Monday 22 December 2008

Beach Boys "Christmas" (1963) (News, Views and Music 17)

It’s worth the wait the whole year through just to make happy someone like you and I’ll never outgrow the thrill of Christmas day”

“Beach Boy’s Christmas” (1964)

(Revised edition published June 6th 2014)

Ah yes the Beach Boys. California sun, long summer days (and summer nights!!!), driving down to beaches in little deuce coupes to meet surfer girls with good vibrations under full sun. I'd never really stopped to think what those same sun-loving Beach Boys did when Winter arrives and the sun set early, leaving Californian beaches cold. It seems to be a curious quirk of the band's singles discography that they always seemed to sell more records at the end of the year anyway between Autumn and Winter - which just goes to show how few of their fans listened to the records while surfing and how many used them as escapism.
However in a masterstroke of reinvention and with a little nudge from a record contract that just wouldn't give them a moment's peace the same Beach Boys ended up releasing one of the most yuletide-friendly snowscape-making themed albums of all time. Now let's look at this fact in closer detail: festive-themes albums were something your parent's favoured singers and big bands did: released to a market who could afford to buy LPs they only listened to for one month out of twelve and who didn't seem to mind that they'd already heard most of the songs performed only slightly differently by a whole host of competitors each year. Festive albums makes sense for established acts as they can be recorded quickly with less effort than writing a full album of material  and even though they generally get recorded somewhere around September time before the Xmas vibe has really set in they tend to be made by hardened musicians who are used to singing all sorts of things they don't actually mean at the time. However Christmas albums are rare in rock and roll. I made it a policy early on in the life of our site to 'save' our Christmas reviews for Christmas week - before I realised how few there actually were (and how many years of writing I actually had ahead of me!) The trouble is most of the AAA festive records only come late in life, from acts like The Moody Blues and, erm, some guy named Brian Wilson sometimes in the 21st century when acts are in their late 50s and 60s. There are only three AAA albums to come out of the 1960s and 70s, two of which involve The Beach Boys! (We even temporarily abandoned a rule about reviewing unfinished LPs in the case of their second one from 1977) The 'odd one out' is an even odder album by Art Garfunkel on an all-star cast album re-telling 'The Nativity', making 'The Beach Boys Christmas Album' the only really traditional AAA album recorded before 2003: compared to the sheer scale and size of the 'big band' Christmas records, this is what pretentious labellers of festive food officially refer to as 'trace' - too small to be scientifically measured.  The fact is that your traditional rock and roll collector didn't have the spare cash in the 1960s to buy an album he had to put away for eleven months of the year (festive singles were more likely but not exactly common; besides The Beatles released an album every December between 1963 and 1965 so most fans were buying that instead) and later, when rock and roll became heavier and harsher, soppy Christmas records were exactly the sort of things rock and roll was meant to be rebelling against.
So how did this album come about? Blame it on Phil Spector's album 'A Christmas Gift For You' released in 1963 - the same week as 'Little Saint Nick'. Brian had long been a big fan of the producer and his ability to drench echo over everything - and the fact that Spector had somehow managed to drench mistletoe over everything as well must have had an impact. It may have tickled him, too, to see Darlene Love suddenly promoted to lead singer in a desperate attempt to get her a 'hit' after a series of flop albums throughout the year - Brian knew all about keeping singers called 'Love' happy! Projects like these really need someone in charge of them, who can arrange and produce and organise projects - with the possible exception of George Martin, no one else in the 1960s rock scene apart from Phil and Brian could have made that album. The difference is that had someone told McCartney or more likely Lennon to write a bunch of festive songs in 1964 they'd have no doubt told the asker to get lost; the Beatles were all about changing the face of traditions and bringing in the 'new'. With The Beach Boys it's more complicated than that: Brian was just as steeped in harmony tradition as he was in rebellion (I'm amazed the Four Freshman never made a Christmas album - it would have been right down their street) and a Christmas album wasn't as big a no-no in America as it was in Britain. Add in too the fact that the Beach Boys kind of started at Christmas family get togethers (the only time of year the Loves and Wilsons regularly met up) and you can see why the band might think more fondly of a Christmas record than their competitors across the pond (who made do with fanclub flexi-discs showcasing their humour instead). After all, they're a 'family' band - and nothing says family more than Christmas (or did in 1964 anyway).
One of the few exceptions to the rule that rock and roll and Christmas doesn't mix was 'Little Saint Nick', a big hit for the band in Christmas 1963. A rocking song guaranteed to make even Scrooge smile, Brian and MIke wrote it when they realised that Christmas was drawing nearer and they were running out of ideas for yet more songs about sun and summer. It was meant to be a one-off joke - the Beach Boys singing about snow - and that was that. But as 1964 began to wear the band down a full 'Christmas' album looked like a good idea - it gave Brian the breathing time he needed to make the marvellous 'Today' album (released in March 1965) and gave him a break from finding yet more variations on the same formula. There was clearly a market for it after 'Little Saint Nick' and a feeling that The Beach Boys were so popular they would still be able to sell enough songs to fans (or more likely their parents: The Beach Boys were one of the few bands of the sixties quite fondly regarded by mums and dads, at least in 1964 before they 'got weird').
Which makes 'The Beach Boys' Christmas' rather a unique record. What's interesting is how untraditional this one sounds at times too: the general rule on festive favourites is that the original songs are kept to a minimum and if you really want to be daring you either sing a carol in traditional Spanish or German or dig up an obscure one from the Victorian era or earlier. Several perfectly respectable Christmas records have been made to that formula over the years - most of them by The King's Singers (one of the few acts who can actually match The Beach Boys harmonies, in their early days at least). However even under record company pressure to come up with a - gulp - fourth album that year Brian Wilson doesn't take the easy way out, writing five of the twelve album songs. The only festive album I know that exceeds that is, erm, the unreleased 'Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys' recorded at a time when the band had more time on their hands (way, way too much time!)
Unusually this Christmas record is divided neatly in two. The first contains all of the originals and is more what you might think of as a 'Beach Boys' record. The band play on all the songs and if you know 'Little Saint Nick' you'll know what to expect: the usual Chuck Berry fast-walking-pace beat with stunning Beach Boys harmonies as normal, just with sleigh bells attached. In fact, take the percussion away and you could be listening to a 'normal' Beach Boys record on this first side (you can do just that on 'Stack-O-Tracks', by the way, where Little Saint Nick can be heard as an instrumental) - albeit one that's even more fully developed than normal: some of the harmony arrangements on this album are stunning. Alas the Beach Boys of late 1963 were far more inspired than the Beach Boys of late 1964 and none of the other original material on this album comes anywhere close (that's why you never 'The Man With All The Toys' on the radio very often, despite the fact the band's fame propelled it all the way to #3 in the US charts - the same position as 'Little Saint Nick' the year before). There are only two truly great addition to the Beach Boys canon: the funky 'Santa's Beard' about a dad dressing up to fool his young boy that Santa really exists which comes complete with powerhouse Beach Boys vocals and a neat version of 'Jingle Belles' played by Carl Wilson's 'surf' guitar; and the rocky 'Merry Christmas Baby', the perfect mixture of the usual Beach Boys sob story and festive cheer, which is one of the few rock and roll xmas songs I don't mind hearing every year. 'The Man With All The Toys' and 'Christmas Day', though, are worse than a double helping of sprouts.
I'd rather go through cold turkey - in both meanings of the phrase - than sit through side two too often, however. When the band knew that a  Christmas record might be on the cards Brian got plotting and came up with the idea of recording with a full orchestra and making The Beach Boys record sound like the ones made by Sinatra, Crosby, Perry Como etc. Legend has it he approached Spector first in the wake of that successful record but was told to 'get lost'; instead he turned to Dick Reynolds, the arranger on the vast majority of the Four Freshman records. In theory this should be a good move: the two band's harmony styles are similar and all Reynolds should have to do is do his usual job. However while hearing the band occasionally reach back to their past (as on their two Freshman covers 'Graduation day' and 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring') is one thing; it's quite another to sit through a whole album. Reynolds clearly has never heard a Beach Boys album in his life - there's no sparkle, no twinkle, no energy and the arrangements get slower and slower as the second side progresses. Now, the Beach Boys can do slow: 'Surfer Girl', for instance, is a pure Four Freshman influenced ballad. But they need something to pick up the tempo and the horn-drenched 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' isn't it; The Beach Boys have never sounded as dreary as they do here and I've never felt more un-festive towards them as I do when they stretch 'We Three Kings' out to somewhere close to half-an-hour (actually its 4:03 but time definitely slows down when the song is on...)
Revealingly, the CD issue of this album also features a period interview from Brian where he explains that the first side is for the fans and the second for the ‘mums and dads’ and all too often that shows: this 20 minutes is not easy going for anyone used to the Beach Boys' usual fire and pizzazz. The effect is of slowly sinking under ten foot of snow - at first it's fun to be doing something so different but you quickly tire and long for someone to light a fire. There are two plusses in this side's favour however – one is the chance to hear an alternate universe, where Brian finally gets ‘his’ group to agree to becoming a fully fledged Four Freshman copycat band. The second is the sheer glee in Brian’s voice. Unusually, he handles pretty much all of the lead singing here and never does he sound happier or more confident, without either cousin Mike Love or dad Murry Wilson getting in the way of his vision. Brian’s fingerprints are all over the first dozen Beach Boys albums in more ways than just the vocals and writing credits – but this is the first time on record where Brian is unquestionably the leader and is finally getting the vision in his head and his ears to sound on record the way he wants it to.     
What's worse is how rushed this album sounds. Increasingly across 1964 The Beach Boys are being forced to make do with second-best and something inevitably gives on each of their early LPs (until Brian finally gets the time to make 'Today'). However this record seems more rushed than most: Mike fluffs his double-tracking on 'Santa's Beard'; Al Jardine seems to have never seen the lyrics to 'Christmas Day' until the moment the song is given to him to record; most famously Dennis fluffs his biggest moment yet on a Beach Boys record during his closing speech for 'Auld Lang Syne ('If you hap, err, happen to be listening to this right now...' - even the line is suspect, of course I'm listening to that line now or I wouldn't hear you! I think what Dennis was meant to say was 'if you happen to be listening to this on Christmas Day' before realising that the line he had to speak made no sense!)  Even the backing tracks on the first side and the harmonies o the second aren't delivered with the usual Beach Boys spit and polish. Ah well, that's what happens when you're forced to make Christmas records in September...
As a result 'Beach Boys Christmas' is a strange hybrid. All the right elements are here: sleigh bells, carols, festive songs about toys and Santa plus orchestral arrangements heard on every festive album ever made by 1964. But for some reason it feels like a Christmas get-together you don't quite belong to; you're suddenly spending Christmas with strangers that you used to think you knew really well. Despite all the box-ticking 'Beach Boys Party' is more of a 'festive' album than this one: it's bright, cheerful and full of the atmosphere of friends having fun; by contrast too much of 'Beach Boys Christmas' is a slog and way more traditional than it needs to be. In short, it's the Queen's Speech of festive television, not the Doctor Who special - full of anachronisms that should have long been buried and which have no bearing on our lives but which everybody goes through just because that's how they've done things every year even though a better alternative is already taking place on the other channel. Goofy as it is, unfinished as it is, I'd take the unreleased 1977 Beach Boys album over this one anyday (or at least the second side!) Bah! Humbug! What's that, ghost of Christmas reviews from the future? However much I hate this record it can't possibly be as bad as The Moody Blues' 'December' or Art Garfunkel's 'The Animals' Christmas'? Alright then spirit, I promise to amend my ways in the next half of the review and find something nice to say!
...erm...err...'Little Saint Nick' is good, I like that one. 'Santa's Beard' and 'Merry Christmas Baby' aren't bad. Err...(long pause)...did I mention how mercifully short this album is? Or how pretty the album cover is? (A hilarious shot of the Beach Boys decorating a tree in matching festive jumpers knitted by some indulgent wardrobe mistress at Capitol - Wilson mum Audree's knitting was far better than that!) What's weird, of course, is that Al Jardine apart this could be a 'real' Beach Boys family Christmas picture, not just a bunch of musicians standing in front of a backdrop sometime in August. That leads to me another thought: Christmas presents were easy for the band that year weren't they? 'What did you get me this year, Al?' 'Why, Carl, I bought you a record I think you might like...a copy of the 'Beach Boys Christmas Album!' 'Gosh, how thoughtful - you shouldn't have. No I mean it, you shouldn't have. Guess what I got you?...' Another thought - do you think Dave Marks - who'd been forced out of the band at the beginning of the year - got a copy that Christmas?!
The Songs:
The best known tracks – and not coincidentally – the ones that work the best are those that mix tried and tested Christmas sounds (mainly borrowed from Phil Spector’s echo-friendly record ‘A Christmas Gift For You’) with typically Beach Boys sounds and influences. The 1963 hit single ‘Little Saint Nick’ is a case in point – in typically Beach Boys vernacular Santa visits your ‘pad’, his sled is led by ‘old Rudy’ and best of all Santa’s magic powers mean the sled ‘walks a toboggan with a four-speed stick’ which means ( I think) that’s she’s pretty darned fast. Please, Santa, if you’re listening, I want a Little Deuce Coupe sled this year too! Like the best of this album, somehow this delightful pastiche of both Christmas and the band themselves is more heart-warming than a mince pie round the fire. Indeed, it was the surprise hit status of this 1963 track (which reached #3 at a time when the band’s sales were slowly beginning to take a nose dive in the wake of the Beatles’ sudden success in America) that inspired this whole album – and while nothing else on the album quite matches it, very few other band have ever quite matched the sheer fun and frolics of this festive cheering track either. CD re-releases of the Beach Boys' Christmas material inevitably contain the single mix from 1963 (with even more sleigh bells) and a curious rendition from two days earlier set to the tune of 'Drive-In'. A joke (as Brian's giggling at the end suggests?) or a proper first attempt at the song? Either way it's a good version - easily the second best Beach Boys xmas recording from the 1960s.
'The Man With All The Toys' was meant to be the 'big hit' from this album that the band spent most time on and comes closest to merging the 'Beach Boys' and 'traditional' sides together; it did well too, reaching #3. However by the band's high standards the track is lifeless and limp, perhaps its filled with so many traditional Beach Boys reference points and Christmas lyrics - a snowman that's been out in the sun too long. The story follows a young child who wakes up early one night and actually sees Santa. Surely that's a good strating point for a fun and exciting song - instead the band sound as if they've been woken up early out of their Christmas morning sleep and want to get back to bed as quickly as possible. There's an annoying (huh!) counter-riff (huh!) that keeps (huh!) popping up (huh!) out the blue (huh!) for no (huh!) apparent (huh!) reason (huh!) which really (huh!) gets on your nerves (huh!) by the end of the song (huh!) Mike Love sounds bored out of his skull on the verses (never have I heard someone sing the word 'thrilled' less thrillingly than here), Carl sounds uninspired on guitar and even a stunning harmony part from the whole band can't make this a Christmas classic no matter how hard they try. A solo Brian Wilson re-recording for the album 'All I Really Want For Christmas' in 2005 somehow manages to be even worse.
'Santa's Beard' is much better, despite the weird title. The song is another silly little bit of fluff about a boy ('five-and-a-half going on six') desperate to meet up with the 'real' Santa Claus. He's not fooled by his dad dressing up either or the Santa at his local store, but peace is restored when the narrator adds that he's 'Santa's assistant' (Ho ho ho! Clever!) There's a great simple walking bass riff to this one and the Beach Boys are born for harmonies like this: Mike turns in a terrific lead vocal (he does a pretty good impression of a whining kid too)  and a great bass part while the others all join in behind (Brian adding a falsetto counter-melody on the line 'he shouldn't have pulled Santa's beard'). We've already mentioned Carl's neat rendition of 'Jingle Bells' in the solo - in fact this recording is a delight for the band all round: that's Al on bass, Brian on piano and Dennis on drums. All in all a great little Christmas package.
One that's equalled by ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’, a Brian Wilson original that sounds even more like an evergreen Christmas classic than Old Saint Nick did. The backing is decidedly upbeat but the lyrics aren't: the narrator's just broken up with his girl ('why'd she do it this time of year?' Probable answer: so the old scrooge didn't have to buy you a present!) but he's confident they can make it up before Christmas Day - because that's what the season is all about.  Lead singer Mike Love is on sterling form –Christmas seems to bring the best out in the singer who sounds more at home than the others, 'All The Toys' aside– and Brian’s cheeky answering yelps (a rocking 'ah-ha!' early on) and the band’s most glorious block harmonies (dominated by Carl, for once) make this song seem like Christmas no matter what time of year you play it. The band sound like they're having, fun, especially Dennis who turns in some terrifically powerful drum patterns to the bottom of the sound. All in all this song should be the most recognised Beach Boys Christmas song after 'Little Saint Nick', although frustratingly it was only ever released as a single in Germany in1967!
 ‘Christmas Day’ is stretching the formula a bit thin however – Al Jardine’s first lead on a Beach Boys record suggests that its one of the few songs here that composer Brian didn’t consider turning into a hit. The song simply ambles along in true Perry Como fashion, only with the greatest respect to Al Jardine his 1965 self isn't a strong enough singer to pull it off. To be fair I'd have hated to have sung my first lead in a band that can sing that well, so no wonder he sounds nervous (Brian must have liked it though, picking Al to sing 'Help Me Rhonda' a few months later). This song about keeping the Christmas spirit into adulthood (the first appearance of 'age' on a Brian Wilson song, a theme that's going to dominate the following year of 1965) really needs an enthusiastic vocal from Mike or Brian to come to life - Al is enthusiastic in a quiet, emotionally controlled way and is simply cast wrong for the song. The end result is a song that wouldn't have been that memorable with the usual singers taking part but here sounds positively ordinary.
Right, we can't put it off anymore so here we go with side two. A chirpy 'Frosty The Snowman' isn't actually that bad - although it has the unfortunate effect of making The Beach Boys sound like extras on their own album. In truth this could be any vaguely talented band singing - the harmonies are the simple sort that suited The Four Freshman but are a tad pedestrian by Beach Boys standards (Reynolds arranged them not Brian- which was good in terms of his health and pressure on it but not terribly good for us) and are mixed too low behind the orchestra in any case. And oh yes that 41 piece orchestra: we called the one on 'Pet Sounds' over-lush which makes this one positively verdant and what's worse is there's none of Brian's love of unusual sound combinations, just a heavy kind of mush that sits over proceedings however unsuitably, like an overly fat fairy balancing on a tiny Christmas tree. The result is a passable version of 'Frosty The Snowman' which left to their own devices the Beach Boys could have done so much better.
The worst recording here though is a torturous 'We Three Kings Of Orient Are'. This has never been my favourite of carols but at least most versions have a kind of teasing cat-and-mouse quality, a slow and stately trot turning into an overly excited chorus where even Royalty can't wait to meet the new Messiah. This funeral-paced version of the carol makes them sound as if their camels have got stuck in a camel jam. Amazingly some Beach Boys fans really rate this recording: it does offer you a rare chance to hear them singing throughout, after all, and the slow tempo means you can really study how their voices mould together without the band's usual energetic pace. For me, though, this is a terrible rendition which features all the worst excesses of the Four Freshman (slow pace, lack of variety, overly enunciated vowels) without any of the high points (the storytelling; the fact that these harmonies don't suit the Beach Boys' voices quite as well). There is at least a nicely suitable oriental feel about the beginning of the song - but even that's gone by the time the band open their mouths. Hurry up Boxing Day, that's all I'm saying.
'Blue Christmas' has become something of a rock and roll standard at Christmas, with covers by Elvis and Shakin' Stevens (now there's a duet I'd have paid to hear! 'Uh-huh!' 'Wooh!') Most versions of it are sad, but this version is positively melancholic: Brian sings alone on a tempo caught somewhere between 'heavy snowdrift has stopped all traffic' and 'a sled pile-up on the motorway'. The orchestra is terribly OTT, turning what should be a nice little cameo into a full production number complete with dancing girls (or at least dancing snowmen). That's a shame because Brian clearly loved the song - this is only is second solo vocal ever on a Beach Boys album and he still talks about this song being one of his favourites now. It's a shame he didn't re-record it for his solo xmas CD: it would have suited his older, deeper voice much better; this one is too earnest and young to do the song justice.
'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' is comparatively a great arrangement, if only because The Beach Boys get to add some of their own touches; the interplay between Mike and Brian is great here and the overall upbeat mood is much more suited to the Beach Boys sound than all this festive misery. There's a nice a capella opening that simply soars before the orchestra cuts in to pull us back to Earth: while still clearly a very Four Freshman-style arrangement from Dick Reynolds this is the kind of thing the Beach Boys could always do better than their heroes - making a song come alive with nothing more than their voices. However the orchestration is still completely unsuitable, even taking a side-route into 'Pop Goes The Weasel' for no other reason than Reynolds thinks this is being 'wacky' and 'silly'. As we've often seen already, things go wrong when The Beach Boys try to pull off 'whacky' and 'silly'.
'White Christmas' is a Bing Crosby standard so drilled into the Western world's consciousness that every single later cover version falls short. Brian sings lead once again on this one but, great singer that he is, he doesn't have the ease and cool-headed charm of Bing: instead he ends up sounding like a wannabe carol singer, trying too hard to do justice to a 'standard'. The orchestration is again horribly over-souped (if this was a 'Little Deuce Coupe' the engine would have overcooked before it even got out of the garage) and the fact that the band are being made to sing like the Four Freshman reveals - Shock! Horror! - a few faults in the band's sound. I first owned 'The Beach Boys Christmas' album on cassette nad had convinced myself it was getting 'wowy' (ie running slow) during the opening line because The Beach Boys could never possibly sound that flat (well not until '15 Nig Ones' in 1976 at least). Horror of horrors though: it's on the CD version too!
'I'll Be Home For Christmas' is another hideously overblown ballad - what is it with sad songs about Christmas on this album? Reynold's arrangement hasn't taken on board any of the Beach Boys' characteristics: instead the band sound dreary and slow without their precious backbeat. Even Bing Crosby never quite got this slow dirge of a song right - arranged to be slower, with even less charm than the original, The Beach Boys have no hope.
The album closes with traditional Scottish hymn 'Auld Lang Syne'. This is surely the best and most fitting use of Beach Boys harmonies across the whole album - a classy soaring blend of five voices weaved around each other like a festive scatter-cushion. But wait, what's that? Dennis Wilson keeps muttering something over the top of it and the one truly evocative moment on this album's second side is ruined. He even fluffs his lines midway through (were the band really so rushed they couldn't do a re-take?) and the lines sound terribly insincere ('it's been a great pleasure for all of us to bring you this Christmas album and we hope that you will al treasure it like we will'; huh have you actually heard it guys?! By your standards it's rubbish!)  Thankfully a remixed version for the CD re-issue took out Dennis Wilson and left us with just the vocals. Now that's what I call a Christmas gift!
So, like every Christmas, there are gifts that we could have done without and gifts we can’t believe we spent the year without. Not everything on it is perfect, but the CD compilations of it and the band's 1977 recordings do at least show the care and effort the Beach Boys deserve  (there’s a booklet with liner notes on every song plus photos) but sadly ran out of time to actually show across the original record. Too many of the recordings leads me into that old Christmas chant of saying ‘you shouldn’t have’, while being blooming pleased that somebody really did. Christmas without the Beach Boys? Why that would be like, err…Summer without the Beach Boys! Unthinkable!


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