In this excerpt from my eBook mini "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Phil Spector solves the immaturity problem that dogged songs involving Santa Claus.
For years, I've collected Christmas music and thought about writing a book about it. Starting this summer, I worked on a sample chapter, and I recently posted the finished-for-now results at Amazon's Kindle store as an eBook mini. Santa Claus is Coming to Town: Christmas Music and Maturity looks at the most recorded Christmas song to get into a basic issue. Songs involving Santa Claus are often thought of as juvenile and dismissed as kids' stuff. I wanted to look at how the situation got that way, and if that condition was terminal, or if the song--and other Santa songs--could be redeemed.
Here's an excerpt from the chapter on The Crystals' version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" from A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, commonly known as the Phil Spector Christmas Album. The chapter is on sale now for a measly 99 cents, and I hope if you check it out that you'll let me know what you think. I'm looking for constructive feedback as much as sales, and welcome tips, thoughts, questions, and corrections.
If a definitive version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” exists, it’s the one recorded by The Crystals on 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. When Spector conceived of the album, he surprised the artists and musicians he worked with because all his chart success had been with singles. Spector’s first wife Annette thinks he took on the project because “[h]e thought it was good music, he respected it,” she said. “It was like ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ God knows why these things came into his head, but if a song was good, Phil had creative input with it.” In a 2013 interview, Spector confirmed, “I wanted to make masterpiece songs and prove a point that Christmas music was great music,” and he attributes the album’s endurance to the fact that he “turned Christmas songs into real music. This album made what was just once a year songs into year round songs.”
Some speculated that Billboard’s announcement that it would introduce its Christmas album chart made him confident that he could top that. If so, that didn’t go as planned. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was released November 23, 1963—the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The pall cast by Kennedy’s death depressed the nation and the Christmas season with it. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector peaked that year at number 13. Dave Marsh and Steve Propes contend in Merry Christmas, Baby: Holiday Music from Bing to Sting that Kennedy’s assassination not only spiked sales of Spector’s Christmas album, but it marked a change in Christmas records as we knew them.
“Kennedy’s death hardly provided the only reason for this transformation,” they wrote. “It had as much, probably more, to do with the arrival of The Beatles and a host of self-contained, self-consciously hip musical groups no longer dependent upon—or even very interested in—exploring anything so conventional as the traditions and permutations of the Christmas carol…. Kennedy’s death provides as perfect a symbol for what changed about American Christmas music as World War II does for the nostalgic longings for the ‘White Christmas’ era.”
Today, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is one of the most respected Christmas albums, along with Elvis’ Christmas Album. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson declared it his favorite album of all time, and Rolling Stone named the album its top Christmas album of all time and number 142 on its list of top albums period. “Spector's wall of sound production adds grandeur and drama, while the Philles Records crew lights up the holiday hit parade with rock & roll fire,” the magazine wrote. Writer Noel Murray reviewed the album for The AV Club, writing:
The beauty of A Christmas Gift For You is that it doesn’t tinker dramatically with the Phil Spector formula. If anything, it’s Spector multiplied. The songs have that big Spector beat—the relentless rush of rock ’n’ roll—and all manner of extraneous clatter. And they’ve been transformed to varying degrees into personal statements. Darlene Love’s version of “Winter Wonderland” includes a spoken-word segment that acknowledges it’s being recorded in sunny Los Angeles. “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are kiddie music on a sugar high, perfect for a man who’d been in the business since he was a teenager.
Spector brought the same level of commitment to the album he brought to everything else he recorded. Singer Darlene Love remembers the sessions as being a party, but engineer Larry Levine found the six weeks in the studio working on the project to be an arduous experience. “I told him after we did the album that I didn’t want to work with him anymore,” Levine said. “Because it was too hard for me. When you engineer for Phil you have to work every second, you’re always mixing and remixing and it’s physically excruciating.” Still, the obsessive work translated into classic Spector—“a hipster’s way of appreciating the seasonal standards that had become stale and depressing for a burgeoning generation of young adults,” Mark Ribowsky wrote in his book, He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector—Rock & Roll’s Legendary Producer.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” isn’t the best song on A Christmas Gift for You. That would be Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”—the sole original song on the album, written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The songs became her signature song, one she would sing every Christmas season on Late Night with David Letterman, but “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the most Spector-esque song on the album. Jack Hamilton wrote for The Atlantic, “The Crystals’ ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ features a Hal Blaine drum part that would make John Bonham blush, exploding a novelty song into a rock and roll classic.”
The recording is a pure pop creation, and the one Spector took the most liberties with. “I completely changed almost the entire song, especially the bridge, because I wanted it to copy ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’” he said. Spector stage manages every sound in the song, including the booming Blaine intro, to make being teenaged during the holiday season sound epic and dramatic. The only thing better than love on the album is Christmas love, and the only thing worse than a broken heart is a broken heart for Christmas. When La La Brooks sing/speaks “Jimmy, I just got back from a lovely trip” to start the introduction, she delivers the line and those that follow so breathily and with so many pregnant pauses that the next line could always be “and Santa says you should kiss me.”
Spector lengthens the introduction by adding four additional lines to the lyric:
Now Santa is a busy man, he has no time for play
He's got millions of stockings to fill come Christmas day
You better write your letter now and mail it right away
Because he's getting ready, his reindeers and his sleigh
Those lines differ in tone from Coots and Gillespie’s introduction. Spector’s addition reminds girls and boys of their insignificance, and that they not only need to be good but they better to be damned quick about it. The lines sound like they were written for the sole purpose of creating drama. A delicate, twinkling music box treatment of Brahms’ “Lullaby” accompanies them, delaying the rush and heightening the contrast that comes when the full Spector Wall of Sound slams into place en masse on the word “better” in the first sung line of the song.
A Christmas Gift for You is a Christmas gift for teenagers as Spector reimagined Christmas music with them specifically in mind. The Crystals don’t deny the song’s focus on children, but they’re not singing to them. “Naughty” as they sing it is more about cheating than coloring on the walls, and “nice” means being true to your best girl, not eating your peas.