Rhino Christmas - Holidays In Dementia

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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Rhino Christmas - Holidays In Dementia

As we continue to revisit Rhino collections from Christmas past, we must tip our Santa hat to Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, for curating some of the craziest holiday discs ever. His aptly titled THE GREATEST CHRISTMAS NOVELTY CD OF ALL TIME leads off with The Chipmunks, and we'll give Alvin, Simon and Theodore the pole position here, too. The brainchild of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who'd had a previous speeded-up-vocal hit with “Witch Doctor,” “The Christmas Song” hit the chart in late 1958, spending weeks at No.1. The three lovable rodents have since become a media empire, with a TV series and several feature films to their credit. A funny voice also paid off for Spike Jones & His City Slickers, whose “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” topped the pop chart in 1948. The band's 28-year-old trumpeter George Rock supplied the voice of the lisping little kid.

The late 1940s also gave us Harry Stewart, a multi-foreign-accented comic best known as “Scandahoovian” Yogi Yorgesson, whose song “I Just Go Nuts At Christmas” has sold more than a million copies over the years. I guess you could also call The Singing Dogs' “Jingle Bells” a “funny voice” record; it's four canines (named Dolly, Pearl, Caesar, and King) whose barking in different pitches was rearranged to fit the 19th century holiday song. Originally recorded in 1955, the song hit the chart again in 1971, and has been a seasonal staple ever since.

The 18th century carol “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” is one of St. Nick's greatest gifts to song parodists like Allan Sherman, whose single “The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas” name-checks such popular 1963 presents as an automatic vegetable slicer (that works when you see it on television but not when you get it home) and a Japanese transistor radio. When Bob and Doug McKenzie (SCTV's Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) got hold of the song 20 years later, they gave it a Canadian spin with gifts including four pounds of back-bacon and a beer. Bob Rivers has turned Christmas albums into a cottage industry; “The Twelve Pains Of Christmas,” from the radio personality's TWISTED CHRISTMAS album, gripes about such Yuletide annoyances as finding a tree and five months of bills. Partridges in pear trees weren't on Gayla Peevey's wish list either - the 10-year-old scored a hit in 1953 singing “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.”

Stan Freberg's three GREATEST CHRISTMAS NOVELTY selections underline the adman/funnyman's dominance of comedy recording in the 1950s and 1960s. Several performers charted with a version of Roy Bennett and Sid Tepper's “Nuttin' For Christmas” in 1955, but Freberg's take on the song's misbehaving child – who's getting nuttin' for Christmas because he “ain't been nuttin' but bad” - is definitive. Stan's “Green Chri$tma$” skewers the commercialization of the holidays with a satirical jab at the advertising industry so sharp that Capitol Records almost refused to release it. “Profit never needs a reason – get the money; it's the season.” Another favorite subject of Freberg's was Jack Webb's popular TV series Dragnet; “Christmas Dragnet” (aka “Yulenet”) pits hard-nosed detective Joe Wednesday against a Santa skeptic, and features voice work by the great Daws Butler (of Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw and many other classic cartoons).

Tom Lehrer was another of the 1950s most skilled musical satirists. Lehrer's approach was a little more cerebral - “A Christmas Carol” was recorded at Harvard for 1959's AN EVENING WASTED WITH TOM LEHRER – but no less effective, with the performer's rapid-fire wordplay and piano work puncturing Yuletide traditions with glee. Forty years later, he would give equal time to Jewish holidays with “(I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica,” a track recorded for Rhino's THE REMAINS OF TOM LEHRER boxed set.

It just wouldn't be Christmas without Elmo & Patsy. The California veterinarian and his then-wife recorded “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” in 1979 and released it on their own label; soon after the duo signed to Epic Records and their song snowballed to become the biggest new Christmas novelty since The Chipmunks. Another '70s duo who gave us a memorably bent seasonal song was Cheech & Chong, whose first “hit” was the 1971 Christmas single “Santa Claus And His Old Lady.” Dr. Demento himself can be heard singing backup on “I'm A Christmas Tree,” an outtake from the 1981 Rhino album PRONOUNCED NORMAL by Wild Man Fischer. And weighing in with “Christmas At Ground Zero” is Weird Al Yankovic, the greatest song parodist since Allan Sherman. The track, with an arrangement borrowed from Phil Spector's famed holiday album, was released in 1986, when “Ground Zero” was a nuclear war reference and not an area of Manhattan.

Dr. D's HOLIDAYS IN DEMENTIA collection gave us a pair of songs by The Hollytones, whose 1988 single “Gridlock Christmas” saw sufficient success that the Costa Mesa, California trio put together an entire album of Yuletide parodies a few years later. “Christmas Is Coming Twice This Year” is drawn from that disc; it's a clever look at kids who play divorced parents off one another for extra gifts. Ray Stevens had a couple of No.1 records in the 1970s, but “Santa Claus Is Watching You” wasn't one of them - though the song's trumpet work has some of the comic zing of “The Streak.” You'll likely recognize the distinctive horn hook in “Christmas Wrapping,” a seasonal favorite from '80s New Wave favs The Waitresses. Jona Lewie cut “Stop The Cavalry” for U.K. New Wave specialists Stiff Records; the Christmas-set anti-war song became the singer's biggest hit in 1980. Nightclub performer Mona Abboud had her 15 minutes of fame in 1966, singing “The Pretty Little Dolly” for Johnny Carson on TV's Tonight Show. When she released the song as a single years later on her own Mona Records, “I Should Have Left The Light On For Santa” was the flipside.

Predating both the GREATEST CHRISTMAS NOVELTY and HOLIDAYS IN DEMENTIA sets was Rhino's 1983 reissue of The Three Stooges' 1959 Christmas EP. Among the six happy Yuletide songs performed by Moe, Larry and Curly Joe is “Wreck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly.” “The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg” is a late-1950s Capitol Records single from Mel Blanc, voice of such beloved cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales. We'll finish things off here with selections from two of the 1950s' top novelty artists. Sheb Wooley scored a No.1 hit with “The Purple People Eater” and went back to the same well for “Santa And The Purple People Eater.” Dickie Goodman pioneered the “break-in” record – which uses samples of then-current hits to tell a story – in such novelty classics as the UFO-themed “The Flying Saucer” and the TV series satire “The Touchables.” Naturally when Christmas rolled around, Dickie reworked these as “Santa & The Satellite” and “Santa & The Touchables.” The former includes snippets of songs from such rock 'n' rollers as Little Richard, while the latter brings us full circle with a cameo appearance by Alvin & The Chipmunks.

- John Hagelston