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RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD 244; NOVEMBER 1952

 
 

 

For eleven months of the year Christmas songs are an anathema to our musical sensibilities.

The songs are still constructed with the same notes and chords and melodies, still played by instruments and sung by voices we like, but the feeling they elicit seems so out of place in May or August or even the second week of January, that whatever their objective merits may be, their reception based on purely subjective impressions are bound to take a hit.

But during that twelfth month on the calendar, when the weather is getting cold, the days are as short as they’ll be all year, and the incessant hype of not one but TWO fairy tales which cause people to cheerfully cast aside their common sense for the promise of gifts both large and small, that’s when those same songs become magical.

It’s also when those who have no one to share these feelings with just want the New Year to ring in so they can put those records back on the shelf with the silly decorations for the next eleven months.

But even those despondent people had songs to help get them through this stretch if they just took the time to look for them.
 

 

Please, Whatever You Do
It seems every holiday season we bring this up again, but it’s worth keeping in mind whenever we encounter a new Christmas song that they tend to fit into just a handful of prototypes that get recycled endlessly through the years.

In the fantasy classification you start with the old time hymns that are tied to some associated religious membership drive this holiday promotes. On the other end of the spectrum, but under the same general heading of “make believe”, you have the children oriented characters of Santa Claus, some flying reindeer, elves and talking snowmen.

In the songs that are grounded in reality which make up the rest of the catalog, you have the earthly responses to the holiday and these tend to be the most impactful emotionally, whether it’s the wartime heartbreak of being separated from loved ones fighting overseas, or if it’s the overall glad tidings that most people feel helpless to resist offering when encountering such giddy optimism and good cheer week after week leading up to December Twenty-Fifth.

But the uneasy flip side to that found in songs like Christmas Bells sort of gets shunted aside, even though it makes for a much more powerful message because of how accurately it depicts the depression that is amplified by the season.

For those who are surrounded by friends, family and partners, this kind of song seems woefully out of place listening to at Christmas parties, while retailers who have been spinning Christmas songs around the clock in their stores since Halloween would never want anyone to hear the sadness embodied here for fear it’d send customers fleeing.

Meanwhile, those who actually are living with the kind of loneliness shown here, hardly want to be reminded of it as they stare at an empty stocking hanging by the fireplace, knowing that no presents will be in it come Christmas morning.

Too bad too, because this song is an all-too rare gift itself that might not fit into the usual holiday playlist, but is a lot better than those stupid Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms pseudo-rock songs which go soaring up the charts each year.
 

Presents Everywhere
The way this starts off with Bobby Nunn name-checking some holiday traditions in a morose tone of voice keeps you off-balance.

There are plenty of Christmas songs that are slow, tentative and fraught with emotional uncertainty, but most of them have a kernel of hope planted somewhere inside, but not this.

As Nunn gets to the crucial plot point after casually mentioning “Christmas Bellspumpkin pie, wide eyed children, snow in the sky“, he transitions to how none of it is resonating with him this year because he and his girl have broken up.

With his baritone sounding as if its submerged in a gallon of water, Nunn’s got the sad sack delivery down pat, but he’s not relying on that image to sell a mediocre song. Instead this is really well-crafted in presenting a realistic tale that pulls at your heartstrings, not just because everybody’s gone through a breakup at one time or another when it feels like your soul is being squeezed in a vice, but because you can imagine the added grief you’ll feel when all those around you are unnaturally happy for the next few weeks and making it a point to get together, making your isolation feel all the more acute.

The lines themselves are really good, hitting on the key points without belaboring them, and the bridge finds him returning to the Christmas theme and asking Santa Claus for help in a last moment of desperation before the gloom overwhelms him.

Que Martyn’s sax adds the right smoky ambiance to the track while the piano is about the only thing to bring a little light into the room by wisely utilizing the treble keys so it doesn’t collapse under the weight of all that misery.

Of course in spite of its high quality, Christmas Bells had little chance to be a hit at the time, and virtually no shot at gaining annual spins in the decades since.

Sure, everyone has experienced these feelings… and even if it was in July instead of December, you can easily transpose them to the start of winter in your mind… but they’re not memories that people want to have conjured up at any time of year, especially one overflowing with such happy displays everywhere you look.

Which means this is a record for the masochists in the listening audience, the ones who stare their pain in the face to see who blinks first and if it’s you who is brought to your knees, at least you’ll have a nice soundtrack playing behind you as you sink into catatonic depression.
 


 

Christmas Is Just Another Day
The roll call of classic rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs… originals that is, not standards refitted for a new audience… is still alarmingly slim even today considering that the genre has dominated the last three quarters of a century.

Maybe it’s because everybody, no matter when they came of age, grew up hearing the classic pop songs at this time of year and to hear something like Christmas Bells you’d really have to go looking for it. Even then it would require a lot of pleading to with parents and grandparents to get it slotted between Bing Crosby and Perry Como records, unless you tried convincing your hard-of-hearing Grandma that this was actually the Andy Williams classic by the same name, despite being miles away from it outside of the title.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t meant for those family members at all, when everybody is in the same room sipping eggnog. Instead, try giving it to your spinster aunt who lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment and see if the gift that lets her know you’re sympathetic to how she’s feeling gets you a bigger claim in her will.

At least that way, even without someone to kiss under the mistletoe, you still might get something of value out of the season and a record like this.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Bobby Nunn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)