By this time of season, I usually find myself wishing there was something more to the playlist of holiday tunes streaming through my online playlists, ringing away as I dash through the mall for last minute shopping, or hum along with on the radio as I shuttle between Christmas gatherings. The reality is, there are only so many Christmas songs and often the repertoire is exhausted relatively quickly. However, there is a way of hearing these tunes anew even if they’ve been blasting round the clock.
I’ve started listening to the festive soundtrack of the holidays with an ear for gear and an eye for forgotten moments of nuggets of musical history. To that end, here’s a top-five of holiday hits with a few liner notes on some details of their sound or significance.
(1) There are few songs that I have as much of a love-hate relationship with as Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time.” The festive fella in me can’t help but get in the spirit by hearing Sir Paul belt it out when the tune hits the chorus. The gearhead in me, however, always shudders a little at the off-tempo delay sound of the synth as the song builds. While the synth featured in the music video appears to be an early Yamaha CS-80, there’s no shortage of speculation and debate over the finer points of the wonderfully out-of-step lead lines plunked away in the song. If you just can’t get over the dodgy delays of the original, check out the covers by The Shins or Kylie Minogue who kept the repeats in time.
(2) As concert-goers toss loads of Santa hats on stage in a 2007 live performance, Bruce Springsteen and the entire on stage band don the caps for a memorable, all-American performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Backed by a rhythmic acoustic line played on a Takamine, Springsteen leaves it all on the stage with a full set of scissor kicks while sporting a butterscotch blonde Fender American Vintage 1952 Telecaster. If Springsteen in a Santa cap laying into a Telecaster can’t put you in the holiday spirit, I can’t help you.
(3) In a slight remake of their own song, “I Want You To Want Me,” Cheap Trick put their hand to charity in a cover “I Want You For Christmas.” The gearheads in the room will be especially touched by the marionette band members throughout the music video that rock out with their own scale models of some famous gear, including a few Gibson Les Paul-type and Explorer-esque guitars cranked out through some miniature Marshall-inspired half stacks.
(4) A little more recently in the catalogue of holiday hits is by UK’s glam rock royalty, The Darkness. The 2003 song, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)” is found on a special release of the band’s iconic album Permission to Land. Early on in the video, you’ll see lead guitarist Daniel Dawkins eagerly unwrapping a present tree-side that turns out to be a pristine white Gibson Double Neck EDS-1275. The gift is indeed a timely one as after the first chorus the front man, Justin Dawkins, steps in behind his younger brother Daniel, so the duo can play a tandem solo by the fireside. Truly, this is a glam rock family Christmas scene for the ages.
(5) While this last one is not really a gear insight, it’s simply too good to pass up. Since everyone else is cashing in on the Star Wars pandemonium these days, in the spirit of the season it’s worth mentioning the humbling yuletide beginnings of John Bon Jovi. Before the band under his surname formed in 1983, John made his vocal debut on the 1980 album Christmas in the Stars: A Star Wars Christmas Album. Most notably, you’ll hear the sound of John’s voice on the track “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” which is every bit as awesome as you’d hope it is.
Whatever it is you’re celebrating, I hope this soundtrack puts you in the mood of the season, or at the very least, gives you a few conversation starters at family dinners for that odd cousin you haven’t seen all year. In a very special way today, have a great #RiffCitySunday.