Ah, Christmas, a time for annoying novelty numbers and musical kitsch best left in the quarter bin of someone’s June garage sale. Spurred by both the recent purchase of a Moody Blues holiday disc for my Justin Hayward-enamored wife – and a series of blog posts by Jim Henley and friends on cover songs – I started considering the halt and the lame: misbegotten Xmas covers that are better forgotten, even though you know someone’s got ‘em on this year’s party mix tape. Here are five (with an added obscurity as a stocking stuffer) for your edification. Why not add your own nominations in the Comments section below?:
- D.I., “Mister Grinch”: Nuthin’ like holiday cheer to bring out the brat in punk rockers. There are, for instance, a number of punkish remakes of “Silent Night,” the funniest of which has gotta be a Mr. Gumby-ish track by Brit pop-punkers, the Boys (going under under the name of the Yobs), though the Dickies’ speedball rendition is probably the most familiar. But for thudding pointlessness, this sludgy cover of the Doctor Seuss/Albert Hague holiday cartoon put-down is the absolute nadir: it appears on a collection entitled Punk Rock Xmas alongside gems like the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)” and Pansy Division’s “Homo Christmas” – and I skip this track every time it comes up. Sounds as if the band recorded it half awake after listening to Tony the Tiger’s version once off the teevee in the other room. Really and truly dreadful.
- Joan Jett, “Little Drummer Boy”: First time I heard Joan’s hard-rockin’ rendition of this classic dose of holiday saccharin, it was tagged onto the end of her I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll album, where it sounded thoroughly out of place. Maybe it’ll do better in an Xmas tape, I remember thinking, so I dutifully included it on one I was making for a holiday party. Sorry, no go – this song just brings out the worst in otherwise fine rockers (see also the egregious Bowie/Crosby duet for further details), and that rave-up guitar solo slapped onto the end is completely antithetical to the song’s would-be lyrical setting. An ignoble failure.
- Moody Blues, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”: No matter what their religion, it’s every pop artist’s right to go into the studio and cut a Christmas album – preferably in some Bahamian studio, right? This year, the aging Brit prog rockers released their obligatory December disc, which includes a cover of John Lennon’s overplayed anti-war carol. Whatever your thoughts on the Iraq War, you’ve gotta admit the thought’s timely. I was all prepared to get behind this track (no Yoko in the chorus!) – except just when you expect the song to soar into the “War is over/If you want it” harmonic chorus, the boys don’t sing it and just let the orchestra carry on the melody. Wotta bunch of wimps.
- Supremes, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: Proof that even the mighty Motown machine could seize up when it came to the holidays. Hard to imagine a more huffing, unenjoyable remake of this durable kids song. Over an admittedly agreeable Motown rhythm section, Diana Ross sings the lyrics like she’s been taught ‘em phonetically. (Who knew English was her second language?) The kind of track you’d like to blast for twenty-four hours straight into a room full of bound record company executives. That’d teach ‘em!
- Poi Dog Pondering, “Male Kalikimaka”: Nothing takes the spice out of an amusing li’l novelty number like a group that decides to play it wacky. This high-pitched remake of the Arthur Lyman mock-tropical holiday song (a subgenre that was probably initiated by the Andrew Sisters with “Christmas Island”) even grabs the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and makes ‘em co-conspirators, but to no avail. If this number (first heard on Sony’s A Different Kind of Christmas collection) wasn’t a factor in killing this band’s career, it should’ve been.
And, now, for a track nobody remembers, but I’m gonna mention anyway:
- Lon Chaney, “Monsters’ Holiday”: Bobby “Boris” Pickett followed up his perennial Halloween novelty smash, “Monster Mash,” with this largely forgotten seasonal sequel about the monsters’ plan to steal Santa’s sleigh. Not bad as it goes (which isn’t all that far), but who at Tower Records (not to be confused with the music chain, I hope) considered down-and-out Lon Chaney Junior for a cover of this tune? Where Pickett dusts off his patented Boris Karloff imitation to good use, all Chaney can muster is a booze-roughened growl. As a cautionary tale of tinseltown decline, it works, but I’m fairly sure that’s not how it was meant to be taken. Pretty scary – and not in a good way.
NOTE: For a list of holiday tracks, I actually like, check out last year’s still-applicable holiday music listing.