17 December 2010

My Christmas mix tape

Hi folks. I hope that you're all enjoying the time of year that's upon us.

You know, originally, Christmas time was a bunch of different pagan festivals, most notably Yuletide, that got co-opted by Christians keen to embrace stuff that future audiences would love.

These days I acknowledge that Christmas has morphed into a secular display of undignified commercialism and gluttony. Naturally, of course, I love this.

But there is a more serious side to the season. I talk about the unmitigated drivel that pours from speakers all over shopping centres at this time of year. There's only so much "Jingle Bells" or We Wish You a Merry Christmas" that I can take. And if it's not those pepped up and insanely cheerful American odes to capitalism, it's those thoroughly unfathomable one hit wonders Slade and Wizzard. Or those horrid efforts from Cliff Richard or George Michael.

Yes folks, Christmas songs blow dog.

But I'm not naturally a pessimist, so I said to myself, "Dikkii," I said. That's what I call myself. Which is not that weird, although the talking to myself thing could be regarded as potentially dodgy.

"Dikkii," I said, forgetting completely that I'd already called myself that, "Surely it's possible to create a mix tape of songs which don't suck?"

So I did. And here it is, for your enjoyment.

1. "Troika" - Sky

Sky were an interesting project of legendary classical guitarist John Williams. Williams was intrigued by prog rock and wondered if you could do classical music in a rock style. Their biggest hit was a rather awesome cover of JS Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" but this one is a cover of the fourth movement from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite. It sorta rocks.

2. "Fairytale of New York" - The Pogues

Oh the Pogues. Or "drunkenest band ever" as one of my mates describes them. This song is possibly my favourite Christmas song and tells the tale of a bickering couple whose hopes and dreams in New York are crushed by alcoholism and drug problems. Originally written by banjoist Jem Finer and vocalist Shane MacGowan to be sung by MacGowan and bassplayer Caitlin O'Riordan, O'Riordan had left the band when they recorded this, so the Pogues gave the female part to the late Kirsty MacColl instead. The addition of strings gives it some added oomph.

3. “The bells of St Mary’s” – Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans

A track of A Christmas Gift for You aka Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. Spector is best known for his over the top production work, and while he’s probably better known these days for bizarre wigs and homicide, his “wall of sound” production technique was monstrously groundbreaking stuff in the sixties. The Blue Jeans featured Darlene Love who also got a Guernsey on Christmas Gift, but ultimately, this is a tad better than the lameness that pervaded most of the Blue Jeans’ (and, let’s be honsest here, Spector’s) work. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” anyone?

4. “In Dulci Jubilo” – Mike Oldfield

Oldfield played everything other than the recorder on this. Which is interesting, considering that the recorder part is the most distinctive. It’s worth noticing that, as a multi-instrumentalist who sees himself as primarily a guitarist, Oldfield goes completely nuts on the guitar parts on this. Strangely enough, though, it seems to work. If you can say anything about Oldfield, he does know quite a bit about proper contextualising of his arrangements.

5. “Little Drummer Boy (Up the Khyber)” – the Hoodoo Gurus

This is an old b-side of the Hoodoo Gurus and is possibly the greatest rendition of what is one of the most boring and turgid Christmas carols ever. The Hoodoo Gurus infuse what is basically a surf guitar instrumental with a sitar melody line – or, more likely, a guitar effected to sound like a sitar. And it rocks.

6. “Ukrainian Bell Carol” – M. Leontovych

A frankly scary piece of Christmas that frightens kiddies with the bell parts and the minor key, not to mention the ¾ timing that takes off like a bat out of hell and switches back and forth between ¾ and 6/8 later in the tune. Leontovych intended this to be sung a capella, but this arrangement (which features the Vienna Boys Choir) is quite good.

7. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love

Another of the high points of A Christmas Gift For You. This one has been covered to death but, I actually love the sadness in it as Love sings of how much Christmas blows now that her lover has gone. Love was pretty much a backbone of Spector’s empire, as part of the Blue Jeans, the Crystals and working on records featuring the Ronettes. The production is subdued by Spector’s standards, which is not saying much, but possibly one of the reasons that this is a little less lame than most Spector material.

8. “I believe in Father Christmas” – Greg Lake

“They sold me a dream of Christmas/they sold me a silent night/they sold me a fairy story/till I believed in the Israelite”. Although this gets a guernsey on a lot of Christmas compilations, there’s a cynicism from Lake in the lyrics that’s directed at a lot of targets: Religion, commercialism and the loss of childhood innocence. The main theme from Prokofiev’s Troika makes a reappearance throughout.

9. “For unto us a Child is Born” – G. F. Handel

“Hallelujah Chorus” was a little obvious so I went for this one, also from Handel’s Messiah. Actually, Messiah is not really just about the birth of Christ, it’s about His whole life, but it gets played a lot at Christmas. This one has a lovely build through the verses until they get to the chorus which, depending on the version that you have of it, is mixed altogether way too loud considering how soft the soft bits are mixed. And the chorus is actually bitching and kinda catchy. Charles Jennens was the uncredited lyricist. And this arrangement features the London Symphony Orchestra.

10. “Merry Xmas (War is Over)” – John Lennon

You all know this one, so I won’t bother explaining it, except that although it’s also pretty obvious so why did I include it? Maybe I was feeling nostalgic around it being 30 years since Lennon was assassinated. I don’t know.

11. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” – P. I. Tchaikovsky

Look, it’s Christmassy, but it’s also just that little bit creepy. The Nutcracker is almost totally devoid of plot, and I really don’t understand ballet at all, but I love the music and I do wonder what drugs Tchaikovsky was smoking when he wrote this. But it’s a triumph, nonetheless. The fairy-like celesta used throughout is something quite extraordinary.

12. “What Child is This?” – Reverend Horton Heat

The Reverend Horton Heat is a rockabilly band from Texas, but this is a wicked surf guitar instrumental version of a famous tune, better known to fans of Mr Whippy everywhere as “Greensleeves”. It’s quite well done. Apologies for the sound quality - the studio version is much better, but you'll get the idea.

13. “Christmas with the Devil” – Spinal Tap

A fictitious band, I guess, Spinal Tap had already made a name for themselves on Saturday Night Live by the time their mockumentary flick This is Spinal Tap came along. This was originally aired on SNL and apparently resulted in lots of mail from irate Christians. And why not: “There’s a demon in my belly/and a gremlin in my brain/There’s someone up the chimney hole/and Satan is his name.” Hilarious and naturally, it goes all the way to 11.

14. “A Christmas Duel” – The Hives featuring Cyndi Lauper

“I bought no gift this year/and I slept with your sister/I should have thought twice/before I kissed her.” Rather a hilarious yet rollicking singalong uniting one of the noughties most important rock acts with the legendary Lauper. The lyrics are rather amusing, but appear to have some form of closure as the warring parties “Spend, spend spend this Chris, Christmas together.”

15. “Christmas” – The Who

This is from the Who’s somewhat polarising concept album, Tommy. And as you would expect, it’s about our deaf, dumb and blind hero, but set back when he was a young child. But it’s a savage attack on religion, as Tommy’s parents wonder “How can he be saved?/From the eternal grave?”. Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming shows exactly why Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend touring as “the Who” minus the late Moon and the late John Entwistle is utterly fraudulent.

16. “Christmas card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” – Tom Waits

From Waits’ Blue Valentine album, this song tells the tale of a hooker talking about her new life on the straight and narrow, before revealing the truth at the end. From Waits’ early period, before he decided to expand his instrumentation beyond the piano and strings stuff that he’d done beforehand. Sublime.

17. “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)” – Type O Negative

You can just imagine Type O Negative, goth metal exponents, giggling hysterically at the thought of doing a Christmas tune. This is a little ponderous, but it sorta works. Mind you, it wouldn’t if it didn’t have the snippets of “Ukrainian bell carol” and “God bless ye merry gentlemen” contained within.

18. “White wine in the sun” – Kate Miller-Heidke

It’s a cover of a Tim Minchin tune, a comedian/singer who has become a bit of a cause celebre and pin-up boy for atheist performers in recent years. He does write a good tune – this is about the Australian Christmas experience and is clearly dedicated to Minchin’s ”infant daughter” and it’s covered well by the almost slightly unhinged Miller-Heidke who manages not to lose the pathos throughout.

Well I hope that you enjoyed this. Have a great holiday season, wherever you are and remember to drive safely and under the limit.

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