From Ritchie Blackmore's Renaissance-style take on "God Rest You Merry Gentleman" to Porky Pig's stuttering rendition of "Blue Christmas," we look at some of the most unique spins on Christmas classics. (Let us know your favorites in the comments.)
"God Rest You Merry Gentlemen"
"God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" is one of the oldest Christmas carols on record, dating to the 16th century or older, which makes the tune well-suited for Blackmore's Night, a medieval rock band led by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and his wife, Candice Night. Blackmore, the man who gave us the "Smoke On The Water" riff, has a deep appreciation for Christmas carols, especially when they can earn him some extra cash. "I am naturally attracted to these melodies," he explained. "As a kid, I would go from house to house during the holiday time and sing them just to earn some money. As an adult, I thought I could play them and make more money!"
The song, found on the 2017 reissue of the album Winter Carols, is a testament to the joyous occasion of a savior's birth (Jesus isn't explicitly mentioned in this version) as interpreted by Candice's delicate vocals and Blackmore's arrangement of traditional instruments, including the nyckelharpa, hurdy-gurdy, and bagpipes. Many of the simple peasant tunes started out as winter songs and were considered blasphemous by church leaders, but even the ones that had religious themes were banned for a time during the Renaissance.
Only one gentleman is accounted for in Bob Rivers' twisted tune "The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen" from his 1988 parody album Twisted Christmas, but there are plenty of ladies. As bellowed by a solemn choir, chaos ensues when a prankster switches signs on the bathroom door:
The restroom door said gentlemen, so I just walked inside
I took two steps and realized I've been taken for a ride
I heard high voices, turned and found the place was occupied
By two nuns, three old ladies and a nurse
What could be worse?
Barenaked Ladies, who repeatedly sang the name Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to the tune of "Deck The Halls" on 2004's Barenaked for the Holidays, could have gone the goofy route with "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen." Instead, they melded the tune with "We Three Kings" in a jaunty acoustic rendition led by Ed Robertson and guest vocalist Sarah McLachlan.
"Twelve Days of Christmas"
If the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is to be believed, nothing says true love like a random assortment of birds and a dizzying arrangement of leaping lords and milkmaids. The traditional carol has worked its way into the holiday consciousness for centuries with lots of singers imagining what their own loved one would give them for the holiday.
On the 1968 album The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas, Nancy, Tina, and Frank Jr. supplement their dad's wardrobe with some suave accoutrements, from silken hankies to cuff links to ivory combs, ending with "a most lovely lavender tie." There are also six golden lighters for that endless supply of unfiltered Camels and three golf clubs, presumably to hit the links with Dean and Sammy.
Destiny's Child rewrote the song as "8 Days of Christmas" as a nod to Hanukkah, but Beyonce's boyfriend more than makes up for the four-day difference. Aside from a nice massage and a candlelit dinner for two, what really makes Bey feel so in lo-lo-love is a pair of high-end sunglasses and the keys to a CLK Mercedes. "How I love him for his generosity," she sings.
With crooners and divas checked off your list, Dee Snider offers ideas for your favorite metalhead. On "Heavy Metal Christmas," the Twisted Sister frontman celebrates his love of all-things-Ozzy Osbourne with "twelve silver crosses, eleven black mascaras, ten pairs of platforms, nine tattered t-shirts, eight pentagrams, seven leather jackets, six cans of hairspray, five skull-head rings, four quarts of Jack, three studded belts, two pairs of spandex pants, and a tattoo of Ozzy!"
On the 1996 album Christmas on Death Row, Snoop Dogg unwraps gifts from his homeboy in "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," not to be confused with James Brown's similarly named funk cut. Snoop raps:
On the first day of Christmas, my homeboy gave to me
A sack of the krazy glue and told me to smoke it slowly
Canadians Bob & Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) are also looking for a celebratory buzz. They fumble through a list of ideas befitting the Great White North before they settle on the perfect gift: beer.
But French hens and turtle doves are just fine for Rhonda Vincent, who invites her country pals to sing on her 2015 banjo-and-fiddle rendition. Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Larry Gatlin, Emi Sunshine, Bill Anderson, Gene Watson, Charlie Daniels, Ronnie Milsap, and the Oak Ridge Boys help deliver the extravagant yet impractical array of gifts for a true bluegrass Christmas.
There's even a little something for Scrooges who can't stomach the season. Bob Rivers' "12 Pains of Christmas" is the perfect antidote for holiday cheer. The singer hates finding a tree, rigging up lights ("why the hell are they blinking?!"), sending Christmas cards and facing his in-laws, not to mention the whining kid who must have the latest toy – batteries not included, of course.
Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was already a cherished holiday standard by the time Elvis decided to record it for his Christmas album in 1957, having reappeared on the charts every year since Crosby sang the wistful tune in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Elvis caught some flak from Irving Berlin, who thought the hip swiveler was despoiling his virtuous lyrics with each bluesy warble, even though The Drifters, borrowing from the Ravens' R&B arrangement, had already given the song a hit doo-wop treatment with a dreamy bass from Bill Pinkney that could melt snow.
Plenty of artists interpreted "White Christmas" in the Crosby tradition, but many more would have drawn the ire of Berlin. Phil Spector added his signature Wall of Sound production to a version by Darlene Love (featuring an unknown Cher) in 1963. The original opening verse, a lament about spending the holiday in sunny California, is shifted to a spoken-word interlude.
The following year, the Wailers provided doo-wop style backing for Bob Marley, who dreamed of a white Christmas not like the ones he used to know, having grown up with balmy Yuletide seasons in Jamaica.
By the end of the decade, the late Otis Redding left behind a posthumous Christmas gift with a soulful horn-laden arrangement (backed by Booker T. & the MGs), singing to his honey about "little bitty" children listening for sleigh bells in the snow. In 1980, Irish punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers stayed true to the lyrics but furiously thrashed their way through a frenzy of guitars and percussion in a live version.
On the alt-rock scene, Brad Roberts brought his baritone to several Christmas classics on Crash Test Dummies' holiday album Jingle All The Way in 2002. Backed by a retro-sounding organ arrangement, the "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" singer half speaks/half sings his way through Berlin's wintry classic.
You will rarely hear an instrumental version of the song. Jim Brickman, who has done piano renditions of just about every Christmas song ever invented, explains why: "'White Christmas' is a really hard one to do because there's so much movement in the chords. When there's that many chord changes in a short amount of time, there's not a lot of opportunity to take that and do anything else with it than what it is already."
"The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire")
Jack Frost wasn't nipping at anyone's nose when Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote the evocative "Christmas Song" in the sweltering summer heat, but their vision of far-off winter splendor brought the holiday alive when paired with the elegant vocals of Nat King Cole. Hundreds of covers played it straight but a few dared to stray from Cole's gentle piano and lush orchestral arrangements.
And oh did Fiona Apple dare. President Trump might want to gift the volatile pop singer with an annual sack of chestnuts before she makes her satirical take on "The Christmas Song" a reality. In 2016, she vented her frustration over Trump's election by rewriting the tune as "Trump's Nuts Roasting On An Open Fire." Apple stokes the flames with accusations of sexual misconduct ("You'll cry creepy uncle every time he arrives, for he keeps clawing at your clothes") and racism ("He's got black boys in hoodies locked up on his sleigh"), before ending with a sweetly crooned, "Merry, Merry Christmas, Donald Trump, f—ck you."
Long before Apple wielded the fire poker, Saturday Night Live gathered a range of celebrities, all played by Billy Crystal, for a "We Are The World" style take on the song in 1985. Crystal opens with a lengthy intro as Sammy Davis Jr. rambling about the impending holiday and the kids with their noses pressed to the Toys 'R Us window, "looking like so many starving orphans at a bakery." He also notes that Paul McCartney owns the publishing rights to the song (McCartney later recorded his own jazz version, but for the longtime vegetarian, "holly and mistletoe" make the season bright instead of the traditional "turkey and mistletoe"). Finally, he gets down to roasting the chestnuts with Howard Cosell, Joe Franklin, and Muhammad Ali.
Sincere efforts followed, with Reba McEntire pairing a Nashville twang with a bluesy piano on her first Christmas album Merry Christmas to You. Chicago also included it on their first holiday release in 1998, revamping the song with their signature "rock and roll with horns" style, with Robert Lamm taking the lead on piano and vocals amid flourishes of jazzy brass.
When news broke that Bob Dylan was recording a holiday album, Christmas in the Heart (2009), critics expected the sneering poet to plunge icicle daggers straight through the heart of cherished seasonal standards. What they got was Dylan merrily croaking his way through favorites like "The Christmas Song" and a zany, accordion-driven "Must Be Santa."
"There wasn't any other way to play it," explained Dylan, who produced the album under his pseudonym Jack Frost. "These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs. You have to play them straight too."
Dylan contrasted his jolly rasp with soft country touches like the steel guitar, and even resurrected the rarely recorded intro:
All through the year we waited
waited through spring and fall
to hear silver bells ringin', see wintertime bringin'
the happiest season of all.
"Little Drummer Boy"
Based on a traditional Czech carol, this tune about a poor boy who plays his drum in lieu of a gift for baby Jesus gained popularity in the early '50s. Johnny Cash picked it up in 1963 for his album The Christmas Spirit, but allowed his backing singers to handle the famous "pa-rum pum pum pum" sections. The rest of the decade saw lots more covers from The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez and Lou Rawls (who jazzed it up with a harmonica-and-bass intro joined by his smoky vocals, a grooving piano, and a burst of horns). By 1969, Jimi Hendrix electrified it as part of a rocking holiday medley with "Silent Night" and "Auld Lang Syne." But it was a surprise duet from 1977 that thrust the quaint little carol into pop culture prominence.
In another strange pairing, Busta Rhymes joined Justin Bieber at Rockefeller Center for a live performance of the song from Bieber's 2011 album Under the Mistletoe. Bieber is the little drum machine boy who brags about his legendary talent during the rap breakdown: "Playing for the king, playing for the title, I'm surprised you didn't hear this in The Bible."
In the rock realm, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts set the tune to a rock 'n roll beat, full of gritty guitars and trilling 'r's, and included the song on early pressings of their I Love Rock 'n Roll album. In 1987, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band brought choirs and a synthesized orchestra to their version. They also gave the religious lyrics a slight secular makeover by removing the reference to the Virgin Mary.
But one of the most popular versions about the boy who banged drums doesn't contain any drums at all. Pentatonix marched to #13 on the Hot 100 with their a cappella interpretation.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
Western star Gene Autry brought "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" to #1 in 1949 and immediately inspired a range of covers from Bing Crosby to Spike Jones to The Cadillacs, who recorded a popular doo-wop version in 1957.
Two years later, Dean Martin charmed his way through his playful take. With bells tinkling in the background like the clinking of scotch glasses, Dino refers to Rudolph as "Rudy the red-beaked reindeer" and, in a faux German accent, implores the outcast to "guide mein sleigh tonight."
In 1960, a year after their hit "Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" hit #1, the critters dragged adoptive dad David Seville to meet Rudolph at the North Pole for the Chipmunks Around The World album. With Alvin, Simon, and Theodore as backing singers, Rudolph introduces himself to Dave with a first-person – and very nasal - rendition of the song. Rudy made sure Christmas came right on time for the Chipmunks, but he did forget one important item from Alvin's wish list. At the end of the song, we learn the head chipmunk is still waiting for his hula hoop. The single peaked at #21 and was popular enough for the Chipmunks to record it a couple more times, but arguably the most beloved cover of the decade goes to Burl Ives, who voiced the banjo-playing Sam the Snowman in the stop-motion animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives' folk-flavored version got more attention when it was included on his hit holiday album Have A Holly Jolly Christmas in 1965.
That same year, The Ventures Christmas Album reimagined traditional holiday tunes as surf rock instrumentals, with each track incorporating a famous '60s pop signature. Rudolph takes flight with the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" and makes his journey with a jangle of twangy guitars and jingle bells.
Dolly Parton had already put a country spin on "Rudolph" in 1985, but no one knew about Leroy. Joe Diffie wrote "Leroy the Redneck Reindeer" for his 1995 Christmas album, Mr. Christmas. Filling in for a sick Rudolph, cousin Leroy leaves his house in the sticks and arrives at the North Pole wearing overalls and a John Deere tractor hat. All of the other reindeer are just as snobby as usual and tease Leroy until Santa steps in. Leroy takes to the skies and makes his own kind of history, country-style:
He's just a down home, party animal
Two-stepping across the sky
He mixed jingle bells with a rebel yell
And made history that night
Leroy had the other reindeer "Scootin' a hoof on every roof" but, like Rudolph, he never got an apology from the callous caribou.
Jack Johnson rewrote the scenario for his laidback acoustic take in 2008, with Rudolph calling out the reindeer for their fickle behavior: "How can you look me in the face when only yesterday you called me names?" The song closes with the herd feeling ashamed and promising to change.
"Silent Night" debuted during a Christmas Eve service at an Austrian church nearly two centuries ago and has remained one of the most popular carols ever since. Spotify offers more than 26,000 versions of the tune, from vintage favorites by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to modern takes from Mariah Carey and Sinead O'Connor.
Perhaps the oldest version of the tune comes from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In 1999, a creative Star Wars fan compiled Chewbacca's various grunts and growls and shaped them to the melody of "Silent Night." The song got tremendous exposure, albeit uncredited, after the advent of YouTube and became a holiday classic for Wookiee lovers.
Not to be outdone by a walking carpet, YouTube's Annoying Orange took a stab at a "Silent Night" parody in 2015. The acerbic citrus sings about the murderous "Silent Knife" slicing and dicing his edible pals, leaving them to "sleep in many a piece."
All was not calm and bright with The Dickies, either. Still new to the scene in 1978 with their campy punk rock covers of popular songs, the LA-based rabble-rousers disrupted the quiet celebration of Jesus' birth by ripping through the carol with a clatter of snarling vocals and punchy guitars. So much for sleeping in heavenly peace.
But if merry mayhem is your thing, check out the 2008 compilation We Wish You A Metal Xmas And A Headbanging New Year. Producer Bob Kulick gathered a bunch of hard rock and metal musicians, stuck 'em in a snowglobe, and shook to get the right combination of angry little snowflakes for each song. Backed by Anthrax rhythm guitarist Scott Ian, Shadows Fall guitarist Jon Donais, Owl frontman Chris Wyse, and The Cult drummer John Tempesta, Chuck Billy of Testament shatters the silence with the unholiest of death growls.
Nothing like a little '80s synth to restore your ravaged soul. Mannheim Steamroller's tranquil piano and strings instrumental with touches of wind and light sleigh bells closed out the group's first Christmas album in 1984.
A few years later, "C'est La Vie" singer Robbie Nevil provided soulful backing vocals when Stevie Nicks covered the song for the compilation A Very Special Christmas to benefit the Special Olympics. Like many covers, Stevie's version retains references to the holy child and the virgin mother but omits the lines "Christ the Savior is born" and "Jesus, Lord at thy birth." In 2000, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers brought some light rock instrumentation while backing the former Fleetwood Mac singer on the TV special A Very Special Christmas.
Plenty of vocal groups decorated the traditional song with warm R&B stylings and festive instrumentation, including The Platters, The Temptations, and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. But Boyz II Men brought their a cappella harmonies to "Silent Night" as the intro to their 1993 Christmas Interpretations album. The quartet lovingly describes the infant as "the lovely boy with golden hair," whose "parents guard thee with tender care."
Christian alt rockers Sixpence None the Richer finally got around to recording a Christmas album in 2008. The Dawn of Grace includes an airy acoustic take of "Silent Night" featuring Jars of Clay singer Dan Haseltine. In the accompanying animated video, a girl gathers scattered pieces of the nativity in the snow while angels assemble the Star of Bethlehem.
Elvis Presley's rock-and-roll version of Ernest Tubb's melancholy country ballad has been a favorite for holiday lonelyhearts since its appearance on the King's 1957 Christmas album, leading to lots of covers from country and rock stars alike. Martina McBride joined the late Elvis for a 2008 duet of "Blue Christmas," and was even digitally inserted into his 1968 Christmas special for the occasion. With a hairstyle reminiscent of Priscilla Presley's blown-out 'dos, McBride wails her countrified side of the story while Elvis looks on. The duet was a #22 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart, Elvis' first entry on the tally since 1982.
Brian Wilson's solo take on The Beach Boys' 1964 Christmas album has him singing his heart out against an orchestral backdrop, arranged by Dick Reynolds of The Four Freshman. Two years later, Booker T. & The MG's interpreted the tune as a funky soul instrumental based around Booker T. Jones' groove on the Hammond organ. Jones went on to arrange Willie Nelson's 1979 Christmas album, Pretty Paper, which featured an upbeat cover of "Blue Christmas." That version inspired the Lumineers to record a tambourine-tinged folk rock treatment in 2016. Wesley Schulz, founder of the trio, explained: "I grew up listening to Willie Nelson's Christmas album Pretty Paper and this was always my favorite song on it. Of any Christmas song out there, this one stands out to me as a truly good song, Christmas or not."
Bruce Springsteen, who has been rocking out to "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" since the '70s, went old-school country for "Blue Christmas" in 2000 and waited ten years to perform it again as a rock number for the Songs From The Promise concert event. The Boss is joined by the E Street Band and a full blaring horn section, while guest David Lindley adds a bit of country flair with a violin solo.
New Jersey punk rockers the Misfits performed the song live in the '70s with frontman Glenn Danzig channeling Elvis but didn't include it on a release until Horror X-Mas in 2013, with a significant lineup change that included baritone-voiced bass player Jerry Only stepping in as vocalist.
Proving even pigs get lonesome when the snow starts to fall, Porky Pig's stuttering rendition of "Blue Christmas" has been a novelty favorite since its debut in the mid-'80s. But that's not Mel Blanc, who voiced Porky and several other Looney Tunes mainstays, behind the snout. The hosts of Charlotte, North Carolina's radio program The John Boy & Billy Big Show tasked local comedian Denny Brownlee to record a Christmas tune and Brownlee came up with the Porky Pig idea (credited as Seymour Swine & the Squealers to avoid legal entanglements with Warner Bros). John Boy recorded Brownlee's performance and can be heard laughing in the background. And the rest is hi-hi-hi-history.
December 6, 2017
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