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Jim Fester on a few holiday songs that bring out the Grinch in him
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
Complaining about Christmas songs has become as much a part of the holidays as last-minute shopping and re-gifting. There are annoying novelty songs we can’t get rid of, like the dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer,” and any version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Complaining about these songs is futile. They will never go away, and we should simply accept the fact.
But there is another stratum of Christmas songs that isn’t talked about. These are songs that should have worn out their welcome by now, but for whatever reason, have avoided the dustbin of popular culture. They continue to be listened to, covered, and played to death every holiday season. Here, in no particular order, are just five of those songs, made by people who should know better, that always bring out the Scrooge or the Grinch in me.
“Merry Christmas (the War Is Over)” — John Lennon
That John Lennon got away with a decade’s worth of this sort of daft hippy gibberish without losing an ounce of credibility is probably reason enough to consider him a genius is my book. Plenty of people have got their hooks into this one, but no matter who sings it, the first lines of this song always get me reaching for a hefty dose of the Christmas spirit: “So this is Christmas/and what have you done?/Another year older…” Thanks for reminding me.
“Wonderful Christmastime” — Paul McCartney
Sir Paul gets a bad rap because he wasn’t a tortured genius like his songwriting partner from the Beatles days. In short, he’s called a people-pleasing wuss, the easy-listening choice. With “Wonderful Christmastime,” he sets out to prove his critics right. (And yes, if you’re counting, that’s two Beatles on this list. I don’t know if Ringo ever did a Christmas song. He may have found a more dignified way of making money around the holidays, like doing sea lion imitations in Trafalgar Square). But as much as this song grates, not even it deserves the treatment it gets on a benefit CD released several years ago called NBC Stars Sing Christmas. Along with Sean Hayes of Will & Grace singing something called “The Christmas Song” and Megan Mullally’s take on “Silent Night” (which actually isn’t bad), you get Martin Sheen, John Spencer, and Stockard Channing of The West Wing warbling their way through "Wonderful Christmastime." I usually never recommend someone listen/watch anything because it’s bad. Life is short, and sometimes, bad is bad, as Huey Lewis once said (and he would know). But in this case, if you get the opportunity to hear the cast of West Wing sing “Wonderful Christmastime,” take it. Listening to them intone “ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong” sounds almost as if musical concepts such as “tune” and “melody” were just recently discovered, and mankind is trying them out for the first time.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas (2004 version)”
Who would have thought that a project initially slapped together by “that guy in that one band who did the song about the girl who shoots people because she doesn’t like Mondays” would have had such an impact? Some of this may be nostalgia talking, but the original version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” still holds up. If nothing else, it serves as an historical document of a time when Simon Le Bon was a bigger star than Bono, and someone would foot the bill for a trans-Atlantic phone call from Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The 2004 remake is everything the original wasn’t — charmless, dull, and smacking of self-importance. Sure, it’s for a good cause…
“Santa Baby” — Madonna
Another modern Christmas staple that’s been done by everyone, yet it’s Madonna’s version, with the Material Girl slapping on a Brooklyn accent, that seems to pop up consistently. I read somewhere that Madonna is “embarrassed” by this recording, which is really saying something, coming from her. My guess is that she’s supposed to be playing a “character” in this song, but one thing we can say for sure about Madonna: whatever her other talents, acting ain’t one of them. She’s only really good at playing Madonna.
“Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” — David Bowie/Bing Crosby
I still hear this one, and sorry, I can’t hear it without thinking about that video, with David Bowie allegedly coming over to Bing Crosby’s house. The two stand by the piano and wear sweaters and sing. This was filmed in 1977 for Crosby’s annual Christmas special. Crosby died shortly after taping, and the show was aired posthumously. Bowie’s career has been marked by “phases.” He’s been Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the pastel-suited pop star of his “Let’s Dance” days… The duet with Bing Crosby must have come about during his “Total Dork” phase. Rock stars do this sort of thing every now and then to prove they can really sing. Usually, it ends up being awkward for both parties, and this is no exception, though considering Bowie’s reputation circa 1977, maybe we should commend him for not bringing his own kind of “snow” to the proceedings, and snorting it off the piano.