Rhino Christmas - New Wave Xmas
Merry Christmas from the '80s (and vicinity)! Past Rhino Christmas collections have included New Wave and punk-themed sets, and here we have similar holiday hits sure to prove popular with alternative rock fans. Irish band The Pogues' only Top 10 single, “Fairytale Of New York,” casts a duet between the group's frontman Shane MacGowan and guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl as a bickering Christmas Eve between man and wife. A perennial favorite in the U.K., the song somehow manages to be caustic and nostalgic at the same time. Though its 1983 release came at a tough time for the band (then rebuilding from the loss of its original guitarist and bassist), the jangly Pretenders song “2000 Miles” is much more upbeat. Offbeat is the only way to describe Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band, whose independently released “Christmas At Kmart” earned the group a short-lived contract with Warner Bros. Records.
Holiday records can make strange bedfellows – that may be the only way to describe the pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby on “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” The duet was actually done for the Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special taped shortly before the singer's death, and released years later in 1982 as the final single on Bowie's RCA Records contract. The counterpoint between the Thin White Duke's voice on the new song and Der Bingle's “rump-a-bump-bums” on the traditional one was remarkable effective, and the single was a hit. The duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh makes a lot more sense on paper; the two childhood friends teamed up in the mid-1980s and have recorded together as They Might Be Giants ever since. “Santa's Beard” is a typically eccentric track from their Lincoln album, which otherwise has no connection to Christmas. Mono Puff was a Flansburgh side project; “Careless Santa” was termed by its author a “holiday tale of misadventure” recorded with Soul Coughing's Yuval Gabay.
We enter punkier territory with “Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight).” Like the TMBG track above, it's the sole holiday-themed track on a regular studio album, in this case the final Ramones LP on Sire, 1989's Brain Drain, which was also the final Ramones release with founding bassist Dee Dee. Though the recording sessions were a bit contentious (perhaps the lyrics can be taken literally), the tuneful blast that emerged is a bona fide yuletide classic. The Damned are also punk pioneers, though from the other side of the Atlantic. Their 1983 single “There Ain't No Sanity Clause” was the band's final release for longtime U.K. label Chiswick, and managed to transform a line from the Marx Brothers' movie A Night At The Opera into anarchic seasonal cheer.
Perhaps the first New Wave holiday collection was the 1981 ZE Records compilation A Christmas Record. It's a pretty solid set, though The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping” is surely the most well-known track, inspiring numerous cover versions. Its title is a pun on then-new hip-hop, as frontwoman Patty Donahue “raps” her way through a tale of a young woman eager to avoid the hectic holiday – at least initially. Ska rhythms were a specialty of Bad Manners, one of England's most popular 2 Tone bands of the early '80s. Lead vocalist Buster Bloodvessel is in fine form on the bouncy “Christmas Time Again,” a yuletide adaptation of “Skinhead Love Affair” released around the time of the group's Return Of The Ugly album. The Alarm were also U.K. hitmakers during the 1980s, though in a more anthemic rock style perfectly suited to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” first released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971 as an anti-Vietnam War sing-along.
But the mother of all U.K. New Wave holiday sing-alongs is surely Band Aid's “Do They Know It's Christmas?” Organized by The Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof and Ultravox's Midge Ure to benefit Ethiopian famine victims, Band Aid was an all-star group including members of U2, The Police, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and many more. Released in late 1984, “Do They Know It's Christmas?” became the fastest-selling single in U.K. history and was re-recorded in 1989 and 2004 to raise additional funds for the cause. The first singer heard on the original version is Paul Young (in a part written for David Bowie, who couldn't make it to the recording sessions), who would add his voice to another holiday fund-raising effort years later when his cover of “What Christmas Means To Me” was included on a volume of the A Very Special Christmas series benefiting the Special Olympics. The Band Aid disc kept “Last Christmas” by Wham! from reaching the top of the British singles chart – but Wham! were good sports about it (singer George Michael is heard on both records), and donated their royalties to famine relief.
Bananarama participated in all three recordings of “Do They Know It's Christmas?” The recent “Baby It's Christmas” is the girl group's first holiday release beyond the Band Aid efforts. Another newer recording by '80s greats is the Pet Shop Boys' “It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas,” which was originally recorded in 1997 as a fan club-only single. Equally tough to find on original release was The Cocteau Twins' “Frosty The Snowman,” included in an issue of the Volume CD magazine. It has the classic Cocteau sound - though unlike some of the group's output, you can tell exactly what Elizabeth Fraser is singing about!
Yuletide obscurities were popular in America, too, and R.E.M.'s fan club releases included a number of holiday titles (their take on “Deck The Halls” is actually from a radio trade magazine promotional sampler). Chris Stamey and The db's were Southern jangle-pop predecessors to R.E.M. (db Peter Holsapple would later go on to work with the Athens, GA hitmakers) and released “Christmas Time” on a 1985 EP. The Flaming Lips were part of the second wave of alternative rock in the wake of R.E.M.'s breakthrough; “Christmas At The Zoo” was included on the band's 1995 Clouds Taste Metallic album.
Madonna certainly wears the crown as queen of the '80s, and “Santa Baby,” recorded for the first volume of A Very Special Christmas, is her contribution to the holiday hit parade. Originally recorded by Eartha Kitt, the song's expensive gift list was a perfect fit for the Material Girl. “Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree” was an inspired cover by Cyndi Lauper, whose vocal timbre is remarkably similar to the song's 13-year-old originator, Brenda Lee. The voice of Go-Gos frontwoman Belinda Carlisle is unmistakable on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” though she'd already gone solo by the time she cut the carol for The Holiday Collection: Volume II. Aimee Mann was the voice that carried 'Til Tuesday, the original song “Christmastime” was written by her husband (and fellow recording artist) Michael Penn.
Among the more recent recordings by '80s hitmakers is “Santa I Got Your Number” by Tommy Tutone, a seasonal rewrite of the power-poppers' most famous single. Dial the same number for St. Nick as for Jenny – 867-5309 – though presumably the North Pole has a different area code. If their '80s hits didn't make The Smithereens' fondness for The Beatles obvious, “Christmas Time Is Here Again” will; it's a version of one of the Fab Four's fan club-only releases. Devo is responsible for a few Christmas recordings (the band's Mark Mothersbaugh issued Joyeux Mutato on Rhino Handmade some years back), and their recent “Merry Something To You” covers all ecumenical bases.
We'll throw in a ringer with Depeche Mode's “Christmas Island.” The instrumental B-side to the U.K. group's “A Question of Lust,” the moody synth workout is about an island off the coast of Australia that was named for its date of discovery – December 25th. But Sinead O'Connor's stark, shimmering version of “Silent Night” (dedicated to a young fan who died from cancer) has impeccable credentials, being produced by a fellow '80s alt-rocker named Peter Gabriel...