Graded on a Curve:
The Beach Boys,
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

I nearly drowned last Christmas. I’d decided to go surfing for the first time and promptly toppled from the board into eight feet of water, where I flailed about screaming for help because I have all the swimming skills of a block of concrete. But just as I was breathing my last, Santa pulled up on his souped-up dolphin-drawn water-sleigh accompanied by man-eating sharks in red Santa hats singing “Little Saint Nick.” Don’t tell me Santa’s a myth.

Actually I spent Christmas Eve the way I always do–watching It’s a Wonderful Life thinking how Bedford Falls is dullsville compared to Pottersville, and how cool it would be to drink in Nick’s bar, where Nick says to Clarence, “Hey look, mister—we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint “atmosphere.” Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?”

But I also spent it listening to 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album.

What with its five originals on side one and seven standards on side two, the LP has something for all, from your surfs-up wannabe to your stick-to-the-beach chair granny. And let’s not forget the Grinch–a single listen to The Beach Boys Christmas Album caused his heart to swell four times, which is one more than the heart enlargement produced by the glorious morning song of gratitude sung by the weird-looking citizens of Whoville.

But let’s hold up a second. As excellent an album as The Beach Boys Christmas Album is, it has its flaws. Or perhaps I should say flaw. And it doesn’t lie with the LP’s five originals. No, it lies with several of the chestnuts on side two. Instead of employing his genius for song arrangement, Brian Wilson turned to Dick Reynolds of Four Freshman fame to arrange the beloved classics. Wilson isn’t shy when it comes to acknowledging Reynolds’ influence on his own work, but Reynolds decision to employ a 41-piece orchestra to accompany The Beach Boys’ harmonies doesn’t do the band any favors.

Both “Frosty the Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” are combination three-ring circus and Vegas lounge acts. The big symphonic sound of “Blue Christmas” drowns Brian Wilson’s exquisite solo vocal performance in schmaltz. The old-fashioned “White Christmas” works despite the symphonic lard and is sure to get the seal of approval from your grandparents, despite their long-held belief that The Beach Boys are red-diaper babies. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” also survives the big band treatment, but I would love to hear the song in a more stripped down setting.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are” does not offend my intestinal fortitude for the simple reason that Reynolds’ solemn arrangement suits the song’s religious tenor. And Reynolds does us all a favor by keeping the orchestra’s mouth shut on “Aud Lang Syne.” Unfortunately Dennis Wilson abruptly stops the music to deliver a spoken Christmas message to all. Talk about harshing the collective Yuletide buzz.

The Beach Boys originals are winners all. “Little Saint Nick” is a classic Beach Boys’ car song, but in this case it’s Santa’s sleigh the band’s singing about:

Just a little bobsled we call it old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy-apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.

The band’s harmonies are on full display on “The Man with All the Toys.” The plot is simple—some guy (a reindeer rustler perhaps) is lurking about the North Pole when he takes a peek through the window of a very out of place house and sees a fat guy in red ordering around some weird little gnome slaves making toys. He’s tempted to knock on the door; instead he returns to civilization to tell everyone what he saw, and probably ends up in a locked ward.

“Santa’s Beard” is a tale of disillusionment–an older boy takes his kid brother to the local department store to sit on Santa’s lap, but the kid is your doubting Thomas type and promptly pulls a pillow from Santa’s belly and yanks his beard off. It ends with the lame excuse that the Santa imposter is “just helping Santa,” but I’m betting the little punk didn’t buy it. Instead he became a bomb-throwing nihilist set on destroying a culture based on capitalist lies told by jolly materialists.

“Merry Christmas, Baby” isn’t as happy a song as you’d think. The singer’s girl tosses him overboard just in time for Christmas because he fucked up—probably by going overboard on the spiked eggnog and feeling up her best friend—and the only thing he wants for Christmas is to be back in her arms. “Christmas Day” doesn’t feature one of Wilson’s more inspired melodies, but you’ve got to wrap Wilson’s fantastic organ solo at the end and give it to your neighborhood garage band.

The Beach Boys Christmas Album has something for everyone—its problem is it doesn’t have everything for everyone. In my case, I’d ditch the standards (put ‘em on a separate album maybe) and go the all-originals route. Trouble is they didn’t have enough Yuletide originals at the time. But they would later add to their list of originals with such wonderful Holiday songs as “Santa’s Got an Airplane,” “Child of Winter,” “Melekalkimaka,” and the brilliant “Bells of Christmas” and “Winter Symphony.” But The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album has warmed many a heart since its release in 1964, and for all I know you’re listening to it right now.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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