30 November, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: A Christmas Carol

One of the obsessive past times of my childhood was maintaining a collection of comedy records, this consisted of a mix of stand-up records and comedy songs. I mastered, to my naive ear, an impersonation of Jimmy Durante, I'd proudly sing "It's My Nose's Birthday, Not Mine", which I felt my proboscis helped sell despite the failings of my vocal delivery. Later I learned Allen Sherman's Harvey and Sheila, an acronym filled tale of upwardly mobile love set to Hava Nagila. I'd perform a party piece at some of my parents dos before being sent to bed, which really meant sitting on the stairs trying to listen to the conversations and attempting to fathom the adult world.

I first hear Tom Lehrer round a campfire, a counsellor singing The Irish Ballad, the beautifully gruesome send up of folk murder ballads (can you imagine what Nick Cave could do with this?), and The Hunting Song. When that summer was over I immediately got hold of the 3 Tom Lehrer albums that were in print, the first studio version, and the second and third live versions (I didn't find out later until the fantastic Rhino box set release that Lehrer had recorded and released the first two albums twice, studio and live). I greedily listened to his sardonic and satirical ditties, and added another pointless skill to my resumé, by memorizing his setting of the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Modern Major General.

Tom Lehrer's A Christmas Carol, as I first heard it, was from the live version of his second set of songs, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. He has fun skewering commercialized Christmas whilst segueing into pastiche of some actual carols.

Stan Freberg's sketch Green Chri$tma$ drives home the commercialization message with a bit of a sledge hammer, but is so rife with puns and references, and his high standard production value, we do well to forgive any overkill. Freberg was a voice actor in cartoons, later a radio and TV comedian and a subversive ad man (I'm surprised he hasn't been worked into Mad Men in some direct or indirect fashion). He doesn't pull many punches.

Before I discovered Tom Lehrer, Allen Sherman had been my musical comedy god, he'd re-purpose hit songs into comedic routines by writing new lyrics. The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas is admittedly not his best, and has dated the worst (imagine trying to explain that a small japanese transistor radio with one faulty earpiece was the Ipod Shuffle of its time) but it's the only seasonal one, and I've a soft spot for the man unfairly remembered for just Hello Muddah Hello Faddah.

I'll leave you for today with this sketch from Eddie Lawrence, a character comedian and actor. I'm not sure whether I heard it first on Dr Demento (a weekly radio show featuring novelty records, filled a bit much with the grating cackle of the zany presenter, but very supportive for good and ill of the struggling novelty and comedy market, so to blame for Weird Al Yankovich), or the local radio with its all too wacky zoo morning format. It's silly, but it made me laugh as a kid.


29 November, 2010

Advent Calendar In Song: Fairytale of New York

And as I said yesterday, this is the track that has inspired me to this, my most pointless feat of bloggery to date, I've committed myself to a daily output from here until Xmas. (I do not maintain this blog with any regularity or purpose, on the basis that it is mostly an unsmelled fart in the vacuum of the internet, read mostly by spam-bots and tumbleweeds, and a few friends who may see it through the feed to Facebook notes).

Fairytale of New York is the Pogues beautiful seasonal collaboration with the late and thoroughly lamented great Kirsty MacColl. This is a song which has its cake and devours it too. It sends up the sentimentality of all Christmas pop tunes, but it also has entered the canon of those tunes, and with its Oirish accordion and swelling strings pulls us into the cynical but hopeful dream of Shane and Kirsty's alcohol tinged haze.
"You Scumbag, You Maggot,
You cheap lousy faggot,
Merry Christmas your arse,
I pray god it's our last!"
With a line like that, I am proud to live in a country where this not only gets mainstream radio airplay, unedited, it was number two in the Christmas single charts the year it was released (it hit number 1 in Ireland). No doubt this will probably never be the case in my homeland (thanks to the "freakin'" FCC). This should send me straight off for my citizenship application if it weren't for the fact that I would be quizzed on football, the benefits system and probably the latest X Factor contestants.

When I first thought to write this last year, I was partially gazumped by the blog of a much funnier and more read acquaintance who complained that every year he hears Fairytale of New York at the beginning of the Christmas season, and loves it all over again, but learns to hate it by the time the holiday rolls around. He was wrong of course (he does describe himself as a cunt). One of the strengths of this subversive little gem is that it has burrowed its way into the standards, and you'll find it on most contemporary UK Christmas compilation albums right next to Slade, Wizzard, Cliff Richard and that really crap track by Chris Rea (the Christmas one).

Beyond subverting the Christmas song, and the love song, ultimately Fairytale of New York flips the dreams of immigrants, imagining a better life, where the saintly Irish boys of the NYPD choir sing of Galway Bay, when the only bodies of water they've ever seen are the Hudson and the shores of Coney Island Beach slathered in the sludge brought north from New Jersey by the Gulf Stream. This is the spirit of Christmas: to idealize the human condition, to pretend that we will reach the best of our dreams, in the hope that we can.


28 November, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: An Introduction

Last year, on a drive back from Doncaster, I was so struck by hearing one of the best Christmas songs "Fairytale of New York" on the radio, that I decided not just to share my thoughts on this seasonal gem, but to sporadically, if not daily, hold forth on some other tunes from the flow and ebb of yuletide. But, I didn't quite get my ass in gear to do this last year, but it turns out that's a good thing.

You might ask why a Jewish guy, or in my case more ish than Jew, being predominantly atheist and lover of slow cooked pork roasts, is doing compiling a list of Christmas music? (Go on, ask, I'm waiting....)

  1. I love cover songs, and the canon of Christmas songs, both religious and secular, has been done by so many artists so many different ways, you'd think they were all "Hey, Jude".
  2. I'm celebrating my Jewish heritage. No, I don't mean in a "Christ was a Jew" kinda way. (I never understood Jews for Jesus, they may as well be Buddhists for Zoroaster, or Hindus for Odin, or Seventh Day Adventists for Leprechauns.) I'm thinking of the huge contribution of Jewish songsmiths to the genre of Christmas songs in popular music. Irving Berlin practically invented the genre. It would have been White Chanukkah, but Bing couldn't cope with the "ch" sound. I may not be religious, but I'm proud that my grandfather was a klezmer.
  3. Nostalgia, I may live in the UK, where no one does Christmas better than they do, but they don't show A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, or the Chuck Jones Grinch. I need some of that Vince Guaraldi and Thurl Ravenscroft, to put me in the right mood.
  4. The best Christmas music, either sells the sense of cheer and community really really well, or subverts the over the top schmaltz of Christmas. A win/win for both my softer and cynical sides.
I have this love/hate relationship with the whole Christmas thing. Growing up surrounded by Christians, I often felt that Christmas was being shoved down my throat. To some extent it was a season of alienation. On the other hand, my sentimentalist streak is a sucker for the Capra-esque feel good, Clarence has got his wings, Cor blimey, if it isn't Mr Scrooge with the largest goose for the Cratchits, God Bless us Everyone. I am Grinch 2.0.

So, while I have little feelings for Christmas as a holiday, per se; to me it is my wife's family's annual self-martyrdom competition, and a new Dr Who special. The Spirit of Christmas (tm) or more accurately the Jungian archetype behind the absurdly over manufactured notion of the Christmas as a season of giving, brotherhood and overindulgence, strikes a hugely soothing chord in my heart chakra (existential fulfilment). I have a nearly complete ignorance of Christianity, so I wouldn't be surprised if Christmas had something to do with Jimmy Stewart seeing what Oz would have been like if Rudolph had been allowed to play reindeer games.

Finally, I would have been late starting this last year, until moments ago, I thought Advent started on Dec 1st as most chocolate Advent calendars do, but the internet informs me that this year it starts today. So, feel free to comment on my ignorance, or let me know your own obscure Christmas tunes.

While I'll probably dip back to this one, I'll leave you with a bit of Linus and Lucy, and yes, this is where I learned all my smooth dance moves.

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