A Superb Christmas Song

The 22nd November, 1963 was a dark day in American history, but also one of the brightest too. Their president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, but A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector was released. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t perform well at the time, but is among the greatest festive records, and has now enjoyed both commercial and critical success.

 

 

The album has been on high rotation for me and running for just over half an hour, it features The Ronettes and The Crystals. Its songs are secular and mostly covers, but performed with wide-eyed innocence, speaking of mid-Western values, fresh snow and an idealised version of an American Christmas.

 

They are uniformly effervescent. Produced by visionary record producer Phil Spector using his famous “wall of sound” methodology he described this as a Wagnerian approach and it’s akin to a musical collage. Often in mono, the instrumentation is layered and sumptuous, and influenced the Beach Boys, most notably on “God Only Knows.” Serving his second-degree murder sentence Spector has been in a Californian jail for a decade. He’s due for parole in 2025.

 

Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” and “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues are central to my auditory experience of the year’s penultimate week, but not that nameless aspirant squawking at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in front of those sleeping babes during Carols by Candlelight. You know the one: she came seventh in season 6 of X Factor and is now upsetting Alf in Summer Bay. At time of writing I trust the cryogenic defrosting of serial baritone warbler Dennis Walter is on schedule.

 

 

 

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the highpoint of A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector and rightly assumes an elevated position in popular culture. It’s performed by Darlene Love (a minister’s daughter) who like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye learnt to sing in church.

 

 

And what benefits her religious upbringing has brought us! Sadly for your correspondent, a sustained childhood in Kapunda’s St Rose’s Church, with a suitably pious stint as an altar boy, provided me with no vocal assistance as my ungodly atonality attests.

 

In addition to Darlene Love performing it for thirty consecutive years on Letterman it’s used as a dramatic counterpoint in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed gangster film Goodfellas. Robert De Niro’s character Jimmy (of course) has just pulled off the country’s biggest ever robbery at JFK airport, the so-called Lufthansa heist, and at their Christmas party various mobsters are bragging about what they’ve bought. Jimmy is upset. They need to keep low.

 

What did you say? You being a wiseguy with me? What did I tell you? What did I tell you? You don’t buy anything, you hear me? Don’t buy ANYTHING!

 

Despite all its sweetness and joy the song generates jukebox menace as we know there’ll be ugly consequences. It might be Christmas, but someone’ll get wacked! After all, De Niro’s involved.

 

This aside, it’s a gorgeous, uplifting track; rollicking along in an irresistible, up-tempo way that evokes connection and fireplace closeness. I reckon if you listen carefully you can also hear seventeen-year-old Cher singing backup vocals. It was among her first jobs.

 

But in 1963, back when our planet was alive with youthful promises of the space age and small town purity and neighbourly generosity, Darlene Love gives an almighty musical performance.

 

Go on, play it as you enjoy Christmas lunch. The pudding will never have tasted better.

 

 

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About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Just love that Phil Spector “Wall of Sound”. He certainly has had a huge influence on the recording industry. Fab read as always Mickey!

  2. Terry Riordan says

    I think you should add Chris Rea … Driving home for Christmas .. A gentle relaxing song with some fine riffs combined with Rea’s bluesy husky voice. Naturally a song for long drive which a lot of us do at Christmas

    As an Aussie it hard to go past Paul Kelly and ” gravy ” a life story in a song and for my Irish ancestors it’s hard to go past the Pogues ” New York ” life and attitude in a song

  3. Superb, Mickey.

    Christmas Day in the Dawson household does not officially commence until those opening key-strokes on the piano in “Fairytale of New York”.

  4. I can’t go past ‘Fairytale of New York'” also “How to make gravy.” Both will be heard today.

    There’s a wonderful tune by Paul Kelly & Archie Roach about Silent Night. I heard it again on the ABC yesterday but i don’t know the correct title..

    Frohliche Weihnachten to fellow Almanackers.

    Glen!

  5. Great tunes all of them. Darlene Love is one of the backup singers profiled in the terrific music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom”. She cleans houses these days.
    Speaking of which – “The Irishman/I Paint Houses for People”??? Top of my worst movie of the year list. Yikes 3 and a half hours of waiting for something other than another mindless murder. Time to hang up the clapperboard Marty. This is just a Greatest Hits album without any character development or intrigue.
    John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas/War is Over” gets a spin from me every chrissie.
    Bah humbug to all.

  6. I have the Phil Spector Xmas album. It’s a beauty alright. I trust Phil is snuggled up with it in Sing Sing.

  7. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. It certainly was played plenty where I was.

    Looking especially forward to the Brian Wilson bio “Love and Mercy” on SBS (again) and then Vampire Weekend at The Forum early in 2020.

    Cheers.

  8. “no vocal assistance as my ungodly atonality attests” ??? Now I’d have to disagree.Your atonality certainly made my pudding taste better. The gravy was also excellent. And be gentle on Denis. After all, one has to be a serial baritone warbler to know one. Great read Mickey.

  9. Spot on MR (and I’m a little late to this essay) and here are a few more fine Chrissy tunes:

    Christmas Eve Can Kill You, The Everly Brothers
    Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects, Sharon Jones
    River, Joni
    Feliz Navidad, Feliciano (followed immediately by Merry Christmas from the Family, Robert Earl Keen)
    Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight tonight), The Ramones
    If We Make it through December, Merle Haggard
    and my fave, Christmas in Prision, John Prine

  10. Thanks for that Someone.

    Cheers Rick. Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad is the best version I’ve heard. As is his cover of Light My Fire. Unsure if it’s been done but a post entitled, “Cover Versions That Are Superior To The Original” would be a treat.

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