Q but More Likely in 2H”
8/13:    “2Q More Painful Than Expected, but Upside Narrative into 2014 Unchanged”
8/13:    “Q2 Weak/Guidance Cut; Technical Services Needs to Lead Charge”
9/13:    “Investor Day Enables Sentiment Shift; 2014 Appears Conservative”
9/13:    “A Very Bullish Investor Day; Reiterate Buy”
11/13:  “2013 Outlook Cut; Choppy Segment Results Don’t Help”
11/13:  “2014 Can’t Come Fast Enough”
2/14:    “Another weak quarter and outlook”
2/14:    “Oil & Gas/Re-refinery Drive Forecast Lower; Shares Finally Washed Out?”
2/14:   “CLH has not delivered a beat & raise quarter since 4Q11.”
3/14:    “From Land of the Lost toward the Path to Enlightenment”
5/14:    “Finally, a Good Quarter; Cost Reductions in Focus and Upside May be Returning”
6/14:    “Takeaways from Investor Meetings…businesses appear to be stabilizing/improving…”
8/14:    “Solid 2Q Driven by the Key Tech Service Franchise; Estimates Raised”
11/14:  “Estimates Cut on Energy Trends; Hopefully a Refocus on ‘Core’ Franchises
 Along the way, one large “activist” investor accumulated a 9% stake in the company, but months later announced it was shutting down its fund…and CLH began a strategic review, presumably with one eye on the “activist” investor…but then oil prices collapsed (in the truest sense of the word), putting a sudden damper on high-cost oil development in places like the Canadian tar sands and the U.S. shale areas where CLH had been planting its flag up until recently...so much so that shortly before year-end a “comp” to the company’s lodging services business—called Civeo, which had been spun out of Oil States International just last summer in order to “enhance shareholder value” at the behest of the same kind of “activist” investor that had accumulated 9% of CLH—shocked its own cheerleaders, saying thusly:
            “The acceleration in November of the decline in global crude oil prices and forecasts for a potentially protracted period of lower prices have resulted in major oil companies reducing their 2015 capital budgets…reducing the near-term allocation of capital to development or expansion projects in the oil sands, which is a major driver of demand for the company’s services in Canada.  It has also increased the difficulty of reliably estimating 2015 occupancy levels for the company’s facilities…”
 It wasn’t long ago—that 2013 “very bullish analyst day,” in fact—that the company’s cheerleaders were congratulating CLH for the lodging business being one of its highest return businesses.
 Now, Warren Buffett likes to say that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, “it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”   But in the case of Clean Harbors, the analysts like to say, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Jeff Matthews

Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2014)    Available now at Amazon.com

© 2015 NotMakingThisUp, LLC



The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
  Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The NotMakingThisUp Book Review: The Best Least Looked-Forward-To Book I Have Ever Received, John Cleese's "So, Anyway..."


 I received for Christmas the least looked-forward-to book I have ever received: John Cleese’s “So, Anyway…”.  
 Cleese, of course, is a founder of Monty Python, the wildly successful British comedy group that took male teenagers by storm in the early 1970s and was considered inheritor to The Beatles’ mantle as conquerors of America by none other than George Harrison (according to his friend Eric Idle, another Python).  Cleese is also co-creator, co-writer, producer and star of what has been called the best TV sitcom ever created, Fawlty Towers. 
 Thus, for a certain generation—i.e. male baby-boomers who came of age when Monty Python was laying waste to all previous notions of what was funny—a book, any book, by John Cleese would be a no-brainer for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or even New Year’s Eve.
 But despite having grown up on the original Python series aired on PBS, and despite having seen the group live at City Center in 1976, and despite having seriously considered traveling to London to see the group’s final reunion at the O2 Center last summer, I had no interest in this book, the reason being an especially scathing review in the Wall Street Journal by one Wesley Stace, a British author who also performs as a singer-songwriter by the name of John Wesley Harding, the title of an old Bob Dylan album (go figure).
 In his review, John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace wrote pretty much what you might expect of a book by Cleese, whose intensely intellectual approach to comedy, and the well-known years he spent in psycho-therapy, tends to make him appear to be the John Lennon of the Pythons—Lennon being the ex-Beatle who had the nerve to dismiss his achievements as a Fab Four by saying, “We were just a band that made it very very big, that’s all.”
 And that’s the tone of the Wesley Stace/Wesley Harding review in a nutshell:
 The title “So, Anyway . . .” implies a cavalcade of convivial anecdotes and lengthy digressions. This is a grave misrepresentation, partly because of an occasional reluctance on Mr. Cleese’s part (“actually telling you about [the Footlights does] not fill me with excitement”) and partly because promising stories are derailed by the decision to narrate them in the voice of Mr. Cleese playing a crashing bore at a party in a Python sketch…
It’s a difficult book to enjoy and “The Last Laugh” would perhaps have been better a title, so often does Mr. Cleese give himself the punch-line in age-old disputes. He rehearses every perceived slight. The “undeserved insult” of being overlooked for a position of authority at school left a life long scar: “I believe that this moment changed my perspective on the world.” His ill feeling towards his dead mother is likewise undimmed by time...
 But receive the book for Christmas I did, and am glad I opened it and began reading it.
 Because if, as I suspect he did not, Hardy Wesley/Stace Wesley had in fact read the entire book, as I have, he would have discovered that [We interrupt here to explain that book reviewers frequently do not read the actual book before reviewing it; many reviewers, in fact, rely on summaries provided by the book publisher for scheduling and cost reasons, as we learned during the publication of “Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha,” when a reviewer took issue with a blog post the author had written, mistaking it for the book—Ed.] what John Cleese has done is write a tight, funny, comprehensive-but-compact biography that zeros in on the whys and wherefores of how he, and, indirectly, the Pythons, got to be what they became.
 He starts at the beginning, when and where he was born, and while the stuff about his father and mother (and grandparents, too) may seem irrelevant and mean-spirited to Stacely/Hardley, it’s all part of explaining how he developed the sense of humor he did.
 The fact that Cleese had a tough time with his mother explains a lot, while the fact that he really liked and admired his father seems jarring at first, considering his recurring role as the demented authoritarian figure in Python sketches, but that role is explained by his memories of being bullied at school, followed by this insight:
“Peter Cook [Another revolutionary British comedian—Ed.] always said that he quite deliberately staved off bullying by being funny.   I think in my case it was less a conscious activity—more Oh, that felt nice.’ And, as I realized, I became funnier, of course, because the spark is always there.  So the bullying faded away, and I started, for the first time, to make friends.”
 Hardly ‘rehearsing every perceived slight,’ as the Stacy/Hardy review put it.  
 In fact, the entire book is supremely well written in the Cleese manner—there is no “as told to” laziness here—and while the anecdotes are not, as the reviewer would seem to prefer, “convivial,” they all serve to tell a point: the point being, “here’s where it came from.”
 Along the way, we learn where the germ of certain bits were developed (e.g. Sybil Fawtly’s description of her paranoid mother—“And she’s always on about men following her; I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her, vomit on her, Basil says”—came directly from Cleese’s phobic mother); why he and Graham Chapman worked so well as a writing team (“When you begin to write comedy, the biggest worry is simply: is this funny?  Writing with a partner ensures you get priceless feedback, and Graham and I worked together well: we found each other funny and when we did laugh, we really laughed); and how the path to Python let through unknown (in America, at least) radio and TV shows like “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again,”  “At Last The 1948 Show” and  “The Frost Report.”
 To be sure, Cleese aims zingers at old archaic conventions and the occasional petty personality who offended his sense of justice, but those asides are overwhelmed by the surprisingly affectionate portraits of writers, producers and directors who helped him along the way (including David Frost, despite the fact that Eric Idle gave a merciless portrayal of Frost as “Timmy Williams” in the Python series).  All in all, it is hardly the cranky kind of stuff Wembley/Stadium would have readers believe, and even the occasional gibes all serve the main point of explaining where all this great stuff came from.
 As, for example, when Cleese reprints parts of several old sketches from various pre-Python shows, including a couple that later made it into Python sketches, either on film or on records, as well as some laugh-out-loud bits that did not.
 And for anyone interested in creativity—especially of the breakthough, Python kind—this is invaluable, and pleasurable reading.
 Wembley Stadium notwithstanding.

Jeff Matthews

Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2014)    Available now at Amazon.com


© 2014 NotMakingThisUp, LLC



The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick, and Taylor Swift

2014 Editor’s Note:
 Well, Michael Bublé’s computer is still releasing holiday songs, which is the worst we can say about this year’s holiday music survey.  The best we can say—and it is truly good news—is that The Boss’s hard-driving, live version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” done entirely without computer-aided Bublé-style vocals, seems to be gaining much deserved traction.  
 Meanwhile, one of our previous also-ran mentions in the What-Did-We-Do-To-Deserve-This? category, one Taylor Swift, deserves a big boo-yah for telling the Spotify algorithms to stuff it, pulling her entire catalogue from the automated listening serviceincluding, by definition, the song mentioned here last year, which should be no tragedy to Spotify customers anyhow.
 As for our usual review of the latest rock memoirs, which tend to flood the bookshelves right about now—only to turn up in the mark-down bins come spring, which is when your editor actually buys them—the best read during brief trips to our local, increasingly down-on-its-heals Barnes & Noble, has to be Mick Fleetwood’s “Play On.”
 Fleetwood is one of the most underrated drummers in rock music, being the kind who drives the beat without histrionics and stays well behind the kit while the front-people do their thing (it was Fleetwood and fellow Mac bassist John McVie who rescued Werewolves of London for Warren Zevon and producer Jackson Browne, after the house band could not make the song work) so his remembrances of the formation of Fleetwood Mac are insightful and compelling even for those—including your editor—who were never big Fleetwood Mac fans.
 Currently priced at $30.79 at Barnes & Noble for the hard copy version, or $21.00 on Amazon, I’ll wait until spring and pick it up for $5.99—sorry Mick, but that’s the business we’re in.
 Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to all!
—JM, December 19, 2014

2013 Editor’s Note:  The most unnerving aspect to this year’s holiday music survey is the unavoidable, near-totalitarian presence of an insipid cover version of George Michael’s already-plenty-insipid-for-our-taste-thank-you-very-much “Last Christmas,” which, as we point out below has one of the most inane choruses ever written (no mean feat there), which wouldn’t be so bad except it is repeated over and over and over until you want to hand yourself over to Vladimir Putin’s security forces and let them do their worst.  
 The perpetrator of this latest holiday music outrage is, it turns out, Taylor Swift, about whom your editor knows nothing except she adds exceedingly little to a song that needed plenty of help to begin with.
 But, as always with these annual surveys, your editor digresses.
 On the happier side of the music world, this last year has seen a number of excellent new rock memoirs, of which Kinks front-man and songwriting genius Ray Davies’ is the most interesting.
 The centerpiece of the story line in Ray’s “Americana” is his getting shot by a mugger in New Orleans some years back, but interspersing that tale he manages to tell much of the story of his career.  
 If you want to read how Ray came up with classics like “Better Things” (why couldn’t that be a Christmas song?   It’s as much about the holidays as “Same Old Lang Syne,” about which your editor has plenty to say later on), this is your book.
 Neil Young’s “Waging Heavy Peace,” which came out last year, is even better than “Americana,” however, and more fun to keep picking up when the mood strikes: Neil’s recollections are loopy, digressive, and admittedly unsure in some cases (at one point he compares his memory of a drug bust with Stephen Stills’ recollection of the same drug bust—and given that Neil only stopped “smoking weed” the year before writing the book, as he admits, it’s no wonder their recollections are very different), but like all things Neil Young, he says what he means and means what he says.  
 And if you’re wondering where songs come from—great songs, eternal songs—Neil’s book is the place to begin.  
 Would that a holiday song may one day spring from the fecund mind of Neil Young himself, for while he professes more of a Native American religious spirit than a Judeo-Christian one, either way, it would be so long Taylor Swift.
 Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to all!
—JM, December 7, 2013

2012 Editor’s Note: We interrupt this holiday music review to bring you a potential stocking-stuffer that ought to bring tidings of good cheer...  

 2011 Editor’s Note: Back by popular demand, we’ll again try to keep this year’s update brief…but past performance would tell you not to hold your breath.  Here goes.
 Our annual holiday music survey—highly biased, rankly unscientific and in no way comprehensive—covers new ground this year, to wit: the SiriusXM all-holiday-music channel.
 Actually, there are two such channels courtesy of the satellite radio monopolists at SiriusXM.  There’s one for “traditional” music of the Bing Crosby kind, in which human beings sing traditional Christmas songs while other human beings play musical instruments to accompany those songs; and there’s another channel for everything else, including the Auto-Tune-dependent sensation Michael Bublé, who has only gotten more popular—unfortunately—this year, along with a new presence not entirely unexpected but nonetheless frightening in its implications: Justin Bieber.
 Enough said about that, for our main beef with SiriusXM is not the presence of yet another teen idol on the holiday music scene.
 Our beef lies with the soul-less quality of the entire SiriusXM gestalt, which requires its three thousand channels to carry songs strictly on the basis of whether they share either a common date of issue (as on the “40’s at 4,” “50’s at 5,” “60’s at 6” et al channels), or a common target audience demographic.
 Among the later, for example is the “Classic Vinyl” channel, which is essentially a “Classic Rock” channel (“Classic Rock” being a Baby Boomer euphemism for what our parents knew as “Oldies” radio) that plays the WNEW-FM playlist from around 1968 to 1978. And nothing else.
 And there is the “Classic Rewind” channel, which is another Oldies channel that plays the WPLR-FM playlist from about 1979 to the late 1980s. And nothing else.
 Then there’s “The Bridge,” a Baby Boomer euphemism for “Easy Listening.”  It plays Oldies of the James Taylor/Carole King/Jackson Browne vein.
 And nothing else.
 Certainly there are one or two such channels that manage to jump around between genres (The Spectrum is worthwhile on that score).  But, in the main, each SiriusXM channel is tightly focused on a specific, narrowly defined demographic...sometimes scarily so.
  Here we’re thinking of the “Metal” channel, which plays loosely defined “songs” that consist of young men screaming their apocalyptic guts out above what appears to be a single, head-banging, machine-gun-style guitar-and-drumming musical track that never, ever changes.
  You marvel at where these guys came from, what portion of the domestic methamphetamine supply they consume, and how many serial killers might be listening to “Metal” channel at the very same moment as you.  
 If Beavis and Butt-Head could afford a car, this would be their channel.
 Unfortunately, no matter which channel you pick and who the purported “DJ” may be (there are a lot of old-time, smokey-voiced, recognizable DJs on the various Sirius Oldies channels) you’ll hear a sequence of songs that all sound like a computerized random-number-generator picked ‘em.
 Listening to the “60's at 6” channel, for example, you may hear a great Beatles single like “Hello, Goodbye” from 1967, followed by the wretchedly excessive “MacAurther Park” from 1968, followed by an unrecognizable chart-topper from 1962 that nobody plays anymore because it wasn’t any good even in 1962.
 The listener ends up flipping around from channel to channel and wondering why the bandwidth-happy SiriusXM monopolists don't just give each artist its own channel, as they in fact do for Springsteen, Elvis and Sinatra.  Those are channels you might expect to find, but there is, oddly enough, no Bob Marley or Rolling Stones channel—and, head-scratcher of all head-scratchers, no Beatles channel.
 In fact, the absence of The Beatles from the SiriusXM digital bandwidth relative to, say, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, is one the great mysteries of our age.
 After all, the Beatles individually and collectively contributed 27of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Songs of All-Time or 5.4% of those songs, yet they get nowhere near 5.4% of the SiriusXM airplay, whether on “Classic Vinyl,” “Classic Rewind,” “The Bridge,” “60's on 6, ” “70's on 7,” “The Spectrum” or any of the other three thousand channels here.
 You quite literally have as much chance of hearing “Snoopy and the Red Barron” on SiriusXM as “Revolution.”
 So why then is there a Jimmy Buffett channel (called “Margaritaville,” of course)?
 Having gotten all that off our chest, we can move on, since SiriusXM’s holiday channels add no new material to our annual survey because most of the songs are widely played everywhere else.
 Furthermore, we’ve been asked to assemble a “Top Ten Worst” list of holiday songs for this review.  The problem is there are just so many, as we’ll be getting to shortly.  Rod Stewart’s somnambulant “My Favorite Things,” which sounds like he's reading the lyrics from a child’s book of verses, is right up there, while Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” stands out in any crowd of non-favorites.
 Easier, then, to simply identify the All-Time, Number One, No-Question-About-It NotMakingThisUp Worst Holiday Song of All Time, and let everyone else argue about the remaining 9.
 It is “The 12 Pains of Christmas.”
 This so-called comedy song takeoff on “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a pleasant English Christmas carol discovered by a U.S. schoolteacher from Milwaukee and used by her in a Christmas pageant in 1910, is an easily forgettable humorous novelty song that is neither novel or humorous, in any way.
 It isn’t even fun writing about, so we won’t bother: we’ll simply move on to something pleasant, which happens to be an entirely different sort of humorous novelty song that is both novel and humorous, and, therefore, well worth a mention here.
 We’re talking about the wonderfully bizarre, catchy, Klezmer-style cover of  “Must Be Santa,” from Bob Dylan’s 2009 Christmas album, “Christmas in the Heart.”  (Yes, Bob Dylan made a Christmas album.)
 The music is fast and cheerful, and Dylan’s low, growly voice is almost indistinguishable from Tom Waits.  (The truly bizarre music video is not to be missed, watch it here.)  After you get over the initial shock of hearing Bob Dylan singing what most Baby Boomer parents will recall being a Raffi song, it becomes impossible to not enjoy.
 Another glaring absence from our previous years’ commentary is neither novel or humorous, and inconceivably does not appear to qualify for the SiriusXM random-song-generator holiday song playlist despite being many-times more worthwhile than most of the SiriusXM catalogue, whether holiday-themed or not.
 The song is “2000 Miles” by the Pretenders, and it belongs on anybody’s Holiday Top Ten.
 If hearing Chrissie Hynde on that original song (she’s also recorded some good Christmas covers, including one with the Blind Boys of Alabama) doesn’t get you in a mellow holiday mood, nothing will.
 
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Good New Year to all.
—JM, December 4, 2011 

 2010 Editor’s Note: Back for the third consecutive year by popular demand, we’ll try to keep this year’s update brief—but don’t count on it.
 For starters, we’re going to plug a book: Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life,” which happens to be one of the best books ever written—and we don’t just mean “Best in the Category of ‘Memoirs by Nearly-Dead Rock Stars’.”
 It is a great book, period.
 The story of how ‘Keef’ (as he signs sweet letters to his Mum while rampaging across America), Brian and Mick developed the Rolling Stones’ sound, for example, is worth the price alone (in short, they worked really hard; but the full story is much better than that).
 Yet there’s more—much more. Guitarists can soak up how Keith created his own guitar sound; drummers will learn—if they didn’t already know—Charlie Watts’ high-hat trick (and from whom he stole it); while songwriters had better prepare themselves to be depressed at how Mick wrote songs (‘As fast as his hand could write the words, he wrote the lyrics,’ according to one session man who watched him write “Brown Sugar”).
 And that’s just the rock-and-roll stuff.
 The sex-and-drugs stuff is also there, and the author lays it all out in his unfettered, matter-of-fact, straightforward style, often with the first-person help of friends and others-who-where-there (and presumably of sounder mind and body than you-know-who: the drug and alcohol intake is truly staggering) who write of their own experiences with the band.
 Okay, you may say, but how exactly is Keith Richards’ autobiography relevant to our annual review of holiday songs?
 Well, while furtively reading snatches of ‘Life’ during a stop at the local Borders (we expect to see the book under the Christmas tree sometime around the 25th of this month, hint-hint), we happened to hear another musical legend perform one of our favorite offbeat Christmas songs in the background, and it occurred to your Editor that of all the bands out there that could have done that same kind of interesting, worthwhile Christmas song, The Rolling Stones probably top the list.
 What with Keef’s bluesy undertones and Mick’s commercial-but-sinister instincts on top, it would have certainly made this review, for better or worse. (Along these lines, The Kinks’ cynical, working-class “Father Christmas” is one of the all-time greats, and doesn’t get nearly enough air-time these days.)
 Now, for the record, the offbeat Christmas song that triggered this excursion was “’Zat You Santa Claus?”—the Louis Armstrong and The Commanders version from the 1950’s. (The song was later covered, like everything else but the Raffi catalogue, by Harry Connick, Jr.)
 Starting out with jingle bells, blowing winds and a slide-whistle, you might initially dismiss “’Zat You?” as a sadly commercial attempt by Armstrong to get in on the Christmas song thing, except that his familiar, Mack-the-Knife-style vocal comes over a terrific backbeat that turns it into what we’d nominate for Funkiest Christmas Song Ever Recorded.
 It is a delight to hear, and the fact that it is suddenly getting more air-time this season is a step-up in quality for the entire category—or would be, if not for the apparent installation of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” in the pantheon of Christmas Classics.
 A 1980’s electro-synth Brit-Pop timepiece, “Last Christmas” combines a somewhat catchy tune with lyrics that make a trapped listener attempt to open the car door even at high speeds to get away:
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart

But the very next day you gave it away

This year

To save me from tears,

I gave it to someone special
 Considering the fact that the songwriter (Wham!’s gay front-man, George Michael) decided to repeat that chorus six times, the full banality of the lyric eventually gives way to incredulity: “Let me get this straight,” you begin to ask yourself. “This year he’s giving his heart to ‘someone special’... so who’d he give it to last year? The mailman?”


 “Last Christmas” does have the distinction of being the biggest selling single in UK history that never made it to Number 1. Furthermore, all royalties from the single were donated to Ethiopian famine relief, the same cause which led to creation of what turned out to be the actual Number 1 UK single that year, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”


 “Do They Know…” is a song that has received some push from readers to receive an honorable mention in these pages, and while it is certainly an interesting timepiece, with much earnest participation from the likes of Sting, Bono and even Sir Paul, it is not nearly as worthwhile as an album that seems just as prevalent these days: A Charlie Brown Christmas by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.


 How a jazz pianist was hired to create the music for a TV special with cartoon characters is this: the producer heard Guaraldi’s classic instrumental “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while taking a cab across the Golden Gate Bridge.
 One thing led to another, and thanks to that odd bit of chance, future generations will have the immense pleasure of hearing a timeless, unique work of art every year around this time. (A second odd tidbit for our West Coast readers: Guaraldi died while staying at the Red Cottage Inn, in Menlo Park—of a heart attack, however, and not the usual, more gruesome fate of musicians who die in hotels.)
 One second-to-last note before we move on: we have been heavily lobbied by certain, er, close relations to include Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” as a worthwhile holiday song—despite our previously expressed misgivings about her contribution to the genre (see below).


 And we have to admit, her “All I Want…” leaves behind the incessant vocal pyrotechnics that made some of her other Christmas covers (“Oh Holy Night,” for example) unbearable, at least to our ears.
 In this case she seems to trust the song to take care of itself, which it does in fine, driving, upbeat style. Now, as Your Editor previously hinted, all he wants for Christmas is Keef’s book. And it had better be there, if, as previously noted, you get our drift.
 Finally, and speaking of autobiographies, we happened to read Andy Williams’ own book this past year and must report that our reference to Williams below was overly harsh. For one thing, his book is as honest as Keef's; for another, as a singer not necessarily born with the vocal equipment of, say, Mariah Carey, the man worked at his craft and succeeded mightily where many others failed.
 Which, we might add, is, after all, the hope of this season.

And so, we wish for a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Good New Year to all.
JM, December 13, 2010




2009 Editor’s Note: 
Back by popular demand, what follows is our year-end sampling of the Christmas songs playing incessantly on a radio station near you, and it demands from your editor only a few updates this holiday season.
 For starters, we have not heard the dreaded duet of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” thus far in 2009, and for this we are most grateful.
 Indeed, if it turns out that their recording has been confiscated by Government Authorities for use as an alternative to lethal injections, we’ll consider ourselves a positive force for society.
 On the other hand, we are sorry to report an offset to that cheery development, in the form of a surge in playing time for Barry Manilow’s chirpy imitation of the classic Bing Crosby/Andrew Sisters version of “Jingle Bells.”
 For the record, “Jingle Bells” was written in 1857...for Thanksgiving, not for Christmas. And it’s hard to imagine making a better version than that recorded by Bing and the three Andrew Sisters 86 years later.
 But Manilow, it seems, didn’t bother to try.

 Instead, Barry and his back-up group, called Expos, simply copied Bing’s recording, right down to that stutter in the Andrews Sisters’ unique, roller-coaster vocals on the choruses, as well as Bing’s breezy, improvised, “oh we’re gonna have a lotta fun” throwaway line on the last chorus.
 Sharp-eared readers might say, “Well, so what else would you expect from a guy who sang ‘I Write the Songs’…which was in fact written by somebody else?”


 We can’t argue with that, but we will point out another annoyance this year: the enlarged presence of Rod Stewart in the Christmas play-lists.
 Don’t get us wrong: we like Rod Stewart—at least, the Rod Stewart who gave the world what Your Editor still considers the best coming-of-age song ever written and recorded: “Every Picture Tells a Story.”
 It’s the Rod Stewart who gave us “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” we’re less crazy about.  So too the Rod who chose to cover “My Favorite Things” (for the definitive version of that classic, see: ‘Bennett, Tony’) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Dolly Parton (for an only slightly more offensive version of this one, see: ‘Simpson, Jessica’ and ‘Lachey, Nick’).
 As an antidote to Rod, we suggest several doses of Jack Johnson’s sly, understated “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which seems to be gaining recognition, and anything by James Taylor—especially his darkly melancholic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
 Of all the singers who recorded versions of this last—and Sinatra’s might be the best—it is Taylor, a former junkie, who probably expresses more of the intended spirit of this disarmingly titled song.
 After all, the original lyric ended not with the upbeat “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” but with this:


 “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.”


 No, we are not making that up.  The good news is it should keep Barry Manilow from be covering it any time soon.


JM—December 19, 2009




Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick
 Like everyone else out there, we’ve been hearing Christmas songs since the day our local radio station switched to holiday music sometime around, oh, July 4th, it feels like.
 And while it may just be a symptom of our own aging, the 24/7 holiday music programming appears to have stretched the song quality pool from what once seemed Olympic-deep to, nowadays, more of a wading pool-depth.
 What we recall in our youth to be a handful of mostly good, listenable songs—Nat King Cole’s incomparable cover of “The Christmas Song” (written by an insufferable bore: more on that later); Bing’s mellow, smoky, “White Christmas”; and even Brenda Lee’s country-tinged “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (recorded when she was 13: try to get your mind around that)—played over and over a few days a year…has evolved into a thousand mediocre-at-best covers played non-stop for months on end.
 Does anybody else out there wonder why Elvis bothered mumbling his way through “Here Comes Santa Claus”? 

It actually sounds like Elvis doing a parody of Elvis—as if he can’t wait to get the thing over with. Fortunately The King does get it over with, in just 1 minute, 54 seconds.
 Along with that and all the other covers, there are, occasionally, the odd original Christmas songs—the oddest of all surely being Dan Fogelburg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.”
 You’ve heard it: the singer meets his old lover in a grocery store, she drops her purse, they laugh, they cry, they get drunk and realize their lives have been a waste…and, oh, the snow turns to rain.
 So how, exactly, did that become a Christmas song?
 Then there’s ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” which combines an annoyingly catchy beat with dreadful lyrics, something McCartney often did when John Lennon wasn't around.

 (After all, it was Lennon who replaced McCartney’s banal, teeny-boppish opening line for “I Saw Her Standing There”—“She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen” is what McCartney originally wrote—with the more suggestive “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean,” thereby turning a mediocre time-piece into a classic.)
 But Lennon was not around to save “Wonderful Christmastime” even though McCartney actually recorded this relatively new Christmas standard nearly thirty years ago, before Lennon was shot.
 It rightfully lay dormant until the advent of All-Christmas-All-The-Time programming a couple of years ago. Fortunately, by way of offset, Lennon’s own downbeat but enormously catchy “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is played about as frequently as “Wonderful Christmastime.”
 Who but John Lennon would start a Christmas song: “And so this is Christmas/And what have you done...”?  Of course, who but Paul McCartney would start a Christmas song, “The moon is right/The spirit’s up?”
 If anything explains the Beatles’ breakup better than these two songs, we haven’t heard it.
 Now, we don’t normally pay much attention to Christmas songs. If it isn’t one of the aforementioned, or an old standard sung by Nat, Bing, Frank, Tony, Ella and a few others, we’d be clueless.
 But thanks to a remarkable new technology, we here at NotMakingThisUp suddenly found ourselves able to distinguish, for example, which blandly indistinguishable female voice sings which blandly indistinguishable version of “O Holy Night”—Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey—without any effort at all.
 The technology is Shazam—an iPhone application that might possibly have received the greatest amount of buzz for the least amount of apparent usefulness since cameras on cell phones first came out.
 For readers who haven’t seen the ads or heard about Shazam’s wonders from a breathless sub-25 year old, Shazam software lets you point your iPhone towards any source of recorded music, like a car radio, the speaker in a Starbucks, or even the jukebox in a bar—and learn what song is playing.
 Shazam does this by recording a selection of the music and analyzing the data. It then displays the name of the song, the artist, the album, as well as lyrics, a band biography and other doodads right there on the iPhone.
 Now, you may well ask, what possible use could there be for identifying a song playing in a bar?
 And unless you’re a music critic or a song-obsessed sub-25 year old, we’re still not sure.
 But we can say that Shazam is pretty cool. In the course of testing it on a batch of Christmas songs—playing on a standard, nothing-special, low-fi kitchen radio—heard from across the room, without making the least effort to get the iPhone close to the source of the music, Shazam figured out every song but one (a nondescript version of a nondescript song that it never could get) without a hitch.
 And, as a result, we can now report the following:
 1) It is astounding how many Christmas songs are out there nowadays, most of them not worth identifying, Shazam or no Shazam;


 2) All Christmas covers recorded in the last 10 years sound pretty much alike, as if they all use the same backing track, and thus require something like Shazam to distinguish one from the other;


 3) Nobody has yet done a cover version of Dan Fogelburg's “Same Old Lang Syne,” which may be the truest sign of Hope in the holiday season;
 4) None of this matters because Mariah Carey screwed up the entire holiday song thing, anyway.



 Now, why, you may ask, would we pick on Mariah Carey, as opposed to, say, someone who can’t actually sing?
 Well, her “O Holy Night” happened to be the first song in our mini-marathon, and it really does seem to have turned Christmas song interpretation into a kind of vocal competitive gymnastics aimed strictly at showing off how much of the singer's five-octave vocal range can be used, not merely within this one particular song, but within each measure of the song.
 In fact Mariah's voice jumps around so much it sounds like somebody in the studio is tickling her while she’s singing.
 More sedate than Mariah, and possibly less harmful to the general category, The Carpenters’ version of “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” comes on next, and it makes you think you’re listening to an Amtrak commercial rather than a Christmas song (“From Atlantic to Pacific/Gee, the traffic is terrific!”), so innocuous and manufactured it sounds.
 Johnny Mathis is similarly harmless, although his oddly eunuch-like voice can give you the creeps, if you really think about it. Mercifully, his version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is short enough (2:16) that you don’t think about it for long.
 Now, without Shazam we never would have known the precise time duration of that song.
 On the other hand, we would we never have been able to identify the perpetrators of what may be the single greatest travesty of the holiday season—Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, singing “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”


 “Singing” is actually too strong a word for what they do. Simpson’s voice barely rises above a whisper, and you cringe when she reaches for a note, although she does manage to hit the last, sustained “outside,” no doubt thanks to the magic of electronics.
 Thus the major downside of Shazam might be that it can promote distinctly anti-social behavior: having correctly identified who was responsible for this blight on holiday radio music, the listener might decide that if they ever ran across the pair in his or her car while singing along with the radio too loudly to notice, they wouldn’t stop to identify the bodies.
 Fortunately, the bad taste left by that so-called duet is washed away when Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” comes on next.
 Thanks to Shazam, we learn that this is actually the fourth version Nat recorded. The man worked at his craft, and it shows. This is the best version of the song on record, by anyone, and probably one of the two or three best Christmas songs out there, period.
 The second those strings sweetly announce the tune, you relax, and by the time Cole’s smoky, gorgeous voice begins to sing, you’re in a distinctly Christmas mood like no other recording ever creates.
 (Unfortunately, the song’s actual writer, Mel Tormé, had the personality of a man perpetually seething for not getting proper recognition for having written one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. We did not learn this from Shazam: we once saw Tormé perform at a small lounge, during which he managed to mention that he, not Nat King Cole, wrote “The Christmas Song”—as if this common misperception was still on everybody’s mind 35 years later. When that news flash did not seem to make the appropriate impression on the audience, he later broke off singing to chew out a less-than-attentive audience member, completely destroying the mood for the rest of the set.)
 Like that long-ago performance by the "Velvet Fog," the pleasant sensation left behind by Cole’s “Christmas Song” is quickly soured, this time by a male singer performing “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” in the manner of Harry Connick, Jr. doing a second-rate version of Sinatra.
 Who is this guy, we wonder?
 Shazam tells us it’s Michael Bublé. We are pondering how such a vocal lightweight became such a sensation in recent years—the answer must surely be electronics, because his voice, very distinctly at times, sounds like it has been synthesized—when John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” comes on.
 It’s a great song, demonstrating as it does Lennon’s advice to David Bowie on how to write a song: “Say what you mean, make it rhyme and give it a backbeat.” The fact that Lennon had the best voice in rock and roll also helps.
 Unfortunately, his wife had the worst voice in rock and roll, and a brief downer it is when Yoko comes in on the chorus like a banshee. (Fortunately she is quickly drowned out by the children’s chorus from the Harlem Community Choir.)
 The other songs in our Shazam song-identification session are, we fear, too many to relate.
Sinatra, of course; Kelly Clarkson, an American Idol winner who essentially does a pale Mariah Carey impersonation; Blandy—er, Andy Williams; and one of the best: Tony Bennett.
 Then there’s Willie Nelson, who has a terrific, understated way of doing any song he wants—but sounds completely out of place singing “Frosty the Snowman.” One wonders exactly what kind of white powder Willie was thinking about while he was recording this, if you get our drift.
 Oh, and there’s Coldplay’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which pairs the sweetest piano with the worst voice in any single Christmas song we heard; Amy Grant, a kind of female Andy Williams; the Ronettes, who are genuinely terrific—a great beat, no nonsense, and Ronnie singing her heart out with that New York accent; and then Mariah again, this time doing “Silent Night” with that same roller-coaster vocal gargling.
 Gene Autry’s all-too-popular version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” would be bearable except that he pronounces it “Santee Closs,” which is unfortunate in a song in which that word appears like 274 times. ‘N Sync is likewise unbearable doing “O Holy Night” a cappella, with harmonies the Brits would call cringe-making, and Mariah-type warbling to boot.
 Hall & Oates’s “Jingle Bell Rock” is too easy to confuse with the other versions of “Jingle Bell Rock”—thank you, Shazam, for clearing that up—while Martina McBride manages to sound eerily like Barbra Streisand imitating Linda Ronstadt singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
 Winding things down is Dan Fogelburg’s aforementioned “Same Old Lang Syne,” and here we need to vent a little: something about the way he sings “liquor store”—he pronounces it “leeker store”—never fails to provoke powerful radio-smashing adrenalin surges.
 Fortunately, we suppress those urges today, because the Shazam experiment concludes with one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded. Better than Bing, and maybe even better than Nat, depending on your mood.
 It’s Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. Doing “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”...
live.
 Yes, this song was recorded live, and despite its age (more than 25 years old), the thing still jumps out of the radio and grabs you.
 Now, as Shazam informs us, this particular recording was actually the B-side of a single release called “My Hometown.” (Back in the day, kids, “singles” came with two songs, one on each side of a record: the “A” side was intended to be the hit song; the “B” side was, until the Beatles came along, for throwaway stuff.)
 Fortunately nobody threw this one away.
 Springsteen begins the familiar song with some audience patter and actual jingle bells; then he starts to sing and the band comes to life. Things move along smoothly through the verse and chorus...until ace drummer Max Weinberg kicks it into high gear and the band roars into a fast shuffle that takes the thing into a different realm altogether.
 Feeding off the audience, The Boss sings so hard his voice slightly breaks at times. Then he quiets down before roaring back into a tear-the-roof-off chorus, sometimes dropping words and laughing as he goes.
 This is real music—recorded in 1975 during a concert at the C.W. Post College—with no retakes, no production effects, and no electronic vocal repairs, either.
 Try doing that some time, Jessica and Nick.
 Actually, come to think of it, please don’t.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to all.

Jeff Matthews

Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2014)    Available now at Amazon.com


© 2014 NotMakingThisUp, LLC



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