Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Score Today: Apple 280, Microsoft 38


 Some people like to think Bill Gates will be the successor to Warren Buffett as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, if and when Warren Buffett ever leaves that post.  [Buffett will never “leave” in the conventional sense of retiring; he’ll work until his mind, or his body, or both, give out and no sooner—ed.]
 We take the other side of that trade in “Warren Buffett’s Successor: Who It Is and Why It Matters,” just released via Kindle.  [It’s a short book: you can read it during the half-hour’s worth of commercial breaks that occur in the last 3 minutes of the average NBA game—ed.
 The reasons Gates will not succeed Buffett, despite being one of Buffett’s best friends as well as a longtime Berkshire board member, are numerous and compelling, and we won’t repeat them here.  [Thank goodness—ed.]
 But there’s a very good reason Bill Gates is not going to succeed Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway that is not in the book, and it has to do with the increasingly visible disintegration of the so-called “Wintel” duopoly that spelled mega profits for many years at Gates’ baby.
 That disintegration is occurring—slowly but surely—even as you read this virtual column, and it is visible in stores across America.
 Just today we visited a prosperous mall in a prosperous city in America—a mall filled with post-Christmas holiday shoppers taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales that make this one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
 And at a little after noon, we counted a grand total of 38 shoppers at the Microsoft store…and 280 customers at the Apple store.
 Both retail spaces have about the same footprint, and both occupy good, highly visible, high-traffic locations.  Also, we used the same method at each, counting everyone not wearing a corporate t-shirt as a customer—men, women, toddlers and even babies in strollers.
 Granted, it was a bit harder to count at the Apple store than the Microsoft store, because there were shoppers coming and going at the Apple store...while at the Microsoft store there weren’t many people coming or going, and there was only one person actually buying something at the counter. 
 But the ratio wouldn’t change much if we missed a couple or double-counted a couple here and there: Apple had roughly 7-times the customer appeal of Microsoft on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.  It was almost painful to walk out of the Microsoft store without buying something, because the employees were doing their best to be friendly and engaging. [He is not being ironic here—ed]
 “So what?” Microsoftians will say [grumpily—ed].  “Microsoft is a business software company.  They make way more money on server software and office software than on Windows for consumers.”
 And that’s all quite true.  More than half Microsoft’s revenues are business/server/tools sales, and whatever Apple is doing to Microsoft’s consumer franchise won’t show up in those businesses for years, maybe decades to come.
 But it’s still worth pointing out, as we’ve been doing over the years [here, here and here—ed.], that whatever Steve Ballmer has been doing at Microsoft since he took over the day-to-day business from Bill Gates in 2000—including iPhone “funeral processions” and other silly marketing tricks—it has not stopped Apple from winning a very competitive game in the free market.
 Indeed, by our count, Apple was winning that consumer game by about 280 to 38 over Microsoft today.
 And what with Google going after the business apps market, Amazon Web Services becoming the go-to cloud for today’s startups, and the iPad making its way into every “C-Suite” in the corporate world, we’ll bet the scoring only gets tougher for Microsoft from here.
 Which is one more reason Bill Gates isn’t going to run Berkshire Hathaway any time soon: he has 441 million shares of Microsoft at risk, and some time in the not-to-distant future we bet he’ll be CEO of Microsoft for the second time before he’s CEO of Berkshire Hathaway for the first.

Jeff Matthews
Author “Warren Buffett’s Successor: Who It Is And Why It Matters”
(eBooks on Investing, 2013)    $2.99 Kindle Version at Amazon.com

© 2012 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.  And if you think Mr. Matthews is kidding about that, he is not.  The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Psst! Wanna Bum Steer?!


 The original title of this piece was “No ‘Star’ For the Star-Tribune,” but that seemed a little obscure, because what this virtual column is really about is not so much the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—a newspaper that, like all newspapers, has seen its glory days come and go.
 Rather, it is about the ability of somebody with an agenda (the agenda, in this case, seeming to be the promotion of Best Buy founder Richard Schultz’s dream of recapturing his baby) by getting stuff planted in the mainstream media pretty much any time he or she wants to, regardless of its merit.
 At least that’s how it appears to us based on the repeated speculation—Speculation With A Capital “S,” since none of it has proven accurate, in the sense of actually happening so far—that has appeared in the paper about Schultz’s purported plans ever since he got kicked off the Best Buy board last spring.
 Exhibit A is the Star-Tribune report that appeared last Thursday morning as follows:
 Best Buy Co. founder Richard Schulze will make a fully financed offer to purchase the consumer electronics giant by the end of the week, possibly on Friday, the Star Tribune has learned.
 Schulze will submit a formal proposal to the board of directors before a "hard" deadline of Sunday, said one source. The offer is expected to be at least $5 billion to $6 billion.
—Thomas Lee, Minneapolis Star-Tribune 12/13/12
 That breathless bit of “news” was picked up immediately on CNBC, Bloomberg and elsewhere, sending Best Buy’s share price soaring two points, or 15%, on unusually heavy volume of 44 million shares, by day’s end.
 Unfortunately, the very next morning reality smacked the stock in the head with a 2-by-4 when Best Buy announced it was giving Schultz somewhat more time to make a bid than the above-reported “end of the week” (they postponed it to after the holiday season), causing the stock to drop right back down to where it had started the day before the 15% spike.
 Here’s how the Star-Tribune managed to both backpedal on its Thursday morning scoop and suggest better things to come:
 Best Buy Co. and its founder, Richard Schulze, have agreed to push back the deadline for Schulze to make an offer to buy the company, leading some analysts to speculate that Best Buy is more willing to make a deal.
—Thomas Lee, Minneapolis Star-Tribune 12/14/12
 So the shmucks who on had bought millions of shares of Best Buy as high as $14.48 after reading the Star-Tribune (or the news outlets that picked up the story) Thursday morning lost $2 a share before they had time to spit out their coffee after reading the Star-Tribune Friday morning, when the stock opened for trading at $12.46.
 Now, that was not the first time the Star-Tribune had passed along what turned out to be a bum steer relating to Best Buy. 
 Since at least last April the paper has been quoting “sources,” “a source,” “one source,” “two sources” or “an analyst” in stories surrounding the potential for a Best Buy takeover, or a Dick Schultz-led leveraged buyout, or both.
 And, as of this writing, not only has neither a takeover or leveraged buyout occurred, one has not even been announced.
 What follows is a timeline, with the pertinent quotes along with the closing price of Best Buy shares the day the article appeared. 
 We highlight in bold particularly juicy or over-the-top statements, such as “There are people swarming all over this,” “It’s not going to take long,” and "Richard Schultz will make a fully financed offer," statements for which the average Star-Tribune reader should be forgiven for assuming they meant something good was going to happen to Best Buy’s share price, and soon.
 We also highlight a pertinent quote from an analyst who knows a thing or two about retailing that those same Star-Tribune readers ought to have paid more attention to (“I've talked to several private equity firms, and no one will touch it”).
 As in the above quotes, all articles contain the byline of one Thomas Lee:

April 18, 2012/$22
 Best Buy Co., in the midst of an investigation of former CEO Brian Dunn, may have other trouble to fend off.
 The Minnesota-based retail giant has become an alluring target for a private takeover, according to industry sources. The nation's largest consumer electronics chain generates more than $1 billion in cash a year and has relatively little debt.
Such an effort may well be a long shot, but over the past year, Best Buy's stock price has lost more than half of its value, making an acquisition less expensive to a potential buyer.
A takeover of Best Buy "is on a lot of people's radar screens," said Jeremy Brunelli, a retail analyst with Consumer Edge Research in Stamford, Conn. "Best Buy is an obvious candidate. There's a definite buzz going on"….
 Investors are contacting people with connections to Best Buy to seek their help in exploring a buyout bid, a source with close ties to the company confirmed.
 "There are people swarming all over this," said the source, who declined to name those parties.
June 8, 2012/$20
 Richard Schulze's resignation from Best Buy's board Thursday sets the stage for a potentially divisive battle for the company's future, one that pits the founder against the very people he recruited to lead the struggling Minnesota giant….
 Schulze, Best Buy's largest shareholder, said he is giving up his board seat and chairmanship early to "explore all available options" for his 20.1 percent stake in the company. Those options include a venture to reclaim control of the company by acquiring it through private investment, according to two sources close to the situation. Schulze has already hired a top lawyer in New York to assist in such an endeavor, the sources said.
June 8, 2012/$20
"I've talked to several private equity firms, and no one will touch it," said Colin McGranahan, a retail analyst with Sanford Bernstein & Co….
 And while $9 billion is certainly a lot of money, it wouldn't be anywhere near the largest private buyout of a retailer in the United States. That distinction belongs to the $17 billion acquisition of supermarket chain Albertsons by Cerberus Capital Management, CVS and Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc. And while food retailing is a low-margin, low-growth business, Best Buy still generates plenty of profits and cash from consumer electronics and services.
 Schulze also has the advantage of not starting from scratch. Thanks to his 20 percent stake, Schulze would just need private investors to contribute around $500 million to $1 billion and the rest he could borrow from the debt markets, according to an analyst with a major institutional investor in Best Buy. The individual requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
June 27 ($20):
 Schulze was said to be talking with Credit Suisse among other firms, but it was unclear if, or when, he might make a move.
 According to sources close to the situation, Schulze would install his own management team if he regained control of the company, in which he still holds a 21 percent stake.
August 8 ($20)
 Best Buy Co. Inc. founder Richard Schulze has recruited four big-name private equity firms -- KKR & Co., Leonard Green & Partners, TPG Capital and Apollo Global Management -- to help bankroll his $8.8 billion plan to buy the company, the Star Tribune has learned.
 Collectively, the group would provide $3 billion to $4 billion to back Schulze's bid, with the rest coming from debt financing and Schulze's own 21 percent stake in the Richfield-based company. Sources close to Schulze said he may also tap a strategic investor who, for example, might want Best Buy to sell certain products or services.
August 27 ($18)
 Now that Best Buy Co. will let founder Richard Schulze peek at its books, Schulze will likely present a formal buyout offer to the board of directors in early September.
 "It's not going to take long," said a source close to Schulze, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.
 On Monday, Best Buy and Schulze said they struck a deal that allows Schulze to review the company's financial records and formally form a buyout group, which has 60 days to present a proposal to the board.
 The company is currently setting up a "data room," where Schulze and his investors can examine Best Buy's financial records. After that, he will make an offer "within days to a week," the source said.

November 6 ($15)
 An initial offer will likely come next week after CEO Hubert Joly presents his strategy to investors in New York, according to a source close to Schulze. Of the eight potential investors that expressed interest in financing Schulze's bid, the final buyout group will probably include one to three investors, the source said, who added Schulze's team has already completed a preliminary business plan….
 The source close to Schulze said he was originally prepared to offer $25 a share. But given Best Buy's declining market value of late, Schulze might initially offer $18 to $19 a share, which the board will reject, he said.
"I guarantee they will say no," the source said.
 Schulze could then make a second offer in January for $21 or $22 a share, the source said.
 "If you want the killer blow, you have to be close" to Schulze's original range, he said.
December 13 ($12.18 to 14.12)
 Best Buy Co. founder Richard Schulze will make a fully financed offer to purchase the consumer electronics giant by the end of the week, possibly on Friday, the Star Tribune has learned.
 Schulze will submit a formal proposal to the board of directors before a "hard" deadline of Sunday, said one source. The offer is expected to be at least $5 billion to $6 billion.
"This is going down to the wire," the source said.
 Over the past weekend, Schulze and his team secured agreements to finance the deal from bankers and private equity investors, which includes Cerberus, Leonard Greene & Partner and the Texas Pacific Group, the source said. Schulze will meet with his top advisers, including former CEO Brad Anderson and former president Al Lenzmeier, in Minnesota on Thursday and Friday as they prepare to move forward.
 Best Buy declined to comment on Wednesday.
 Founded by Schulze as a single store in St. Paul in 1966, Best Buy has grown into a global retail powerhouse with more than $50 billion in annual sales and more than 100,000 employees.
 While it remains unclear how much Schulze will offer for the company, investors expect the bid to be much lower than the range of $24 to $26 per share that Schulze first outlined over the summer. Since late June, Best Buy stock has fallen 45 percent, closing Wednesday at $12.20 per share.
 The recent stock plunge surprised Schulze so much that he requested a 30-day extension from the original deadline of mid-November to see how Best Buy's holiday numbers would hold up, sources said.
 At this point, institutional investors and analysts speculate that shareholders would be open to selling their stake to Schulze, although they would prefer at least $17 per share, a 40 percent premium over the company's current stock price.
December 13 ($12.18 to $14.12)
 Over the past weekend, Schulze and his team secured agreements to finance a buyout deal from bankers and private equity investors, which include Cerberus, Leonard Greene & Partners and the Texas Pacific Group, according to a source close to Schulze. On Thursday, Schulze met with his top advisers, including former Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson and former president Al Lenzmeier, in Minnesota as they prepare to move forward, the source said.
 Talk on Thursday quickly turned to two questions: How much will Schulze offer investors and will Best Buy's board of directors accept or reject? Under the original negotiating terms between Schulze and Best Buy, Schulze can make a second offer in January if the board rejects his initial bid.
 Some institutional investors have said they would sell their stakes for as little as $16 to $19 a share. But other analysts suspect Schulze will need at least $20 a share.
December 14 ($14.12 to $12.05)
Best Buy Co. and its founder, Richard Schulze, have agreed to push back the deadline for Schulze to make an offer to buy the company, leading some analysts to speculate that Best Buy is more willing to make a deal.

Warren Buffett has been buying up a lot of newspapers lately.  We’re not sure if this kind of track record would make his cut.

Jeff Matthews
Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2012)    Available now at Amazon.com

© 2012 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.  And if you think Mr. Matthews is kidding about that, he is not.  The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick, 2012 Edition

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...  
 
Now, on with the review!
 Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah 
and a Good New Year to all.
 —JM, December 6, 2012 
 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 actual musicians play musical instruments; 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-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”  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 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, 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 (Margaritaville, of course)?
 Having gotten all that off our chest, we can move on, since SiriusXM’s holiday channels added little new material to our annual survey because most of the songs are widely played everywhere else.
 Furthermore, we've recently 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, 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 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 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 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, 2012)    Available now at Amazon.com


© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC


The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
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