Saturday, August 24, 2019

When CEOs Resign

  Our inbox was humming this week when news broke that Patrick Byrne, the founder, CEO and guiding light of (OSTK, $20.58 for you home-gamers), had resigned from his post as CEO and from the Overstock board of directors, following the disclosure that he had been involved in FBI probes concerning “political espionage conducted against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump” since 2015.
  We cut our blogging teeth with Patrick Byrne stories, as many longtime readers know, starting with the one we're reproducing below, from early 2005, a good decade before Byrne and the FBI became an item.
  Our interest in Byrne and began innocently enough when a good friend and the best short-seller we have ever known suggested looking at as a short.  Since this advice came from a guy who could--and still can--smell a scam before he even meets the scammers, we began to take a look.
  Around the same time, however, another friend, one of the best retail and apparel investors we ever knew, suggested going long  He had visited the company and thought Patrick Byrne was the best CEO I've ever met, quote/unquote.
  So we stayed on the sidelines, short-selling-wise and going-long-wise, but started listening to the Overstock earnings calls, and we're glad we did, blogging-wise.
  It was like dropping down Alice's rabbit-hole and finding a Strange New World of conspiracy theorists, the likes of which we had never heard on the earnings calls of a publicly-traded company--their main conspiracy theory being that short-sellers were brazenly selling shares of stock without first borrowing them, as required by every regulator known to Wall Street (so-called naked shorting).
  Since we'd never worked with, or known of, a short-seller who did that, and since we had worked with several professional short-sellers and knew most of the rest, it was a conspiracy theory we found hard to fathom.
  So we wrote a blog about it.
  In hindsight, your editor kind of wishes he had let the conspiracy theorists stew in their own juices, without trying to help them understand the way the world of professional short-selling actually worked.
  But--and this is a big But--it turned out the conspiracy theorists were right about one thing: shares of Overstock really were being sold without having been borrowed.  It's just that the prime-brokers were the bad actors, not the short-sellers.
  All that wouldn't come out until the financial crisis, however, well after the damage was done.  In the meantime, Patrick Byrne's obsessions became the gift that kept on giving, blogging-wise, and not merely from his commentary during the public earnings calls: your editor has long suspected Dr. Byrne himself contributed to the comments here in these financial columns, under an assumed name.
  But now the curtain has come down on his role at, and, in truth, we harbor no ill-will towards Patrick Byrne or the company he built.  For one thing--let's give credit where it's due--Patrick kept going long after many, many, many dot-coms fell by the wayside, or worse. 
  For another, your editor actually visited the company, long after the dust had settled on the naked short-selling conspiracy battle, at its then-new peace-symbol-shaped building at the suggestion of the short-seller who long ago had suggested looking at as a short...only this time, he was, correctly, long the stock.
  We went there to size up the company's then-nascent efforts in bitcoin, and found the building full of very smart, very hard-working people who all seemed to share an honest respect for Patrick Byrne.  And, full disclosure-wise, your editor did go long, and profitably, until, as unfortunately tended to happen over the years, the rabbit hole kept leading nowhere, results-wise. 
  Patrick wasn't there the day we visited, but we did peak into his office.  There aren't many CEOs with a Bob Marley poster above their desk.
  It made your editor wish he'd visited Patrick back in the day, face-to-face, instead of trading comments on these blogging pages sub rosa.  We could have instead swapped stories about the Bob and the Wailers concert at the Music Hall in Boston, in the summer of 1978, a few months before we started in this business of getting and spending as a junior analyst at a once-great but long-since-gone company called Merrill Lynch, Pierce Fenner & Smith.
  It was a great show, Patrick.


When CEOs Obsess is a high-flying company whose CEO, Patrick Byrne, has a problem with success. His problem, specifically, is that the success of his company has attracted short-sellers of's stock.

While I do short stocks occasionally as part of my investment strategy, I am not one of the short-sellers Mr. Byrne--actually, Doctor Byrne--goes after on his earnings calls and in his erudite shareholder letters. The shorts he goes after are so-called "naked" shorts, meaning they have not actually borrowed the shares of Overstock which they have sold short.

Not only is naked selling short illegal, it is, from my vantage point: a) stupid; and b) not the way any professional short sellers I know go about their business.

So I think Doctor Byrne is identifying a problem that doesn't exist. And if it does exist in the case of, then those so-called naked shorts, whoever they are, will eventually have to buy back the shares of Overstock they have shorted--a good thing for the Doctor and other shareholders of Overstock, should they ever need an exit strategy. He should be thanking the idiots doing the illegal deed--not obsessing about them.

Why write about Overstock without having a dog in this fight? Simple: I have found in my 25 years' investment experience a very high correlation between companies whose CEOs obsess about short-sellers and the eventual self-destruction of those companies.

CEOs who obsess about a non-operating issue such as short-sellers usually have a very fragile business model--otherwise, they would not waste a second of their time on such useless speculation. Or they simply have something to hide--sometimes fraud, sometimes not. In general, what comes to mind when CEOs obsess about shorts are the words of Queen Gertrude--from Shakespeare, with whose work I'm sure Doc Byrne is very familiar: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

And Patrick Bryne protests way too much.

Bill Gates, as one example of a CEO whose stock has, in the past, been heavily shorted, never bothered to get worked up about any short-seller on any Microsoft conference call, ever: he just ran the business and let the stock take care of itself, and take care of the shorts along the way. In fact, when I am short a stock, I get very nervous if the CEO does not obsess about the shorts. It usually means he's playing a very strong hand.

But don't try to tell this to Patrick Byrne, because today he's whining to Floyd Norris in the New York Times that "someone is manipulating our stock," and blaming the shorts for the recent 15-point drop following an earnings call that disappointed investors expecting positive surprises. (Bryne does not, by the same token, thank the shorts for facilitating the 60-point rise in the prior twelve months, nor does he grasp the fact that he and he alone is to blame for raising ridiculous expectations and then failing to meet those expectations during the company's earnings call.)

Speaking of that call, you should listen to it. The whole replay. Especially the last twenty minutes, when Doctor Byrne fields a call from a man identifying himself as Bob O'Brien. "The name is not familiar," O'Brien says to Byrne, "let me start out by introducing myself."

The "not familiar" Bob O'Brien then delivers a paranoid and wholly ignorant fantasy regarding the supposed short-selling conspiracy driving Overstock and other small cap companies into the ground, including factual errors regarding the mechanics of stock delivery and ramblings of an individual with far too much time on his hands and who probably has a difficulty distinguishing reality from The X-files.

You will hear Doctor Byrne patiently let the man ramble, expressing surpise and interest in the caller's fantasy, and you will hear Doctor Byrne act wholly ignorant of where this Mr. O'Brien came from. "I don't know any of the stuff you are talking about but it is interesting stuff," Bryne says.

Patently false.

Turns out Patrick Byrne helped an organization called "National Coalition Against Naked Short Selling" pay for two Washington Post ads attacking naked short sale tactics. Turns out this so-called coalition is run by none other than the paranoid X-Filian Bob O'Brien.

But don't take my word for it. It's all there in the interviews Byrne and O'Brien give to Floyd Norris in today's New York Times. Read the article and listen to the Overstock conference call, and tell me what you think.

If a CEO will fib to Wall Street the way Patrick Byrne appears to be fibbing on his earnings call by hosting an orchestrated short-bashing rant from his "not familiar" friend Bob O'Brien, you never know what he might do when it comes to running a business.

I am not making this up.

February 28, 2005

Friday, February 22, 2019

Activist Targets IBM: “Bring Out the Belgian Waffle!” (reprint from 2014)

Editor's Note: 
In light of the recent KHC disclosure that the geniuses at 3G have been underinvesting in brands, over-stating earnings, and milking their businesses for short-term earnings at the expense of long-term results—everything Warren Buffett professes to despisewe thought it worth reprinting this commentary on the 3G methodology from 2014JLM

IBM trades to highs on activist related speculation  (161.85 +0.95)
—, November 23, 2014

  IBM Chief Counsel: “Ginni?  Fred here.” 
  IBM CEO Ginni Rometty:  “What’s wrong?”
  Chief Counsel: “Activists are circling.”
  Rometty: “Oh geez.”
  Chief Counsel: “Yeah.  I’ve got the biggest shark of all on hold.  He wants to talk.”
  Rometty: “Carl Icahn??”
  Chief Counsel:  “No.   Icahn watches Netflix and uses an iPhone.  He thinks we’re ‘old economy.’  Worse than Icahn.”
  Rometty: “Donald Trump?”
  Chief Counsel:  “No.   Even worse.”
  Rometty:  “Worse than Donald Trump?  How is that possible?”
  Chief Counsel:  “It’s possible.  It’s those guys from 3G.”
  Rometty: “Yikes.  The Brazilians?   The ones who took over Burger King and slashed and burned?”
  Chief Counsel: “Yeah.  And they bought Heinz with Warren Buffett—your pal.”
  Rometty: “Well, he’s not my pal after we had to reset the ‘earnings roadmap’ and the stock tanked.   Stupid roadmap.   How did Palmisano ever come up with that idea?”
  Chief Counsel:  “It worked, didn’t it?”
  Rometty:  “Only long enough for Sam to exercise his stock options.   Not me.”
  Chief Counsel:  “Well your options may be in the money soon enough, if these 3G guys go ahead.  You want to talk to them?”
  Rometty:  “Put ‘em on.”
  Chief Counsel:  “Right now?”
  Rometty:  “It’s better than watching these Fast Money yahoos trash talk me on CNBC.”
  Chief Counsel:  “Hold on… Okay, here we go.   Oscar?   You there?”
  Oscar:  “Yes.  I have seven minutes before I have to fire 37 people and figure out how to convince young males to buy hamburgers made with wood shavings.   Let’s get going.”
  Rometty:  “What do have in mind?”
  Oscar:  “We at 3G would like to buy IBM—”
  Rometty:  “Outright?   That’s not activism, that’s a hostile takeover!”
  Oscar:  “Call it what you like.   We see great opportunity to run IBM more efficiently.”
  Rometty:  “Oh yeah?   Starting where?”
  Oscar:  “Layoffs.   IBM has too many employees.”
  Rometty:  “Says who?”
  Oscar:  “You have over 400,000 employees!”
  Rometty:  “That number is so last week.”
  Oscar:  “You’ve had layoffs in the last week Well then, I must congratulate you.”
  Chief Counsel: “Careful, we haven’t publicly disclosed anything.”
  Rometty: “Okay.   So what else does 3G think we need to change?”
  Oscar:  “Well, according to our internal due diligence you have a very inefficient field staff reporting structure.  At Burger King we have 14,000 field staff reporting to seventy-five MBAs who all work out of their cars.”
  Rometty:  “That’s nothing.  At IBM our entire field staff of 80,000 reports to three college grads and a transfer student.”
  Chief Counsel:  “Ginni, that’s never been disclosed—”
Rometty:  “Relax, Fred.  The transfer student doesn’t even speak English.”
  Oscar:  “Somehow our due diligence did not discover that.   Well played.”
  Rometty:  “Thank you.  What else you got?”
  Oscar:  “Well, corporate overhead.   At Burger King we eliminated all corporate jets except mine, and everyone takes a Greyhound bus when they travel more than 300 miles.”
  Rometty:  “What do they do under 300 miles?”
  Oscar: “They hitch-hike.”
  Rometty:  “That’s nothing.  All travel requests at IBM have to get approved by a cardboard cut-out of Dilbert.”
  Oscar: “Brilliant!”
  Rometty:  “It’s called returning value to shareholders, not employees.”
  Oscar:  “And we admire that.  But your headquarters staff appears bloated to us—”
  Rometty:  “That’s because it doesn’t exist.”
  Oscar:  “Doesn’t exist?”
  Rometty:   “No.  It was outsourced to India years ago.”
  Oscar:  “Then why do our satellite images of the IBM headquarters parking lot show so many cars?”
  Rometty:  “That’s my security detail.   And my lawn service.”
  Chief Counsel:  “Ginni, I really think this is inappropriate—”
  Rometty:  “Not at all.  If this guy thinks he can tell me how to run IBM even less for employees and customers than we already do, he’s got another thing coming.  He’s a piker.”
  Oscar:  “Well let’s discuss your taxes.  We at 3G know how to operate tax-efficiently across all multi-national jurisdictions—”
  Rometty: “Our tax rate was 15.6% last year.  How do you beat that?”
  Oscar:  “We think applying a ‘Dutch Sandwich’ could move billions in pre-tax income to a lower tax rate nation without any change in your corporate headquarters—”
  Rometty:  “Been there, done that.”
  Oscar:  “Well, a ‘Double Irish’ would reduce taxes on intellectual property by shifting—”
  Rometty:  “You’re five years too late pal.  Next?”
  Oscar:  “A ‘French Cuff’?”
  Rometty:  So '90s.”
  Oscar:  “The ‘Jamaican Bobsled’?”
  Rometty:  “Who do you think invented the ‘Jamaican Bobsled’?”
  Oscar:  “What about a ‘Hong Kong Stir-Fry’...a ‘Singapore Sling’...a ‘Portuguese Man-O-War’?”
  Rometty:  “Is this the '80s calling now?  Puh-leeze.”
  Oscar:  “Well, I must say, your tax avoidance strategies seem quite advanced.   I’ve run out of options.”
  Rometty:  “You didn’t ask about the ‘Belgian Waffle.’”
  Oscar:  Fala sério!  We heard the rumors about it, but believed it to be a myth, like Bigfoot.  You mean there is such a thing?”
  Rometty:  Wouldn’t you like to know?
  Oscar:  “Please?  I beg of you.”
  Rometty:  “If you guys drop this takeover idea, I might—.
  Oscar:  “Consider it dropped.”
  Rometty:  “Alright.  But first, make sure your door is closed, your auditor is nowhere nearby, and listen carefully...  Now just imagine you found a way to merge with an entire country, whose citizens could be made to unwittingly pay your taxes for you.
  Chief Counsel:  This conversation is finished!   Ms. Rometty has nothing further to add!”
  Oscar:  “El Diablo!”

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

© 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.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to How John & Paul & George & Ringo Desegregated the Gator Bowl in 1964, and Now the Esher Demos!

2018 Editor’s Note:
      “I'm not a great one for thatyou know, 'Maybe it was too many  [songs]...'  What do you mean?  It was great!   It sold!  It's the bloody Beatles White Album.”—Paul McCartney.
      This is going to be brief because your editor is writing a book and has gone off the grid...but he has not gone too far off the grid to miss the best new music in years, brought to you bywho else?the Beatles.
      Specifically, this is a shout-out for the Esher Demos, so-called because when the Beatles returned to England from Rishikesh, India, they gathered at George Harrison's bungalow in Esher and played each other (while recording on a portable tape machine) some 27 songs they'd written while off-drugs and eating "lousy vegetarian food," as John Lennon put it, in India, most of which ended up in a far more finished form as The White Album.
      The Esher Demos have been floating around for years in various formats, but have finally been cleaned up and included on the re-released White Album, which you can play right now on Spotify.
      The songs are stripped-down, played on acoustic guitars and accompanied by nothing more sophisticated than hand-claps with a lot of laughter and inside-jokes, and they could have been "The Beatles bloody White Album" on their own.
      Now, the White Album has always been your editor's favorite albumBeatles or otherwise, although the Arctic Monkey's "Whatever People Say That I Am, That's What I'm Not" has always been a close secondbut after hearing the Esher Demos all together and in the same order they appeared on the White Album itself, we're not sure which version of The White Album is better.  The demos are that good.
      Which means there are now TWO bloody Beatles White Albums.  How great is that?
       Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to All!
—JM, December 5, 2018

2017 Editor’s Note:
“I still remember that moment the first time Ringo played with us, ‘BANG!’ he kicks in, it was an ‘Oh my God’ moment.  I remember we’re all looking at each other, like ‘Yeah this is it!’  Phew, I’m gettin’ very emotional…”—Paul McCartney in ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years.’
There is, or was, back in the day, an argument among amateur drummers that went like this: 
“Ringo sucked!”
“Are you kidding?  Ringo was great!”
The drummers who dismissed Ringo were, by our experience, younger, jazz-oriented drummers who were technically brilliant and could not fathom why such a technically-limited drummer like Ringo had become rich and famous while they were stuck playing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” at weddings to pay the rent.  They honestly didn’t get it.
The drummers who did get Ringo were, by our experience, older drummers of many styles who knew how hard it is to do what Ringo did.
What Ringo did was play drums behind the three best singers and songwriters who ever played together as a band, and to not just keep the beat, but to match the mood to the music and drive the tempo without getting in the way.  
Listen to how Ringo sets the tone in “She Loves You” with that opening floor-tom pattern, then brightens the sound when the voices come in by laying into the snare and open high-hat.  Simple stuff, technically—but really hard for a drummer to execute.
Why?   Because drummers like to play shit loud and fast.  They want you to know how good they are.  
They demand to be heard.
Stewart Copeland, one of the best loud-and-fast drummers out there, likes to tell the young speed demons at drummer workshops that he is about to demonstrate the hardest thing a drummer can do—but instead of launching into a slamming 192 beats-per-minute polyphonic killer riff like he did with the Police on “Synchronicity I,” Stewart just plays a verrrrrrry slow single-stroke pattern at a rock-steady beat.  
It disappoints the “Ringo sucked” crowd, but it’s what all great drummers know: it’s really hard to keep it simple and not overplay.
And that’s why, when Copeland’s former bandmate Sting says, “a band is only as good as its drummer,” he means The Beatles, too.
Which brings us to this season’s update to our annual holiday song review, which is light on the Christmas songs and heavy on the Beatles—but not because Sirius XM finally created a “Beatles Channel,” the obvious absence of which we complained about in this virtual column way back in 2011.
It’s because of the excellent Ron Howard movie quoted at the top, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years,” which among many other things just happens to document the Beatles’ role in desegregating U.S. concert venues way back in 1964.
And you should see it.
Now the story about the desegregation of the Jacksonville, Florida ‘Gator Bowl’ stadium occupies only a handful of the 106 minutes of backstage shots, home movies, televised concerts, interviews with “the boys” and celebrity interviews documenting the arc of their live concert performances from the early days in Hamburg to the madness of Shea Stadium and their final concert at Candlestick, when the boys had become, as John Lennon said, a “freak-show”  and quit touring.  (It finishes, of course, with nice footage of their final-final concert on the roof at Apple’s offices in London.)
But the desegregation story is, we think, the best part of the movie, because how they did it—unscripted, unplanned, unpublicized—is so cool.  
It just happened.
And it happened only because they demanded it—all four Beatles, including Ringo, who had only been in the band two years at that point and just so happened to be your editor’s “favorite Beatle” back in the day when every American kid in school had one, which is why we started this with Ringo.
As Paul tells the filmmakers, the Beatles—before the breakup—were a unit: “We had to ALL decide that we agreed on a thing…for ANY idea to go through,” he says.  Even George, the most cynical after the breakup, says it this way: “As a band, we were tight… We could argue a lot among ourselves, but we were very, very close…and in the company of other people or other situations we’d always stick together.”
And they stuck together when a very major situation, segregation, entered the picture, as radio reporter Larry Kane, who traveled with the boys on that 1964 tour, recalled:
“I received a report from my station that the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville was gonna be segregated, so I mentioned it to them, in the interview…. They said if there was going to be segregation of any kind, they weren’t going.”
       Here’s how it actually went down in that interview, preserved on black-and-white film:
Larry Kane: “What about this comment that I heard about, mentioning racial integration at the various performances?”
Paul McCartney: “We don’t like it if there’s any segregation or anything, because it just seems mad to me.” 
Kane: “Well you’re gonna play Jacksonville, Florida, do you anticipate any kind of difference in that opinion?”
McCartney: “Well I don’t know, really, it’d be a bit silly to segregate people, ‘cause you know I think it’d be STUPID, you know, you can’t treat other human beings like animals.”
Ringo Starr: “That’s the way we ALL feel.”
McCartney:  “That’s the way we all feel, and the way a lot of people in England feel.   There’s never any segregation at concerts in England, you know, and if in fact there was we wouldn’t play ‘em.”

And that’s how The Beatles integrated American concert venues on September 11, 1964, when they played to 20,000, black and white together, at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
Thanks, Boys.

And Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to All!
—JM, November 29, 2017

2016 Editor’s Note:
  The switch to all-holiday music has started, and while we have not heard much new, it has, so far, been mercifully light on the Michael Bublé and wonderfully heavy on the Chrissie Hynde and Bing Crosby, although with no sign of The Boss, yet.
  Our beef this year is not with the current roll of holiday songs, or with any of the rock biographies weve been reading (Dee-Dee Ramone“Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, is even more hair-raising than Chrissie Hyndes book that we called out last year, and that takes some doing); our beef is with the SongFacts web site, which, as readers of this virtual column might imagine, ranks right up there with Bloomberg, FactSet and the Wall Street Journal as tools of our trade.
  Specifically, how does SongFacts not know that at 4 minutes 51 seconds into the Beatles “A Day in the Life, one of the chairs the four Beatles are sitting on as they keep the extended final chord going on the two pianos at the Abbey Road studio emits an audible squeak, and a voice (we've always guessed Paul) says Shhh!?
  This is surely more important than the fact that the song was ranked as the Beatles’ best by some random compilation, or that noted musician, singer, and drug-abuser David Crosby was supposedly in the studio for the very first playback.   (After all, he could have actually been in Brazil that day and not remembered.) 
   Of course, to hear the most famous squeak/shush in recorded history, the volume has to be turned up extremely loud, i.e. well beyond what most listeners would ever have their iPhone or stereo or radio cranked up to.   
   In fact, you have to go to 11.
   But thats what its all about, right?

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to All!
—JM, December 3, 2016

2015 Editor’s Note:
 We have not heard much new in the way of holiday music, so let’s turn straight to the rock and roll biography scene—specifically Chrissie Hyndes’ autobiography, “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” which is like witnessing a car wreck in book form.
 While there’s plenty here that’s harmless and bland (early days in Ohio, e.g.), there’s plenty that makes you want to put the book away in a very dark place, and all you can think is, How was she not part of “That stupid club,” as Kurt Cobain’s mother called it?  (Look it up, kids.) 
  Similarly depressing are some movies we’ve been watching on Netflix—starting with the Levon Helms biography, “Ain’t In It for My Health,” which minces no words when it comes to his former bandmate and nemesis, the Canadian songwriter Robbie Robertson, who squeezed out of Levon (the only American in The Band) vibrant scenes of Americana (“The Weight,” and especially, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) without sharing the royalties.
  Even more depressing than the Hynes book and the Helms movie combined, however, is the Glenn Campbell-gets-diagnosed-with-Alzheimers-while-you-watch film, “I’ll Be Me.”  Your editor saw Campbell perform at a Wall Street birthday bash circa 1997, and he was clearly miserable throughout: flushed faced and word-slurring, Campbell and his band blew through his greatest hits like Bob Dylan on a bad day, and, embarrassingly to everybody in the room, kept calling the host—whose name was Paul and who, when introducing the singer, nearly broke down while talking about how much it meant having him perform—“Pete.”
 But “I’ll Be Me” does a great job highlighting Campbell’s background as a highly valued session musician...and if you’re interested in knowing more about that era, you ought to watch “The Wrecking Crew,” our last movie shout-out.
 “The Wrecking Crew” was the name of the L.A. session players behind The Byrds, The Beach Boys and classics like “I Got You, Babe”—just listen to Hal Blaine’s slamming drums on the outro—and the movie is a joyous look at the faces behind the instruments behind the songs.  Glen Campbell was a supremely talented guitarist for the Wrecking Crew before he decided—to the initial amusement and later jealousy of some of the Crew—go for the gold himself.
 Suggestions on other movies (and books) are encouraged in the comments below...after all, your editor hasn’t finished compiling his Christmas list, if you get our drift…
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to All!
—JM, December 3, 2015

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 service—including, 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.
 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”
 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

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