Best Of Rock: 10 Rock And Roll Holiday Moments
By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Yes, this is the season for roasting your chestnuts and spinning your dreidels, gathering family and friends for high celebrations and low nights by the fire. It’s also the season for some rock and roll revelry. Through the years, there have been some classic rock and roll holiday moments, and I’ve narrowed it down to 10 of the best, culled from, as usual, my unscientific, completely subjective ruminations, some not even technically musical.
1) David Bowie and Bing Crosby – Recorded for the Bing Crosby television special Merrie Olde Christmas in 1977, the odd pair of David Bowie and Bing Crosby enjoying a few minutes, jawing over the Christmas traditions of their households, then getting down to singing “The Little Drummer Boy,” a tune the Thin White Duke really didn’t want to perform. "I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?" Bowie had been heard to say. So songwriter Larry Grossman and the special's scriptwriter Buz Kohan wrote "Peace On Earth" as a counterpoint to "Little Drummer Boy." Crosby performed "Little Drummer Boy," while Bowie sang "Peace on Earth," supposedly with only an hour of rehearsal.
2) Adam Sandler’s “The Chanuka Song” – Written by Sandler and Saturday Night Live writers Lewis Morton and Graham Ian Maxtone, this truly first-of-its-kind modern ditty for the holiday of lights was performed on a December 3, 1994 segment of SNL’s Weekend Update. Silly but certainly folky, it was refreshing to have something to counter the bunch of Christmas songs that seem to fill up the airwaves during the season.
3) Frank Zappa Shakes His Branch – During the second season of SNL, they happened to trot out a sketch called “The Killer Christmas Trees” (along with singing the holiday classic “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore For Christmas”) and, as Frank Zappa was the musical guest that night, he appeared in the sketch. Standing in a mock police line-up to determine if any of the trees the mock-cops suspected could be the killer, it was quite surreal to watch Zappa shimmy his arm when asked to wiggle his branches.
4) A Charlie Brown Christmas Special – If you don’t think this is rock and roll then you don’t know how to swing, man! Beyond the stilted animation and Linus’ real recitation of what Christmas is about we have all come to know and love, it is — lights please! — the simple yet grooving Vince Guaraldi songs that make this 1965 special rock. Guaraldi was a monster piano player and composer on the West Coast jazz scene, and the tunes for this special — aside from what he did for It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and his classic “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” — make the man and his music vintage for sure. And ole round-headed Chuck Brown grooved.
5) Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Not everyone likes this amalgamation of holiday tunes with orchestrated semi-progressive rock riffery. Certainly seeing whatever incarnation of the band you happen to see (during the holiday season, due to demand, there is a TSO East and TSO West) one time is enough. Still, TSO does tend to spin things on its head where maybe a band like Manheim Steamroller were trying to keep the holidays hip for a older more PBS-minded crowd. Begun in 1993 by producer, composer and lyricist Paul O’Neill. with Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli of the heavy metal band Savatage and keyboardist/co-producer Robert Kinkel. the nearly eight million concert tickets and the same number of CDs sold are nothing to shake your holly at. The premier of TSO with their Christmas Eve And Other Stories, their wildly popular instrumental hit from their release Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24, and their bombastic shows make for big rock and roll holiday moments.
6) Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” – Imagine if you will an impressionable young teen in New Jersey, not yet old enough to see concerts on his own but enamored with his heroes Emerson Lake and Palmer seeing Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas" video premiere on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The video for what is basically a Greg Lake solo tune (though it has appeared on ELP albums) was shot in the Sinai desert and Qumran in the West Bank (really, there are some spectacular locations). This is one of the better uses of classic music and rock as the riff that basically plays between the verses and at the very end comes from “Troika” of Prokofiev’s stirring “Lieutenant Kijé” from the 1934 Soviet film of the same name.
7) Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – In 1984 Bob Geldof and Midge Ure culled together much of Britian’s rock superstars (some not so much stars anymore) to record a Christmas song to “feed the world” and battle famine in Ethiopia. Bono, Phil Collins, Boy George, Sting, George Michael and many others were there to record their voices on a tune that was a huge hit almost the second it dropped on November 29 of that holiday season. This tune led to the massive Live Aid concert in 1985 and saw tons of money and food being literally wasted as it was dropped on people and governments who never got it or misused it. The entire “Feed The World” campaign might be the only real contribution to music made in the 1980s.
8) The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – Premiering on December 26, 1967 (“Boxing Day” in the U.K), Magical Mystery Tour was the first real misstep by the most popular band in the world. Nevertheless, the music from the film has, as most all of the Beatles’ music, outlasted the critics who blasted the movie. And through the years, the movie has gained considerable appreciation from all corners. After all, the “I Am The Walrus” segment has to one of the most surreal rock and roll videos ever filmed.
9) John And Yoko’s “WAR IS OVER” billboards – In late 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono rented billboards and posters in major cities around the world — New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. The message was clear: "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko". Two years later. the pair released what has become one of the most important Christmas songs ever, based around that billboard theme, the fantastic “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
10) South Park Jesus vs. Santa Claus & A Pack Of Gifts Now – I linked these two together as they are both technically animated (the MadTV character is claymation actually) and while not technically South Park and, to a lesser degree, MadTV are/were rock and roll in their hilarious, profane and always well-pointed attacks on our culture.