“If spring is late, in winter it’s a marshmallow world.” Indisputable wisdom.
Few people in recorded music history can have met such an ignonimous end as Phil Spector. He is currently serving 19 to life for the murder of Lana Clarkson, will be 88 before being considered eligible for parole, and yet the fairy-tale beginnings of the lower middle class Jewish boy who had to deal with his father’s suicide at the age of 9 and then went on to score a massive hit with the Teddy Bears’ To Know Him Is To Love Him while still only 18, should have been the stuff of legend.
He turned to production very shortly after that early smash hit, and pioneered the Wall Of Sound technique, which he described as “a Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll.” Basically, he doubled and trebled every single part until the result would sound brilliant even on a Philips tranny from Woolworths. His summa cum laude of this is usually considered to be the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, which still makes the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up as it creeps in and builds to orgasmic intensity.
However, the meisterwerk that concerns us today is of course A Christmas Gift For You: he gathered together a whole bunch of artists recording for his Philles label, set them to singing a colection of tried and trusted Christmas standards, drenched them in over-production and packaged the whole thing as an attempt to “take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today” (as he said in the sleeve notes).
There is no doubt in my mind that he succeeded in spades: it’s difficult to think of most of these sung by anybody else, or helmed by such a master producer. (Let’s just not mention Let It Be, OK?) The whole show kicks off with Darlene Love showing that not just Bing Crosby needs to sing White Christmas (and she includes Irving Berlin’s extra verse that sets the whole thing in context). Gene Autry’s Frosty The Snowman benefits from the Ronettes’ deft touch, but with hindsight one has to attempt to banish memories of the added panache Liz Fraser gave it on the Cocteau Twins’ by now definitive version and see this one for what it is: unbridled purity and innocence. The inclusion of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans’ The Bells Of St, Mary (not a song I normally associate with Yuletide) is somewhat mystifying but the song is thrillingly sung nonetheless.
When we come to the Crystals’ Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, we are by now in classic, unforgettable territory. The gauche address to the child too excited to sleep at the outset is actually a cunning ploy to pave the way for the powerhouse unleashed in the chorus, and the Ronettes’ Sleigh Ride is right up there with the best Christmas songs ever, complete with its ‘ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-dong-ding’ backing adding a magic touch that composer Leroy Anderson could only ever have dreamed to be possible.
Side One of the original LP closed with Darlene Love adding whipped cream to the whacking fruit cocktail of Marshmallow World, a song that doesn’t actually mention Christmas but seems to have become an honorary member of the canon, then we flipped the vinyl to get the Ronettes’ sugary interpretation of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, a song I’ve never liked personally, and the Crystals’ Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is a trifle under-powered for my tastes. But Darlene Love is a past mistress of the turns and phrasing inherent in Winter Wonderland and the Crystals’ Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers is just fine, locking us in a fantastic toyshop of melody and loving every minute of it.
Darlene is back for one of the finest moments in all Christmas music, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), which has a range of feeling and longing that mocks U2’s miserable effort from afar. Finally, Bob B. Soxx (a name I’m sure he tired of pretty quickly) and the Blue Jeans give us a final adrenalin shot of excitement before Spector himself adds a maudlin postscript in the form of all his crew carolling Silent Night while he goes through a list of thanks that is guaranteed to make you bring up the turkey before you’ve eaten it.
All in all, this album is a remarkable achievement, and marks the first time TK has ever gone to the lengths of posting such a release in its entirety. I do it in order to encourage you to go out and invest in this guy’s work, because, although he has turned out to be a lying piece of human slime, his musicianship is beyond doubt, and he gave us some of the greatest musical climaxes in every sense of the word. I tell you, if you have no other Christmas CD in your collection, you must own this. No arguments. And my sister still plays it every Christmas morning before any other music.
Various Artists, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector