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Recently in 1970s Category

borntoroast.jpg
Hot Press is an Irish music magazine of long standing. In 1978 and 1979, the magazine sponsored the release of several rock Christmas singles, and now they've put together an EP with all of them available in one place. (They're pushing this in 2016, but the Amazon listing indicates this has been up since 2014.) "December 24" is a midtempo rocker that takes a jaundiced look at last-minute shopping, with a nod to the spirit of the season mixed in there somewhere. "Christmas in the Cookhouse" is a Little Richard-via-garage-band ode to a missing holiday turkey (inspired by a true tale of the dog stealing it), "Gobble Gobble Gobble Hey!" mungs together 70s British punk with a purloined Ramones title while celebrating holiday excess, "Eight Reindeers (Santa Was a Trucker)" takes its inspiration for a mid-70s trucker song from Little Feat, and the title song is a Bruce Springsteen homage, right down to the downbeat lost-love topic of the lyrics. It's not clear from the promotional materials, but it appears at least some of the folks involved with these tunes were magazine staffers, and I gotta say, good on ya's, not just for doing this in the first place but for resurrecting it in the modern age so we can rock out old school for one more holiday.
I think you know why this is here today. A great artist has left us.

Because.

leonrussell.jpgRecorded roughly at the same time as his hit album Carney, this 1972 original by the heralded pianist, producer, arranger and songwriter only ever came out on 45, though it's possible to download it nowadays. It's a bluesy ballad featuring blues legend Freddie King on lead guitar. The flip side, "Christmas in Chicago," is a bit more uptempo and suggests the blues style of the city in the title. Both are fine performances and will satisfy fans of blues and classic rock. Leon later recorded 1995's Hymns of Christmas, but that is a collection of piano instrumentals backed by orchestra featuring 10 classic and antique carols, nothing resembling Leon's signature rock sound.

"Dancing in the Snow," The Leopards (Moon)

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leopards.jpgThis is one of those semi-legendary songs that people occasionally ask about, that I've known about for at least a couple of decades, but its impossible rarity tended to confound even The Great And Powerful Google, at least until I stumbled over it again while recovering from a festive holiday dinner. The Leopards were a Kansas City, Kan. band in the 1970s that personally pressed and released their own vinyl LP of their original songs, around about the time that the band Shoes was doing the same thing in Illinois, kicking off the true beginnings of indie rock. Shoes crossed over to the major labels and the Leopards did not, but when you hear this song it's hard to figure why; on this song, at least, they did a more than passible impression of the Kinks doing a holiday song, and before the Kinks themselves did "Father Christmas." This song was the only holiday-themed tune on the album, and it's a keeper. They went on to release a couple more singles and albums, none of which made much of a mark. The original album, Kansas City Slickers, was pressed in an edition of exactly 1,000 copies in 1977; Sing Sing Records of New York put out a limited vinyl reissue in 2011, for which there is a listing on Amazon. Best price at this writing was $99 for a copy of the Sing Sing version; best not to ask about the price of one of the original 1,000 copies. Whether there is an available download of the entire album I will leave to the individual's resourcefulness. Listen here.

ravers.jpgBefore Rhino Records became known for its loving reissues of great classic music, its emphasis was more on novelty records like "Fish Heads" and "Stairway to Heaven" done by an all-kazoo orchestra. "Punk Rock Christmas" by The Ravers is solidly in that earlier tradition, being released on a marbleized vinyl EP with a punky "Silent Night" and two non-holiday songs, but it also was a perfect snapshot of 1977 punk rock and record collectors' acquisitiveness: "What do you want for Christmas, little boy?" "I want 10 copies of 'God Save the Queen' with a picture sleeve!" Is it really a novelty if it blends right in with other folks' attempts at punk rock holiday songs? Or if it was arguably the first such song?

"White Christmas," Patti Smith (Jason)

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psmith.jpgThe label claims it's produced by "The Runt," which savvy travelers will recognize as the nickname of Todd Rundgren, who produced one of Patti's albums. It's a fairly conventional reading in Patti's distinctive voice and only a single verse long, but it does the job. Its artist credit is "r.e.f.m.," but we know it's Patti. This is from sometime in the late 70s; her only other Christmas release is "We Three Kings" on A Very Special Christmas 3. I had originally claimed this was a bootleg, but Martin Johns writes in to correct me that this was an official release. He goes on: "The Patti Smith 45 was recorded in an effort to help musician/producer Lenny Kaye launch an independent label... But, of course, she was under contract (I'm not sure if she was ALREADY under contract or whether the song was recorded first and she signed before its release), so they came up with the acronym "r.e.f.m." (which I believe was something like "Records Exist For Music" or "Records Entirely For Musicians"...something which expressed Patti's reservations with the industry). I'm fairly certain that "the runt" was Lenny and I know that was his band on the flip side." Personally, I stand by my reading of "runt" as Rundgren; he actually recorded a couple of albums as Runt and he was the producer of Patti's Wave album. Which makes me skeptical that Kaye would adopt it for himself. Update: Robin Heath has heard that "r.e.f.m." may mean "radio ethiopia field marshal" (Radio Ethiopia being the title of her second album). "No Jestering" by Link Cromwell, aka Lenny Kaye, is the flip side.
keef.jpgThe Stones score a big fat zero in the realm of Christmas rock as a group, unless you count "Winter" from Goat's Head Soup, but this release from 1978 is Keef's first-known solo recording, apart from those few rare copies of the "Happy" single credited to him. (Note cover is from the Japanese edition.) The performance is a bit muddy, and his voice is down in the mix, but it shouldn't be surprising that he would choose to cover a tune made famous by Chuck Berry. This is the B side of the single; the A-side is a version of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come." UPDATE: Reissued on iTunes for 2007, available on Little Steven's Christmas a-Go-Go compilation.

"Father Christmas," The Kinks (RCA)

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kinks.jpgIf you're looking for someone to satirize the whole idea of Christmas, Ray Davies would be high on the list of suspects to do so. This 1976 song by the Kinks does exactly that, intimating that happy holidays are a luxury for the rich and that for everyone else, it's every man for himself. Father Christmas gets mugged by a bunch of street toughs in this anti-classic. Though it bowed to little notice, this song has become a much-covered classic in recent years as well as an often-chosen addition to modern rock Christmas anthologies.
vibra.jpgA 1977 single that nicely straddles 70s pop-rock with the rising new wave, I have to admit I don't know a darned thing about this record or its artists except that it makes a nice addition to a Christmas mix tape. Extra Brownie points go to these guys for covering "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" on the B-side. I wouldn't guarantee that this hasn't been reissued on CD somewhere, but I've yet to see it. It does show up in the $9 to $16 price range on the occasional vinyl site, though.
wizzrd.jpgElectric Light Orchestra was formed out of the ruins of The Move by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, but after the first ELO album Wood decided the group was being motivated more by Lynne's orchestral Beatleisms than Wood's vision of Phil Spector meets the Count Basie Orchestra, and he left ELO to form Wizzard, initially storming the British charts with a string of brilliant singles that couldn't get a foothold in the U.S. This 1973 winner was one of those singles, a Spector cop from its wall of sound to its jingle bells, with a kids' chorus thrown in for good measure. Classic moment: just before the kids start singing, Wood yells, "OK you lot, let's hear it!" Wood revisited the genre with "Rock and Roll Winter" a few years later, with less chart success. And in 1991 he recorded "Sing Out the Old, Ring In the New," which looked to clone the success of "I Wish," right down to kids singing the chorus near the end. Then he hooked up with The Wombles for the mashup "Wombling Christmas Every Day"....

"Christmas in My Soul," Laura Nyro (Columbia)

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nyroxmas.jpgYou really have to be in the right mood for this tune, taken from Laura's classic 1971 LP Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. It's long, about seven minutes, and it takes a while to get to the point, plus the loud-soft dynamics are rather abrupt. She starts out solo, with lengthy pauses between verses and piano chords, finally getting into a slow soul-gospel groove near the end. Verses referring to "Black Panther brothers," "Chicago Seven" and "homeless Indians" are pretty dated nowadays, but other lines like "Madonnas weep for wars of hell, they blow out the candles and haunt Noel" or "The sins of politics, the politics of sin" still resonate.
greglake.jpgYears after progressive rock went out of style, there are darned few tunes from that period you can walk down the street and hum or whistle without causing passersby to reach for the butterfly net. This tune from the Lake in Emerson, Lake and Palmer is an exception. The original 1975 version of this song was a stately yet sentimental ode to Christmas, and it sounds like Keith Emerson had a hand in the arrangement. A subsequent re-recording of this song by the whole band also is available; the arrangements are similar but the newer version features less orchestral instrumentation in favor of choral backing vocals on the later verses. There's a third version of it on the 2002 CD A Classic Rock Christmas. Composed by Lake and his preferred co-writer of the time, Pete Sinfield, both of the original King Crimson, they also co-wrote the instrumental flip side, "Humbug." By the way, with "The Nutcracker" being a favorite Christmastime entertainment, we should also call attention to ELP's cover, on the Pictures at an Exhibition album, of B. Bumble and the Stingers' "Nutrocker" as a Christmas tune. There's also an ELP Christmas CD single from 1995 that combines these songs with a couple of others, but it appears to be out of print.
bingbowie.jpgThe very fact that Bing and Bowie sang a duet at any time for any reason was a real thigh-slapper in 1977, which is why this performance from Bing's last Christmas special was widely bootlegged for about five years before RCA finally said "the hell with it" and put it out. It's a nice record, too, combining the best aspects of both singers in a performance that is emotional but not at all overwrought or sappy. It's a little difficult to shake loose a copy lately, as the CD single pictured here is out of print, as are nearly all the various compilations that have featured the song over the years.

"Merry Xmas Everybody," Slade (Polydor)

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slade.jpgContinuing with the British holiday invasion of the 1970s is this tune from Slade, written by band members Holder-Lea and produced by Chas Chandler, he who discovered Jimi Hendrix. It's a typical example of the band's early 70s string of Top 40 hits, none of which made much headway on the American charts, although Anglophiles in such enclaves as Cleveland and Los Angeles managed to give the band enough of a U.S. reputation to carry them into a minor comeback in the mid-80s. The style is a kind of singsongy guitar-pop that's good for drunken singalongs. UPDATE: Slade's also on record with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Here's to the New Year."

"Step Into Christmas," Elton John (MCA)

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elton.jpgThere seems to have been a rush to do Christmas songs for the holiday among British artists in the early 70s, with Wizzard, Slade, Greg Lake, Elton John and others all bringing out their own original takes on the holiday in that time period. Of course, Christmas music fans don't need to be reminded that the Brits are constantly on the watch to predict which song will be no. 1 on Christmas Day, as humorously depicted in the film "Love Actually." Elton's 1973 single is an underrated gem that is more likely to be heard (and seen) on VH1 at holiday time than the radio. For extra credit, the flip side is "Ho Ho Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas)." This turns up on a number of compilations, including Elton John's Christmas Party, where he also is joined on a duet of "Calling It Christmas" with Joss Stone.
cale.jpgFrom the composer's Paris 1919 album of 1973, the liner notes tell nothing of this album's history, but I seem to recall this being part of the Velvet Underground co-founder's foray into California music with folks like Lowell George. The song in question is actually pretty obscure as to any relationship with the title, but if you listen closely, you can put it all together.

"Christmas Day," Squeeze (A&M)

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squeeze.jpgReleased as a single only in England in 1979, it has that Difford/Tilbrook way of looking at the world, complete with Morecambe and Wise reference in the chorus. Kicking off with Jools Holland on portentious piano chords, it proceeds through a number of "movements" from churchy to poppy over its four minutes, a trademark Squeeze approach. Later offered on the IRS Christmas CD and Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Christmas.

"Jesus Christ," Big Star (Ardent)

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bigstar.jpgArdent was the pop-rock imprint of Stax Records, and Big Star is one of those bands who, like the Velvet Underground, didn't sell many records in their heyday except to people who went on to form their own bands, as the old joke goes. Led by Alex Chilton of Box Tops fame ("The Letter"), the group came to be one of the pioneers of "power pop" back before anybody knew there was such a thing. This Christmas tune is from their 1975 third album Sister Lovers, a record that never saw a release during the band's original existence and was pieced together under several different titles until Rykodisc finally got Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson to assemble an approved version in 1992. The song has turned up on a few compilations along the way as well. It's a short, shambling pop-rocker that patches together a handful of Christmas sentiments pinched from other carols. Given its humble ingredients, it still manages a kind of majesty that inspires occasional covers.
paul.jpgSir Paul apparently had just gotten himself a Polymoog and had some studio time laying around, so he threw this together for the season in 1979. It's slapdash and could have been a tad shorter, but other than that it's just fine, even if that is Linda on background vocals. (Linda was a great human being in so many ways, just not much of a singer.) It probably suffers in comparison to John Lennon's "Happy Xmas," but then many Christmas records do, don't they? Nevertheless, the song has notched its fair share of covers over the years as well. The B-side, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae," is even more slapdash, but then Paul doesn't often get credit for having a sense of humor. UPDATE: The single sleeve links you to one of those Now That's What I Call Christmas discs, since Paul is in the process of taking all of his solo works away from EMI and over to Hear Music, the Starbucks label. There is a reissue of the original single on red vinyl knocking around out there, though it's out of print as well.
johnyoko.jpgThe most enduring result of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's public campaign for peace in the late 60s and early 70s is this classic 1971 single, originally released on clear green vinyl. Envisioned as peace propaganda by its creators, the record has taken on a life of its own as a Christmas staple. The fact that Phil Spector was co-producer may have had something to do with its success; in the Spector biography Out of His Head, there's a reference to Spector's coming in on a rehearsal of the song. Appalled by the skeletal backing group Lennon had assembled, he yelled, "Get me five acoustic guitarists. And if this is a Christmas record, we need bells...." Needless to say, covers of this iconic song are almost mandatory among those rockers who deign to make holiday discs.
dingdong.jpgAn almost-forgotten single by Harrison from his Dark Horse album of 1974, it brings his characteristic solo sound to a New Year's flavored tune. Lyrically it's no great shakes, but it serves the purpose, and the combination of George's trademark slide guitar with church bell chimes still sounds unique years later.

"River," Joni Mitchell (Reprise)

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blue.jpgFrom the landmark album Blue in 1971, this song brought the contemporary (to that year) singer-songwriter viewpoint to Christmas music. The downtempo lost-love lyric is never sappy and the lack of a happy ending remains rare among pop-rock Christmas songs. Listening to this record probably stops a lot of less-talented writers from doing their own original Christmas songs. It's so good the writers of "Ally McBeal" were able to hang an entire episode on it, complete with a rendition of the song by Robert Downey Jr.
bruce1.jpgReleased officially in 1981 for the children's album In Harmony 2, the release is actually the end of the story. Bruce, musicologist that he is, played this song in concerts that fell within the holiday season going back to at least 1974, and the tune was widely bootlegged until the official release. In fact, until the record industry began cracking down on the practice, the tune occasionally turned up on the radio at Christmas time as disc jockeys would bring in their own bootleg copies to play. The fact that there were a number of different versions, recording quality bad to reasonably legible, coupled with the fact that audiences really liked the song, probably led to the official release. A promo single was serviced to radio stations, but as far as I know was never released to the public. Note that Bruce used the Phil Spector arrangement for his version, although without backing vocals. UPDATE: Jeff and Erin Fitzpatrick-Bjorn point out "Santa" finally got a single release as the B-side of "My Hometown" in 1985 and got re-released as a CD single in 1994. FURTHER UPDATE: Louie Sherwood says that version was different from the one mentioned at the start of this review, with more audience singing. He also says the original version snuck out on a 1975 Columbia compilation called Christmas of Hope. Of course, it's now easily available as a single download.
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