Monday, December 13, 2010

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo, or Keef or Mick), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick...2010 Edition

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, loopy-but-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 commercially sinister instincts on top, it would have certainly made this review, for better or worse. (Along these lines, The Kinks’ “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 Armstrong’s sadly commercial attempt 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:

Hangin’ my stockin’/I can hear a knockin’
’Zat you, Santa Claus?...

One peek and I’ll try there/Uh-oh there’s an eye there
’Zat you, Santa Claus?

Please, ah please/ah pity my knees
Say that’s you Santa Claus
(That’s him alright.)

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 cry “No mas!” while attempting 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 that timeless 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 (for reasons we can't recall), and must report that our reference to Williams below seems 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 written by somebody else?”

Well, 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 equally 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 heroin junkie, who probably catches 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—and 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 demonstrating 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 control booth 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. Lachey’s vocals are like what people do in the shower, or in their car—as opposed to what professionals do in a recording studio.

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, your editor decided that if he ever ran across the pair in his car while singing along with the radio too loudly to notice, he wouldn’t stop to identify the bodies.

Fortunately, the bad taste left by their 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 created.

(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: 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, 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.”

And even though this version was recorded live more than 25 years ago, it 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 again 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
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2010 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.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"One of the best books ever written"? Seems like you're "making this up."

Jeff Matthews said...

A Grinch calling himself 'Anonymous' doubts our sincerity in labeling Keef's book one of the best ever written.

To which we say, go ahead, read it yourself!

Cheers,

JM

Anonymous said...

What? Where's the Flaming Lips' "A change at Christmas (say it isn't so)" ???

Jeff Matthews, I mean really!

Anonymous said...

Two remarks:

1. Regarding Mick's facile writing, I believe it was Mozart who said of himself, "I write music like horses piss." Contemporaries also describe him writing orchestral works as fast as his hand could move. The rest of us can only wish we were so lucky.

2. You must be joking about "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which is surely the most offensive Christmas song ever written. The answer to this musical question is "Yes, of course they know it's Christmas, you condescending twit. If they are Christian, they know it is Christmas. They are hungry, not brain-damaged."

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for you to mention Run DMC's Christmas in Hollis. No list of Christmas faves is complete without it. No snark.

Jon