24 December 2007

Well tonight thank God it's them... instead of you! (Reprise)


"And the Christmas bells that ring
They are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you
"

Ah, yes. Lyrics from Sir Bob Geldof's Christmas compendium of gut-bustingly gross generalisations about Africa circa 1984. I don't think any other Christmas carol features the phrase "chimes of doom" making this Christmas song a bona fide classic!

"Do They Know It's Christmas" (MP3)



As trends in radio go, the All-Christmas, All the time format arrived in New York long after it had swept through places like Salt Lake City and San Diego, boosting ratings but leaving some listeners wondering how many more times they would have to listen to "Jingle Bells."

Christmas music was "a feel-good format" that grew in popularity nationally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Programmers felt that psychologically, people in their markets could use a lift, and apparently Burl Ives is a cure-all.

As usual Lite-FM (106.7 WLTW) lead the charge, flipping to their now famous all-Christmas format about three whole seconds into Thanksgiving day.



Laying in bed on Sunday morning we had it on for a few hours as we drifted in and out of sleep and still we managed to realise Lite-FM were spinning the same 10 or 15 songs, over and over, already.

If we heard "Do They Know It's Christmas?" once we heard it four times. Honorable mentions go out to: Bill Haley's "Jingle Bell Rock", Burl Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas", Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by the oft-maligned Ronettes.

It's not easy keeping an all-Christmas format fresh for a whole month before the actual day but let's start with a broader spectrum of holiday hits, shall we?

Speaking of which, I unearthed an old NY Times article about the rise of all-Christmas formats in NYC and lo and behold they interviewed Lite-FM's program director, Jim Ryan. Ryan was pounding his holiday sweater covered chest that Lite-FM has a library of "3,900 versions of holiday songs to choose from."

But Jim, if you've an arsenal of 4,000 songs why did I hear the same 12 repeat every other hour yesterday?

Oh, and Jim takes his holiday tunes quite seriously. If you're looking for the insufferable "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" maybe you should try 95.5 WPLJ because Jim says, "Our audience doesn't appreciate that kind of humor."

Yes, we've come to prefer Lite-FM's all-Christmas format for their no-nonsense holiday hits; we prefer a sort of staid joy.


You've gotta love Bob Geldof; the original cover to this single is fucking amazing! It reminds me of Napalm Death's "Scum" LP.



In late 1984, a BBC report aired highlighting the famine that had hit the people of Ethiopia. The Boomtown Rat's lead singer Bob Geldof had seen the report and was moved so much that he decided that a pop record should be used to further increase awareness of the famine and to raise money. Aware that he could do little on his own, he called Midge Ure from Ultravox and together they quickly co-wrote the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?".

Geldof kept a November appointment with BBC Radio 1 DJ Richard Skinner to appear on his show, but instead of discussing his new album (the original reason for his booking), he used his airtime to publicise the idea for the charity single, so by the time the musicians were recruited (under extreme duress and guilt) there was intense media interest in the subject.

Using powers of persuasion which have since become a major part of the Geldof legend, he put together a group (Band Aid), consisting of leading Irish and British musicians who were among the most popular and recognised of this era.

wait a minute... is that Cameo?

Names like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club (who initially arrived sans Boy George,), George Michael (sans Andrew Ridgeley) of Wham!, Kool and the Gang, Sting, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, Phil Collins, Paul Weller (though not Mick Talbot) of the Style Council, Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, Motherfuckin' Jody Watley! of Shalamar, Bananarama, Marilyn (who was not invited but arrived anyway) and some of Geldof's bandmates from the Boomtown Rats all arrived. Only one of Ure's Ultravox colleagues, Chris Cross, attended.

Legend has it that Bob Geldof noticed Boy George wasn't there despite ringing him up in New York the day before demanding he sing on the record the next day. Geldof went back to the phone to get the Culture Club frontman out of bed and on to a Concorde. And the rest is history.

I stumbled upon a loving dissection of this rock happening from The Tris McCall Report:
"If you remember, Bob Geldof wrote some pretty decent songs for the Boomtown Rats in the late Seventies. His political agenda was never what you'd call sophisticated, but then nothing in it could have prepared us for this: the most fucked-up and condescending piece of patrician propaganda in the history of limousine liberal art.

Merit there was in the original Live Aid project, to be sure. But now it's twenty years later, Geldof and Midge Ure are M.I.A., Eritrea has officially broken away from Ethiopia, and we're still hearing this compendium of ridiculous generalizations about Africa in heavy rotation every Christmas season.

Let's recap: Africa is a "world of dread and fear," there's no water flowing, bells ringing there are the "clanging chimes of doom," nothing ever grows in Africa (what?!?), there's no rain or rivers or, um, water flowing, and above all and most importantly, NO SNOW!

Biologically laughable and factually preposterous, these misrepresentations still reinforce the nagging popular conception of Africa as a huge continental garbage can, populated by stone-age morons who have yet to grasp the rudiments of agriculture.

Geldof sums up his patronizing spiel with the staggeringly irrelevant title question: those starving Ethiopian victims of politically-induced famine, do they know it's Christmas?

Bob, is this really the issue?

Much has changed since '83; these days it's hard to imagine Phil Collins getting on MTV with a phony accent and a sombrero and singing "it's no fun-a/ being an illegal alie-yun." Yet during the holiday season, we're so busy screening for christian content that our ability to discern massive cultural slander goes on the blink."

Sorry; I got carried away with the Geldof thing. My main beef, and the reason behind this entire entry, was to be that it's been a few days into this rampant All-Christmas All the time format sweeping our fair city and still I have not heard the best Christmas song ever, which of course is "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses.

The Waitresses existed for the purpose of performing the witty, often female-oriented songs of guitarist Chris Butler, who had previously led a series of new wave bands in Cleveland. The personnel of the band as of its 1982 debut album, Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, was, in addition to Butler, singer Patty Donahue, backup singer Ariel Warner, reed player Mars Williams, bassist David Horstra, drummer Billy Ficca (a once and future member of Television), and keyboardist Dan Klayman. The group recorded two albums and a mini-LP in the early '80s.

Their debut album was a unique and fairly important moment in early-'80s new wave, though the band failed to gain momentum from their success and effectively broke up within 2 years of releasing their first record.

Lead singer Patty Donahue's singing ranged from a playful sexiness on the well-known hit "I Know What Boys Like" to a half-talk, half-yell with shades of post-punk groups like Gang of Four and the Raincoats on "Pussy Strut" and "Go On."

The guitar and bass were bizarre and funk-influenced in much the same way as other well-known Akron groups like Devo and the Pretenders. Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? was, in a sense, the brainchild of Chris Butler, who wrote most of the songs and co-produced the album in addition to playing guitar. Butler's version of new wave was danceable and fun, certainly, but witty and insightful lyrics were also an essential ingredient. Ultimately, though, it was Donahue's attitude that gave the music its personality and made the album a critical and commercial success.

Their subsequent EP further samples some of the Waitresses' smart new wave charm, including the silly but cute "Square Pegs" (theme from the short-lived TV show of the same name), the live recording of the ska-inflected title track Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, and the priceless "Christmas Wrapping," one of the best holiday pop tunes ever recorded (and some say pre-dating Blondie's foray into rap, "Rapture").

After The Waitresses broke up for good, Donahue generally kept a low profile, though she is credited on Alice Cooper's Zipper Catches Skin with "vocals and sarcasm." She later worked for MCA A&R, finding other talented musicians.

A heavy smoker, Donahue died of lung cancer in 1996 after battling it for almost a year. She was 40 years old.

A leather jacket Patty wore during some of her shows is installed at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

In 1987, Chris Butler sold all of his musical gear, including "Bebe Blue", the Vox Teardrop electric guitar he used to record "Christmas Wrapping," to a Manhattan music store.

Over 20 years later the store owners told him that the guitar's latest owner, a woman in Belgium, wanted to sell it to someone who could appreciate its significance. Butler hopped on a plane and repurchased it, though he could not convince himself that the guitar was in fact the one he owned before.

Butler currently lives in Hoboken with his wife Morgan and their son Liam. He runs Future Fossil Records.

Butler majored in sociology at Kent State University and was among a famous crowd of students fired on by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970.

"Kent State University was placed in an international spotlight after a tragic end to a student demonstration against the Vietnam War and the National Guard on May 4, 1970. Shortly after noon on that Monday, 13 seconds of rifle fire by a contingent of 28 Ohio National Guardsmen left four students dead, one permanently paralyzed, and eight others wounded." Please read more about it here

1 comment:

aly said...

Thanks so much for this post.
I often felt the dearth of Christmas music that didn't sound played out and redundant, and I was lucky enough to find quality (new!) gems on MySpace of all places.
Check out Spiraling's very original rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear?" here: http://www.myspace.com/spiraling - there's also a video of them performing Feliz Navidad with Debbie Harry of Blondie fame this past weekend!