Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Switched On Santa?
Why are there no really good Christmas disco recordings? There are plenty of standard Holiday songs done in a 'disco' style, all jingling hi-hat, swooping strings and soft-pedalled wah-wah guitar under breathy choral voices, but there's no killer Xmas disco floor-filler. It's not as if there was no precedent, of course. A Christmas Gift For You, released in 1963 became an instant gold standard by which all other Holidays-themed soul records would be judged. Released in mono, Spector's trademark wall-of-sound featuring a band, horns, strings and backing singers complemented by constantly jingling bells, as Ronnie Bennett (later Spector), Darlene Love and Dolores 'La La' Brooks sing like debauched angelic hosts on top of the mad genius of sound's musical Christmas tree.
Just like previous albums by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Doris Day (to name but three of many, many more), Spector's album includes standard seasonal songs, the oldest of which is Silent Night (written in 1818) credited to Phil Spector and Artists. There's also a version of White Christmas, of course, sung by Darlene Love, who gets the lead vocal on the only 'new' song, written with and for Spector by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). It's this song which perhaps best epitomises why there's never been a great disco Christmas song.
Like Blane and Martin's Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas or Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is almost a blues song. Full of longing, it's a sung-through wish for something that money cannot buy; love and companionship at what is meant to be the most spiritual time of the year (at least in the Christian calendar). How does that translate to disco? It can't.
Disco is the ultimate good-time, high-energy dance music, created to get people moving and not thinking. Slow disco numbers are as much about desire and need as uptempo disco numbers, where the beat has to be felt before the emotion and substitute sex for love. Christmas is a time for reflection and contemplation, both of which are to be found in the best Christmas songs. Even those songs which engage with the rampant materialism of the 20th century, such as Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, do so with a plea to consider life and its consequences ('He knows when you've been good or bad').
Crass attempts to earn a Holiday dollar by harnessing traditional songs of the season to the hottest sound of the day fail when those involved fail to understand that the singer—or arranger—needs to embody the sense and meaning of the song in their performance. While there are thousands of people for whom the Christmas Disco album holds fond memories, that is more because of their fanciful recollection of past family gatherings than the quality of the music on the album. The recordings having been created by session musicians in Nashville and sold around the world as anonymous season songs, they have surfaced at regular intervals since the early 1970s under different titles.
The Mistletoe Christmas Band's Christmas Album of 1971 was also released the same year as Switched On Christmas by TheHit Crew as Disco Noel by The Mistletoe Christmas Band and by Mirror Image. It later appeared titled Yuletide Disco by Mirror Image, and Christmas Disco Party by DJ Santa & The Dance Squad. Whatever it's called though, it all sounds like the kind of thing best heard in a crowded mall or a working elevator. Similarly, The Salsoul Orchestra's Christmas Jollies album is mostly musical slush, with only Sleigh Bells standing out as being worth tapping a toe to.
Following Spector's lead, somewhat inevitably, Berry Gordy produced many Christmas records by his stable of soul superstars, one of the best being the Jackson 5's 1970 version of the 1847-written Up On The House Top, on which the bouncy pre-pubescent Michael manages to mix some of the zaniness of Huey 'Piano' Smith with his pure pop freshness. The Supremes' Merry Christmas album isn't exactly up to the standard of The Ronettes seasonal offerings, but Diana Ross' voice has the right edge of longing and heartbreak in it to make the slower numbers work.
While there ain't no good disco songs worth adding to a Christmas playlist, there are still plenty of decent recordings worth spinning which will get people up cutting a rug—or crying a river. James Brown's Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto, Otis Redding's Merry Christmas Baby, R Kelly's Merry Christmas, Stevie Wonder's That's What Christmas Means To Me, Marvin Gaye's (live) Christmas Song, Ike & Tina Turner's Merry Christmas Baby (or the Etta James version) and the definitive version of This Christmas by The Whispers all do it for the Morgan household.
Merry Christmas, wherever you are.