Holiday Music: The Christmas Quandary

By E.C. McCarthy

Why are the pop singers suicidal, daddy?”

Admittedly, my eight-year-old self wasn’t quite that articulate, but I still remember the first time I heard David Bowie sing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby on the radio. Someone had obviously corralled my precious Ziggy Stardust into a studio, put a gun to his head, and forced him to sing “pah-rum-puh-pum-pum.”

It was unnatural, as is virtually every Christmas song put out by rock bands. Perhaps if I smoked whatever Sir Paul was smoking when he recorded “Wonderful Christmastime” then I’d enjoy it the way he clearly did. (I envision him skipping about the living room with headphones on like Santa’s Nimble Elf-Beatle. Not a bit rock’n’roll.)

The holiday does need music, however, and finding the right soundtrack for winter has been something of a forever-mission, an earnest search for the songs that won’t make my eyes roll into the back of my head. There are so few of them out there that I experience an alarming slippage in standards as the weeks progress toward C-Day. I’m especially vulnerable in the nostalgia department – George Michael’s “Last Christmas” often escapes my radar and I find myself tapping a toe, swaying my head and woefully joining in, “…and the very next day, you gave it away…” then realise my error, scream “NO, GOD, NO!” and pummel my iPod with the nearest blunt instrument.

However, there is happy news in the form of a well-worn “discovery” that will banish the saccharin pop Grinch. In the same way I can listen to Bruce Springsteen wind up Clarence Clemons at the top of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” pretty much any day of the year, the BellRays’ “Poor Old Rudolph” is a stellar rock tune that transcends the holiday. It’s cheeky, it’s wistful, and it’s a cautionary tale to male reindeer everywhere. I have it in permanent rotation. Mind you, the song is nigh impossible to find for downloading, so you’ve got to dig deep into the bins and locate the 2002 CD release A Vital Gesture Christmas, Vol. 1. That one track is worth the cost of the album, guaranteed.

It was “Poor Old Rudolph” on a colleague’s Christmas comp that led me to check out the BellRays’ 2005 holiday rock EP, A BellRays Christmas. Joy to the world, these guys know how to sing about fir trees. “All I Want to do is Shag for Christmas” turns December 25th into a right sexy holiday, and “Santa’s Got a Big Old Bag” is all funk and groove that’ll get you moving before your first sip of eggnog. “Christmas Train” and “Mary Christmas” are pure rock jams, and “Rocket Ship Santa” successfully rebrands the Claus as an edgy dude – a true Christmas miracle.

The BellRays aren’t afraid to shimmy and shake their way through the yuletide sentimentality, effectively showing that there’s no need for rock’n’roll to hibernate or prostitute during the holiday season. And for that, we can all be thankful.

E.C. McCarthy is a novelist and screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles.

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  • Rewriterewrite

    Thanks for the much-needed and greatly appreciated new C-Day playlist. A wonderfully written, informative piece. “Poor Old Rudolph” is the necessary antidote to the video.

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