Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Best Christmas Music
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Darlene Love

The year was 1963, and girl-group Svengali Phil Spector was recording a Christmas album to be modestly called A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector. They had one "new" song to record, which Phil had written in conjunction with his crack songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby" fame). The song was meant for the Ronettes, and specifically for Spector's girlfriend Ronnie, but she just couldn't sell the song. Spector got fed up and asked Darlene Love (a Spector stalwart who had recorded individually and with several Spector groups) to sing it. So she stepped up to the mic--right then, right there, in front of everyone--and belted out what may very well be the best single Christmas recording of all time.

And she sells it, like few others have sold a Christmas song. As you can hear -- the track is posted here -- the vocals are powerful enough to cut through Spector's trademark "Wall of Sound" and blow out your speakers. I think what helps the song work is that it's a love song more than a Christmas song; Christmas is just the occasion for her lover's return. And this girl is lonely. Santa had better watch out or he's going to get ambushed.

The only problem with this track, so far as I can tell, is that it is too classic. It's a staple of "oldies" radio, and Muzak, and commercials, and so on, and it's easy to get sick of the song because you've heard it so many times before (even if you weren't actively thinking about the tune). And it's amazing how "Good-Time Oldies" radio can take music that was considered transgressive in its time and reduce it to easy-listening pabulum.

But I still think this song has vitality. If you're not sold yet--if you still think that the song has been drained of any strength by the twin vampires of Christmas and Oldies stations--I urge you to recalibrate your ears through this experiment:

1. Listen to as much of this version of the song as you can stand. It's the same song, competently performed by the band "Hanson" (and it is "competent" -- give the devils their due), and competently engineered and produced. I could have posted a dozen other versions of the song that are equally peppy, unremarkable and bland. In short, it's a festive Christmas turd in your egg nog, just the sort of thing that your lowered expectations will accept during the holidays.

2. Now. Listen to Darlene again.

3. Put your socks back on.

For a generation who writes off "oldies" as elevator music (well, actually, for a generation that doesn't remember a time when they played music in elevators), and who only remembers Darlene Love (if at all) as Danny Glover's wife "Trish" in the Lethal Weapon movies, it's a great reminder that some of the music of "The 50s" (actual era 1957-1963) kicked ass. Even some of the Christmas music of "the 50s" kicked ass. If you still disagree, then you can go sit in the corner and play with matches, or torture animals, whatever it is you people do. You'll probably like the New Bomb Turks' version.

It's interesting to note that almost none of the subsequent covers have tried to record it without the Phil Spector trademark "Wall of Sound." People, people... Spector wrote it, but that doesn't mean you have to perform it the same way each time. That may be easier said than done, come to think of it. People keep aiming for the Darlene Love version, and they keep falling short. She owns the song (or pwns it, in modern lingo). Maybe you should try something a little more your speed.

So rest in peace, Darlene Love.*

* Darlene Love is alive and well and singing her ass off in the Broadway cast of Hairspray.

 1:23 PM

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