NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to a special holiday episode of How Good It Is, and once again, we’re going to just kick back and listen to some Christmas songs that don’t get much attention.
Hi there! I’m Claude Call. How about a little Christmas music trivia for ye? No question this time around; just straight-up trivia. I gotta tell you, one of my least favorite Christmas songs is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” by Elmo and Patsy, and I’ll tell you why. The song was originally released in 1979 by Elmo and Patsy Shropshire on their own label. When that run sold out, it was re-released on a label called Oink Records, and then on a label called Soundwaves. Then, in 1982, they re-recorded the song and released it again on Oink, but shortly thereafter Columbia Records picked it up and that’s the version that most people know. But here’s the thing: for my money, the 1982 recording isn’t nearly as funny as the 1979 version, because the 1982 version doesn’t trust you to get the jokes. Elmo is doing it in a much more deadpan style, which gives it a matter-of-fact feel, simply because he’s not punching the jokes so hard. So let’s open up with the 1979 release of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” the one that I think is actually funny…
Now, in researching this show I asked some folks over at Reddit dot com for help, and while most of the responses weren’t especially helpful, I did get a few good answers. And here’s a particularly good entry in that respect. Ray Anthony is a bandleader and the last surviving member of the original Glenn Miller Orchestra. And as I record this, Ray Anthony is just a couple of weeks away from his 100th birthday. He broke away from Glenn Miller’s band after World War 2 and formed his own group, which became popular throughout the 50s in its own right. In 1961 Ray Anthony brought in a vocal group called The Bookends to record and release this song, called “Christmas Kisses”…
“Christmas Kisses” was a hit in 1961—for a Christmas song, anyway—but while it’s appeared on many compilations since then, so far as I can tell it’s never been covered, and it doesn’t seem to get airplay anymore. One of the most interesting compilations on which it appears is a 4-CD set from 2006 called The Best Christmas…Ever! It’s a collection of Christmas songs from the US and other countries, with nearly half of the tracks in Polish. Now, “Christmas Kisses” may be the most conventional song you hear in this episode, and the only reason I included it was to tell you about it appearing on a CD collection that’s half Polish. From here it gets a little weird.
Let’s do a couple of regional hits. In 1982, Alan Mann was a little-known singer/songwriter who had friends in the Philadelphia Punk scene. As the story goes, Mann was going through the Overbrook Park neighborhood in the northwest part of town during the Christmas season when he discovered one of those overdecorated houses. Someone told him that the house was a group home for blind people, and even though they’re blind, they have a tradition of decorating the house so that people from all over the area come to see it each year. He and his band recorded this song, called “Christmas on the Block,” and they shot a video to go with it. And I want you to make no mistake—this isn’t a bad transfer on my part. It’s a truly lo-fi recording, And the video…doesn’t look much better. It got some airplay in the Philadelphia are for a couple of years before it was finally released commercially in 1984. And it’s a huge hit in Philadelphia—still very popular there—and practically nowhere else. Here’s “Christmas on the Block.”
That children’s chorus is a class of second graders that he recruited to come into the studio, and the lyrics were written on huge cue cards for them to sing. They’re off-rhythm and a little out of tune but you gotta love them anyway. The video actually did get some airplay on MTV, largely because Yoko Ono was a fan of the song. How about that!
Unfortunately, Alan Mann died in 1987 when he jumped or fell from the window of his burning apartment building, at the age of 33.
Let’s move down the coast a little bit to Baltimore, Maryland. In 1981 an actor, writer and singer named David DeBoy wrote a song about a Baltimore expatriate in Houston lamenting the fact that he can’t get Maryland’s signature meal. The record sold about 10,000 copies that year and it’s still a staple of Baltimore radio around Christmas time.
[CRABS FOR CHRISTMAS]
David DeBoy still does occasional appearances to perform the song locally, and the rest of the year he’s a motivational speaker and communications specialist. He’s taken this slice of niche fame with good humor, noting in an interview with the Baltimore Sun about ten years ago that “At this point, I could discover the cure for all cancers, and my obituary would still lead off with, ‘The guy who wrote ‘Crabs for Christmas’ …”
Let’s jump across the pond for this next track. A British hard rock band called The Darkness released a song in 2003 called “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End).” It’s an overwrought piece of glam rock which makes a point of checking all the usual boxes of festivities, bells and Santa Claus, but it purposefully goes to the point of parody with the tropes. The video is lots of fun, too. Here’s The Darkness, with “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End).”
Incidentally, if you know your British slang, you’ll realize they’re slipping a couple of things past the censors, including a bit of a naughty pun in that title. The Darkness released another Christmas tune called “I Am Santa,” which is also worth checking out.
From here we’re going to travel to the other side of the world, to Australia, and an artist named Paul Kelly. Kelly was approached in 1996 to perform a Christmas-themed song for a charity album that was part of a series. His original choice was to do a cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”. Unfortunately for Kelly, that song had been used on one of the albums about two years earlier, so he decided to write his own song. He drew his inspiration from Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas,” where the main character in the song is lamenting the fact that he’s not there for Christmas. The song he wrote is called “How to Make Gravy,” and the storyline involves a man writing to his brother from prison, where he recently landed. He’s sad, of course, that he won’t be with his family for the holidays. And for what it’s worth, the gravy recipe in the song is real—Kelly got it from his father.
[HOW TO MAKE GRAVY]
The song is very popular in Australia this time of year, to the point where fans of the song think of December 21 as Gravy Day. And every now and again, the EP on which it appears will bubble back up into the Top 40 on the charts. And for what it’s worth, he re-recorded the song for an album that came out in November 2021, called Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train.
OK, let’s come back to the US. This is a song that’s going to set off your “What in god’s name is this?” alarm. It’s a performer named Joseph Spence. In 1972 he was performing in Lowell House at Harvard University, and at the end of his session, he apparently did this track on a whim. It was released in 1980 on an album called Living on the Hallelujah Side. Check out Joseph Spence’s version of this song which was originally written in 1934:
[SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN]
Isn’t that both amazing and terrifying? When Joseph Spence says “You better watch out,” he makes Santa sound a little menacing, man.
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