An EP he curated in 1985 has become an alternative pop holiday tradition.
[Updated] Christmas Time Again has become a tradition of sorts. It began as an EP titled Christmas Time in 1985 by The Chris Stamey Group, then it was re-released in 1993 with 10 more songs credited to Chris Stamey and Friends. In 2006, Collector’s Choice reissued it as Christmas Time Again by The dB’s and Friends with a slight shuffling of the songs—some new tracks, some dropped out—and this fall it was again reissued, this time by Omnivore with a few new tracks and a few omissions. Like an annual Christmas party, the big picture remains the same year after year, but the slight differences change the vibe just enough to make each memorable.
Each version of the EP/album betrays mixed feelings toward Christmas music as artists try to find ways to be pop and genuine without being mawkish. Often, that has meant sneaking a song such as Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” under the tent flap—a seasonal story with a rock ’n’ roll sound—and Syd Straw repurposed Blondie’s “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear” as “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presents Dear” for an earlier version. On the most recent incarnation, Brett Harris sings Harry Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas),” which sounds more like someone’s final nostalgic reverie before expiring in a hospital room than a holiday song. Christmas is only invoked in the music box-like piano part; the word “Christmas’ never shows up in the lyric at all.
“I went to Brett Harris and said, I know you know Harry Nilsson’s work. Why don’t you do ‘Remember (Christmas)’? I took that to him specifically and transcribed the piano part.”
Stamey is the one constant on the project, and many of the artists who perform on are friends or artists he has worked with or produced. He had a lengthy relationship with Alex Chilton and asked him if he would record “The Christmas Song” while Chilton was laying down tracks for 1993’s Clichés. He recorded A Question of Temperature with Yo La Tengo under the name The Chris Stamey Experience, and Yo La Tengo updated Elvis Costello’s “Seven Day Weekend” with Jeff Tweedy as the garage rock “Eight-Day Weekend”—a nod to Hanukah. At the other end of the spectrum is “It’s Christmas,” a sweetly charming evocation of the holiday and the meaning of home by Lydia Kavanagh.
“Lydia Kavanagh and I were in the Golden Palominos but at different times,” Stamey says. “She’s a dear friend of mine. I sent her an email, saying, Lydia, do you have a Christmas song I ought to hear? She had this beautiful thing that she had already recorded.”
One track that has remained in place throughout the incarnations is “The Only Law That Santa Understood” by Ted Lyons, a long-time Stamey collaborator. Lyons tells the story of the outlaw Santa Claus in the Old West with a manic delivery that would never have occurred to Marty Robbins, and it was a complete surprise to Stamey. He didn’t know what Lyons planned to do when he inquired about studio time one day, nor did he know that Lyons could play instruments other than a mandolin. Stamey gave him the keys to the studio and came home to find the finished track.
“I only put the fake string arrangement on it,” he says. “I feel really good that he and Robyn Hitchcock are fighting the sentimentality of the holidays to balance out the collection.”
Hitchcock’s “The Day Before Boxing Day” began as an instrumental soundtrack to a stop-motion animation recreation of the story of Jesus’ birth told with vegetables. (Spoiler alert: the Carrot Mary gives birth to a holy brussel sprout). On the most recent version of Christmas Time Again, Hitchcock adds a spoken conversation between him and Truth about the meaning of Christmas.
“I had admired it on YouTube and I asked him if I could use it for the record,” Stamey remembered an off-the-cuff spoken word passage that Hitchcock had improvised for another Stamey project and suggested he do something similar for the song.
“It was totally Dickens and demented in just the right way,” he says of the results. “It’s like Firesign Theater or any of the Monty Python things, but it’s really just Robyn. I love that one.”
Chris Stamey is one of the few constants, but the project really grew because of Gene Holder of The dB’s, who thought a Christmas album would be cool.
“There was definitely pop precedence for that, and I wrote the song ‘Christmas Time’ to satisfy his interest in that,” Stamey says. He had already left The dB’s, but he got back with Holder, Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby to cut the song. The dB’s were on Bearsville Records and said they could get free studio time. It was only when he arrived that Stamey learned that the time was tied to a promotion for Miller beer, and that he would have to do a photo shoot for Miller.
“I didn’t really welcome endorsing that beer,” he says diplomatically, but he went along for the sake of the project. “It ended up being the centerfold of Rolling Stone, two pages in color and I’m the feature guy! My head is huge in there. I’m holding the beer, and everyone else are little dots in the back.”
Stamey curates each version of the collection democratically, so those looking specifically for his voice get it only in small doses, though his aesthetic shines through consistently. The current edition includes an instrumental version of his song, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “You’re What I Want (for Christmas),” a quintessentially Stamey track sung with Cathy Harrington. On more than one occasion, the song moves startlingly to a new place that seems inevitable and magical within nanoseconds.
Christmas Time Again works in much the same way. Stamey has a lot of affection for pre-rock ’n’ roll tracks by Bing Crosby, Patti Page and the like, and he likes lonely Christmas songs. “I love ‘(It’s Gonna Be a ) Lonely Christmas’—the Marshall Crenshaw track on here,” he says. “There’s a song of mine that I”m really proud of that I didn’t put on the record this time called ‘Occasional Shivers,’ which is a lonely torch song of being brokenhearted at Christmas.’”
Those are only some of the notes the albums hit throughout the years, and like his own compositions, each version of Christmas Time Again covers a lot of ground. There’s a lot of range and swift shifts in mood and approach, but they’re consistently good fun and never condescend. “It’s a challenge to take a tired cliché and make something out of it that you can be proud of,” Stamey says.
Updated December 20, 8:27 a.m.
The title of Chris Stamey's "Occasional Shivers" was wrong in the original post. It has been corrected.