OK, I know the guy’s still sitting in a prison cell, whacked out, burned out, and for all intents and purposes, checked out of society and the rock n’ roll world he was once such an important part of. But heck, it is the Christmas season and I know it’s not REALLY Christmas until I slap into my CD player the best damned rock n’ roll Christmas record of all time. Which is (for those of you cats and chicks who may not be hip to these kinds of things), Phil Spector’s magnificent “A Christmas Gift For You”.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s just The Great White Shank spoutin’ his “yeah-i-know-he’s-in-jail-for-murder-but-believe-me-Phil-Spector-really-was-a-genius” bull$hit, but in this case you need to give me a break. ‘Cause it’s not just me, it’s a whole range of critics across the media spectrum, from Rolling Stone (who rated it #142 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time), to bloggers like Randy’s Rodeo and Glen Boyd. Boyd’s praise of the album and its greatness is especially spot-on:
Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You is, in my opinion, hands down the greatest Christmas record ever made. What could be more perfect at Christmas time than the timeless innocence of the Ronettes doing ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’? Or the Crystals singing ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Santa Claus Is Comin To Town,’ (in the very same arrangement still played by Springsteen in his great version with the E Street Band)?
A Christmas Gift For You contains thirteen performances, all captured during that incredible early sixties period when Spector was producing these amazing records. You already know all of the songs, as they have all become tried and true radio staples at Christmas time over the years. Song for song, the wall of sound production — with all of its bells, whistles, and strings — captures all the magic and wonder of Christmas like very little music I can think of. When you hear these songs, it’s like being instantly transported to a kinder, simpler time. It really does feel like Christmas.
The album, considered by many to be Spector’s finest piece of work (next to, perhaps, The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, whose praise I sang the other day, and The Righteous Brothers‘ “[You've Lost That] Lovin’ Feelin’”) had a bumpy ride on the road to becoming a much-loved and respected holiday and pop music classic. Originally recorded during the summer and fall of 1963, it was understandably overlooked in those tragic weeks following the assassination of JFK and then virtually forgotten. It was only until its re-introduction to the public on the Beatles’ Apple Records label in 1971 – at the urging of John Lennon and George Harrison (both of whom utilized Spector on their first post-Beatles’ solo albums following his work on the Beatles’ Let It Be) – that the album got radio play and finally earned its long-deserved recognition as a classic piece of pop music history.
So what exactly is it about “A Christmas Gift For You” that makes it both a holiday pop classic and a piece of work sufficient enough to warrant recognition among rock’s all-time greatest works? David Sprague, in his Amazon.com review, puts it simply: “[Spector's] “wall-of-sound” technique is perfectly suited to the music of the season, as he proves with layer upon layer of piano, sleigh bells, buoyant percussion, and, of course, those legendary Spectorsound harmonies.”
True enough, but it’s only after you buy it and crank it up VERY loud that you start to appreciate not just the massive sound Spector lovingly and painstakingly crafted, but the way his session players and musical artists make the most out of the material given them. Here, Spector’s artists The Crystals, The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and Bobby Sheen are simply vocal instruments in the overall mix, working within the material and the arrangements, not overpowering them. Listen closely, and you begin to see how the subtleties within each arrangement illustrate Spector’s respect for both the material and the genre that brought him such fame and respect in his day:
* On “White Christmas”, Darlene Love’s lead is beautifully understated, something virtually unheard of in this post-Whitney armageddon of Britneys and Jessicas who sound like wailing alleycats in heat. And listen to how the pianos, basses, and saxes carry the rhythm, and how beautifully the saxes are balanced on the tune’s final note.
* On “Frosty The Snowman”, Spector takes a harmless children’s tune and turns it into a holiday pop masterpiece. The Ronettes’ Ronnie Bennett’s earnest vocal is the showpiece here – think ‘Frosty’ meets ‘Be My Baby’, with enough warmth and sweetness to turn ‘the Frostster’ into a puddle of lukewarm H2O.
* On “The The Bells of St. Mary’s”, Bobby Sheen’s lead is sweet and soulful out in front of a driving rhythm highlighted by chimes and Hal Blaine‘s amazing drumwork on the fade-out. Oh, and that’s Darlene Love doing the “yeah, yeah”s towards the end.
* The Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” rejuvenates the classic so much so that even Bruce Springsteen felt it necessary to pay it homage with his own version. I’m not crazy about the honkin’ sax solo, but no need to be a grinch – this track is simply pure fun.
* On “Sleigh Ride”, Spector gives a faithful nod to Leroy Anderson’s classic arrangement; Ronnie’s significant vocal talents are once again highlighted, and The Ronettes’ now-classic “ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” back-up is pure icing on this sweet holiday confection.
* “Marshmallow World” is a fun piece – dig the opening piano with a ton of echo on it. Again, listen to how the saxes underscore the piano/guitar rhythm, and the solo here is a hell of a lot better than that featured on “Santa Claus…”. The mix has always seemed a little muddy to me – perhaps because of the bass, but Darlene Love’s vocal is energetic and playful – more perfect holiday season fare.
* “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Frankly, folks, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this, and if there’s a better version out there, I’ve yet to hear it. Ronnie’s lead is both devilish and sexy, and the arrangement rocks. Listen for the piano fills and the sleighbells workin’ behind the saxes. It almost sounds as if Ronnie is slurring her s’s here (‘kishing’ Santa Claus); I think she’s doing it deliberately so I fall in love with her voice all over again every year at this time.
* On “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, listen for the guitar riff that frames the song, similar to what Brian Wilson would later do to the instrumental “Pet Sounds” on that legendary album. There’s also a piano (and guitar?) doing something funky from the instrumental break onward, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.
* “Winter Wonderland” is a faithful and fun rendition. Listen for the droopy strings featured throughout – they sound kinda cool to me, and how drummer Hal Blaine absolutely beats the daylights out of his toms on every fill. Darlene Love’s vocal is both soulful and fun. Just a magnificent arrangement.
* “Parade of The Wooden Soldiers”. OK, listen to how the strings behind The Crystals’ rollicking performance absolutely shimmer, like glistening snow, especially behind the trumpet solo in the middle. No one – and I mean NO ONE – could make strings shimmer like Phil Spector. (If you doubt me, just listen to John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas [War Is Over]“.) Again, Hal Blaine’s drum fills on the fade-out are pretty intense.
* “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”. Arguably the showpiece of the album. If you want a true holiday audio feast, come inside Mr. Spector’s kitchen where everything, including the kitchen sink, has been tossed in here. Shimmering strings and double acoustic bass (how does he get that sound?) create an atmosphere, then horns introduce a TOTALLY PUMPED and unleashed Darlene Love vocal that leaves nothing – and I mean NOTHING – in the tank. The grand build-up to close the song is classic Spector: layers and layers of guitar, piano, strings, and percussion back the call-and-answer vocals between Love and the backup singers until the tension is finally released in a tidal wave of vocal calisthenics, soaring strings, and clipped piano notes. Can anyone say, “mucho fantastico!”?
* “Here Comes Santa Claus” is anticlimactic following Love’s tour de force, but it’s to Bobby Sheen’s credit that his straight, if understated, reading becomes the showpiece on this song. The trumpet solo in the middle has a ringing, jazzy touch to it which compliments Sheen’s soulful vocal.
What truly makes “A Christmas Gift For You” such a remarkable achievement is the success Spector achieved in fusing together what was then a relatively-new pop genre over familiar holiday songs without, as he would write in the album’s liner notes, “losing for a second the feeling of Christmas and without destroying or invading the sensitivity and the beauty that surrounds all of the great Christmas music.” More than anything else, Spector respected the music he was trying to interpret as his own, and in the end, this is what makes this work an enduring classic for the ages.