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Santa's Mixed Bag

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Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

(Westside)

Babyface

Christmas With Babyface

(Epic)

By Pat Daly

A widespread misconception about Christmas Eve is that people (not to mention mice) aren't stirring. In fact, Christmas Eve is the night when a significant segment of the population gets a few final spins out of its holiday CDs and maybe even engages in a little blasphemous hip shaking or slow dancing under the mistletoe. Between the angels we have heard on high and the little drummer boy dropping beats down at the manger, music and Christmas go together like frankincense and myrrh. The tradition of Christmas music as a pop commodity, however, can be traced back to 1935, when Bing Crosby, aka der Bingle, gave us his fanciful take on the German chestnut "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht," and a raft of future original standards floated down in its wake, including Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" as sung by Vaughn Monroe, Johnny Marks's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as sung by Gene Autry, and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" as sung by Crosby himself.

With the arrival of doo-wop and rock 'n' roll, a new generation of variously talented--and not necessarily reverent or even sane--performers put its mark on the classics (the Drifters' nutty "White Christmas" may be driving one last poor Pottery Barn shopper over the edge even as you read this) and baked up an impressive batch of its own sweet potatoes, including the Penguins' "Jingle Jangle," Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," and the Youngsters' "Christmas in Jail." In the mid-60s, soul greats like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Booker T. & the MG's added their own chestnut-rattling carols to the canon. The late 60s, however, put a kink in the yuletide pop trend: a rise in self-deification rendered Mary's boy child unnecessary. Hendrix's benediction at Monterey Pop might as well have been, "You'll never hear Christmas music again."

We would, of course. When the Ramones and their ilk made the world safe for girl groups again, Christmas music came along for the ride. The Damned, the Dickies, and the Pretenders participated admirably in the resurrection, which has continued unabated since. Nowadays the average music megastore's shelves groan under the weight of an annual avalanche of Christmas CDs. The classics are back in print, and the superstars--some Christian, some not--weigh in on a rotating basis. Acts major and marginal from all radio formats are represented, cottage industries have emerged--Mannheim Steamroller, anyone?--and waning fads like Windham Hill and cocktail culture hang on for dear life. And--hold on to your elf hat--shockingly, many of these artists are more interested in filling a five-pound box of money than in bearing tidings of joy. What makes this weird segment of the music machine bearable and even fascinating is that it's almost totally unpredictable. Great artists are fully capable of making abysmal holiday records, and irritating swill merchants occasionally morph into stars of wonder. Whole genres can flip-flop in one's estimation based on their adaptability to holiday music.

There are a few tricks that span all musical boundaries. Jingle bells, for instance. If the barely more-than-one-note melody of the tune by that name annoys you at all, I'd advise you to avoid Christmas pop completely. Well-placed musical and lyrical references to "Jingle Bells" regularly elevate excellent Christmas rock 'n' roll into the stratosphere. Ike and Tina Turner's arrangement of "Merry Christmas Baby," later lifted by Bruce Springsteen, provides a particularly compelling illustration. But just the sound of jingle bells can imbue both gems like Sugar Chile Robinson's "Christmas Boogie" and Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me" and nonseasonal songs like the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run" with a certain holiday coziness. Well, for me, anyway.

But the true indicator of great Christmas pop is the extent to which it combines the artist's signature sound with the spirit of the season. Whether they're covering classics or tackling original Christmas music, soul artists do best with soul music and country artists do best with country music. Across the board, songs about snow, Santa, bonfires, going home, trimming trees, sleigh rides, mistletoe, and, occasionally, salvation are the most likely to thaw a cold heart. This may seem pretty obvious, but the snowscape is littered with ill-advised forays into Perry Como land, where sappy arrangements meet lazy performances to bring even the most nog-soggy Christmas bash to a grinding halt. The Beach Boys, Al Green, and the Four Seasons have all failed in shocking fashion to deliver the magic. And a cursory listen to the Del Fuegos' "Punchbowl Full of Joy" quickly establishes that it is vastly superior to Jackie Wilson's entire Christmas album.

I recently organized a cage match on my stereo between two Christmas CDs, a new one by Babyface and a newly reissued one by Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns. Smith and his Clowns are the New Orleans legends whose unhinged rowdiness fueled brilliantly brainless party tunes like "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," "Sea Cruise," "Don't You Just Know It," and "High Blood Pressure"; the small British label Westside has made their Christmas record available (as available as imports can be, anyway) for the first time since 1962. Babyface, if you haven't realized it yet, is the real King of Pop, having ushered dozens of hits into the top ten as a producer and writer, including record-breaking singles by Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men. While his productions for others tend to be formulaic and overwrought, his own brand of spare, emotional lovers' rock, which he wraps around irresistible melodic hooks, has shown flashes of greatness. He regularly writes good, simple songs about devotion, longing, and home. He's the crooner most likely to deliver the next "White Christmas," but here he doesn't even come close.

Babyface's record is composed almost entirely of standards--the exception being "You Were There" from the movie Simon Birch, which is not only not a Christmas song but doesn't even use jingle bells. And we're talking the most standard of standards--his most daring move is making a medley of "The First Noel" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." He tries, and fails mightily, to get funky on the opening track, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." His version of "Winter Wonderland" is so middle-of-the-road it should have Andy Williams looking over his shoulder. "The Little Drummer Boy" gets a Fruitopia-style reggae overhaul, and by the time "Sleigh Ride" drags in, I'm longing to hear the comparatively edgy Carpenters version.

The Clowns' set is split evenly between originals and perennials, and the originals often feature Santa in their titles. Every song begins with a big fat rock 'n' roll riff, often lifted from some secular Clowns classic. Among the standards, a jaunty "Jingle Bells" is as mellow as things get. "White Christmas Blues" lifts the Drifters' arrangement of "White Christmas" and injects a thumping tale of lost love into the middle. And "Silent Night" is anything but, with a screaming horn chart and a vocal choir so obnoxious and irreligious that it's been rumored (albeit wrongly) to have sparked a churchgoer revolt that knocked the record out of circulation in the first place.

The band also roars through a "Little Liza Jane"-based original called "Happy New Year" with a rowdy chunk of "Auld Lang Syne" in the center, makes it under the mistletoe, and tallies up Huey's holiday wishes, the most fervent of which is, "All I want for Christmas is a little bit of music." That's not so much to ask--or is it? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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