For your present-wrapping accompanying listening pleasure, here’s collection of mostly forgotten festive singles dating from the late fifties to the late sixties, with a pop and soul-fuelled jazz-inflected flavour of Christmas in the days when shops shut at five, television was in black and white and shut down overnight, and the local Department Store Grotto was a bigger draw than The Big Film. All you had was secretly twiddling the radio dial with the volume turned down low…
Given my fascination for all things Radio Caroline and late-night early BBC2, you probably won’t be too surprised to find out that I have an equal fascination with how Christmas was celebrated in this relatively recent yet culturally and technologically simpler time; and yet, as you’ll find out, even then some people were already complaining that it had all got too commercial and everyone had forgotten the real meaning of Christmas. In case you were wondering, the screenshots are taken from the Round Window film in the earliest surviving Christmas edition of Play School, which of course dates from 1970 and is in colour but I feel it’s appropriate so that’s that. Incidentally, if you’re interested, you can read more about that edition of Play School – and its bizarre direct link to The Box Of Delights – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Here’s the full playlist, and you can find some sleevenotes below.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio – Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Taken from the soundtrack of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas; the whole album is rightly celebrated and seems to be one of the few jazz albums ‘allowed’ by the sort of people who say ‘nice’ whenever you mention the genre. I’m particularly fond of this however as it gives away how quickly and cheaply this outstanding soundtrack was recorded as you can very clearly hear the Hammond Organ’s motor struggling during the hummed intro.
Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes – Yulesville
As his name at least partly if obscurely suggests, Edd Byrnes played Kookie, the hip-talking car park attendant adviser to the sharply dressed young private eyes in teen detective series 77 Sunset Strip, one of the first ever ‘youth’ television shows. Although his jokey duet with Connie Stevens Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb was a huge hit, this hep slang beatnik jazz reworking of The Night Before Christmas wasn’t, despite being an actual good record in its own right.
The Ronettes – Sleigh Ride
Despite suffering repeated bad fortune – from being released on the same day that JFK was assassinated, meaning that nobody was in the mood for snow falling and friends calling yoo-hoo, up to the producer whose name was all over the parent album’s title going to prison for murder – this definitive reading of Leroy Anderson’s gift that keeps giving for producers putting music over local news fundraising campaigns needs little introduction. Which is handy, because it’s a bit difficult to talk about in jaunty, flippant terms these days. Though I did have a go in Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
The Sonics – Santa Claus
One of the more unhinged of the sixties garage psych bands – their other hits included the terrifyingly ravaged Psycho, Strychnine and The Witch (which you can read more about here) – The Sonics also had a neat line in lyrics that were pretty much the polar opposite of the macho misogyny that people assume was all over sixties pop. In their universe, they are born to lose and that is that, and oddly, they don’t ever seem that bothered about it. They’re actually relatively restrained on this swaggering lament for the fact that Santa isn’t going to bring them a brand new car, a clangy guitar, a cute little honey or lots of money. Relatively.
The Free Design – Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas)
A close harmony sunshine pop outfit who were never above sneaking a bit of social commentary into their soaring odes to kites and umbrellas, The Free Design turn their attention here to the commercialisation of Christmas and how we should all do a bit of silent meditation instead of carrying your big bank book down to ‘The Store’. They even seem to be hinting at achieving astral projection at one point, which must have gone right over the heads of anyone watching them on The Mike Douglas Show. You can find some thoughts on their other Festive single Kije’s Ouija, and Prokofiev’s peculiar influence on mid-sixties pop, here, and they also show up in another playlist recalling the glory days of Compilation Tapes here.
Wild Honey – Angels’ Christmas
Incredibly rare Rare Groove workout, so obscure that nobody really knows anything about it or indeed about Wild Honey themselves. Some sources date this to 1973, which is possible, but it smells more of 1968 to me, both in instrumentation and in the cultural references. Clearly JFK had become capable of flight by then.
Russ Conway – Snow Coach
Regular readers will know I have quite an obsession with the long-forgotten clean-cut late fifties piano pounder who was just about the most famous man in Britain for about three minutes, and am convinced that the attempts to transplant his mostly identical honky-tonk hammering (and, let’s be honest about it, mostly identical tunes) into exotic settings from the Wild West to the Mystic East through the use of instrumentation and studio effects is one of the very first stirrings of psychedelia (an idea shared, incidentally, by Rob Chapman’s excellent Psychedelia And Other Colours). This 1959 effort welded his near-indistinguishable ivory-tickling to – you guessed it – ‘Christmas’. If you want to know more about my Conway Theory, you can find a feature on my attempts to find his records in charity shops as a protest against the ‘commercialisation’ of Record Store Day in Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
The Anita Kerr Singers – The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle
The goody two-shoes light entertainment vocal troupe who were so square that they were frequently far out released a terrifying number of seasonally-themed albums, to the extent that I can’t actually recall with any degree of accuracy which one this proto-Saint Etienne tale of a bell that had lost its clapper came from. I hope it was the one with a concerned-looking Anita apparently being menaced by a giant decoration, though.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop – Christmas Commercial
John Baker does the Pink Floyd-purloined tape loop and drawer-slamming honours for this thoroughly disrespectful reworking of O Come All Ye Faithful, originally produced for the 1963 BBC Home Service comedy play The Santa Problem, starring George A. Cooper as a department store manager who can’t find anyone to be Father Christmas for the grotto.
The Go-Go’s – I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek
Often held up as a what-were-they-thinking embarrassment to rank with The Laughing Gnome, I actually think this is a great fun and funny record with more musical muscle than you’d expect – a bit like The Laughing Gnome, then – and not to mention about as definitive an example you’ll find of how massive The Daleks were at Christmas 1964 outside of finding a warehouse full of boxed Scorpion Automotive Dalek Costumes. Incidentally, this cheap cash-in single was recorded for a cheap cash-in label notorious for reusing their tapes once the fad had passed, and it sold in such small quantities that it seemed destined only ever to exist in heavily battered and scratched form; the painstaking restoration for this digital version was by the ever-excellent Mark Ayres.
Bob Dorough – Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)
Backed by Miles Davis’ then-band, the man who sang Three Is The Magic Number frowns that 25th December definitely isn’t as he reels of a list of yuletide annoyances including pan-handlin’ Santas, insincere attention-seeking displays of charity and having to write twenty zillion Christmas Cards over a rattling percussive backdrop. And this was only 1962. Lord knows what he’d have made of Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Dean Martin – The Christmas Blues
Round the corner from Bob’s zoot-suited satirical observations, Dino’s on a massive post-Rat Pack bender comedown as he shuffles past the brightly lit stores with a throbbing headache and, of course, ‘the blues’. At least he’s hoping everyone else has a good time while he politely shuffles off and sulks until January, though, and it’s one of those odd records that sounds strangely upbeat while the lyrics most definitely do not. He should have swung by for a drink with The Sonics.
Nina – Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?
‘Frederick’ had long since sloped off into the cabaret circuit by the time a visibly hippified ‘Nina’ showed up chirping this fantastic yet also slightly cloying number in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an odd choice ideally suited to the oddest of Bond films. If you try to ignore the choir of children, and the occasional bit of tweedle eedle isn’t a dewdrop jolly weediness in the lyrics, it’s actually very good indeed.
Jake Thackray – Joseph
Originally the b-side to the somewhat more sombre and – dare I say it – sanctimonious Remember Bethlehem in 1967, it’s a fair bet that few people had heard this soaring ode to the man who so often gets overlooked in The Nativity until Jake’s collected works were belatedly issued on CD. There’s often debate over whether his earlier recordings should have had featured typical sixties pop orchestration or not; there’s two versions of this from the same sessions, and the orchestrated one wins hands down for me. You can also hear more from Jake in my Sounds Of The 60s-inspired playlist here, and in one celebrating the artists I discovered through compilation tapes here.
The Private Eye Staff – We Wish You A Merry Christmas
The riotous conclusion to 1964’s gag-packed satirical flexidisc I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus, this sounds uncannily like a lost Not Only… But Also… sketch, and appropriately features Dudley Moore leading Ingrams, Wells, Rushton, Cook, Fantoni et al through a decidedly less than reverent rendition of the time-honoured bearing of glad tidings. Apparently, when played this in the late nineties, none of them could remember it.
The Beatles – Another Beatles Christmas Record
Another flexidisc, this time 1964’s Christmas Gift to the Fab Four’s fan club members. Given how crucial it was to their early success, and in elevating them creatively way above the level of Gerry And The Pacemakers and company, The Beatles’ incredible comic interplay rarely gets acknowledged now, to the extent that it’s almost impossible to legitimately get hold of this or the six other gag-packed Christmas Flexis they released. Although the later ones are more surreal and sonically inventive, I have to confess that I actually prefer the earlier ones and their more straightforward and spontaneous nonsense. I never fail to crack up at the revelation that their second film is “going to be in colour – green”.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Santa’s On His Way
A short sketch taken from one of the BBC sessions they recorded as ‘Craig Torso’, a parody of the newly-launched Radio 1’s DJs, which were a key part of the station’s first months on air. This Christmas-themed edition (which also featured a sermon on the potential hazards of ‘trousers’ in the home and Christmas Card calling a delighted Craig ‘stinking scum’) featured in David Symonds’ show in December 1967. But you can read more about that in Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1.
Buy A Book!
You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a feature looking at the long and strange history of the soundtrack to The Box Of Delights; you can find it here.
There Was A Gentleman From Way Up North, And Kije Was His Name is a feature looking at BBC Schools programme Music Time‘s adaptation of Lieutenant Kije, which you can find here.
There’s much more about both Russ Conway and A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector, and plenty of additional yuletide hilarity from CRISMAS by BEETLES to Canadial Postal Santa and THAT Coronation Street tape, in the Looks Unfamiliar Christmas Extra, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.