Friday, December 13, 2013

C'est Noel, Part 7 (Tracks 19-20)

More background on the tracks that make up my latest holiday mix, C'est Noel:

Track 20
Wonderful Christmastime, by Martin Sheen, John Spencer and Stockard Channing (2000)

(L to R): Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing and the late John Spencer 

I don’t watch much TV, but when I find a show I like, I tend to really get into it. The last broadcast series I really fell for was The West Wing, which ran on NBC for seven seasons from 1999 through 2006. Created by Aaron Sorkin, the show was based in the White House during the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a liberal Democrat from New England. Bartlet had been urged to seek the presidency by his close friend Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who, upon Bartlet's election, was appointed White House chief of staff. As a liberal Democrat from New England myself, I simply adored this program, which depicted the kind of administration many Americans yearned for during the real-life administration of Republican George W. Bush. The show was a smash with the critics, winning the Emmy for Best Dramatic series four years in a row. The writing was sharp and carefully researched, and the cast was remarkably talented – particularly Sheen, Spencer and Stockard Channing, who played First Lady Abigail Bartlet.

As luck would have it, I got to spend some time with John Spencer in October of 2000, just as the show was starting its second season. I'd helped put together a group of coworkers to participate in the annual L.A. AIDS Walk that year, and he just happened to be milling around near us as the Walk took off. He appeared to be alone, so I invited him to join us and he ended up walking the entire route with our group. It was great fun to get his thoughts about the show, his career and the current political scene, and he couldn't have been more friendly and down-to-earth. Tragically, John suffered a fatal heart attack five years later, just as the show was winding down. It was a great loss.

With all this as background, you can imagine how excited I was several years ago when I discovered that Sheen, Spencer and Channing had contributed a Christmas song to a charity album recorded in 2000 by a variety of NBC’s then-current stars.

It kills me to say it, but this trio really should have written checks instead.

To start with, "Wonderful Christmastime" is perhaps my least favorite holiday song of all time. And it's not simply that I don't like it as much as the other hundred thousand or so holiday songs out there – I mean I actually detest this song. I can't listen to it for more than ten seconds without feeling physically unwell. Why? I'm a little uncertain myself. The demonic synthesizer riff that opens the song has something to do with it, I'm sure. I don't care for synthesizers much. I've always preferred songs made with traditional instruments like electric guitars and the themerin, and when this song was first released in 1979 I remember thinking of it as the first in a likely wave of computer-generated music to be made by individuals working alone late at night in their basements. Another factor was my feelings about McCartney himself. I'd always been a huge fan, but by the time this song came out I was beginning to cool on him. This song followed his 1978 album Back to the Egg, which I found very disappointing. In fact, it's the first McCartney album I didn't purchase. I liked his next album, McCartney II, even less.  My diminishing enthusiasm for Sir Paul coincided with a growing interest in the music of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And, what do you know? It was around this same time that I transformed from a moderate Republican to a left-wing Democrat by way of a brief flirtation with several more radical organizations. In any case, I loathe "Wonderful Christmastime," and I'm pretty sure that even a joint cover by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young couldn't change my mind.

Finally, the version these good folks recorded isn't even as good as McCartney's. It starts with a hurried and completely artificial discussion about the different ways of decorating Christmas trees. As happy as we are to have that business end, it doesn't take long to realize that the cost for this trade-off is listening to them sing. Had I been there, I think I would have asked them to discuss their differing views on carving the roast instead. I feel awful about trashing what was clearly a generous gesture on their part, but on a scale of 1 to 10, this thing's more like that temperature reading the other day from Antarctica. What was it, something like –135°?

Track 19
Party for Santa Claus, by Lord Nelson (1963)

Lord Nelson

Three cheers for Lord Nelson, who's established himself as one of those rare good souls who actually considers poor Santa's well-being rather than merely his own. Here's what he has to say on the subject in our next track, "Party for Santa Claus," which became a hit for Lord Nelson 50 years ago, in 1963:

Christmas time is the time for giving we learned from since we’re small
But year to year it’s the same old thing, Santa’s coming to call.
We always ignore it or forget it, this year we know it’s true
So this coming Christmas let’s all make an effort get a present for Santa too!

Let’s trade in the old sleigh and the reindeer for a big car with a chauffeur
get a helicopter, because everybody loves dear old Santa Claus.

Christmas is here and we’re all having fun, Santa brought presents for everyone
But he had to squeeze through a chimney, poor Nicholas, what a horrible place to pass. 
Why not open your window, or your front door, so Santa could bring his gifts,
I find that climbing on a rooftop and coming through a chimney is a whole lot of stupidness.

Move him from the North Pole, ‘cause it’s so cold
Give him an apartment, modern equipment, a maid, a butler, he deserves
Let’s show our love to dear Santa Claus.

Everybody drinking beer, whiskey and rum, poor Santa ain’t getting none.
And as jingle bells jingle, there’s dear old Santa wearing the same old red clothes
We should be ashamed, we should be blamed, to treat Santa Claus like a brute,
So let’s chip in some dollars, take him to the tailors for a new Continental suit.

Take him out to a nightclub, or a movie, get some fine chicks and give a party
It’s time to chip in and do our share, to make sure he comes more than once a year.

Considering some artists have expressed a desire to lasso Santa Claus. hold him up at gunpoint or glue him to the floor, I'd say we could use a few more folks like this good man around here.

Born and raised off the coast of Venezuela on the island of Tobago, Lord Nelson immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s and had plans to settle in Brooklyn, New York. Before he could get settled, however, Nelson was drafted for service in the Korean War. While in the military, he had a chance to try his hand at entertaining and performing for the troops, which he enjoyed and was good at. Upon leaving the service, Nelson returned to Topanga for good, he soon became one of its most successful calypso artists. Calypso really took off in the 1970s, and Lord Nelson has been playing and performing it for well over 50 years. I only hope someone's watching out for his interests as well as he's watching out for Santa's.
Jack Webb

Oh, yes – the last few seconds of this track are from an old episode of Dragnet. I added them just for fun. What you hear is an apparently overserved patron of one of our city's many fashionable nightspots asking LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) if he could join Friday's "party."  Friday, who's sitting alone at a table, ramrod straight, responds about as you might expect: "I'm not having any party, fella." And a Merry Ho! Ho! Ho! to you, too!

Preview or purchase A Calypso Christmas, featuring "Party for Santa Claus"

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