Organized religion is responsible for more bloodshed than any institution in human history, but Christmas music is its biggest sin. I hate those songs—and the hegemony they hold over the airwaves, public spaces and every nook and cranny of our subconscious in the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birthday. Nevertheless, I make an exception for a unique subgenre, one that pours salt on the sickly sweet sentiments of this puke-provoking musical tradition. The following songs fall into two categories: (1) re-recordings of Christmas songs that (intentionally or unintentionally) assassinate the original and (2) newly composed songs that offer a demented vision of the holiday spirit.
Edd Kookie Burns – Yulesville (mp3)
So, on the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … Edward “Kookie” Byrnes’s “Yulesville.” Ah, beatnik kitsch, mixed with Christmas cheer! A former part-time parking lot attendant at the then-swinging nightspot Dino’s, Mr. Kookie is front and center on this 1959 puzzler. His version of “T’was the Night Before Chrismas” features a jazzy walking bass line, vibes, a saxophone and spoken word hipster clichés straight out of the infamous “beatnik” episode of Dragnet: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the pad/ not a hip cat was swingin’ and that’s nowhere, Dad.”
Day Two: The Ventures’ truly swinging version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the all-time best surf instrumental take on a holiday classic (an admittedly small sub-subgenre). It is also one of the first mash-ups. The group—best known for the Hawaii Five-O theme song—essentially placed the vocal melody of this Christmas song (played on the guitar) atop the instrumental body of “Wooly Bully,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It’s one of the many genius tracks from the Ventures’ 1965 Christmas Album.
Day Three: “Space Christmas” by the all-female Japanese trio Shonen Knife is another demented classic. In this case, the 1992 song is not a cover, but an original—and I mean “original” in every sense of the word. Sample lyric: “I’m waiting for Santa Claus, he’ll come on a bison sleigh/ I’m waiting a Christmas Eve, I wanna get a spaceship!”
Day Four: This interpretation of “Feliz Navidad” by El Vez—the self-declared Mexican Elvis known for his subversive “translations” of popular songs—throws all authorial intentions out the window. Like the above-mentioned performance by the Ventures, it is also a mash-up, released in 1994. Here, El Vez sings the vocal melody of “Feliz Navidad” over a carbon copy instrumental reproduction of “Unlimited Supply,” by P.I.L. (Johnny Rotten’s old group). It’s the aural equivalent of tripping on mistletoe berries.
Day Five: There is no better term to describe Jana Thomspon’s “Merry Christmas from Lisa Marie” than sui generis. Recorded soon after Elvis Presley died in 1977, this song (which had zero involvement from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s daughter) begins, “Dear Santa, this is Lisa Marie/ It’s been such a long, long time now since you received a wish from me”—and it devolves from there. Every time I hear it, something inside me dies.
Day Six: If James Brown hadn’t passed away on Christmas day, I probably would have chosen a different Yuletide classic by the Soul Brother #1, like “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto.” However, his prophetic “Christmas in Heaven,” released in 1966, is the obvious choice. May the hardest working man in show business rest in peace.
Day Seven: What conjures up images of “White Christmas” other than … Hawaii! This Polynesian confection, sung by Haunani Kahalewai (“Hawaii’s First Lady of Song”) defies logic. The only thing that could produce a white Christmas in that state is volcano ash—or Caucasian invaders from the mainland looking to steal more land from the natives. (El Vez’s take on this song, re-titled “Brown Christmas,” is a nice twist the this song’s submerged racial politics.)
Day Eight: The Billy May Orchestra’s take on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is probably the best mambo-inspired Christmas ditty I’ve ever heard (yes, another tiny sub-subgenre). Filled with horn blasts, slinky rhythms, and nonsensical shouts—“Kris Kringle??!!” and “maaaassshh,” among others—this 1958 song has to be the most bizarre version of “Rudolph” in the universe.
Day Nine: Sticking with the Latin music vibe, we have Esquivel’s deconstruction of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This track incorporates all the key sonic trademarks of the man who popularized the early-1960s Space Aged Bachelor Pad Music aesthetic—sonic ZOOMS, WOWS, ZZZZZZZZs, and all. Psychedelia making out with easy listening in the back of a lunar landing vehicle.
Day Ten: “Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child’s Prayer)” makes me fall out of my chair every time. This totally sincere spoken word recording is a classic within the What-In-The-Hell-Were-They-Thinking? genre. In the song, a little girl talks to Christ: “Happy Birthday, Jesus, Momma said that you was near, and that you had a birthday this time every year … She explained how they hurt you, those evil naughty men/ but she said you let them do it, for girls like me would sin.” Perhaps this song should be re-titled, “Happy Birthday Jesus (Do You Want a Pile of Crap?)”
Day Eleven: “Silent Night” is among the most peaceful of all holiday songs, but this is not the case with the version found on the Jingle Cats’ Meowy Christmas, a hit novelty album from the 1994 season. Employing digital sampling technology to capture a variety of differently pitched meows, it sounds like the mad scientist behind this project tortured his feline friends. When one particular cat hits the high note on “Silent Night,” it sounds like a corkscrew went up its butt. All my cat-loving friends have been traumatized by this composition (not me … I hate cats as much as Christmas music).
Day Twelve: I found the following song at the local arbiter of taste—the Hy-Vee grocery store. This final song was featured on Woody Phillips’s 1996 CD, titled A Toolbox Christmas, where each track features a different power tool as a lead instrument. His version of “Auld Lang Syne” is supported by a musical saw (along with a power saw, sander, drill, and metal cutter). Imagine if Throbbing Gristle, the gloomy pioneers of industrial music, had composed the soundtrack to a holiday episode of Home Improvement.
To sum up, on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: A mind melting power saw and drill-laden Musique Concrète montage; tortured felines spewing dissonant melodies; an overwrought message to Jesus narrated by a kid; trippy bachelor pad holiday cheer; a wacked-out merry mambo; a song about snow from the Pacific Islands; James Brown serenading us from heaven; a morbid Lisa Marie Presley impersonation; post-punk Hispanic Elvisploitation; demented Japanese guitar pop about Santa and his bison-driven vehicle; a jingle-jangly surf instrumental; and a Beatnik in a pair tree!