zondag 18 december 2016

More 2016 Christmas singles

At the end of the overview of 2016 Christmas singles, I wondered if more Christmas singles would appear to the sky. And I am happy to let you know, that indeed, there did! With this new singles, the number of Christmas (vinyl) singles that is released in 2016 is even higher than in 2015. And that while each year, less and less 7" singles are being released... unfortunately.


Laurice: Kingfisher Bluez Christmas Single 2016 (Kingfisher Bluez, Canada)
In the previous blog, I noticed that Kingfisher Bluez and Too Pure were sadly absent from this year's list of Christmas 7" vinyl. It turned out that I was too early with my conclusion, at least, as far as Kingfisher Bluez concerns. December 16, Tim released a new single in his series of Christmas singles, that, just like the previous five years, comes in a sleeve depicting a building in wintery surroundings. If you put all those sleeves together, you can built your own Christmas town! The single is one-sided, and features a song from Laurice's 2016 album 'Balladeer'. To be honest, I had never heard of Laurice, and I thought he was a newcomer to the music scene. How wrong I was! This guy, originally from Wales, was already working as a vocalist in the late 1960s and recorded the pre-punk underground hit 'When Christine Comes Around'/ 'I'm Gonna Smash Your Face' (how more punk can a song title get than that?) as Grudge. In the mid-1970s, he moved to the other side of the ocean, where he built a career as a singer of dance and smooth jazz songs. He even was Canada's number 1 dance vocalist for two years in a row! The song that made it to the Kingfisher Bluez 2016 Christmas single is 'Christmas Valentine' - so a Christmas song that will stay relevant for another 6 weeks after Christmas! Laurice sings how he found his Valentine at Christmas time, 'a few week short of Cupid's day', over some jazzy piano playing and a midtempo beat. The album that the song originally appeared on was not called 'Balladeer' for nothing, as the song indeed sounds like a ballad. Another nice addition to the Kingfisher Bluez Christmas club. All profits of the single benefit 1-800-SUICIDE and Crisis Centre BC, so that's another reason to go over to the Kingfisher Bluez Bandcamp site and order the single!
You can also listen to the song on Bandcamp.


Tan LeRacoon: Just Another Christmas Wish (Tan U Sound, Germany)
Laurice was not exactly a newcomer to music, and the same is true for Tan LeRacoon. Tan LeRacoon is in fact the well known Hamburgian ex-bar owner Tanju Boerue, who already in 1986 had co-written a song with Nikki Sudden for Sudden's album with Johnny Fean and Simon Carmody, 'The Last Bandits In The World'. In the mid-2000s, Boerue had worked as the producer of the first solo album of ex-Slits vocalist Ari-Up (under the name Tan U Sound). In April 2016 Boerue released a double-album with his band Tan LeRacoon, that features members of Golden Kanine, Gant Creon and Gisbert zu Knyphausen's band. Opening song is the brilliantly titled 'I Want To Be A Beach Boy, But Not Mike Love'. And now he has released a Christmas single, with 'Just Another Christmas With' on side A, and two non-Christmas songs on the B-side (a different mix of a song of the album and a dark sounding instrumental). According to his Bandcamp, Tan takes writing Christmas songs very serious: "To him the writing of such is an art in itself, paying tribute to classic compositions of the first 60 years of last century but still being relevant to today's time, and at the time bearing no irony, which is employed so often by modern day artists on their seasonal outings. And yes, he is also serious about these naive, yet conscious lyrics.". 'Just Another Christmas Wish' is a reworking of a song originally written and recorded for a Christmas compilation. The song starts with some strange 'wobbling' sounds, that makes me think of the music of NDW group Der Plan. This is followed by what sounds like a triangle and Tan's voice: he says that all he really wants for Christmas is nothing of this world - as he wants peace, all around. The song is only 2 minutes long, and gets louder and louder - not only by adding more instruments, most notably a distorted guitar, but also because Tan's voice is also louder and louder. At the end, everything quiets down, and the song ends as it started: quiet and peaceful. It comes in a sleeve that has a snowdome, 'Our Lady Of The Red Star', on the front. You can buy the 7" and the Bandcamp of Tan LeRacoon. That's also where you can listen to all three songs.


Gotta Groove Xmas 7" 2016 (Gotta Groove, USA)
Besides Kingfisher Bluez, Nordpolen Musikklubb, Jump Up Records and the Snowflakes Christmas Club, there is another label that has released at least one Christmas single the last few years. Or maybe label is not the right word, because Gotta Groove is in fact a pressing plant, that is sending out a Christmas single as a Christmas present to all its customers. Gotta Groove is located in Cleveland, Ohio. The plant started this tradition in 2011, so this is the 6th edition of their festive single. The single always features music made by bands that include one or more Gotta Groove employees. The music goes in all directions - there are always some very weird, abstract and experimental sounding 'songs' on the compilation, but most of the time also at least one 'ordinary' sounding Christmas song is included. This year's edition is no exception. It has a total of five songs, of which I would categorize three as 'weird' - those by Fascist Insect, Hep*Z and Tiger Village. The last band could also be a garage rock and with a name like that, but their 'Xmas Skips' is exactly what the title promises. It's good that I first heard it on Bandcamp, otherwise I would have been frustated to have been send a record with a pressing error. The two bands that come up with fairly ordinary songs are Public Squares and Ohio City Singers. Public Squares is a garage rock band. Their song is called 'All I Want For Xmas', has an in your face sound and is definitely a song I will play more than once. Also because I can totally relate to the message of their song: 'All I want is a record for christmas this year'. Yes, absolutely! My favorite of the bunch is by Ohio City Singers. It's typical a song that has you already wiggling your head and tapping your feet the first time you hear it. It has both country and 70s rock influences, but it is uptempo, a typical feel good song. All in all, the 2016 edition of Gotta Groove's Christmas compilation (that comes on green vinyl, by the way) is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, of all the editions so far. One of the employees (or former employees, that is not totally clear) of Gotta Groove, another Tim, is so nice to put the songs on Bandcamp and sell some of the remaining copies for a very cheap price - so that also collectors like myself can acquire a copy. You can order a copy and listen to the songs here. And thanks for the great blog Christmas-A-Go-Go for bringing this record to my attention!


K-Maxx: Christmas Ain't The Same (self-released, USA)
I had linked my blog entry about the 2016 Christmas singles on the Snowflakes Facebook page, and Star Creature, the label that put out the Le'Trell 'Silva Bells' single pointed out that San Franciso soul singer K-Maxx had also just put out a Christmas single. Of course, I immediately started searching for this single. It turned out K-Maxx had self-released a song that he had already put on his Bandcamp for Christmas 2011, 'Christmas Ain't The Same', on vinyl - with on the B-side an instrumental version of the song. K-Maxx is a modern soul singer, although his sound is clearly influenced by the early 1980s (at least on the Christmas single), using mostly electronic instruments to create the funky and soulful music that is backing up his vocals. It's a typical 'I miss you at Christmas time'-song. The perfect song to listen to with your loved one by the fireside, or better, to dance to with him/her. K-Maxx had also recorded a video for the song in 2012, that you watch on Youtube. Unfortunately, the vinyl was only pressed in an edition of 2010 copies, that is already sold out.


Spirit Animal: Come To Christmas (Wind-Up, USA)
The next Christmas single is also funky, also from the US, and also (sort of) self-released by the band. But that is where the comparison ends. The band Spirit Animal is from Brooklyn, New York, and use funk the way a band like Rage Against The Machine did - to add some groove to their guitar-driven and explosive music. Their song 'Come To Christmas' was already a live favorite for some years, and now the band has recorded a studio version and released it as a single. Despite the title, and the sleeve, that both have a clear relation to Christmas, the song itself doesn't really seem to be about Christmas. It's more like Christmas is used metaphorical. It's exactly like in the video the band filmed for the song: you see a band playing on the beach, by a swimming pool, in the sun - totally nothing to do with Christmas. But there is also a guy in a Santa-suit, who attacks the singer several times - and in the end a Christmas tree and fake snow. And there we have the connection with Christmas. Anyway, I think it's a great song, and as the number of Christmas singles with loud guitars can be counted on one hand this year, I am happy that there are at least some Christmas-related singles that you can play very loud, and that will definitely annoy your neigbors!
You can watch the video on Youtube.
And order the single through the webstore of the band.


Lovebomber II: Xmass Hospital (self-released, The Netherlands)
And hurrah, there is another Christmas single that sports loud guitars, and it's another one from The Netherlands. It has been a good year for Dutch Christmas singles! This single, that is called 'Xmass Hospital', is by a garage punk band called Lovebombers II. The song was also included on their self-titled debut album, which, according to the band's Bandcamp, is their first album in their 25 years of existence. They took their time. 'Xmass Hospital' is probably the loudest Christmas vinyl single of the year, with loads of loud guitars, and the singer goes totally out of his head, screaming 'It's Christmastime' and later also 'Jesus Christ'. So at least one band that hasn't forgotten what Christmas is really about! The B-side 'Damagnie' (which is Dutch, well, sort of, and translates as 'Thasnotallowd' or something in that vein) is a live hit for the band, and I can understand why. Great and funny song. So if your neighbors are quite tolerant and didn't start complaining after your played 'Come To Christmas' on maximum volume, just follow it up with 'Xmass Hospital', and I am pretty sure that is where their tolerance ends (and then it becomes clear why the song has 'hospital' in its title). You can listen to the song on the band's Bandcamp and order it by contacting them on their Facebook page.


Elvis Presley: The Signature Collection 10: Noël (VPI, France)
The last 7" vinyl single of this blog entry is another reissue. It is the last EP in a series of ten Elvis Presley EP's, called 'The Signature Collection', released on the label VPI in France. Each of the ten EP's have a theme: Rock & Roll (volume 1), Classique (2), Films (3), Live (4), Ballades (5), Blues (6), Gospel (7), Sun (8), Country (9) and Noël (10). The Christmas EP has four of Elvis' most known Christmas songs: the swinging 'Santa Bring My Baby Back' and the classic 'Blue Christmas' on side A and the raunchy rocker 'Santa Claus Is Back In Town' and the ballad 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' on side B. The single is pressed on green vinyl, and comes in a colourful sleeve with liner notes (in French) on the back, plus with a CD that has the four songs and four alternative versions of the songs. Only 500 copies are pressed, and as there are probably more than 500 Elvis Presley collectors in the world, I guess you have to hurry if you want to get a copy. At least some websites of Elvis fans are selling the EP's, so also the Christmas EP.


That's it for now. There are also some lathe cut Christmas 7"'s, but I have chosen to not include those, because, well, it's not vinyl, and also because there are only very few copies of these records (around 25) made.

zondag 4 december 2016

Overview of all 2016 Christmas singles


We've entered December, so it's time to give you an overview of all Christmas 45s that, until now, have been released this year - as Christmas 45s, that is what this blog is about! I've counted 29 - that's only six less than last year (not counting lathe cut 7"'s and flexi's). Not bad at all, especially since some of the usual suspects, like the labels Kingfisher Bluez and Too Pure, have sadly been absent from this year's list of Christmas 7" vinyl.

It's a again a nice mixture of singles with completely new songs, with songs that have been around for some time, but have never been released on vinyl before and re-issues. A few big names and many artists and bands that I never had heard of before. Where to start? Well, I decided to start close to home, in Amsterdam.


The Sleigh Shakers: Jingle Hell / Christmas Chicken Blues (This Could Be Your Music Label, The Netherlands)

The mysterious Sleigh Shakers, described as 'Five merry bluesmen from Amsterdam' who 'kick out their slippers and put on their rock and roll shoes for the ultimate celebration of X-mas cheer' come up with two blues-y Christmas originals on their single 'Jingle Hell'. The single comes in a great looking sleeve that features a drawing of the late Dutch punk illustrator Peter Pontiac, with a very angry and dangerous looking Christmas tree about to attack a sweet looking Maria, Joseph and Jesus. Indeed, Jingle Hell. The title tracks is an uptempo blues stomper, while the B-side, 'Christmas Chicken Blues' is a slowtempo blues. Rumors claim that The Sleigh Shakers include Jan Vollaard, not only a well-known Dutch music journalist, but also the man who probably owns the biggest collection of Christmas records in Holland. So now he can add his own single to his collection.

Both songs can be listened to on Youtube.
Jingle Hell on Youtube
Christmas Chicken Blues on Youtube


The High Five Four: Good Ol' Christmas / Hey Father Christmas (Tombstone Records, Netherlands)
Last year, the Amsterdam rock 'n roll / rockabilly band The High Five Four recorded the Christmas song 'Good Old Christmas', that only was released as a digital single. This year, the band has released the song on vinyl through their own Tombstone Records (not be confused with the Dead Moon-connected US label of the same name). Unfortunately, the record was somewhat delayed - the band was planning to present the single on a release party on November the 19th - the release party did happen, but without the actual single available. But it was finally released December 4, so it is available now! 'Good Ol' Christmas' is a relax-sounding and gently swinging rock 'n' roll song that really fits the title well and brings early 1960 Elvis Presley to mind. B-side 'Hey Father Christmas', also an original, is in the same style. All in all a good rock & roll Christmas 7", worth owning, also for the nice cover art.

You can listen to 'Good Old Christmas' on Youtube and order the record through contacting Tombstone Records - see the Facebook page of the band.


Drs. P: A Few Thoughts On Sinterklaas / A Dutch Christmas (Topnotch, The Netherlands)
I've always been a big fan of Dutch songwriter, singer, pianist and language wizard Drs. P - in reality the Swiss born economist Heinz Polzer, who used a name combining his university degree (the title Drs. is comparable to MA) and the first letter of his family name as his stage name. Polzer died in the Summer of 2015, in the respectable age of 95 years. His song 'De Kerstengel' (which translates as 'The Christmas Angel') is one of my favorite Dutch language Christmas songs. It's a short funny song, that reflects on Christmas through the eyes of a Christmas angel that is hanging from a Christmas tree - an angel that is fed up with just hanging there and wants to go out. It's very funny, also because of the strange sound effects used. When visiting Amsterdam record shop Concerto recently, much to my surprise I noticed a new Christmas single by Drs. P. It did not have 'De Kerstengel', but two new songs that I never had heard of before. It turned out that earlier this year, in the archive of Polzer some 'lost songs' had been discovered. Polzer always sang in Dutch, so it was quite surprising that two of the songs that were discovered, were actually in English. Although in the typical kind of English that is spoken by people from Holland. One of those songs was about Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, who of course was also the inspiration of Santa Claus, and the other was called 'A Dutch Christmas', and described a typical Dutch Christmas celebration. In both songs, the eating traditions of Sinterklaas and Christmas were the central focus. Of course, I bought the single, and I loved the songs. Easily one of my favorite Christmas singles of this year! The Christmas song is not online, but you can listen to the Sinterklaas song, that by the way also makes some references to Christmas, on Youtube.


Dennis Tyfus & Kris Maes: Stevige Nacht / De Kerstdagen (Meeuw Muzak, Belgium)

Some of the weirdest Christmas singles released in the years 2002-2007 were released on a label called Meeuw Muzak. Meeuw Muzak was the brainchild of Jos Moers, nicknamed Meeuw (Dutch for seagull). The label was first based in The Netherlands, but moved to Brussels, Belgium, several years ago. After not having released any Christmas singles for almost ten years, Meeuw Muzak has released a new Christmas single, by vocalist and tape manipulator Dennis Tyfus and guitarist and 'cutter' Kris Maes, both from Belgium. The B-side has one of the most funny Christmas 'songs' that I have come across, that is, if you like absurdistic humour. Which I do. I guess only people who can understand Dutch will get the joke, so for those who don't, I give a short summary of the song: you hear a voice reciting (in Dutch with a Flemish accent): first day of christmas, second day of Christmas, third day of Christmas, etcetera, with some sound effects that extend the 'song', and after reaching the twenty-fifth day of Christmas, the voice sighs: 'one should not overdo it'. The A-side 'Stevige Nacht' (a play of words on 'Stille Nacht' - silent night) translates as 'Solid Night' is a totally different affair. It starts with some church bells, and then continues with a sort of minimalist melody, with echoing sacral sounding singing. Then a manipulated voice exclaims 'Kerst' (Christmas), and the melody continues with some Pink Floyd-sounding guitar playing over it. At the end the sacral sounding voices returns. It's actually quite listenable and beautiful. Unfortunately, the songs are not to be found on the internet yet, but you can order the single and also some of the older Christmas singles through the label.


Dr. Ring Ding: Christmas Again / The Christmas Song (Jump Up, USA)
A label that has put out Christmas singles in the last two years and also does so this year, is the Chicago ska and reggae label Jump Up Records. This year, they have even put out two 7"'s. First is by the German ska artist Dr Ring Ding, a veteran of the European ska scene, who already has been involved making ska and (later) dancehall since the mid-1980s, first as trombone player in German ska band El Bosso & Die Ping Pongs and from 1992 on as singer of Dr. Ring Ding & The Senior Allstars. After that band dissolved in 2002, Dr. Ring Ding continued as a solo artist. In 2015, he recorded a Christmas album, 'Once A Year', that was originally only released as a CD on German label Pork Pie, and contained a mixture of originals and ska-ed versions of Christmas classics like 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' and even 'Petit Papa Noel'. This year, the album was re-released on vinyl by Pork Pie, as a LP plus a bonus 7". That bonus 7" is the same record that has been put out by Jump Up Records, and has the final track of the album, the midtempo brass-filled original 'Christmas Again' on the A-side and a laidback German language version of Nat King Cole's classic 'The Christmas Song' on the B-side. The single comes on red, green or white vinyl, and can be ordered through the Jump Up Record website.
The song can be listened on Spotify: https://play.spotify.com/track/0zf7XT9nJpI3znv2m4ych6


Leo & The Lineup / Napoleon Solo: Christmas Without You / Merry Xmas Everybody (Jump Up Records, USA)
The second Christmas single that Jump Up Records has put out this year is a split 7" by two bands from Denmark, Leo & The Lineup and Napoleon Solo. Leo & The Lineup, around for about five years now, represents the new school of Danish ska, while Napoleon Solo represents the old school, having started already in 1984, and after an absence of ten years, playing again in the original line-up from 2009 on. Napoleon Solo do a ska version of Slade's classic 'Merry Xmas Everybody', while Leo & The Lineup recorded a soulful original, 'Christmas Without You'. The Napoleon Solo song was already released as part of a two track digital single 'In The Midnight Hour' last year, but now gets its first vinyl release. The single comes on red or green vinyl. Listen to it on Youtube
By the way, Jump Up Records also repressed their Christmas singles of the previous two years, by Brooklyn Attractors (now on red vinyl) and Roger Rivas (now on white vinyl) and also have re-released The Toasters Christmas album on (coloured) vinyl. All can be ordered through the Jump Up Records website.


Radka Toneff: Julesang (Nordpolen Musikklubb, Norway)
Now that we are in Scandinavian: there is a Scandinavian label that has been releasing one seven inch single every year since 2014, and also do so tbis year: the Nordpolen Musikklubb from Norway. All three singles they have released, including that of this year, feature existing Christmas songs, but songs that never have been released before on (7") vinyl. The first one was of Norwegian sixties singer Sonja, the second was by contemporary Norwegian indie band Hvitmalt Gjerde and this year's single is by Norwegian jazz singer Radka Toneff. Radka Toneff is considered one of the most important Norwegian jazz singers. She debuted in 1977 with the album 'Winter Poem', not a Christmas album by the way, although the beautiful title track (only around one minute long) and 'A Child Is Born' definitely have a connection to winter/Christmas. But six years before her recording debut she already appeared on Norwegian TV, in the Peggy Fleming Chrismas special, that also featured international artists like Gene Kelly and Jose Feliciano, to perform her own composition 'Julesang' (Christmas Song). She was backed up by a band of veteran jazz musicians, although the song was definitely not standard jazz. It was a mixture of jazz, folk (Toneff's father was from Bulgaria and she put elements of the music of her father's heritage in her music), prog and soul. Despite it's Norwegian title, the song is actually in English. The B-side of the single features another early Toneff recording, the (not Christmas related) song 'When I Am Alone', that she recorded the same year for NRKs Erling Wicklund's radio program Åpent Hus. The single is an important document of Norwegian jazz history, packed in a beautiful cover. The record is going very fast, so if you want to acquire a copy, contact the Nordpolen Musikklubb trough their Facebook page, and don't wait too long. Radka Toneff's life ended tragically, as she found was in the woods of Bygdøy in 1982 with an overdose of sleeping pills in her blood. She was only 30 years old. Unfortunately, 'Julesang' is not to be found on the internet (yet), so instead, listen to the winter-themed title track of Toneff's debut album on Youtube


Johnny Jean & The Humdingers / Sarah Dee & The Foxhunters: Sleigh Bell Rock / Jingle Bells Boogie
We now move to the east of Norway, and end up in Sweden. The small Gothenburg label Flipsville Records has released a split 7" by two Swedish rock & roll combos, Johnny Jean & The Humdingers and Sarah Dee And The Foxhunters. Johnny Jean & The Humdingers describe themselves on their Facebook page as 'authentic 50's style rockabilly with a touch of Hillbilly bop', and look like they have been transfered by a time machine right from some small town in the US, in, say, 1949, to now. Sarah Dee & The Foxhunters look slightly more modern, but that's mainly due to the tattoos on singer Sara Dee arm's. According to the band's Facebook page they play 'songs from early 1950s to late 1957-58. Hillbilly bop, rockabilly and even country sometimes!". Sara Dee and her band cover 'Jingle Bells Boogie', a song originally recorded in 1954 by Jody Levins And His Boys. Both in the original version and in Sara Dee And The Foxhunter's cover version the song a swinging boogie woogie influenced stomper, perfect for putting on your dancing shoes and getting wild on the dancefloor. Johnny Jean & The Humdingers cover another obscure rock & roll Christmas song, 'Sleigh Bells Rock', originally recorded by Three Aces And A Joker, as B-side of their 1960 single 'Booze Party'. Just like the A-side, it was written by the vocalist and drummer of that band, Hal Schhneider. If you want the original version of this single, that might take you some time and money, as there were only 600 copies pressed. So a better option is to go for Johnny Jean & The Humdingers' version of the song, as that single can still be acquired by contacting Flipsville Records through their Facebook page. The record is dedicated to the memory of fiddle player and record engineer Jonas Olpers, who worked with Sara Dee And The Foxhunters and, as it is put on the Facebook of Flipsville Records, 'left this world' in May 2015. The single comes on green vinyl, with nice Christmas styled labels. You can listen to a short impression of both songs on Youtube.


Graeme Miller and Steve Shill: Silent Night (Finders Keepers, UK)
Usually, there are two countries that take up the large majority of Christmas singles: the UK and the USA. This year, the number of Christmas records released by UK labels has been very small: in fact, of the five Christmas singles of English origin, only one has been released on a UK label. But I have to say: that is a very special release, and one I am very excited about. The UK label Finders Keepers specialize in music that is, let's put it like this, different. In line with their labels name, they find obscure recordings from the past (although they sometimes the label also releases contemporary music) and re-release it on vinyl, always packed in very beautiful artwork. Quite some of the music that they re-release is music originally used for movies or TV. For RSD 2015 they released a 7" with the theme music of the 1980s versions of the Moomins children's series. The 1980s version of the Moomins was stop motion animation, produced in Czechoslovakia. For the broadcast in the UK, the original Polish-German jazz soundtrack of the series was replaced by music by Leeds postpunk avantgarde theatre composers Graeme Miller and Steve Shill. Miller and Shill used thumb pianos, backwards tape effects, wooden pipes and a Wasp synthesizer to create a surrealistic sounding soundtrack, that gave the series a completely different atmosphere. The record came in a special custom-made felt backed 7” sleeve depicting original production stills, in two different versions. Unfortunately, half of the pressing of 900 copies got lost in transport, so there are only 450 copies left. I think it was for my birthday (I must have been 10 or 11 I think) that I got a copy of 'Comet in Moominland', the second Moomins book, like all Moomins books written by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. It soon became my favorite book and I don't know how many times I have re-read it - but it have been many! And I am sure that if I pick it up today, I would again totally enjoy it. And now Finders Keepers is releasing a Christmas Moomins record, that again will be packed in a felt handmade sleeve! It will feature a version of 'Silent Night', created by Miller and Shill, that sounds haunting and beautiful, and mixes the Christmas carol with the typical Miller-Shill Moomins sound. The single is already sold out in the pre-order, so if you want a copy, I fear you have to try Eb-ay, after the record has been released. The record was already quite expensive in the first place, so it definitely won't be cheap when it appears on E-bay. Fortunately, the Moomins version of 'Silent Night' can be listened on Soundcloud - for free: https://soundcloud.com/finderskeepersrecords/graeme-miller-and-steve-shill-silent-night


Jethro Tull - Ring Out, Solstice Bells (Rhino, USA)
Like every year, some Christmas singles are released as part of the Record Store Day Black Friday edition. And like every year, most of these releases are by North American artists. But this year, there is also one Christmas 7" that is by a UK band. On November 1976, Luton prog rock band Jethro Tull released a winter solstice / Christmas themed EP, that included four songs: 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells', 'March, The Mad Scientist', 'Christmas Song' and 'Pan Dance'. To celebrate this release, exactly 40 years later (minus one day) reissue label Rhino released a new version of the EP. A new version, as the two songs that had the least connection to Christmas ('March, The Mad Scientist' and 'Pan Dance') have been replaced by the band's 1989 single 'Another Christmas Song' and a alternative version of the title track, retitled to 'Magic Bells (Ring Out, Solstice Bells)' by Mike Batt, who also produced and arranged this version. Mike Watt is probably best known for writing 'Bright Eyes' for Art Garfunkel and for creating the Wombles, who had a big UK Christmas hit in 1974 with 'Wombling Merry Christmas'. Both this last song and the original version of 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells' have been remixed by producer and former Porcupine Tree-member Steven Wilson. The EP uses the artwork of the original EP and can be found in many record shops around the world (and of course also on Discogs or Ebay). The original version of 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells' can be listened on Youtube.


Rope Store: Never Had Christmas / A Winter's Tale (Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, The Netherlands)
Well, now the shameless self promotion starts, as the next three singles by bands from the UK are all released as part of the Snowflakes Christmas Club, that happens to be the label that I run myself. The first of the three is by Norwich's Rope Store. A-side 'Never Had Christmas' brings bands like Wizzard, Slade and The Wombles to mind, bands that also knew how to write a catchy Christmas song, taking their inspiration from Phil Spector's legendary 1963 Christmas album. 'Never Had Christmas' has everything a Christmas rock song needs: catchy vocals, (glam) rock guitars, Christmas bells, a rhythm that invites you to clap-a-long, an instrumental break with a wall-of-sound production that blows you right out of your Christmas socks, and of course an important message: Christmas is all about the friends you love and the family you really get along with! For the B-side, Rope Store chose a song originally recorded by another star of the 1970s (althought the song was actually from the early 1980s) and written by Mike 'Wombling Merry Christmas' Batt (there is he again!) and Tim 'Evita / Jesus Christ Superstar' Rice: David Essex' hit single 'A Winter's Tale'. Rope Stope manage to turn the original, a ballad that sounds like it was lifted straight from a musical, into a sing-a-long glam rock song, without compromising the dramatic meaning of the song. You can order the single (that, like all Snowflakes singles, comes on snowwhite vinyl and is limited to 320 copies) through Big Cartel and listen to it on Soundcloud.


The Haywains: Who Needs Summer? / Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, The Netherlands)
'Who Needs Summer? / Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' by Midsomer Norton's The Haywains is the second Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club single. The Haywains already formed at the end of the 1980s, at the height of the C86/tweepop movement. The band released quite some 7"'s and a album (plus an album compiling the singles) until the mid-1990s, when they broke up. Reunited in 2013 to celebrate the birth of the band 25 years earlier, The Haywains started recording new songs and releasing 7"'s again. The A-side of their Snowflakes Christmas single, 'Who Needs Summer?', penned by gitarist Paul Towler, is a catchy indie pop song, sung by vocalist Jeremy Hunt in his distinctive vocal style, that celebrates the joys of being together with your newfound love around Christmas time – because, who needs Summer, if you can be warm and cosy with the one you love! The song has all the classic Christmas ingredients: festive keys, sleigh bells and even some children doing background vocals. The Haywains' version of John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie's classic Christmas song 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' starts rather unusual – with some merry whistling. From there, the song contiues in the jangling pop punk style The Haywains became known (and loved) for. You order this single also through Big Cartel and listen to it on Soundcloud.


The Manhattan Love Suicides: Look Who's Coming To Town (Please Let It Snow) b​/​w Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, The Netherlands)
The third and last of the UK bands that recorded two songs for the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club is the Leeds based band The Manhattan Love Suicides. The band was originally formed in 2006, and played music influenced in equal parts by the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and The Primitives. After a bunch of singles and a full length, the band broke up in 2009, to reform in 2013 and release a new album in 2015. On their Christmas single, The Manhattan Love Suicides show two different sides from themselves. A-side and original 'Look Who's Coming To Town (Please Let It Snow)' sounds like the script of a 1960s horror movie, but of the kind that you only find in that dusty cult video store somewhere in a dark alley of a mediumsized city. The song is an angry sounding snarling creature which picks up where the recent single 'Bikini Party / Birthday Kill' left off, and brings both The Primitives and Sonic Youth to mind. Listen to the song, and find out who is coming to town and why it is so important that it will snow. For the B-side, the band turn Elmo and Patsy's classic 1979 Christmas novelty 'Grandma Got Runover By A Reindeer' in an echo-drenched murder ballad, with instead of the loud uptempo guitars of the A-side of the single, subtile melodic guitar playing, which gives the song more of a pop sensibility, but pop with a distinct raw edge. I also saw it being compared to Darklands-era Jesus & Mary Chain, and that makes sense to me. Again, order it through Big Cartel and listen to the two songs on Soundcloud.


Hannah Epperson: Raise The White Flag b​/​w Dreaming Of A White Christmas (Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, The Netherlands)
For the fourth and final Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club release this year, we leave Europe and move to Canada. Hannah Epperson was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, but moved to Vancouver, BC, Canada as a teenager, where she started her career as a violinist and singer/songwriter. Besides the violin and her voice, Hannah's main instrument is a loop pedal, which she uses to built up an almost orchestral sound during her live performances. Hannah started playing violin at five, mastered classical repertoire, which culmilated in joining the Utah Youth Symphony for the Cultural Olympiad in 2002. After moving to Vancouver she further broadened her perspective on music by collaborating with all kind of musicians and performers. In 2011, Hannah debuted with a self-released 5-song digital EP, 'Home Batch', recorded and written at home, representing a wide array of influences, ranging from classical and folk to southern European music and Latin. In 2015, Hannah released her first 7”, 'Burn', that featured the tracks 'Shadowless' and 'Brother'. Now living in New York, Hannah recently released her debut album '/Upsweep', that features ten songs, five songs in pop versions (Amelia) and five different songs in neo-classic versions (Iris). A-side of her Christmas single, 'Raise The White Flag' is an atmospheric song in which silence is as much used as an instrument as Hannah's voice and violin. Hannah calls it 'a post-apocalyptic, deeply somber christmas song'. The poetic lyrics reflect on Christmases past – 'when we'd sled as kids' – and present – 'but now the snow is gone'. A song for the darkest of the dark days of Christmas. A few years ago, Hannah recorded a live version of the Irving Berlin classic 'White Christmas', during a session for the 'Fresh Independence' webzine. She reprises the song, retitled to 'Dreaming Of A White Christmas', on the B-side of the single. Hannah creates a neo-classical piece of music, over which she sings 'White Christmas' in a very fragile and delicate way. A single to be played in the middle of the night, when silence and darkness surround you. Order the snow white limited 7" through Big Cartel and listen to both songs on Soundcloud.


Sloan: Kids Come Back Again at Christmas / December 25 (Kill The 8, Canada)
Sloan is a band that started in 1991 in Halifax, Novia Scotia, but now resides in Toronto. Sloan is not new to recording Christmas songs. In 2011, they recorded a split single with Canadian loudmouths Fucked Up, with Sloan doing a version of 'Twelve Days Of Xmas'. The next year the band followed it up with a version of Slade's 'Merry Xmas Everybody', as a digital only single. For their 2016 Christmas vinyl single, the band penned two originals, 'Kids Come Back Again At Christmas' and 'December 25'. The single was recorded in the middle of the Summer, when it was 39 degrees Celsius outside. So the perfect atmosphere to record some Christmas songs. 'Kids Come Back Again At Christmas' starts as a ballad, but after the intro speeds up a bit, it turns into a vivacious rock song. B-side 'December 25' sounds more merry, at least, as far as the music goes, has handclaps, woah-backups and invites you to sing-a-long. The single comes with four Christmas cards that feature seasonal messages in the form of lyrics from the band's catalog. You can listen to the single on Spotify: https://play.spotify.com/album/2TJf9Q2V6vUUo0UIV0hki0, but as it is unfortnately sold out, you can't order it anymore through Kill The 8.


Bob & Doug McKenzie: Twelve Days Of Christmas (Mercury, USA)
The third Canadian Christmas release of this season is part of the Record Store Black Friday release schedule. It is a re-release of a 1981 single of the fictional Canadian duo Bob & Doug McKenzie called 'Twelve Days Of Christmas'. The two brothers, played by actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, hosted the sketch 'Great White North', that was introduced in the Canadian version of SCTV, and played upon Canadian stereotypes. Bob and Doug, two 'dim-witted beer-swilling brothers wearing heavy winter clothing and tuquies', would comment humorously on several aspects of Canadian life and Canada. The sketch became the most popular part of the show, and led the 'brothers' to record an album, that went Platinum, and in 1983 they even starred in the movie 'Strange Brew'. 'Twelve Days Of Christmas' was included on the album, but also was released as a 7". The 7" starts with a discussion about what exactly the twelve days of Christmas are, after which the two start the song. They get tired of the song halfway (I can imagine that, that also happens to my usually when I listen to this song), so the do not reach the twelfth day of Christmas. Orignally, the record was released without a picture sleeve, but for this re-release, the design of one of the other singles of the brothers, 'Take Off', was used. That song, that features Rush-singer Geddy Lee, was one of the biggest successes of the duo and is featured on the B-side. The record is now pressed on red vinyl. Find it in your favorite record shop. The song can be viewed on Youtube in a video that features some footage of the cartoon series that was based on Great White North.


Frank Sinatra: White Christmas / The Christmas Waltz (Capitol, USA)
Another re-release for Record Store Black Friday is the 1954 Frank Sinatra Christmas single 'White Christmas' with 'The Christmas Waltz' on the flipside. 1954 was an important year in the career of Frank Sinatra. That year, he moved to Capitol Records and he recorded his first two albums with arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle: 'Songs For Young Lovers' and 'Swing Easy!'. Both albums were received with much critical acclaim and brought Sinatra back in the center of the spotlights. The two songs for the Christmas single were also recorded with Riddle, on August 23, 1954. The B-side 'The Christmas Waltz' was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne on request of Sinatra himself. Especially Kahn was not so enthousiastic about the idea of writing a Christmas song in the middle of the Summer, also because he felt he would never been able to top 'White Christmas'. But Sinatra insisted, the two set to work, and came up with 'The Christmas Waltz'. The song did not become as succesful as 'White Christmas', but nevertheless did become a standard. Sinatra would record it again for this 1957 Christmas album 'A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra' and a third time in 1968 for the album 'The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas'. As for 'White Christmas', Sinatra had already recorded that song ten years earlies, as B-side of his single 'If You Are But A Dream'. It had been re-released in 1945 as an A-side. Both these records had reached the top 10 of of the Billboard pop charts. The 1954 single did less well, as far as chart success went, as it did not chart at all. The original 1954 single release came in a company sleeve, but for this Record Store Day re-release, Capitol Records used the design of the Italian pressing of the single, that did come in a picture sleeve. The single is pressed on white vinyl. I can't seem to find the 1954 version of 'White Christmas' on Youtube, but 'The Christmas Waltz' can be listened there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9Y60-DZlLs.


The Regrettes: Marshmallow World (Warner Bros., USA)
Just as the Sinatra single, also the Black Friday Record Store Day release of the Los Angeles punk band The Regrettes is pressed in an edition of a few thousand copies on white vinyl. The 7" comes in a 'marshmallow-scented' jacket. What sets The Regrettes apart from many other bands is that the members are very very young. Despite that, and despite the fact they play loud music, they have been signed to major Warner Bros., that also released this 7". For their version of this classic winter song - as it is more a winter song than a Christmas song -, The Regrettes have clearly listened well to the Phil Spector-produced version by Darlene Love, that of course appeared on Spector's classic 1963 Christmas album. Not a bad idea to do, as the Darlene Love-version of the song is probably the best version of the song ever recorded. And the version of The Regrettes is definitely worth listening to! The B-side has a live version of the non-Christmas song 'Hey Now'.
You can listen to the song on Soundcloud.


Mike Adams At His Honest Weight / Mick Foley: Old Toy Trains (Flannelgraph Records, USA)
Mike Adams At His Honest Weight covers Roger Miller's classic 'Old Toy Trains' for a 7" that comes in one of the most beautiful sleeves of this year. The single is pressed on vinyl that is half red and half green, with white (snow) spots, and has pro wrestling legend, comedian, author, and Christmas lover Mick Foley talking about his love for the song on the B-side. Mike Foley we of course also know from his 'Crazy Christmas' 7" that came out in 2014. Mike Adams At His Honest Weight (curious but cool name, by the way) does the song justice with a fragile and heartfelt version of it. The single was put out by Bloomington, Indiana label Flannelgraph Records. Listen to the song and Mick Foley talking here, where you can also order the record.


The Toms: Fake Christmas (Frodis Records, USA)
Although usually Christmas records are released in October, November or December, this year, there was also a Christmas record that was released in April. Probably delayed from Christmas 2015 (maybe due to the long production times for vinyl), 'Fake Christmas' by powerpop band The Toms, which is in fact a project of New Jersey producer Thomas J. Marolda. The song 'Fake Christmas' was not new, but already appeared as a bonus track on Marolda's album of Beatlesque holiday tunes under the St. Nick's Christmas By The Lonely Hearts Band moniker, that was released in 2004. In 'Fake Christmas', The Toms describe how everything is fake around the Christmas tree, 'except for the love you give to me'. The single can still be ordered through Frodis Records and is also available for your listening pleasure on The Toms Bandcamp.


Morgan Shaughnessy: Pretty Colored Lights (self-released, USA)
Also the A-side of the Christmas single of Atlanta, Georgia singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Morgan Shaughnessy has a song that has been available before. 'Pretty Colored Lights' was included as a bonus on the digital version of Morgan's 2014 debut EP 'Makeout Scars & Breakout Stars'. Confronted by, as she calls it on her website, 'physical challenges', she recorded her debut while laying in bed. 'Pretty Colored Lights' features some powerful guitar work. The record comes in a beautiful sleeve, on red or green vinyl. On her website, Morgan writes she is 'a vegan and avid supporter of equality', and that she 'has a love, respect, and passion for all living things'. That is something I can only applaud, and fits in very well with the Christmas spirit! The single can be ordered from Morgan Shaughnessy's website and listened on Spotity: https://play.spotify.com/track/5mSxWj7zYkKP1GDIIGXCP1


Felice Brothers: Country Ham / Murder By Mistletoe (Yep Roc, USA)
Maybe it's not the most subtile transition, from a vegan animal and human loving singer to a band that recorded a Christmas single called 'Country Ham' and backed it up with a song that is titled 'Murder By Mistletoe'... Responsible for this not so peaceful titled 7" is the upstate New York folk/rock band The Felice Brothers. Started as a trio of real brothers playing the New York City subways, the trio developed in a real band, losing brother Simone along the way, and seeing brothers Ian and Felice joined by three other members, of which one, Josh Rawon, has the nickname 'Christmas Clapton'. I don't have the slightest idea where he got the name from, but with a name like that, it's of course no surprise that the band was going to record some Christmas songs eventually. 'Murder By Mistletoe' was already featured on their 2008 self-titled album, their first album for Team Love Records. 'Country Ham' appeared on the band's 2015 digital Christmas EP 'Feliz Navidad' and although from the title you wouldn't guess it is a Christmas song, it definitely is. It's a folky song, and talks about sleigh bells that ring and Bing Crosby that sings - Winter Wonderland. How more Christmas can you get? Well, it also talks about a snowman that is afraid of acid rain and a drummer boy that marches around the tree... Musically, it reminds me of the 1990s lo-fi scene, with some folk and country influences and a definite slacker attitude. You can listen to it on Spotify: https://play.spotify.com/track/7BzWno3RXA8xlW9W3R22Rp


Yellow Snow: Santa Claus D.W.I. (Greasy Records, USA)
Talking about lofi - definitely lofi is the Christmas single of a band called Yellow Snow. Their single 'Santa Claus D.W.I.' was released by Chicago label Greasy Records, and sounds like a sleeping room recording. Which it probably is. The duo male-female vocals (by Jeff, who also does organ, bass and guitar, and Laura, who also takes care of 'encouragement') are all over the song. I don't know if this song is a cover of a song with the same name that was released in 1989 on a 7" by Portland punk band Alcoholics Unanimous, but it wouldn't surprise me. Still, despite it's shaky recording and performance, the song has its charm. You can get the 7" from the webshop of Greasy Records, in two different editions: one with a picture sleeve, depicting a boozing Santa Claus, and one in a Greasy Records company sleeve. And listen to it on the Bandcamp page of the label.


Insane Clown Posse: A Carnival Christmas EP (Psychopathic, USA)
If you need a subtile Christmas record, it is clear that the Insane Clown Posse is not the band to call. I don't know if the duo is to blame for the trend of horror clowns, who have been scaring people in many countries this year, but if your music is labeled horrorcore and you dress up like scary looking clowns, some kind of connection should not be surprising. Anyway, the Insane Clown Posse released a Christmas EP in 1994, 'A Carnival Christmas E.P.', but only on CD and cassette. In 1997, two songs of the EP were re-released, again on CD and cassette. This year, the EP will for the first time be released on vinyl, as a 7". First it looked that the EP ws going to be part of RSD Black Friday, but it wasn't. In the end, it was released early December. As the original EP is almost 20 minutes long, I guess the 7" is a re-released of the 1997 verson of the EP, with only two of the four songs, With songs titled 'Santas A Fat Bitch', 'Red Christmas' and 'Santa Killas', you should know what to expect. If not, listen to the original EP here on Youtube.


John 'Elvis' Schroder: Christmas With John 'Elvis' Schroder (Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, USA)
Another record that will not be everybody's cup of tea is by John 'Elvis' Schroder from Portland, Oregon. The nickname 'Elvis' is no coincidence, as Schroder built a career as an Elvis impersonator - well, career, the title of his upcoming debut album '57 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong' says it all, I guess. The two tracks of this release were taken from a small run Christmas album that 'Elvis' recorded in the early 1990s. On the A-side, that I haven't heard yet, John 'Elvis' Schroder is supposed to croon himself through a version of 'I Saw Mommy Santa Claus'. The B-side is a quite psychedelic and weird sounding song called 'Gonna Be Your Santa'. Recording a psychedelic sounding song may be a bit unexpected for an Elvis impersonaltor, but well, that's what you get when you are joined by Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Peter Holmström of The Dandy Warholes. The single is released by local label Voodoo Doughnut Recordings. You can listen to the B-side 'Gonna Be Your Santa' on Soundcloud and order the record from the label.


John Oates & The Time Jumpers: Santa Be Good / Childen Go Where I Send Thee (Elektra Nashville, USA)
There haven't been many 'bigger' artists releasing new Christmas singles this year, but one that can be considered quite 'big' is John Oates, who we of course all know from the succesful 80s duo Hall & Oates. But 30 years have passed since the 1980s, so John Oates does not make catchy pop rock songs anymore (at least not as a solo artist), but now plays a style of music that is maybe more in line with his life phase - Sinatra inspired jazzy sophisticated easy listening. Definitely not lo-fi, like some of the previous singles we discussed. ‎For A-side 'Santa Be Good To Me' Oates is joined by swing band The Time Jumpers, while he is trying to talk Santa Claus in bringing him a new lover, with whom he can spend Christmas, as all his efforts so far to find one have been fruitless. A nice relaxed sounding song. On the B-side, John Oates covers 'Childen Go Where I Send Thee'. The single comes in a plastic sleeve, on transculent green vinyl, and can be bought from the webshop of John Oates' website. You can even get an autographed copy of the single, although that doubles the price. And check the lyric video of the song on Youtube.


Josh Groban: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas / The Christmas Song' (Reprise, USA)
I guess Josh Groban can also be considered a 'big' artist, although I had never heard of him. But I guess that might have to with the kind of music he is playing and the fact that I am from Europe and I think he is mainly popular in the US. And with four solo albums that have been certified multi-platinum and having been the number-one best selling artist in the United States in 2007, I guess you can call him 'big'. Anyway, for his Christmas single, also on green vinyl (the most popular vinyl color this season it seems) and a Barnes and Noble exclusive, Groban has recorded two much covered Christmas classics: 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' and 'The Christmas Song'. To me, Groban sounds like a performer in a musical, given his somewhat theatrical way of singing. It fits these two songs well. Get the 7" from Barnes and Noble if Groban is your cup of tea, and if you, like I was, are unfamiliar with him, listen to 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' on Youtube.


Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: White Christmas / God Rest Ye Merry Gents (Daptone, USA)
A singer who would, in a better world, have made it really big as a singer and performer, was Sharon Jones. She tragically died in November of this year, after losing her long battle with cancer. Sharon Jones left us many great songs, that she recorded with The Dap-Kings, including one of the best original Christmas songs of the 21st Century, 'Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects'. Last year, Sharon and the Dap-Kings released their holiday album 'It's A Holiday Soul Party', that of course included 'Ain't No Chimneys In The Project' and also 'Just Another Christmas Song', the 2014 Christmas single of the band and last year's single '8 Days Of Hannukah'. The album is now re-released on green vinyl as (another) Barnes and Noble exclusive, with as an extra a (old school black) 7" featuring two of the albums songs: the swinging version of 'White Christmas' and an funky instrumental version of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' retitled to 'God Rest Ye Merry Gents'. The album including the 7" can be bought from Barnes and Noble. You can watch'the video of the high energy version of 'White Christmas' on Youtube.


Le'Trell: Silva Bells (Star Creature, USA)
Another soulful Christmas song is a cover of 'Silver Bells' by funk/soul/disco outfit Le'Trell, released on Chicago label Star Creature (or, to use the full name: Star Creature Universal Vibration). The label specializes in dancefloor heavy funky disco-influenced boogie music. To make 'Silver Bells', not exactly the most funky Christmas song ever written, sound more funky Le'Trell retitled it to 'Silva Bells'. The song sounds more like 1980s electronic disco/boogie than 70s disco/funk, although the vocals do give it a 70s vibe. The record is pressed on red vinyl. Le'Trell is a rather mysterious outfit, most probably from the USA, who only released two singles so far. You can buy the record through the Bandcamp of Star Creature and also listen to the A-side there.


There also have been some records that came out a couple of years ago, and that have been repressed: Jive Turkeys' 'Get Down Santa / Funky Jesus' on Colemine Records, originally released in 2010 and now available on red vinyl and also the split of Poison Idea and Angry Snowman from 2013, that seems to be available again.


Leaners: Christmas EP (KiliKiliVilla, Japan)
We finish in Japan, where the five piece band Leaners (two girls/three boys) have released a two track EP, simply called 'Christmas EP'. The Leaners play a mixture of punk, surf and rock, and have for example recorded a Japanese language version of The Undertones' classic 'Teenage Kicks' for their last album - I haven't heard it yet, but I expect that it will sound great! For their Christmas EP they recorded a cover of 'I Saw Mommy Santa Claus', and turn it into a cool rocking song, with some nice surf / rock & roll guitarwork and a vocal delivery that brings the Phil Spector Christmas record to mind. On the B-side of the 7" there is an instrumental medley of several Christmas songs called 'Hot Club Of Christ'. One of the nicest Christmas 7" of this year. If you are not from Japan, it is not easy to find the 7", but you can listen to the songs on the Bandcamp of the band.


That's all for the moment. Let's see if some more Christmas 7"'s will appear at the sky soon!

vrijdag 25 december 2015

Johnny Cash: Little Drummer Boy b/w I'll Remember You (USA, Columbia, 4-41481, 1959)


Johnny Cash, probably the biggest and most influential country star of the 20th Century (or at least the second most important, for those who consider Hank Williams the most important), recorded four Christmas albums in his life, but his first Christmas record was a 7” single. On the A-side, it featured his version of the song 'The Little Drummer Boy'. The B-side was a non Christmas Cash original, 'I'll Remember You'. The single was recorded by Cash a year after he had left Sun Records for Columbia Records, and it was released for Christmas 1959. It did quite well, as it rose up to 64 in the Billboard Pop Charts. One year later, it also charted in the Billboard Country Charts, reaching 24 as highest position. Cash included the song also on his first Christmas album. 'The Christmas Spirit', that was released in 1963.

The song itself already had a long, and somewhat obscure history, although the first recorded version only dated back 4 years earlier than the Johnny Cash version. The song was written by St. Joseph, Missouri, classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980) in 1941 and was originally titled 'Carol Of The Drum'. The song was based on a traditional Czech carol and Davis published it as a song for amateur and girls' choirs. The manuscript was set as a chorale, the tune in the soprano with alto harmony, while tenor and bass parts produce a drum rhythm, and an added keyboard accompaniment 'for rehearsal only'. Although many people have tried to trace the original Czech carol the tune is based on, so far no one has succeeded. Still, it was Katherine Davis herself who claimed that the tune was based on a Czech carol, so there is no reason to doubt this is indeed the case. Katherina Davis was not exactly new to the songwriting business, as she was the composr of more than 600 hymns and songs for choirs.

Fourteen years after the song was written, it was finally recorded, by the Austrian Trapp Family (the family that was partly inspiration for The Sound Of Music), under its original title 'Carol Of The Drum', shortly before they retired. Two years later, the Jack Halloran Singers were the second to record the song, with a slightly altered arrangement, for their Dot Records album 'Christmas Is A-Comin'. It was Dot Records' Henry Onorati who introduced the song to his friend Harry Simeone. In 1958, Harry Simoneone was contracted by 20th Century Fox to record a Christmas album, and he decided to include the song. Simeone made a few small changes to the arrangement, retitled it 'The Little Drummer Boy', and recorded it with the Harry Simone Chorale for the album 'Sing We Now Of Christmas'. As both Simeone and Onorati probably felt they had gold in their hands, they claimed joint composition credits with Davis.

They were right, as both the album and the song were a big hit. The song was released as a single at the end of November 1958, and rose to 13 in the Billboard Pop Charts. In fact, the single scored in the charts for 5 years in a row, from 1958 to 1962. In 1963, the album was rereleased under the title 'The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival', which shows how popular the song had become. Another proof of the popularity of the song is that the Jack Halloran Singers re-released their 1957 Christmas album in 1959 with a new title: 'The Little Drummer Boy'.

Johnny Cash was one of the first of many other artists to record the song, one year after the Harry Simeone Singers had turned it into a hit. On the label of the 7”, that was put out by Columbia Records, the song was only credited to  'Simeone', again underlining how much the song had become identified with Harry Simeone, and how fast original songwriter Katherine Davis had been forgotten.

The song has six short couplets. The lyrics are very simple and straightforward, and tell the story of a poor boy who does not have a gift for Jesus, but plays his drum for him. In the first two couplets, the poor boy is addressed by what appear to be the three wise men, on their way to Jesus, to bring him gift, to join them ('Come they told me'). In the third couplet, the boy himself stands before Jesus, and tells him he is poor, like Jesus is ('Baby Jesus, I am a poor boy too') and has no gift to bring. The he asks if he may play his drum for him, instead. He gets the approval from mother Mary ('The Mother Mary nodded') and the boy plays his drum ('I played my best for Him'). And Jesus likes it: 'Then He smiles at me – me and my drum', as the song concludes. In most early (and also many later) versions, there are barely any instruments used in the recording – it's mostly voices, who sing both the lyrics and do the rhythm – the rhythm, that resembles the drum of the poor drummer boy.

Johnny Cash' version does differ from the version of the Harry Simeone Chorale in the instrumentation. It does have the 'tingling bell' that is sounded several times in the song, although not as many times as in the Harry Simeone version. Together with the tingling bells, a simple guitar stroke can be heard through most of the song. And instead of voices doing the drum rhythms, the Johnny Cash version has a real drum sound, a Indian tom-tom, which gives it a bit of a tribal feel. It is funny to know that a few years later, Johnny Cash became very interessed into native Indian culture, also starting to use this influence in his music. To echo the female 'pa dum da dum'-chorus, some light piano keys are included. The light chorus and piano keys contradict with the bass-baritone voice of Johnny Cash. Instead of singing the lines, it is almost as if he is declamating the words, which makes him sound like a preacher from the deep south, who warns his parish members for all bad things the future is going to hold for them. It gives the song a much darker sound than the light Harry Simeone Chorale-version.

In that way, the Johnny Cash version fits in well with the personality of its interpreter: on one side 'the man in black', the angry outlaw who did not want to fit in, with his drinking habits, drug taking, his temper and restlessness and with the weight of his sins resting heavy on his shoulders; on the other side the devote christian with a strong love for God and an evenly strong longing for a quiet family live with his wife and kids. The tension between these two sides of Cash can be felt in the song. Just as the little drummer boy, he felt he was not worth to come before the Lord, but at the same time, he felt the Lord would always welcome him, as Mary and Jesus welcomed the poor boys' drumming. The later Christmas albums of Johnny Cash and the annual Christmas TV special he did for CBS throughout the 1970s would only show the God-loving, family man-part of his personality (his second Christmas album was even called 'Christmas with the Johnny Cash Family'), and because of that, miss the sharp edge and danger hat makes Johnny Cash best work stand out. In his version of 'The Little Drummer Boy', both sides are present, which is what makes it such a strong version of this song. As also Christmas has two sides – it is not only a joyful celebration, but it also give hope to those who are doing not so well, and are longing for better times.

Listen to the song on Youtube:

maandag 21 december 2015

The Shades: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town b/w Prancer's Got Some Red Spots (US, Numero Group, ES-053, 2015)


The Numero Group is a Chicago-based reissue label, that was founded by Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley in 2003. In 2015 they decided that after 12 years, it was finally time for a Christmas release. The label has a very mixed back catalog as far as music styles go. It includes heavyweights like Codeine and Unwound but also a lot of soul and funk releases. But neither heavy rock nor funk you'll find on this Christmas single – not at all, I would say.

The Shades, as that is the band that is responsible for the Christmas single, was a teen girl group from Etna Green, a little town in Indiana, situated between South Bend and Ft. Wayne. The group consisted of Cinda Stouder (guitar, vocals), Janice Gard (bass, vocals), and Suzannah Blodgett (drums, vocals), and released a first 7” in 1964, on the local Metropolis label, 'Denny' b/w 'I Won't Cry'. When the 7” was released, the girls were still very young, around 15-16 years old. What was rather special about this 7”, was that the girls had written the two songs themselves. Most teen girl bands around that time were mainly faces and voices, while the songs were written and the music was played by men. But that was not the kind of teen girl band The Shades were, they wrote and played their own songs. 'Denny' was an uptempo rock & roll influenced song, while 'I Won't Cry' was a more moody song, a song that stood the test of time very well, I think.

In 1966, the girls travelled all the way to Chicago, to record four songs in the RCA Studios, two Christmas songs, the classic 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' and an original they had written themselves, 'Prancer's Got Some Red Spots', plus two non-Christmas songs, 'Send Him Back Home To Me' and 'Tell Me Not To Hurt'. The four songs were released on two 7''''s on the Elkhart, Indiana label Fujimo Records. One of these 7”'s contained both Christmas songs, of which the original 'Prancer's Got Some Red Spot' was considered the A-side. The song was played quite a lot on local radio stations in Indiana.

These three 7”s were all The Shades recorded. Despite their local focus and the band being very young, The Shades managed to travel to Europe, and play a show in front of an audience of 5000 people in, of all places... my hometown of Amsterdam. The show in Amsterdam was the result of them winning a contest. I've tried to see if I could find more info about this show, but unfortunately, without success. This must have been some experience for the girls!

I don't know when the band exactly came to an end, but it will probably have been not too long after them releasing the two 7”'s. After the band broke up, Cindy, Janie and Suzie went on to other things, Cindy was a postmaster for many years, Suzie a nurse practitioner and Janie first worked fifteen years for a manufacturing company, but then decided to go back to school, which led her earning a master degree in psychology. Unfortunately, Janie's career as a psychologist never came off the ground, due to she losing her sight. Janie died in 2008, less than two weeks before her 60th birthday.

The Numero Group reissue has turned the sides, with now 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' on the A-side and the novelty song 'Prancer's Got The Red Spots' on the B-side. It comes in a nice picture sleeve, showing the girls sitting in a big Christmas package. The A-side starts with a 'Hey, it's him again', followed by a 'Oh-oh', and then goes into a jangly guitar sound, until the girl voices fall in. It's the jangly guitar sound, that sometimes even sounds a bit offkey (at least on my copy of the 7”), that sets this version apart of many of the other cover versions of this song. At the end of the songs, the girls make some remarks, and one of them is also listing what she wants... and I am not totally sure, but it seems she also wants a... Beatle? Well, it was 1966 after all, and I can imagine the girls were inspired by the British beat invasion. The B-side was a song in the style of many of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s novelty songs about all kind of Christmas related animals and creatures.. The song tells us about a serious problem Rudolph notices: Prancer has some red spots, which means he can't prance tonight, as the red spots were caused by the measles, concludes a docter... Prancer is of course very disappointed, but after Santa Claus assures him he can lead next year and after he realizes he doesn't want to pass the measles to all the girls and boys, poor Pancer accepts his faith, and stays home... the song sounds rather basic, but that is also its charm. All in all, a very nice single that has been rescued from obscurity by the fine folks at the Numero Groups, something The Shades definitely deserved! Those girls kicked ass!

You can listen to the 'Prancers Got Some Red Spots' on Youtube:


And here you can listen to The Shades version of 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town':

zondag 20 december 2015

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: 8 Days (Of Hanukkah)/ What Does Hanukkah Mean To You? (US, Daptone Records, DAP-1093, 2015)


Without doubt, one of the best Christmas albums of the year is 'It's A Holiday Soul Party' by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. After two Christmas singles, the terrific 'Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects' from 2009 (with BinkyGriptite's 'Holiday Breakdown '09' on the flipside) and last years 'Just Another Christmas Song (This Time I'll Sing Along)', with 'Big Bulps', featuring Saun & Starr, on the B-side, this album is the first Christmas full length for Sharon Jones and 'her' Dap-Kings. All the aforementioned hits are featured on this album, and also their 2015 single, '8 Days (Of Hanukkah'). Although it is featured on a Christmas album, technically speaking, it is not really a Christmas song, as it is about a Jewish celebration, that also happens to take place in December.

I was not familiar with Hanukkah, to be honest, and only learned about this celebration through what I read on Christmas music blogs (which proofs reading about Christmas music makes you a smarter person – so you'd better continue reading this blog). Although we do have a large Jewish community in Holland, this fest is not as general known as it seems to be in the US – at least not under the name 'Hannukah' , although I also doubt if I ask 'the man on the street' about the light fest, that he will know what I am talking about. Of course, I educated myself a little bit about Hanukkah, and now I know that Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the larger Seleucid army and a miracle that happened during this time, where the menorah (lamp stand) of the Temple in Jerusalem remained lit for eight days, although the supply of olive oil was just enough for one days. This is the reason why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. During the celebration, each day a candle is lit, which makes the candle holder with nine candles (the one in the middle is lit first, and all the other candles are lit using the fire of the central candle) the most wellknown symbol of the Hanukkah celebration.

The title of Sharon Jones song '8 Days (Of Hanukkah)' is referring to this aspect of the celebration. The song starts with a shouted and funky '1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8' and continues with the more soulful sing-a-long 'Days of Love, Days of Hanukkah, Everyone of them glows with love', and after repeating the 8 day count again, continues in this soulful way, to tell us what happens on each of the eight days. The second day, when the dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) is spinned, seems to be Sharon's favorite, because in the second half of the song, it's the dreidel that gets all the attention. The B-side is called 'What Does Hanukkah Mean To You?', and there we get the opportunity to tell Sharon what Hanukkah means to us... it's basically the same song, with only the chorus present, and the opportunity for us to sing what each of the 8 days means to us – that is also what Sharon ask of us, after having thanked us for turning the record... a cool way of making this more than just an semi-instrumental version of the song!

The song was – of course – released on the great Daptone Records, and came on blue vinyl (but, alas!, it is totally sold out) and on traditional black vinyl (still available!). There is a lyric video of the song to be found on Youtube, I think it's really nicely done, and helped me to understand the song and the Hanukkah celebration even better. All in all, another cool Christmas single from Sharon, and I hope over the next years, many more will follow!

Watch the video on Youtube:


And get the 7” from all the better indie record shops or directly from the label, here: