Tuesday, 20 December 2011
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.
Monday, 12 December 2011
Although he's no longer with us, Frank Sinatra (who would have celebrated his 96th birthday today, December 12) still casts a long shadow over the world of popular song. Although it's been 13 years since he passed, the man who had teenagers screaming at him a decade before Elvis (and two before the Beatles) continues to sell millions of CDs, capturing millions of views on youtube and prompting cores of imitators to try out versions of his back catalogue. Consider that Rod Stewart's last four albums, The Great American SongbookI-IV, have been his best-selling releases since the early 1970s, and they include almost solely songs made familiar by Frank. At the end of last month the rumours of Martin Scorcese's long mooted Sinatra biopic about to shoot resurfaced, with Di Caprio rumoured to be playing Frank. Having already made films about Dylan, a Beatle (George Harrison), the Stones and a history of sorts of the Blues, the Goodfellas, Casino and Gangs of New York director is apparently ready to begin retelling the life of the 20th century's most compelling and interesting performer.
Meanwhile, in imitation of Sinatra's Duets album of 1993, Tony Bennett released Duets in 2006, and just as Sinatra issued Duets II (1994), so Tony has issued his Duets II, on September 20 last. Like the first Sinatra release—which was universally slammed by critics at the time of release—Bennett's new album opens with a version of The Lady Is A Tramp. Lady Gaga's contribution to the song makes it undoubtedly the highlight of the album, and suggests that she and Frank might have tackled that, or any other song, brilliantly together. Her performance on the Bennett version uses vocal twitches and comic exaggerations ("Oimins and poils") that were first introduced into performances of classic American songs by Frank. Tony has always been a fine, strong vocalist, but he's always been strictly formal, and made his name as a belter rather than a song stylist—a term almost invented for Sinatra (the original version of the song, in Pal Joey, can be seen here).
In the accompanying promo film for Lady Is A Tramp, Gaga is dressed and coifed like Marilyn, and seems to have been watching both Frank and Anita O'Day performing in the car on her way to the studio. In her Tom Ford 'designed' black lace dress and a green bob, Gaga lifts the song way above the pedestrian level of many of the other tracks on Bennett's Duets II.
Sinatra's choice of Luther Vandross as duettist on his version of the song reflects perhaps Frank's regard for great vocalists above the merely popular. With the marked exception of the execrable Bono, Frank's Duets album is packed with fantastic singers, among them Barbra, Aretha, Liza, Anita, Charles Aznavour and Tony Bennett. (Tony also called in Barbra for his own first Duets release as well as, bizarrely, Bono.) The inclusion of Luther on Sinatra's Lady Is A Tramp, with it's smooth, soulful tones, reminds us that throughout his career, Frank often adapted well to new musical styles, as long as the song was good enough. In 1977 he re-recorded versions of Night And Day and All Or Nothing At All in an orchestral-disco mode, with the jazz guitarist Joe Beck as producer, and they're great.
Bennett's Duets II has also earned press because it includes a last recording by Amy Winehouse, on a version of Body & Soul. The song was possibly chosen because of its association with Billie Holiday, with whom Winehouse was most often compared. The video accompanying the recording lacks the wit and fun of Gaga's, but perhaps that's to be expected. Frank's late-1950s duet with Dinah Shore is much more fun to watch.
Frank enjoyed duetting with people throughout his career. His radio appearances in the 1940s with the incomparable Jimmy Durante are both hilarious and they swing. The Rat Pack nights are correctly regarded as being legendary and every recording is worth listening to more than once. Even when chasing a quick dollar Frank raised the standards of the pop genre. He gave daughter Nancy a huge hike in her career when he recorded a duet of Something Stupid in 1967 (earning himself another #1 hit). Compare that though, with this, recorded the same year; Frank's TV special duet with Ella Fitzgerald on a version of the fabulous Little Anthony & The Imperials song, Goin' Out Of My Head.
Frank's duet with Ella on The Lady Is A Tramp from the same show offers us both performers still at their performing peak, despite both being middle-aged. As the song progresses they can clearly be seen getting into the groove, digging what they're doing, knowing that it's something special. There's something of that to be seen in Gaga's performance with a the decidedly old-aged Bennett on their Lady Is A Tramp, and suggests that, had timing been right, Lady Gaga and the Chairman of the Board could have made a great team.